Changing journalism; changing Reuters
Friday 15 October 2010
Think back a century and news needs and news methods were completely different.
Just think that the first airmail flight between Britain and Hong Kong did not land until 1936. And yet today at my home in London I get a rich and vibrant stream of news, photographs, stories and gossip from Asia into my home via Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader and then all the more long-established methods of journalism. It is a cornucopia.
But the problem with any over-flowing horn is that it is really only scarcity that creates the awareness of value.
And in fact, the profession of journalism is losing both value and respect.
The latest Gallup poll showed a record-high 57% of Americans saying they had little or no trust in the mass media to do what the media has always proclaimed to be its primary mission - to report fully, accurately and fairly.
Instead people look to the friends - their community - for information, for validation, for argument and for illumination.
What is great about 2010 is that technology has created a completely new concept of community. And it has given that community new powers to inform and connect.
Facebook status updates become a newsfeed created by people I know and even often like.
A Twitter feed is a news service of facts, opinions and referrals from an ever-vigilant army of people with similar interests and proclivities.
We aren't the agency we once were; tomorrow we will be even more different from today
They alert me to news and articles that are almost guaranteed to fit my interests because we are a group that has formed around each other.
And it is a self-correcting group, where each of us has the ability to fire, replace and refine the membership at will.
No reader selected me to be editor-in-chief of Reuters - I was selected by the corporation to lead the news service in its interest.
Conversely, no corporation selected the people whom I follow on Twitter, no board set my blogroll, no executive committee befriended my Facebook pals. I did those things.
What technology has done is it has upended the power equation to give control to the end consumer.
The beauty of that is obvious - control is always satisfying.
The danger is that without care it becomes an information universe that is too hermetically sealed.
The days of the all-powerful paternalistic editor may be dead, but what can’t replace them is the era of people only having their preconceived ideas reinforced.
What’s needed is a new model, one that combines push and pull.
What’s needed is a publishing model that embraces both the professionalism of the journalist and the power of the community.
The great press critic A. J. Liebling wrote that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one. Today’s technology means that the means of production and the means of distribution actually belong to anyone with access to an Internet onramp.
If you ask the public, “What will you pay for?” The answer is certainly a yes for tools (iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry, Android). The answer is certainly a yes for broadband and access.
But what about the content? And what about those who create that content?
Far too often the answer is “no”.
I know even when I last lived in Hong Kong 15 years ago this was an issue the FCC itself had to wrestle with - what was the ideal ratio of full-time correspondent members to journalist members to associate members to corporate members.
I guess from seeing the special promotional offer the club has been running for new correspondent and journalist members that this is still an issue, both because there are fewer people who fit the bill, and also because those who do can’t necessarily PAY the bill.
I’m lucky to be leading a journalistic organization 3,000 professionals strong - that’s an extraordinary figure at a time when other organizations have been shedding staff.
By comparison, in 1987, the year I joined Reuters in Hong Kong and the year I first became a member of this club, I was one of 1,581 journalists in the company.
We’ve survived and thrived by changing.
We aren’t the agency we once were; tomorrow we will be even more different from today.
My job is to ensure that survival and to ensure that the journalistic tradition of yesterday melds with the social media ethos.
Let’s start by thinking back two years.
The photographs of distraught, confused and angry bankers leaving their offices jobless helped symbolize the seismic shifts in the financial system 24 months ago.
During the same period, thousands of journalists lost their livelihood too as the profession and craft changed almost beyond recognition.
If we have learned anything from these past two years, it has been that pure facts are not enough.
Pure facts don’t tell enough of the story; pure facts won’t earn their way.
The arguments about whether the factual seeds of the financial crisis had been adequately reported are ultimately meaningless. The facts were there. But they weren’t put together in a way that was compelling enough or powerful enough to change the course of events.
We’ve been drowning in facts, and that deluge continues to threaten.
How different from October 1851 when Julius Reuter set up his pigeon and telegraph shop, sending out facts to a world starved for them.
Today, it’s context, connectedness and community that matter.
That’s why the traditional agency or “wire” pouring out a never-ending stream of “more” can’t be the answer.
That’s why we must be a service to our customers and to our readers.
That’s why this is the age of the publisher.
Journalists who understand this will survive. Those that don’t will become irrelevant.
A publishing ethos is not defined by the number of stories we deliver. It is defined by our ability to keep our clients tuned in and returning. We will do that with a heightened knowledge of what they need, and with focused breaking news and insight that is fast, relevant, actionable and engaging. Deploying all our multimedia assets allows us to tell stories compellingly via packages of interlinked news and information. And we will enable clients to connect to each other, and to us.
I’m as excited about content that gets created in a chatroom by journalists and readers interacting together as I am about a good story being pushed out. Sometimes I’m even more excited because the intelligent interaction between people who all know something about a topic can create a much smarter product than any one writer struggling at the computer alone.
Is it journalism?
Sometimes it is pure journalism. Sometimes it’s commentary. Sometimes it’s just a sharing of ideas or the annotating of a graphic.
But whatever you call it, it is an intelligent service between the journalist and the customer and that’s something we should be aiming for.
Why? Because like the “pure” journalism of old, it helps makes sense of the world.
Why? Because it is news, data, content and information that is actionable because it adds insight to transparency.
It’s the community that interacts with information and in that interaction creates yet more and better content.
It’s the context and analysis around the news that helps people make better decisions, helps them do their jobs better, and gives them an edge in making sense out of the confusion around us.
It is also the humility to know that the old one-way relationship between editor and audience has no place in the world any more.
There’s huge learning to be had from the audience.
Some of it comes from listening to its expertise. Some of it comes from watching its behavior. Much of it comes from enabling the conversation you get when you combine facts, data, journalism, analysis and fact-based opinion in a really smart way.
The rules of today’s journalistic world are these:
Knowing the story is not enough.
Telling the story is only the beginning.
The conversation about the story is as important as the story itself.
The more you try to be paternalistic and authoritative, the less people will believe you.
The more you cede control to your audience, the more people will respect you.
The more you embrace new technology as a platform, the more your ideas will compete.
The more you abandon the faceless and characterless, the more you can set the agenda.
The more you look beyond the story for connections, the more value you will have.
And if you have value and no one else does, you will get paid.
But it is exciting and transforming.
David Schlesinger is editor-in-chief of Reuters. This article was first published on Reuters.com and was also delivered as a speech at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong on 15 October 2010. ■