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Do we want commentary from our news agencies?

Sgt. Joe Friday’s famous line on that great Dragnet TV detective series was, “The facts ma’am, just the facts.” Shouldn’t that apply to news agencies today?

That issue has come to the forefront because a very reputable former UK Daily Telegraph financial editor who was writing for Reuters’ Breakingviews commentary service fell afoul of the agency’s rules about trading in shares he wrote about. The writer brought this to the attention of his editor who brought it to the attention of the Reuters editor-in-chief and within a few hours the writer had fallen on his sword. And Reuters has now gone through all of his archive columns and added notes where trading in shares may have occurred.

So that particular issue has been handled, but it does leave wide open the wider question of whether news agencies should be in the commentary business. Is it only the dinosaurs who believe agencies still in this day and age of social commentary should be concentrating on facts and should be leaving the opinions to others?

The case that Reuters should not be in the commentary business is made Alex Brummer, the Daily Mail's financial editor, who pointed out, “The big question which arises from the share dealing disclosures at Reuters Breakingviews is for the news agency itself. Newspapers and broadcasters worldwide have long looked to Reuters and the other major news wires as a reliable source of verifiable information. When Reuters started running comment on its news wire - mixed up with actual news reporting - it crossed a line.

all the world knows is that a 'Reuters journalist' did wrong and that's no good for a brand that Reuters protects so stringently

“It deepened the error when it opted to buy Breakingviews and bring all the comment, including that by Neil Collins - one of Britain's respected financial wordsmiths, under one roof. The line between fact and comment was blurred. There was a clear case of this muddle last week when a Breakingviews journalist wrote a report suggesting that Barclays was looking at a new form of debt issue to augment its capital. “Because this appeared on the Reuters wire it was taken as reliable information even though there was no verification from Barclays. This kind of blurring between fact and opinion undermines the credibility of the wire service.”

One thing is for sure. However Reuters labels comment, whatever explanations it adds on commentary about the writer’s trading, at the end of the day people are still going to say, “Reuters says …” Indeed the Financial Times’ headline on the Collins affair said simply, “Reuters journalist quits over share deals”. No explanation in that headline that it was actually a journalist working for a commentary service; all the world knows is that a “Reuters journalist” did wrong and that’s no good for a brand that Reuters protects so stringently.

For instance, you don’t see rumors reported on Reuters services because the agency recognizes it will get fed with false information just to get a share price up or down. Instead the agency will wait for the share price to go up or down and then write a story saying why - that there was a rumor in the market saying …

So with that kind of heritage, should Reuters be in the commentary business, no matter what rules it applies to its journalists, no matter what labels it puts on such wordage. The best view on that comes from David Schlesinger, its editor-in-chief, who told a recent Hong Kong audience, “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 chat room 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. Simple? No. But it is exciting and transforming.”

So, there’s the case against by a London newspaper financial editor and the case for by the Reuters editor-in-chief. The key point is actually at the end of Schlesinger’s comments - “if you have value and no one else does, you will get paid.” And the people who pay millions are the banks and commodity traders, and corporate treasurers and the like and what they are really after is immediate, accurate information that something has or has not happened and then they will make decisions on the spot what to do with that information. That is Reuters’ bread and butter; that is what it gets paid a lot of money to provide. The rest is all gravy and however the company explains to its readership all the restrictions it places on news and commentary writing the fact is it all still falls under “Reuters says”.

So now the company has had to embarrassingly tell the world, "We have recently discovered a number of cases where journalists have written about securities without notifying their interest to their manager; or dealt in securities about which they had written recently or intended to write in the near future; or failed to make disclaimers of their financial interests to readers when their prior practice suggests it would have been appropriate to do so." And even that doesn’t differentiate between commentary writers and the hard news journalists - all of them came under that umbrella of inappropriate behavior.

Back to basics?

Philip Stone for some 30 years held management positions with UPI and then Reuters before being culled by the latter in 2002. At Reuters his activities ranged from being Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) news product manager - on the original marketing team that developed News 2000 and RFTV - commercial director of Reuters Television and his final post, in Geneva where he still resides, was as managing director, media, EMEA. He now does media consultancy work and since 2004 he has been a partner and frequent contributor to, a daily website commenting on media matters in Europe and North America where this article first appeared. ■