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The Reuter Society salutes a bird of a feather

As Chairman of the London-based Reuter Society, I should like to record a warm welcome to the new Reuter Society of America. This is definitely good news for the cause of camaraderie between colleagues who once worked for Reuters or Thomson Reuters.

As Mike Reilly says in his launch report [The Reuter Society takes wing in America] we had been talking about the idea for some time, so it’s great to see the new Society “hurtling toward its future with the abandon of a fledgling pigeon”. Fledgling? For now, yes, but this is going to be a big, high-flying bird, I predict.

Reports of the launch in New York already strike several sympathetic chords this side of the Atlantic.

First, the choice of meeting place. The literary Algonquin Hotel, with its memories of good fellowship between great communicators, seems particularly auspicious. It reminds me of the seminal session of the ‘old’ Reuter Society, convened by the late Aleco Joannides, one of Reuters’ greatest communicators. That was in another legendary watering hole, sadly long gone: the Wig & Pen Club, a haunt of London’s lawyers and journalists. Half a dozen ex-Reuters stalwarts assembled there one evening in 1990 to discuss Aleco’s radical idea: a network for retired colleagues who might like to keep in touch with each other. This was years before the (American?) concept of alumni associations spread around the world, and well before the birth of social media.

We are delighted to see our American comrades-in-arms kick off their venture with a similar declaration to the original one of 1990: “The first purpose of the Reuter Society is to preserve and continue the comradeship developed among the Members during their work for Reuters.” Just add “…and Thomson Reuters”, mix in a nod to networking and we’re rolling along the same highway.

These days, of course, it’s not just the physical highway of meetings and group outings (we do the occasional expedition from London to other cities). It is also the whole virtual dimension. The London-based Society has long survived with about 300 actual, paid-up members. Roughly 80 per cent in the UK, the rest scattered around the world. For a while we felt that was our ceiling. But in recent years we have broken into the virtual dimension, with over 3,000 new members through Linkedin and Facebook. For the Reuter Society of America, revving up on both physical and virtual highways, there should be no ceiling at all.

another important point of principle from that first London meeting was total independence from the Company

Another fundamental principle established at that first meeting in London has been echoed, I am happy to note, in the first exchanges of the Algonquin conspirators. This is the principle that the Society is not only for journalists. It is open to all former employees of the Reuters (Thomson Reuters) group, whatever their function. Aleco himself was a journalist who went on to enjoy a long career in Reuters international management, leaving him with a network of friends throughout the organisation. His multi-disciplinary approach lives on in the Committee of the Reuter Society in London: out of nine current members, four were serving journalists and five worked in other departments: finance, technical, marketing and management. At last count, journalists made up 38 per cent of our membership.

Another founding principle was that membership of the Society would be restricted to former employees. Current employees of the group could not become members, it was decided, although they could come to meetings if invited by a member. This seems to be a view shared by the new American Society. It may be worth adding that the term “former employees” has changed fundamentally over the years. It used to imply people who had retired on age or health grounds, ceasing work. As corporate times became tougher, more employees were let go earlier in life and needed to seek a second career. As a result, alumni networks sere seen as offering added value, professionally, not just socially.

There’s also a detail that brings us together. The London founding fathers decided to call their venture the “Reuter Society” rather than “Reuters” - in honour of the Baron himself. The American founders are following suit, it seems.

Finally, another important point of principle from that first London meeting was total independence from the Company. I imagine that the builders of the new American Society assume that’s a given, but it was not so obvious back then. Opinions were divided, both inside and outside Reuters. Here’s why.

Aleco was a courteous man who was friends with everyone; he saw no reason not to seek the Company’s blessing for the new club. More militant members of the founding group, led by the late Sidney Weiland, wanted to keep the Company at arm’s length. Within Reuters, some senior executives were supportive, including CEO Glen Renfrew. Others were dismissive. Some, however, saw it as a potential threat, or at least a risk. They warned that the new Society could become a focal point for embittered ex-staffers, second-guessing Company policies and making damaging comments to the media. They wondered how it could be controlled. A subsidy was suggested.

Aware of this reaction, the Society’s founders included a clause in the constitution to the effect that the club would always be non-political. They also agreed they would never accept any Company funding. Aleco then advised Renfrew formally of the foundation of the Society and of these principles. Renfrew formally thanked him for the courtesy. Behind the scenes, Renfrew offered some corporate support, which was politely declined. (Years later we discovered that Renfrew did make occasional donations to the Society, but personally and anonymously.) So, thanks to the chemistry between two remarkable men, Aleco and Glen, the Society had a smooth launch, averting our own version of a Church v State schism.

As I said, this is unlikely to be a concern these days, in the wider business world of the Thomson Reuters group. There will be other challenges, but none that cannot be surmounted. Like the reported death of Mark Twain, or the forecast collapse of the newspaper industry, the rumoured demise of the Reuter Society at various times has been greatly exaggerated. Now the flag (or pigeon) is flying, globally. We all have good reason to celebrate.

Steve Somerville was director of Reuters Foundation from 1989 to 2000 when he set up journalism training programmes and launched AlertNet as a website for the disaster relief community. During a 40-year career with Reuters he was a correspondent, bureau chief, editor and manager. He is now chairman of The Reuter Society, the social club for former Reuters and Thomson Reuters colleagues.​​ ■