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Cuba story exposes risks of editorial policy changes

Throughout its history Reuters has excelled in covering difficult and remote international locations where newspapers, broadcasters and other news organisations are under-represented. This has been a key element in persuading financial institutions to invest the money that enables Reuters to maintain its position as one of the world’s most respected and influential media organisations.  

However, since taking over leadership of Reuters in 2010, the small group of former Wall Street Journal editors who now run the news operation have presided over a change of emphasis apparently reflecting their former newspaper interests rather than the traditional vital strengths of a frontline global news agency. This has brought a new emphasis on long form magazine-style journalism and on US-centric news. Major resources have been poured into a local news operation in the United States in a brave attempt to combat AP’s traditional domination of that market, although there appear to be major problems with the Washington bureau - once a strategic strength in the North American operation. Bureau chief Marilyn Thompson this week became the most high profile in a series of resignations and departures from the bureau.

Given the emphasis on the US market, it is ironic that a major casualty of the new editorial policies and cost cutting appears to have been coverage of an international story of huge interest to the United States - the thaw in relations between Washington and Havana. 

Reuters had been a respected leader in international coverage of the communist island off the US coast for decades but when President Obama announced a dramatic improvement in relations just before Christmas, the agency was badly wrong-footed. 

Reuters reporters in the United States say they heard editorial executives complaining that the agency was being “slaughtered” over the Cuba story. One seasoned Cuba watcher described the Reuters coverage as “awful” and said the agency was badly beaten on both breaking news and in-depth coverage, not only by its arch US rival AP, but by newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Reuters had to scramble to draft in correspondents from elsewhere, as it has done on other huge international stories like Ukraine, after cost cutting reduced permanent strength in many bureaux. 

The reasons for this failure are not difficult to find. In recent years, editorial management has downgraded the seniority of the Cuba correspondent position and cut the Miami bureau - chief watching post for Cuba - from seven correspondents to one, apparently under the puzzling assumption that the island and its relationship with the United States were no longer a big story. 

In an era when Reuters has been obliged by a deeply challenging media environment to cut costs significantly, the change of emphasis under the new leadership has inevitably resulted in a reduction in resources allocated to other areas, even though fast breaking, unexpected news remains the main revenue generator for agencies like Reuters especially among core financial clients. Journalists in areas like the Middle East, Africa and Latin America have expressed concern that Reuters has undermined its traditional strength at a time when its most dangerous competitor, Bloomberg, is trying to aggressively expand its international reach. This concern is shared by some managers charged with selling Reuters products. 

So the failure over Cuba, a story with multiple global implications that is likely to run and run - especially in the key US market - raises troubling questions about the judgment of those behind the change in editorial direction. ■