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Focus on news

Reuters’ new editor-in-chief Stephen Adler has moved decisively to stamp his authority on the organisation, bringing in senior managers from outside the company and changing editorial’s focus and ways of working.

His strategic restructuring of editorial operations is presented as streamlining management and focusing on the quality and direction of the news file. It also marks a move into new fields for Reuters: investigative journalism, more commentary and more analysis - a change in the corporate culture developed over a century and a half that began with the move into point-of-view journalism.

As well as being the world’s leading source of news known for speed, accuracy, relevance, and fairness, the new Reuters must also be known for enterprise, insight, analysis, and originality, Adler says. “We have the desire to be an agenda-setting news organization that is truly a must-read,” he told The New York Times. “And we wanted people who are very experienced in working for the kinds of news organizations that do that.”

“It’s an interesting challenge because you have an organization that is built to be a news wire, a news agency, to be fast. But it hasn’t been built to do in-depth investigations,” he said. “We need to do both.”

His agenda is ambitious: to distinguish Reuters as the world's leading provider of news and insight; to serve all Thomson Reuters customers across its divisions; to create innovative digital offerings to showcase Reuters’ work, brand, and values; to tame bureaucracy and clarify lines of authority; to develop a higher profile for Reuters’ work; and to adhere enthusiastically to the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

We have the desire to be an agenda-setting news organization that is truly a must-read

The shake-up eliminates one layer - global specialist editors - of what one former senior editor has described as a huge bureaucratic spaghetti in which “a bunch of editors with unintelligible titles sent each other spreadsheets and power points”. The role of global managing editor has disappeared.

The old quandary of what to do with journalists who want to continue reporting and writing rather than become managers is to be tackled by the creation of senior reporting positions aimed at enhancing coverage in key areas. 

Thomson Reuters itself has hailed Adler’s top team of six, which includes one woman who joined the company last year, as an all-star leadership team. With one exception, they are people who do not owe their rise to prominence to Reuters. Rather than having come up through the Baron’s ranks their careers were forged in other, mostly American organisations. Like Adler himself, three of the four new hires are former editors and executives at The Wall Street Journal. The transfusion of fresh blood is certain to lead to new ideas and innovative thinking about how things are done.

Adler joined Thomson Reuters at the beginning of last year and has been in post for two months. Both he and most of his team are based in New York. Reuters people past and present will wish them well as they set about improving editorial performance and shaping the agency as the leading news provider for the rapidly changing consumer and professional markets of the 21st century.

While Reuters people digest the changes and study the Kremlinology of who’s in and who’s out, those now in charge of the editorial side of the business need to look beyond 3XSQ - corporate headquarters in Times Square, New York - at morale in the wider Reuters world. Editors and correspondents have been shaken by the penalties handed down to two senior journalists for transgressions that might have incurred less severe punishment not so long ago.

The summary dismissal of a bureau chief and sharp rebuke of a regional editor over an online exchange that strayed into vulgarity has stunned many Reuters people. While the coarseness is not condoned, there is disbelief and anger at the treatment of two experienced journalists with distinguished records of working on many hazardous assignments. Their offending exchange occurred in a private, Reuters-only chat room closed to clients, shareholders and non-editorial staff, so where’s the harm, goes the argument. If a journalist is offended by the remarks of a colleague, he or she can take it up in the same forum with the individual concerned and keep it in the family.

Journalism was always a rough trade, says one former correspondent who practised his craft in some rough places, “and many of us have inured ourselves and our feelings with crude and brutal humour from time to time. Soldiers do it all the time. It’s not tasteful, nice or respectful. But then working in dangerous places isn’t nice, either.”

Old hands remember far worse than an offensive online exchange. In pre-takeover Reuters there was more than one instance of intimidation and threats of physical violence by journalists against their superiors. One miscreant was exiled to an outpost far from the comforts of Fleet Street where he had ample time to reflect on the error of his ways.

Thomson Reuters’ Code of Business Conduct and Ethics, signed by chief executive Tom Glocer in October 2008, is comprehensive and clear about standards of behaviour required.

“Don’t access, send or download any inappropriate content or information that could be offensive, insulting, derogatory or harassing to another person, such as sexually-explicit messages, jokes or ethnic or racial slurs,” employees are instructed in a section on proper use of e-mail and communication systems.

To those who argue that it was a private exchange between two people and that nobody was harmed, the company’s response is to be found in the code’s section on privacy, which says: “Messages that you send and receive through the internet, e-mail and other forms of electronic and paper communication are often the property of Thomson Reuters, and you should not have any expectation of privacy regarding these communications. Where permitted by applicable law, we reserve the right to review these communications at any time and to monitor your use.”

The punishment of the two senior journalists has had an immediate chilling effect on the volume of online chatter by employees. Heads are being kept below the parapet. Their penalties, widely believed to have been handed down by the new editor-in-chief, are further proof of the Americanisation of Reuters since it was acquired by Thomson three years ago, say some who still have difficulty coming to terms with the 2008 takeover. Is Reuters now an American news organisation with foreign bureaus or is it being revitalised as a global news organisation?

As The Baron noted in this space in September 2009, Reuters is part of a large North American corporation with headquarters in New York where its chief executive, an American, sits. Now, for the first time, its editor-in-chief, also American, is based in New York rather than London. Moreover, US English is the preferred language for Reuters news.

The question has been answered. ■