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News under threat: Reuters CEO's plan to save it

News is under more threat than it has ever been and news organisations have to focus on profitability, Reuters chief executive Andrew Rashbass told an international gathering of journalists. The only sustainable guarantee of editorial independence is commercial success.

Rashbass was speaking at the presentation of the annual Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism which honour the work of freelance journalists and local reporters who otherwise receive little recognition. Kurt Schork was an American freelance journalist who was killed in a military ambush in Sierra Leone in May 2000 while on assignment for Reuters.

This year’s winners were Rania Abouzeid, a freelance journalist based in Beirut, for reporting from inside Syria’s rebel factions, and Fiona Xiao-Mi Tan, a reporter for Bloomberg based in Shanghai, for local reporting in China. They received their awards at the London office of Thomson Reuters on Thursday.

“It’s very easy to take news for granted,” Rashbass said. “I feel very strongly that news sits at the heart of society. In politics, it’s news that holds politicians to account. It’s news that uncovers corruption. It’s news that identifies incompetence in those that spend our tax money... Without news we wouldn’t enjoy the freedoms that democracy allows us. And it is news that makes that possible.

“So that’s politics. When you look at economics, whatever you may think about bankers, the fact is it is markets that provide society with the wealth that allows it to care for the elderly, to look after the sick, to educate the young, and what allows markets to function is great news and great promotion. And you might say, well, didn’t markets fail and isn’t that why we had the recession in 2008 and all the issues that that raised. I think you can make an argument to say it was actually bad news, incorrect news, lack of information, that, actually, had the news been better, had it been clearer, had it been more accurate, that actually the problems of the last five or six years, economically, could have been avoided. News sits at the heart of the markets that we all rely on to provide the standard of living that we all enjoy.”

The third thing was that news sat at the heart of the human condition, what Rashbass described as cognitive needs that had at their heart curiosity.

“So news sits at the heart of politics, of economics and of the very human condition. And that’s why news matters. But news is more under threat than it’s ever been.” He mentioned economic issues for media companies and cutbacks. But it was also the case that governments all around the world seek to muzzle news gathering and that increasingly corporations and countries seeking to use the soft power of news to project the images that they wish to project of themselves around the world. That was not necessarily a bad thing, he said, but it certainly made even more important the independent kind news that you cannot get from a state broadcaster and for which you have to come to a place like Reuters.

“So, news matters. News is under threat. So what is the answer to that? The answer is that news organisations have to focus on profitability. The only sustainable guarantee of editorial independence is commercial success. And people not in the industry probably, I think, find that a counter-intuitive thought...

“The reason why great journalistic enterprises go under these days typically isn’t because there’s some specific problem with their journalism. It is because there’s some big problem with their business model. And therefore sustainable profitability I believe has to be the goal of all great news organisations.”


PHOTO: Reuters CEO Andrew Rashbass with the winners of the 2013 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism, Fiona Xiao-Mi Tan (L) and Rania Abouzeid (R). ■

The Kurt Schork Memorial Fund