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Reuters CEO suggests US is still a question mark

Reuters will continue to see growth in the United States but whether it can break through into a heartland dominated by the Associated Press and Bloomberg will be a big ask, Reuters chief executive Andrew Rashbass said in an indication the agency's focus there may have gone too far.

Reuters’ share of the US media market has been small and is still relatively small. It has been investing in a separate service called Reuters America and has put a lot of journalists into the United States to compete with AP on national news and some local stories. It’s on the cusp of some quite big things, he told former staff members in London. 

Rashbass spoke on Tuesday at a meeting of The Reuter Society on the theme “Why news matters”.

In the US financial market, Reuters would continue to make progress, particularly with global companies that are making choices around Reuters’ flagship desktop data terminal Eikon and other things that will increasingly roll out in the United States.

“I don’t think we’ve cracked America, I think it remains an opportunity for us but you have to decide – and we’ll continue to pursue it – you have to decide: are you going up against AP, Bloomberg in their heartlands or do you actually say there’s a whole emerging world out there in Latin America, in Asia, in the developing countries in Europe. Actually is that a better route for us and make progress where we can in the US rather than say there are big opportunities in the US.”

Rashbass, who joined Reuters as CEO in July from The Economist where he was chief executive, said The Economist “took the decision that it was going to take on America and made a reasonable fist of that so I do believe that’s possible, but I have a feeling that there are bigger opportunities for Reuters in may be not putting all our eggs, shall we say, in the American basket.”

He said Reuters was a news company and there was a tendency that that was something you had to apologise for. That was fundamentally wrong, and Reuters should be proud of being a news organisation. “Because news matters, I think that to be a news organisation is something of huge societal value, and something hugely creative and something very important.”

Rashbass was asked about what a questioner described as “a steady clear-out of pre-merger editorial managers” and experienced journalists that had resulted in new people not only with no Reuters editorial background but little day-to-day operational experience of news agencies. Continuity has been broken and institutional memory seriously weakened, it was suggested.

He responded: “I think that part of what organisations like yours [The Reuter Society] are about is being watchful of that continuity, watchful of that heritage, watchful of that culture, and therefore I’m glad that you are so mindful of it, but I also think that you are probably not as conscious, because it’s so ingrained in you, of the continuity. I suspect that somebody, say like me, coming in from outside, and seeing Reuters today, sees a very strong culture and strong sense of continuity.”

There had been times in Reuters history when it went through quite a lot of change “and I think we’re probably in one of those now”. But Reuters in its 150 year history had been through times of significant change and it had always been through them because it had always had the courage to accept the issue of commercial viability and the fact that the markets and customers it serves shift.

There was a big sense in which Reuters needed to respond to the world as it was and was doing its very best to reflect.

Rashbass said he felt very strongly that his job was not to make editorial decisions. “I never take a view on what we cover... I never get involved in hiring and firing of journalists.”

In the consumer market, he thought a modest amount of money could be made out of the website but it was not going to be a profit centre to rival the agency business. The one area where there was big consumer money to be made was around television.

“We aspire to be the greatest news organisation in the world and it’s a crown that’s not really worn by anybody today but I do believe that you can’t be the greatest news organisation in the world unless you talk to consumers. I don’t think you can be the greatest news organisation in the world in a purely B2B [business-to-business] form. So I do want to make money out of consumers but I also think consumers is an important area for us, and it has other benefits. I do think it is a source of revenue and potential profit. I believe it is really important for the brand.”

Asked about Bloomberg’s problems with its reporting from China and internal conflict between its business and editorial aims, he added: “We write what we write and that needs to be taken for purely editorial reasons. And I absolutely guarantee to you as I would guarantee to all the staff that they write what they write and it has to be, I hope, true, it has to be fair and it has to be well sourced and all those things. But the sort of political fall-out of what you write is not a consideration that ever comes up at Reuters.

“The only reason we have a business is because people absolutely trust us beyond all other sources that what we write we’re writing for editorial not commercial reasons. So even though we could make a little bit more money or lose a little less money in a particular market if we didn’t write something, it would absolutely destroy everything that Reuters stands for.

“It would be a stupid commercial thing for us to do, to link our coverage to what makes countries or our clients happy.” ■