WALKING into Reuters’ brand new Canary Wharf HQ feels a little like stepping into a perfect futuristic corporate future.
You are greeted by a huge multimedia information screen covering one wall, a bank of immaculate bluetooth headset-wearing receptionists and discreet plain clothes security staff who loiter around with the air of presidential secret servicemen.
It feels like an opulent investment bank rather than a news organisation – so I was surprised to find new editor-in-chief David Schlesinger looked more like a university lecturer, in leather jacket and jumper, than a power-dressing master of the universe.
This could be partly because I met him as he was preparing to head home to the United States for Christmas, but may also reflect the fact that his route into journalism was via the world of academia.
Schlesinger studied Chinese language and culture and was teaching in Hong Kong when he had his Damascene conversion during a seminar on Daoism.
He says: ‘I was in a very intensive academic seminar on Chinese philosophy and this professor in front of the entire seminar said to me: ‘Do you know what your problem is? You like closure.’ ‘And I thought: Yes, he’s right, I do like closure – an academic career is not for me. I can’t really spend 30 years pondering one question and coming out with one book. I need to find a way of making a living out of my passion for Chinese and Chinese politics – something that’s intellectually stimulating enough but that allows me closure.
‘Journalism seemed to be a way of getting closure 15 times a day.’As global editor-in-chief of Reuters, he’s now in charge of on organisation that gets ‘closure’around 7,000 times a day –if you count the number of news items filed – or up to 23,000 times a second if you count updates of financial data.
Schlesinger takes up the reigns at Reuters at a time when appears back on the up, following some savage cost-cutting in the post 9/11 media recession. In 2002, Reuters reported a £394 million loss – the biggest in its 150-year history – prompting 3,000 job cuts.
But for the last two years, the agency has been in the black and appears to be one news organisation which is enjoying the huge changes wrought by new technology. As primarily a financial information provider, Reuters has decades of experience in transmitting news electronically. And broadband internet has given it new markets for its video footage, such as its partnership with The Times, as well as enabling it to reach readers directly for the first time via its own news website.
According to Nielsen NetRatings, reuters.com had 6,674,000 unique monthly users in November 2006 and 48 million page views – year-on-year increases of 13 per cent and 61 per cent respectively.
Eastern promise Schlesinger says China will be an important region for Reuters next year, both in terms of explaining what happens in the country to the rest of the world and providing specialist information for the decision-makers in its burgeoning economy.
But will it be difficult for a news organisation which takes such pride its independence and editorial integrity to operate under a regime notorious for jailing journalists and stifling freedom of speech?
‘Reporting in China is different from places in the world that are more democratic,’he says.
‘China is a still a place where you can get lots of information about business, but it’s difficult to get good information about what’s happening internationally in politics.
‘We do have controls on information we can bring into the country – we don’t have the kind of business that we have in Great Britain or the US.
‘In terms of operating in China, even in the decade or a little bit more since I left, there’s been enormous improvements.
‘Back in September, for a Reuters summit in China, we got the most tremendous interviews from political and economic leaders.
‘I think there’s a lot of freedom to have very frank exchanges about business, about finance, but the political sphere is still a sensitive area.”
Reporting from the frontline Schlesinger knows all about reporting from difficult regions – as managing editor he has had to deal with the loss of four journalists, all to US fire, since the Iraq conflict started in 2003.
The agency currently keeps a bureau of 70 staff in Iraq, operating the nearest thing the country has to a national news agency.
Schlesinger has led Reuters’ calls for US investigations into the killing of its journalists and for changes in the way the military operates to better safeguard his staff.
‘No battlefield can ever be safe, it’s ludicrous to call for a safe battlefield,’he says.
‘What I’ve been calling for is an admission that not all journalists will be embedded, that journalists who operate freely have a right to expect a basic duty of care that should be there for any civilian. There should be acknowledgement that the role of the journalist is to get to the scene of trouble quickly, and that just because they got to the scene of trouble quickly does not mean they were involved in it.
‘We also need an acknowledgement that Reuters is a diverse organisation and will employ people who don’t look like Americans and British – people who look like they come from the areas we are operating in.
‘The military spend a lot of time training their soldiers to identify types of aircraft or vehicles – I would like some basic training about how to distinguish a camera from a rocket launcher.’No Reuters journalists have died in Iraq since soundman Waleed Khaled was killed by American troops firing from a rooftop at his stationary car in August 2005.
But ironically, this is not necessarily evidence of any change in protocol from the US military. Schlesinger says: ‘It’s more a reflection of just how dangerous Iraq has become – there’s much less travelling out to cover stories.’Could Iraq become so dangerous that Reuters would have to pull out altogether?
‘We’ve always covered Iraq, [even] before the war. We have local journalists who will stay there because it’s their home. I could imagine the circumstances where we would significantly reduce our presence in Iraq – our fundamental duty is to the safety of our staff.
‘I could imagine a situation where we’d have staff spread around, reporting from their homes [and filing] to a desk based elsewhere in the region – we have to think about contingencies.”
In demand Reuters remains one of the most sought after organisations for journalists to work for – as evidenced by the thousands who apply every year for the few places on its graduate trainee scheme.
Unfortunately for jobseekers – after increasing the editorial headcount by 100 to 2,400 in 2006 – Schlesinger has no plans for further expansion in 2007.
But he does offer Press Gazette readers some tips on how to impress him, if you are lucky enough to get an interview.
‘The most important thing for an aspiring journalist these days is to know something about something. There are too many people who come in as absolute generalists, and then you find it very difficult to distinguish yourself.
‘It doesn’t mean you will be doing that one thing for the rest of your life – but it is very important to show you have the passion and ability to acquire a very detailed knowledge about one subject.
‘We are a very global company, so languages are important but not an absolute requirement. And the ability to communicate – journalism is about communication.”
Offshoring controversy Much of Reuters’ expansion in recent years has been in Bangalore, India, leading to accusations that use of cheaper Indian journalists to write for western markets amounts to ‘offshoring’of the type widely used by call centres.
Over the last two years, the Bangalore bureau has expanded into an operation employing 1,600 staff, 100 of whom are journalists.
Defending the bureau, Schlesinger says: ‘We take the fundamental view that there’s a lot of journalism that needs to be done face to face and a lot that doesn’t.
‘Research from the internet, telephone work – if you have the right people, properly trained –can be done from a variety of places.
‘What we do is not outsourcing or offshoring. It’s a proper Reuters bureau with proper Reuters journalists. We have had staff go on from Bangalore to work in other bureaux.
‘We’ve been in India for 100 years or more – we have a long history of doing work in all sorts of different places. Where is the home from which we offshore? When asked how a UK journalist can best avoid being replaced by someone working in, say, India he says – ‘The key for any journalist anywhere is to make sure you are adding real value in the way you do your job. When I joined, we went out all the time. [Now] you see journalists getting stuck more and more in front of their computer.
‘I see [the Bangalore bureau] as liberating. Take deskbound journalism and move it to a different place, giving people in the big centres more opportunity to do value-added work by going to conferences or going to big interviews in person. We were tying people down and I think it’s definitely a liberating thing.
‘My vision is about providing journalism with insight – journalism that helps our customers make decisions. Whether they are decisions which are financial or personal, we can provide the insight and context that helps them understand their world.”