Reuters chief David Schlesinger: 'It's the end of the world - but I feel fine'

Quality journalism will survive the economic downturn and there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful about the industry, according to Reuters News editor-in-chief David Schlesinger.

In an upbeat speech at a City University debate on international reporting this week, Schlesinger said there was still an ‘insatiable appetite’for serious, considered journalism – and said he was glad that some of the ‘lousy’elements of traditional foreign reporting were dying out.

‘There are closures of newspapers – newspapers are in desperate trouble. And yet there’s an insatiable appetite for news about the world,’he said.

Schlesinger said the effect the economic crisis was having on the media reminded him of the 1991 REM hit ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’.

‘There are happy editors everywhere, workplaces full of professionals – how depressing is that? It’s not. It’s hard to get a job – but journalism always was a hard profession to get into.

‘Quality will out, hard work will out. It’s the end of the world as we know it, but you know what, I feel fine.”

Schlesinger appeared on a panel to discuss the current state of international journalism to coincide with the publication of a new book, Frontlines and Deadlines.

Traditional foreign reporting was lousy

‘Basic foreign correspondence is dead. I think that’s a damn good thing,’he said.

‘A lot of basic traditional foreign correspondence was lousy. It was reading the local papers, having some fixer translate it for you, stringing it together and sending it in.

‘That’s dead and thank God it’s dead because the real foreign correspondence that will survive will be the foreign correspondence that adds insight, gives you a reason to read it, has a reason to survive.”

Schlesinger said Reuters had noticed a shift in people’s reading habits as the economic downturn unfolded – and said the demand for sport and entertainment stories had ‘dropped completely off”.

‘During normal times, some of the most retrieved stories are sport stories and entertainment stories – people during their down moments will read those,’he said.

‘But during this current financial crisis, it’s stories about emerging market debt – it’s the serious stuff.”

Schlesinger added: ‘At the moment because we have been able to identify the value of news, even in these bleak times, I currently have 2,564 full-time staff journalists around the world, more than Reuters has ever had in its history.”

New technology can drive you mad

Wired UK associate editor Ben Hammersley, who has filed multimedia reports from locations including Afghanistan and Turkey, said international correspondents had a wealth of new technology at their disposal – but needed to be given the time to step back and produce considered reporting.

‘Logistically you can file stuff from anywhere on the planet back home almost immediately, but people who’ve tried it on a daily if not hourly basis, when you try to do quality work over every medium on a rolling news basis, after about 48 hours you go mad. It’s just not possible,’he said.

‘There’s going to be a big argument between what the technology allows you to do in theory and what the craft of journalism requires you to do, which is take your time over it.

‘There’s going to be a big pressure especially as big news organisations start getting bought by venture funds and people who are more accountants than journalists.

‘I don’t think people have really thrown their toys out of the pram enough. We just can’t do this physically as human beings.”

Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith said freelances would play an increasingly important role in foreign coverage as news organisations tightened their belts.

‘There’s a huge number of people out there who could potentially make a living out of this industry,’he said.

‘It will be a very good thing when somebody works out how to make money online. I think that will see a means of doing journalism that will explode. I think it will be a great leveller.

‘At the moment the big brands are getting all the hits online. When somebody works it out, maybe we’ll see a diversity.”

He later added: ‘Today there’s still a friction between traditional established journalism and the independent sector. I think it’s going to break down.”

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