Guardian Changing Media: Reuters looks at the changes for ‘old media’

Geert Linnebank, a senior advisor to CEO at Reuters, kicked off this summit looking back at how Reuters has kept at the cutting edge during its 155 years. In the 1850s, they used carrier pigeons to transfer stock market information because it was faster than steam trains. Carrier pigeons gave way to telegraph lines and then to an early ‘high-speed’ electronic network 30 years ago.

What are we scared of? Changes of demographics. Promiscuity. They jump from channel to channel. How do you build audiences around communities? Virtual worlds. He talked about Second Life and its explosive growth. They have bureau and a reporter in Second Life.

“There is also brand. How do you create and maintain brands in a digital age?” he asked.

How do earn revenue? How do you protect what’s yours? Intellectual property in a digital world? If you don’t reward content producers, the content will be of low quality and people will go elsewhere. He said that piracy was rife.

But the barriers of entry have changed. Only a few thousand dollars will set you up with the laptop and all you need to produce digital content. “The old value chain has been blown to pieces,” he said. Consumers are in control like never before. Google, Amazon, BT, Vodafone, eBays have created infrastructure to serve big but have also served to serve the small. All of those companies are searching for new users.

That model is different from just a few years when moguls controlled the entire chain from the reporters to the presses, from the studios to cinemas. They created high barriers to entry. There has been an explosion in content, there was the rise of the search engine that allows people to find that content.

The choke hold is over. Lots of players have control over parts of the value chain. He said:

No single company can do it all alone, and no company would want to do it all alone…. They need brutal honesty about what they do best. A focus on core competencies is essential.

There is a huge amount of competition in the entire value chain. If companies want to succeed in the new economy, they must partner. It is a different attitude. It is a respect for what others bring to the table, he said.

Get close to your customers. Partner. Use the best technology. There is a realisation that we need to partner, make the best with both the pro and amateur. They partnered with Dow Jones on distribution although they fiercely compete on content.

Last year, they partnered with Global Voices and funded an editor there. The benefits are mutual and growing. Reuters journalists get access to sources that would be inaccessible or hard to find. Global Voices are an integral part of the Africa site we launched a few weeks ago. At that launch, Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman talked about tensions in Zimbabwe weeks before those tensions came to a head. That informs Reuters journalism.

Trust, independence and impartiality will mark you out. Journalists are trained to sift through facts and provide context with bias or spin. Contributions bring immediacy. It can also bring deep knowledge. Most journalists are generalists. It can point to real interest, what people want to know about it.

It can also bring aggressive advocacy, at worst an incitement to violence. Editors will remain. Editors are no longer megaphones, but must facilitate. Editors must be candid about the process, more humble than loud predecessor. It doesn’t come naturally to people who grew up in the megaphone culture. But it is possibly a generational issue.

Journalists are good at holding those in power accountable, but they are not as good at holding up a mirror to themselves. Bloggers do tell us when we get it wrong. We ignore them at our peril. There is a role for editors. It is to makes sense of this almost infinite universe of information. We don’t have unlimited time to search for new information and content. Software tools are good, but people are still better. Good editors can be those brands.

He is optimistic about the challenges. The opportunity is to re-engage with audiences despite the hand-wringing. There is plenty of evidence to give rise to concern. Michael Grade of ITV said that news programming in its current form was unlikely to survive in current form without public subsidies. Traditional news programmers are starved as mass advertising switch to more targeted advertising. The PlayStation generation isn’t as interested in news.

Are journalists out of touch? When they read that house price have seen healthy increases, their readers who can’t afford houses must think the journalists are deluded. They try to win over audience with new designs and consumer guides to iPods. He focused on excellence, engagement and partnerships.

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