Will Reuters new editor bring change or more of the same?
Monday 19 April 2021
The appointment of Alessandra Galloni as Reuters new editor-in-chief has been widely welcomed.
An Italian, she started work today as the first woman to hold the role in Reuters 170-year history and the move has been hailed by many former and present Reuters staff as a spectacular breaking of the glass ceiling after many years of male dominance. The fact that Galloni is neither British nor American is also seen positively, especially in light of the significant skewing of Reuters focus towards the United States since it was bought by the Thomson organisation in 2008.
The movement back to a more global focus may also be helped by Galloni’s reported intention to stay in London rather than moving to New York, where her predecessor Stephen Adler was based.
However, the appointment of an in-house candidate has lowered the hopes of many present and former staff, and clients of Reuters, that a newcomer, less associated with the existing management group, would bring a change of direction. These people were hoping a new editor-in-chief might return the organisation to its roots as a famed agency with unique global reach and great prowess in delivering lightning-fast breaking news that moves markets.
Critics say these core values, on which Reuters reputation was built over decades, have been undermined and diluted since the Thomson takeover and have contributed to the ever-widening gap between the agency and its main rival Bloomberg, which now has a roughly 10 per cent advantage in market share.
Galloni’s appointment is by no means the surprise that some have suggested. Senior sources say that her recruitment eight years ago from The Wall Street Journal, from where almost all of Reuters top editors have come since the Thomson acquisition, was always intended to lead to her taking over from Adler. Reuters journalists saw her as the clear frontrunner for the job even before it was advertised.
Galloni is particularly closely associated with the Enterprise unit headed by Michael Williams, who brought her to Reuters after previously working with her at the WSJ. He has led a change in the nature of the agency to a much greater focus on long-form investigative journalism and special reports, often relating to the United States, which win prizes but do not contribute much to revenue.
The significance of her elevation for the powerful Williams team was reflected in the fact that a long story on the appointment was written by the Enterprise desk and edited by Williams himself. The story appears to have moved before the official announcement by Reuters president Michael Friedenberg and unusually named both internal and external losing candidates.
Revealingly, the second paragraph of the story lauded the number of Pulitzer and other journalism prizes won under Adler.
This is the key to disappointment felt about the failure to appoint a new face from outside Reuters capable of reviewing its focus. The emphasis on long form enterprise reporting at Reuters has been achieved at a time of repeated budget cuts by removing resources from the international bureaux and general editing desks where some analysts believe Reuters traditional strength has been disastrously undercut in recent years.
A programme of retrenchment and failure to replace journalists in bureaux has left many of them, especially outside the United States and Europe, in a worryingly weakened state. The losses included several talented, comparatively young, and upcoming bureau chiefs as well as highly qualified senior editors from the pre-Thomson era. The decline has been particularly sharp in the developing world, where Reuters was once dominant and where Bloomberg was largely absent or a bit player a decade ago but has since moved to fill the gap.
It is no surprise that the Reuters story on Galloni’s appointment speaks of tensions between Reuters and its chief client, Refinitiv, where there is understood to be some frustration at the decline of market-moving news and the boosting of long special reports whose monetary value is obscure.
The kind of problems caused by the weakening of Reuters were typified by the recent extraordinary five-plus hours beat by Bloomberg on the blocking of the Suez Canal by a giant cargo ship, the kind of story with huge economic and financial implications which should be meat and drink to Reuters. Other timings losses are deeply worrying to those who believe Reuters must stay ahead to retain vital financial screen clients.
There is concern that the Reuters brand has lost prestige because of a retreat from its traditional supremacy in this area. Long-form special reports may win prizes and enhance Reuters reputation with other media, especially in the United States, but they do not pay any bills.
Refinitiv was previously the financial and risk division of Thomson Reuters before being hived off in 2018. It was recently sold to the London Stock Exchange. Under that multi-billion-dollar deal, Reuters is guaranteed at least $325 million a year to provide editorial content to Refinitiv until 2048. That provides extraordinary protection for Reuters, but it is seen by some as shielding the agency from the harsh reality of competing in the wider market and as a cushion against change.
Speed was once part of Reuters DNA, a paramount strength of the agency, together with accuracy and impartiality, that was drummed into new recruits. It had declined so much as a priority amidst competing demands from Enterprise, that last year a “Speed Week” was held to teach staff the essentials of fast breaking news.
Galloni, who is a strong supporter of business news, is seen as good with people and is expected to interact more with the staff, particularly by touring overseas bureaux, than her predecessor. She may end up hearing some candid criticism.
Reuters journalists questioned by The Baron said Galloni was seen positively compared with some of the other candidates and they would keep an open mind despite their concern about a continuation of the status quo.
But her ability to maintain this goodwill and set a new stamp on the job may be limited by how much she owes to her powerful backers inside Reuters. ■