How Reuters is helping one-time newspapers transform themselves into broadcasters

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The once disparate news media will come close to morphing into a single competitor set next week when newspaper publishers gain access to an unprecedented supply of live video streams, allowing them to screen multiple channels of moving pictures in direct competition with television.

The Reuters Connect programme will launch a new Live service offering six video streams from major global news events at any time, allowing publishers to embed the pictures in their websites and Facebook pages.

It will open next week with a selection of live video of global news events that will showcase the potential of the service. Streams that will be made available in the first week will include Pope Francis addressing astronauts on the International Space Station; an attempt on the land speed record in the UK; Australians rallying in Sydney in support of same sex marriage; the cremation service for the King of Thailand; elections in Japan, Kenya and Iceland and the reactions to them.

The Reuters Live service is part of the agency’s attempts to reposition itself at the centre of the global news industry, having launched Connect earlier this year as what is effectively the world’s biggest shop window for news.

When it opened in May, Reuters Connect made available a pool of 5m pieces of news content in the form of text, graphics, photo and video. In the last five months that resource has expanded to 13.8m news assets, following the uploading to the platform of the entire Reuters photographic archive dating back to the late nineteenth century.

The launch of the six channel Reuters Live video service – available to all clients from international broadcasters to local newspaper publishers – is designed to give Reuters an advantage in the competitive global news agency market by emphasising its fleetness.

Reuters likes to claim that no rival can match the directness of its reporting.

“We think we are the fastest news agency in the world,” says Sue Brooks, head of product at Reuters. “That’s impossible to measure but we put an awful lot of effort into making our processes faster and we know that our technology is best in class. We have invested in ensuring that we are trimming seconds off our delivery time everybody here understands that speed matters. And there is nothing faster than ‘Live’.”

Transforming the newspaper business

Reuters Live was introduced after an 88% surge in demand for live video from customers since June last year. It has the potential to be a game-changing asset for news publishers looking to improve digital engagement with audiences through greater use of live video but lacking the editorial budget to produce outside broadcasts from numerous big news events.

Brooks holds up a picture of three different news media control rooms, each with a huge gallery of TV screens. All of these are traditional newspaper businesses, she says. “Some of our newspaper customers have master control rooms and TV studios that would make a small broadcaster weep with envy and we are seeing that more and more.”

The new Reuters Live service has been in beta phase for several weeks. During the recent constitutional crisis in Spain over Catalonia’s disputed independence referendum, Reuters was able to provide a series of live streams from key locations in Catalonia and of King Felipe VI of Spain addressing crowds in Madrid. The agency was also able to provide a contextual Reuters film from 1931 in which the Spanish Republic was declared and celebrated in both Madrid and Barcelona.

Clients will be able to lobby Reuters to live stream particular stories. Those editorial decisions will be made by staff on a series of “live desks”, based in London, Washington DC and Singapore. "We follow the sun because it would be barmy for someone in London to make a decision about what’s interesting to somebody in China in the middle of our night. They pass on the baton.

According to Brooks, the early experience of Reuters Connect is not merely one of former newspapers transforming into video outlets but of broadcasters also experimenting with other formats as they break out of the confines of the scheduled news bulletin. “The big surprise has been that 79 per cent of our video customers are now using another content type,” she says.

“There is this convergence happening. We have known for some time that newspapers and publishers were using more video but it’s happening the other way round and the traditional broadcasters are using photographs for their main broadcasts as well as graphics and things for their digital properties. Everything is converging.”

Brooks describes the demand for still photography from television outlets as a marked “trend”. She was formerly a producer for the ITN News at Ten, where she scripted the famous opening headlines, known as the “Bongs” because they are accompanied by the chiming of London’s Big Ben clock. “It was inconceivable that we would have used a photo to illustrate a headline at News at Ten but now you see it quite regularly [on television news].”

The former television news executive also notes that audience expectations of live video on a digital platform are not the same as for live video for a linear TV news bulletin. “Online, people are prepared to watch for a much longer time. They can watch the event unfolding in front of their eyes. I think that’s to do with the social media currency of being the first to know something,” she says. “In the TV field for a live to be engaging you need action.”

Reuters Connect operates with a points system that allows customers to purchase individual content assets without having to take out a long-term subscription. The approach has enabled the agency to broaden its client base, notably in regions such as Africa and south-east Asia, building new relationships with publishers who previously would not have been able to afford its service.

The future of the news agency

Brooks claims that the all-encompassing approach of offering all Reuters content on a single platform is a radical one designed to protect the 166-year-old agency’s commercial future.

“It’s disruptive for us but we believe that if we don’t disrupt ourselves somebody else will. We have smashed the product and said to digital customers come and create your own given all of our massive 13.8m assets, come and choose what you want,” she says.

“I must be the only global head of product in the world who has tried to smash the idea of product. By doing the points we are giving the customers the flexibility to literally create their own product. No longer do you just have to take your silo of video; we are saying here this is our lake of content and here’s a fishing rod - go and fish for whatever you want!”

The 13.8m asset resource could grow further if Reuters decides to make available some of the classic eye-witness text-based reporting of world events it holds in its archives.

It is a further indication of the importance of the biggest global agencies in holding together the infrastructure of the news industry in times when it is beset by technological change and accusations of bias and fakery. This column reported recently how the 171-year-old Associated Press had become the world’s biggest provider of stories on Facebook.

The journalism of the established agencies is thriving today because of its rigid adherence to impartial reporting amid the internet era's clamour of polarised opinions.

Brooks thinks that because Reuters “has put unbiased journalism and trust at the centre of what we do for 150 years” its vast pool of content can be of value to constituencies beyond the news industry, such as the field of education.

“We are playing with lots of ideas and the potential is just so enormous, especially in education,” she says. “[As a young reporter] I covered the [UK] miners’ strike (of the 1980s) which I am told is now ‘history’. Reuters has many photos of the strike – what could a school classroom or a university do having been given access to all this material?”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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