Back in its early days in the mid-nineteenth century, Reuters won competitive advantage in the news industry by using carrier pigeons to send out its dispatches ahead of the trains. Now the famous agency has a 21st century journalistic gizmo for outperforming its rivals in the race to breaking stories, this time based on complex computer algorithms.
The new Reuters News Tracer, it is anticipated, will enable the 166-year-old organisation to detect via postings on social media the first outcries of a terrorist atrocity, the earliest signs of major civil unrest, or the tremors of a natural disaster, before the story has been written up elsewhere in the news media. It will be, Reuters hopes, a game-changing tool not only in the race to break major stories but in the art of verifying them. In this, it could be an important weapon in the fight against fake news.
In an interview with The Drum, Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, sets out how the organisation plans to “double down” on efforts to win greater public trust by being “more transparent” in its news-gathering methods, allowing readers to ask questions of reporters and showing greater detail on sourcing. “It’s a time to double down on being unbiased and being careful and being dispassionate good journalists,” he says.
Adler lists a series of measures which he says will “open the door a little bit more” on the way that Reuters obtains its information. He talks of “Q&As with journalists; a little more methodology; even sidebars [on] how we got the story. I think it’s not enough that people know we are a trustworthy news organisation, we should also show them what we do.”
Just as importantly, news organisations in general need to be quicker to acknowledge their errors, he says. “You correct your errors quickly and prominently, you call people back when they tell you you made a mistake. you sometimes call the head of an organisation and say ‘hey, we messed that up and here’s how we are ﬁxing it.’ The more ethical the behaviour is, the more we earn the right to be trusted.”
Using AI to find stories
The Reuters News Tracer has been in development for two years and is being used within Reuters newsrooms internationally. Its value is in its verification capabilities, not just in its speed of knowing something newsworthy has occurred. The algorithms have been made to combine artificial intelligence with the human intelligence of the Reuters journalists who have honed its procedures.
Tracer scours Twitter for the first signs of a breaking story and “at lightning speed” subjects it to rigorous testing. “It checks to see whether it’s an original Twitter account, how many followers it has, what’s its proliferation, the history of the tweet, how many people are retweeting it and with positive or negative sentiment language,” says Adler. “It gives a star rating of how likely it is to be accurate. We are finding as we are prototyping it that it’s giving us a high level of confidence way before any news organisation is writing about it.” He believes the tool is of great potential value to commercial clients.
At a time when politics, at least in the United States and western Europe, appears to be getting more polarised, Adler stresses that Reuters is even more determined to be even-handed in its reporting. “Our view is there is real value to being neutral, to being unbiased,” he says. “It doesn’t mean ‘he said, she said’, but it does mean being very careful to be factual and not to take sides.”
It’s a refreshing stance when so much of the media seems terrified that, unless it is provocative and sensational, its content will vanish unshared and ignored on the platforms of social media.
But Reuters, with 2500 staff in 200 locations around the world, has a different view and a different business model to other parts of the media. Its clients simply want straight, factual reporting.
The Reuters perspective on the threats to the integrity of news goes broader than the hot topics discussed in New York and London and takes in issues of censorship and authoritarianism around the world. “We cover China, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Korea, a lot of places where there are all sorts of restrictions on how you might be able to behave as a journalist,” says Adler.
Overcoming fake news
Having this global view, he believes there could be an over-reaction to the threat of fake news that emerged during the US president election campaign. “I think people are panicking a bit about fake news,” he says.
In many parts of the world, the public can only dream of the wealth of news information available in the west. Reporting from Syria remains “really, really dangerous” because “you don’t have clear front lines”, says Adler. In Libya and Yemen, the risks are similar, with “so many different people claiming to be powers”. Iran must be covered by an expert stringer outside the country, while the public in North Korea has “found ways to smuggle USB sticks that have South Korean content on them because they want to know what’s really going on”.
It is this public determination to know the truth that will beat fake news, he says. “Around the world people have a hunger to ﬁnd out what’s really going on and that maybe more of an antidote to fake news than people in the US and the UK recognise.”
If news organisations take greater care to report transparently and take time to check sources before publishing then truthful reporting will win out over fakery in the channels of social media, he believes. “Sometimes you have to slow down,” he says. “Sometimes people get overwhelmed with the business challenge of our industry, and are chasing scale at the expense of care. All this stuff is reminding us how important it is be right and to be very transparent about correcting.”
Adler and his Reuters staff have no choice in adopting this neutral, unbiased approach. It is enshrined in the organisation’s Trust Principles, which have their roots in an attempt by the British government in 1941 to coerce the agency into becoming a propaganda tool in the war effort. The principles were retained when Reuters was acquired by the Thomson Corporation in 2008 to form Thomson Reuters. The first principle is that it “shall at no time pass into the hands of any one interest, group or faction”. The second is that the “integrity, independence and freedom from bias” of its staff “shall at all times be fully preserved”.
It is this approach, says Adler. “We take pride in the fact that we have been reporting from both sides of every war since the US Civil War because we have got credibility to go in there.”
Reuters does not reveal financial information but The Drum understands that the agency has around 3000 media organisation clients and that these supply it with some 35% of its revenues, mostly through subscriptions. A much larger share of Reuters income, understood to be around 60%, comes from financial clients. Such businesses require hard facts.
“We primarily sell to financial professionals who need it to be right because they are going to trade on it or invest on it,” says Adler. “If the facts are wrong they are going to lose a lot of money. We sell to lawyers and we sell to accountants and people in the tax world who have to comply with regulations. If you are doing fake news they are really in trouble. If they are buying your news and they stop relying on it you have no model at all.”
Even the news clients who have “the flexibility” to interpret Reuters content according to how they view the world still want the agency to give them the raw material without frills.
As a business, Reuters is growing. “We are dealing in a tough industry and we actually grew in terms of our revenue this year in an industry that is largely declining,” says Adler.
Although its model remains primarily business-to-business, Reuters has become increasingly consumer-facing in recent years. The Drum understands that the 5% of revenues that come from outside the financial and news client business is the part of the operation that is growing fastest.
Part of this is Reuters TV, a sharp web and app-based breaking news bulletin that can be customised to between five and 30 minutes in length and is supported by 15-second advertisements between stories. Reuters shoots the stories, presented by its own correspondents, and edits them. Adler claims that while the service is “very popular” it is not seen as a threat by the broadcast news clients that take Reuters material. “We don’t compete with our customers.”
Unlike much of the news industry, which is at loggerheads with Facebook and Google over the distribution of ad revenues resulting from consumption of news content online, Reuters enjoys increasingly lucrative relationships with the Internet giants, including partnership deals that see it supplying content for special features. Its increasing use of Facebook Live is another sign of its more public-facing approach.
Adler himself has an impeccable journalistic background, having been Investigations Editor at the Wall Street Journal at a time when its reporters won three Pulitzer Prizes. He believes that the Journal took the right decision, taken when he was there, to charge for its content. “I have a decent amount of sympathy for the notion that all news organisations should have said that from the start. Why did they give their content away? It was an ideology that said all content is longing to be free and I don’t believe that’s true I believe that if it’s of value people should be prepared to pay for it.”
At Reuters, he remains committed to investigative journalism. Despite its cost, it can have a “ripple effect”, he says. “A good investigative story leads to dozens if not hundreds of follow-up stories, it opens doors to other stories and helps you get sourced in areas that you haven’t been sourced in before. To me it’s an incredible door opener.” Reuters investigations into hospital superbugs and the business of illegal migration have also been important for the agency’s brand proﬁle.
But even more essential to its future brand messaging will be its commitment to impartiality. “We believe in neutrality and being unbiased, says Adler. “It’s deep in our culture."
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell