How Reuters turbocharged its news agency business by becoming a devotee of UGC

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.

How Reuters turbocharged its news agency business by becoming a devotee of UGC

The historic Reuters agency, which once delivered news by pigeon, has created the world’s largest media marketplace by harnessing the modern phenomenon of user-generated video taken by bystanders on mobile phones.

In the space of two years, Reuters has grown its original pool of 5m pieces of content by 240% to 17m, helped by a surge in interest from news publishers in user-generated content (UGC). This vast trove of material, hosted on the Reuters Connect platform, is expanding exponentially, due to a wave of new partner publishers contributing to the resource.

Reuters Connect now hosts material from 35 publishers, and will increase that portfolio to 50 by the end of this year. When the service began in May 2017 it had 11 partners, including the BBC (supplying UK video) and USA Today (American sports coverage).

The latest news providers to join the scheme include the Press Association (supplying video) and the American video news network Cheddar. Reuters Connect is also partnering with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to increase its sports output. Especially significant are its new deals to partner with UGC specialists SWNS and ViralHog.

Justine Flatley, Reuters product manager for content partnerships, identifies the growing appetite for UGC as the outstanding trend on Reuters Connect. “One thing we have really excelled at is our UGC offering.”

The UGC currently hosted on Reuters Connect includes raw pictures of big breaking stories; there is dashcam footage of tuk-tuks reversing from an exploding church in the Sri Lanka terror attacks, and video shot by an onlooker of petrol bombing of emergency vehicles in Derry at the time of the murder of journalist Lyra McKee. But there is also UGC of a birthday party for Australian meerkats and of the UK’s first ‘guide horse’ for the blind, taken for training on the Tyne and Wear Metro.

This latter category of what Flatley calls “lighthearted” UGC is becoming an increasingly important news genre. It shows how many publishers still look to social media to shape their news agenda. “Social media platforms have enabled these (UGC) videos to go viral and, almost in reaction, media companies are saying that if that’s what is getting the views and the interest then that’s what we need on our platform.”

Lighthearted UGC is at the very softest end of the news scale and not the type of thing traditionally associated with Reuters. But that’s why Reuters Connect is pursuing a partnership approach as it attempts to widen its commercial client base.

“What we are trying to do this year is expand outside of the traditional news market and play in a wider media market that includes government, creative for corporate, specialist broadcasters, and publishers,” says Flatley. “In order to do that we are trying to onboard a really wide range of partner content so that we can satisfy a wider range of demand.”

SWNS, which started out as a local news agency in Bristol 40 years ago, now operates newsrooms across eight cities in the UK and US and its Discovery team has built a reputation for finding newsworthy video on social media. ViralHog, based in Montana, pays for entertaining UGC (such as driving incidents or snakes on the loose) which it sells to brands and other clients.

Reuters brought the London video news company Newsflare (slogan: “Shoot video. tell the world. Get paid.”) onto the platform last November. It was one of the first news providers to surface UGC footage of the Utrecht tram shootings in March. Flatley was pleased with the client response to a recent Newsflare video of a man swimming with a Great White shark, which she says constituted a genuine news story. “It’s actually newsworthy that someone is doing that, it’s just not breaking political news. Reuters customers like that kind of twist on the news.”

Reuters Connect also hosts weather-based mobile video from American media company AccuWeather. “It provides some really cool UGC of storm chasers,” says Flatley. “ Watch this space, we might be getting more weather UGC on the platform.”

Jukin Media, which is based in Los Angeles and claims to be “the trusted global leader in user- generated entertainment”, has been on Reuters Connect since the beginning. “Jukin are one of the top light-hearted UGC providers in the world,” she says. “Many a month they have told me that they have had the top viewed videos on Facebook.” Jukin, she says, are “really enjoying” the financial returns it has had from the being on the Reuters platform.

The motivation for partner publishers on Reuters Connect can vary. “My experience is that they are either looking for distribution, and/or revenue, and/or prestige from partnering with Reuters,” says Flatley. Red Bull, which she praises for its “creative photography”, provides its content for free. “Their absolute number one goal is distribution via Reuters Connect to get as much visibility as possible.”

For many other partners the platforms is a “secondary revenue stream” whereby they can sell content to clients they might not otherwise have reached. “They have their direct customer base which we do not want to get involved with, we just want to be a secondary distribution avenue for them,” Flatley says.

Downloads of partner content (material not generated by Reuters editorial staff) have increased tenfold since last year. Partner content now accounts for 3m assets on Reuters Connect.

Flatley says the original concept of creating a single home for buyers of news content was not an easy pitch. “At the beginning we were selling a dream, we were saying we are building this multimedia platform and it’s not ready yet but when it is do you want to give us your content?” It is now on an “upward trajectory”, she says. “The partners who have joined with us at the beginning have really seen the growth.”

She is anxious to broaden the range of entertainment media partners, following a deal in January with influential Japanese digital media aggregator Aflo and the leading Korean entertainment media outlet Star News, a gateway to the Korean film and K-Pop music scenes.

Entertainment news does not just concern Western celebrities, Flatley says. “I’m really focused on getting a top quality Bollywood partner and covering more Asian entertainment stars, not just K- Pop we also want to do more J-Pop. Entertainment does very well on the platform today and I want to grow that as much as possible and increase resources.”

Action Images, the Reuters Sports division, is positioning itself to help sports organisations monetise their digital content and the Reuters Connect deal with the ATP builds on recent partnerships with golf’s PGA Tour and the Professional Squash Association.

Big breaking news remains fundamental to Reuters Connect, as you would expect of an organisation with 2,500 journalists in 200 countries. Flatley praises the Reuters editorial teams for their own expertise in sourcing UGC video from big stories, such as the Sri Lanka bombings and the London climate protests.

The agency this month won two Pulitzer Prizes; one for its photographic coverage of mass migration in Latin America and another for reporting by Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and colleagues on the expulsion of Rohingya people from Myanmar. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been held for 490 days after being charged by Myanmar authorities with illegal possession of official documents and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Reuters Connect recently signed a deal with publicly-funded American network PBS to take B-roll video from the 40-year archive of the PBS Newshour show. Another agreement brings part of National Geographic’s 130-year archive of content on the natural world onto the new platform.

Flatley is seeking tie-ups with organisations with a track record in multimedia news graphics. “I’m approaching various newspapers and digital publishers,” she says. “I want the kind of newsworthy graphics that would do really well next to the story of the day. I want a graphic on whatever is trending and I want it from a trusted source so our customers can rely on that.”

She plans to give clients instant notifications of new partner deals, and to introduce a new feature on Reuters Connect directing customers to similar content to that which they have recently brought.

The vast content source is not currently being made available for advertising purposes. “On the platform today all content is for editorial use - so when we are talking to corporates they might be using it for their in-house newsletters,” Flatley says. “We haven’t moved to a commercial use model yet.”

But ever since it was founded by Paul Reuter in 1851, three years after he fled Germany where he had been a radical pamphleteer, this organisation has been at the forefront of changes in media.

“We stay very well connected with our sales team, who I consider to be on the frontline of Reuters,” says Flatley. “They are hearing what our customers want, they are hearing what our prospects want and I am the person who responds to that.”

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

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