News agencies must evolve or meet extinction

November 16, 2011

Imagine you’re a reporter and you suddenly witness a major news event occurring right before your eyes. Do you snap it to the wire, file a story to your website, or tweet it out to your followers? If you’re at the AP, you damn well better not choose the latter.

In a perfect world, you’d want to do all the above, though your employer is going to likely want you to do the first two before you tweet. Today, Reuters is a lot more than just a wire service. We’ve built — and are continuing to build — what we think is the world’s greatest news website, in the form of, and part of that is providing our readers with reliable and timely news, information, opinion and analysis.

An extension of that website is the information we post on our social media accounts, at Google+, Twitter and on Facebook. We’re not just reporting our own news there, but have become a beacon for all news, being as comprehensive as possible so readers come to us first for all they need to know. We’ve got things like Counterparties, created by Ryan McCarthy and Felix Salmon that does a great job at bringing news from around the web to our readers.

The wire is still a huge part of our business and always will be. However, acting in a way that handcuffs us from doing our best work on and on social networks, which help drive traffic and extend our brand, is writing a death sentence for us as a future media company. To bury our head in the sand and act like Twitter (and who knows what else comes into existence next month or five years from now?) isn’t increasingly becoming the source of what informs people in real-time is ridiculous.

In order to compete with these new and existing technologies, our wire will need to increasingly become better and faster, not only for our subscribers but for the reporters using it to file reports. The fact that it is easier to fire off a Tweet than it is to snap a wire report is unacceptable. Having a policy where you’re asked never to post something on Twitter before it goes out over the wire will put us at a competitive disadvantage, as other news organizations develop a reputation for being the first to report accurately all the news that matters. As my esteemed colleague Robert MacMillan points out: “in some cases, the tweet before the scoop might be the only way to beat your competitor if your competitor has no restrictions on tweeting,” and “when a news outlet tells a reporter, “don’t tweet first,” in some cases that means that news outlet has lost the edge.

The institutional brand building you create by having your journalists be great on social platforms cannot be underestimated. Part of having your journalists on these platforms is giving them the freedom to be a normal human being, not a robot, a PR machine or a slave to the wire. Do we want to serve the wire above all, since our paying customers deserve to get that information first? Yes, we do. But we can do that without sacrificing the incredible value we create by making ourselves a must-follow on all social networks because of the information we provide and two way conversations we can have with our readers. We can only do that if we’re not tied down by rules that ignore the reality of the present and the future of media.

Our direct competitors and two guys in a basement somewhere are already developing tools to be the next generation newsroom. If we’re not busy doing the same thing, we’re dead.


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Here’s an example of Twitter being the first source of news. I live in Mexico. Last year, I happened to see a bulletin on television that an Aeromexico flight from Paris to Mexico City had been diverted to Montreal. There was a vague reference that this flight was diverted because TSA said there was a terrorist on board. The flight was non-stop but would be flying in US territory.

I’m interested in airline travel and international tourism. I searched Google News for more information. I found nothing. Then, on a whim, I searched Twitter for “Aeromexico”. I found this Tweet: “Sube la policia canadiense y detienen a una persona morena de tipo musulman y lo esposan.” Roughly translated: “Canadian police have arrested a dark-skinned, Muslim looking man and handcuffed him.” The Tweet was sent by Mexican Senator Javier Castellón, who was on the same plane and returning from a meeting in France.

The plane and all the passengers were held for one hour before police boarded. Senator Castellón sent many Tweets, which were picked up by the Mexican news media.

There was not much coverage of this event in the US media. Two days later, it was reported that the suspected terrorist was Abdirahman Ali Gaal, a Somali-born US resident. He was delivered to US authorities at the Canadian border. Several days after that, Gaal was released with no charges.

Like many such news stories, there was no follow-up.

Posted by KenSmith | Report as abusive

Good point by AP. AP should first provide its customers. I see the same thing very so often via the Reuters social media. If the news wires keep doing this they’ll start to loose their own news media customers who are paying big amounts of money to get the news journalists of news wires provide them with stories. If they do want their journalists to do so, it should be done in closed environment, like for example yammer, where customers of Reuters and or any other news wire may find these tweets/facebook wall posts/google+ updates.

I will also add this regarding to news wires like Reuters. They exist because they provide news to news media. The key thing to have a contract with a newswire like Reuters, is getting news where your own news media doesn’t have a correspondent and get breaking news through them. If news wires like Reuters move in between and start doing this themselves, compete on breaking news via social media, they are killing their own business model.

Posted by roelandr | Report as abusive

I agree with much of your blog. The value prop of agencies was always twofold…deliver awareness of what’s going on in the world and serve up publishable content. the first piece is gone – twitter and other SM has basically supplanted it… And that publishable content will have to be higher value if its going to be worthwhile over the long term (I say long term because there are still an awful lot of publishers using agency content the way they always have and they probably will for the next 5-10 years). The agency business isn’t falling off a cliff….its in a long gentle decline – Fact is the cost per story from agencies is still alot cheaper than hiring your own journo…even if it means you are publishing a commodity…And theres no shortage of websites and newspapers religiously following that model… to the end! but I digress: The other opportunity beyond content for agencies is using journalistic expertise to help users (be they publishers or consumers) understand the firehose of content being blasted at them…

Posted by gbeitchman | Report as abusive

I hate to say it, Reuters, but what is the point of the news wire today? Twitter is nothing but a giant, free news wire that’s faster and more comprehensive than yours. No matter what restrictions the AP or Reuters put on their journalists, the news is gonna break on Twitter before it breaks on the news wire. That’s just a fact. If the point of the wire is speed, then it is obsolete.

Everyone complains that Twitter is unreliable and traditional news media are too slow, as if we’re only allowed to use one or the other. Twitter’s speed can come at the expense of accuracy, but the information is still valuable as long as users are aware of that risk. The accuracy part is where news agencies like Reuters can still provide a valuable service.

I say agencies should let their journalists tweet whatever they want. I’ll follow them to get breaking news as it happens, with the understanding that it’s not necessarily rock-solid, then later I’ll go to the agency’s website for the full, fact-checked story.

Posted by Boonstra | Report as abusive

Great comment Greg, I agree 100% with this:

“The other opportunity beyond content for agencies is using journalistic expertise to help users (be they publishers or consumers) understand the firehose of content being blasted at them…”

Posted by Soup | Report as abusive