Our editors & readers talk
How to report politics for an international audience
This is the text of a talk I gave to a seminar hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford on October 22nd.
Challenges of reporting politics for an international audience
I am not here to talk about what I don’t know so I will largely reflect on my work at Reuters, although I hope to offer insights that might apply to other news organisations that distribute across borders, in particular other international news service such as Dow Jones and Bloomberg, but perhaps also the Financial Times, the Economist, or even the BBC World Service.
We cover lots of themes at Reuters, including geo-politics and major world affairs such as nuclear proliferation, climate change or the rise of the BRIC states, but today I am focusing on our coverage of national politics.
First – we need to abandon any hoary preconceptions about the Reuters news file being dully utilitarian, about us serving as an ‘agency of record’ and simply being a tip sheet for newspapers and broadcaster.
We also need to abandon any lingering notion that we are the voice of Britain – Reuters is now the news brand of a multinational professional information firm majority owned by a Canadian family, headquartered in New York and listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges.
Another notion – that we are the avid stenographers of the finance industry, handkerchiefing capitalism’s every sneeze and underwriting corporate folly by taking the self-serving platitudes of industry titans at face value. Well that’s another stereotype.
What we aim to be is an agenda-setting news service for a global audience of professionals, including media and finance professionals, delivering content rich in analysis and insight, with multiple “sections” (to use newspaper speak), including a financial commentary service, direct to consumer websites, a video service akin to a financial YouTube, and lifestyle and entertainment coverage.
Our development from the agency of record model is a response to the structural challenges posed to the news industry in last two decades by disruptive technology, economic turmoil and emerging competitors. The challenge boils down to this: how do you capture and retain audiences and have a sustainable business model for doing so. It’s an adaption struggle faced by all “old” international news organisations that are in the business of covering national events for audiences in other countries.
In light of that, how do we go about reporting national politics, and why?
We can’t match the staff of national newspapers. We don’t have vast teams lapping up lobby gossip. Don’t have the 24hr television news magnet pulling politicians in to talk to us. We are no-vote media, so leaders don’t often leak to us. We don’t have a political agenda so government PR people prefer to hand out information to sympathetic media that will oblige with some partisan spin. Our stories don’t appear on newsstands, on mashed up dead trees, so we rarely get that “shout it to the rooftops” quality of great, screaming, above the fold newspaper scoops. And we operate in real time with all perils that urgency brings to copy quality and news editing.
Our stories have to travel, so jargon and local terminology needs to be decoded for an international audience. We have to be clear in our language, in explaining what parties stand for, and in explaining why a particular issue matters, or surprisingly doesn’t, in one or other country e.g. why do the French riot over pension reform, while in Britain voters glumly shrug when told they will have to work longer?
Do these restrictions mean all we can offer is a dumbed down account, the lowest common denominator story, an account of national difference and idiosyncrasy that will delight the distant reader but leave them none the wiser about what is really taking place?
Maybe that was how it was, but we can’t get away with that now.
A couple of years ago I visited a currency trader based in Singapore who worked for a large Malaysian bank. He traded sterling and was typical of the kind of well-educated professional news consumer we need to serve well. I had expected to discuss Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and efforts to deal with the global financial crisis. Instead we talked about how hard it was to get a mortgage in Britain, where people were buying or not buying houses and what voters thought of schools, hospitals and levels of crime. Why? He wanted a balanced view of factors driving voter behaviour. He needed something beyond economic data, opinion polls and tendentious reporting of special interest issues.
It was also clear that if Reuters did not give him a real sense of the mood in Britain he knew perfectly well he could get it elsewhere. He could set up RSS feeds from newspapers, track blogs and Twitter feeds, and watch British television news on the internet. If he had the time and inclination he could scrape the web to get something of a view of Britain without us.
So what do we do to give this customer, or any other outside the UK, a distinctive view of UK politics? Or any other set of national politics, for that matter?
Here I am taking for granted some bedrock attributes. We still have to break news, work sources, jump on big stories and get the facts out there — all the obvious stuff that is the backbone of good journalism.
Beyond that – what’s our formula – and by extension perhaps, the formula that other international news organisations are adopting?
1) We must be expert and detailed. We can no longer write down to people. We can’t condescend. We are dealing with audiences with high expectations of sophisticated, smart political coverage, who will challenge oversimplification and generalisation. We’ve had to raise our game globally on national political reporting.
We need a bit of colour and flavour in stories but audiences also demand detail. Detail nails an issue down, illustrates a theme and drives a decision. Online and on screens there are no space constraints, so we can be more illuminating. There is a great appetite for explanatory, background and in-depth material.
2) We have to be predictive and selective. We must offer the ‘what next’ on a story. We need less of what has happened and more of ‘what might happen.’ Accordingly we have devised new formats that look at potential outcomes and assess their probability. It’s a real challenge to do this well, to analyse impartially and not speculate wildly.
We must be selective, ignoring local fascinations and froth, the white noise of events like Question Time, the weekly parliamentary dingdong debate between the British prime minister and leader of the opposition. Instead we look at whether policy on an issue will change. We have to take an issue and chew it through. For example, our special report on how one big UK city will be hit by spending cuts illustrated the wider theme of austerity measures hitting Europe. Incidentally in the course of reporting that item in Birmingham our reporters broke news the city was considering asset sales to Middle East investors. City fathers backed away from the plan after we revealed it.
3) Stay neutral but stay engaged. Have perspective but don’t take sides.
On the morning after the UK government announced its four-year programme of deep spending cuts the headline in the conservative Daily Telegraph was “Cuts leave middle class £10,000 worse off.” By contrast the liberal Guardian newspaper’s headline was “Axe falls on the poor.” Our take was: “Britain slashes spending, raises retirement age. …unprecedented cost-cutting drive…that will test the strength of economy and of the govt.”
For foreign audience I would contend this is informative, dispassionate and forward-looking.
We need to convey the passion of the argument without partaking in it.
For instance – what drives the Tea Party in the United States? Instead of fixating on their more quirky aspects we have looked at what has driven their emergence, in particular the structural economic challenges which mean that many US jobs that disappeared in the recession will not come back. That has translated into anger. Then we asked: Can the Tea Party convert that anger into influence? And what will that influence do to policy-making, we asked, given the disconnect between the cries of voters for spending cuts and their cries for tax cuts. Both cries are dear to Republicans but few argue that you will make a dent in the worryingly large U.S. deficit if you do both.
If that’s the formula then what practically do we distil from our chemistry? Does it deliver the distinctive coverage that meets the criteria of being worth paying for? The argument can’t often be proved by citing a single story. It’s rather the package of content that a reader signs up for, and Reuters offers far more than national political coverage.
So it is perhaps best to offer a couple of small examples that illustrate a wider approach and leave you to decide if they help make the case.
One contrast would be between our coverage of looming UK defence cuts and that in the national press. The conservative Daily Telegraph, notoriously the house journal of the national military elite, was serially leaked to by rival top brass at the Ministry of Defence who warned of devastation to their respective services if government cuts went ahead as planned. It was great journalism and full credit to the paper’s reporters. But was it hard for readers to get beyond the lobbying and military rivalries played out across the paper to concrete detail on what was likely to happen?
This story mattered to our customers, because Britain is a big military player and a big defence spender; it had both geo-political impact and investor interest. We got the sources we needed at the MOD and kept playing it straight, reporting what we could confirm at each stage of the negotiations in what was a rapidly changing picture. We were pretty much on the money with spending on carriers, cuts to fighter jets and delays to replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system – shares in defence contractors Babcock and BAE Systems fell.
Another example: Brazil’s presidential election went to a second round because last minute voter concerns about the social views of lead candidate Dilma Rousseff deprived her of outright victory. Some news organisations led by describing her as a former Marxist guerrilla tripped up by her support for abortion. Reuters described Rousseff as “the hand-picked successor to President Lula who has pledged to continue policies that have made Brazil one of world’s hottest emerging markets.” The contrast is between the personal interest and the immediate versus the “so what” and the “what next.” Rousseff was duly elected in the second round as the importance of social issues to voters fell away.
I have suggested that changes to how Reuters reports national politics for international audiences are an example of how news organisations can respond to technological, financial or competitive challenges. We don’t always hit the mark with our coverage but directionally we think we’ve got it right. I will leave it to you to decide what lessons can be drawn from our experience and applied elsewhere in the news industry.