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In the brave new world of citizen media — with bloggers, podcasters and video journalists doing it themselves — what role does the musty old wire service play? An important one, if it can stay relevant, honest and transparent. Because if you eliminate the tell-it-like-it-is wire stories from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse, it’s very difficult to have a starting point for all the opinions and arguments raging online.

While the Associated Press doesn’t maintain a central hub for its journalism, Reuters is running three portals for its writing, photos and video — one for North America, one for the U.K. (where it is headquartered) and one for Japan. Reuters is certainly Old Media, having been founded in 1851 by Paul Julius Reuter, known for using carrier pigeons to fly stock quotes between cities.

But Reuters can shape-shift with the times because it runs no newspapers, TV or radio stations. While Reuters is known for its old business computer terminals (like the Videomaster), it doesn’t have the infrastructure of printing presses and delivery trucks like newspapers do, nor a complex affiliate system of TV or radio stations.

Still, Reuters has not fully exploited its advantage in shape-shifting, and the sprawling news wire has fallen behind rivals who have been quicker to use the interactivity of the web to their advantage. While news sites such as MSNBC and the BBC have been accepting photos and videos shot by their audience, Reuters still has a user-generated photo program bottled up in its Labs, a test site for innovative projects. By now, all the projects in Reuters Labs should be integral parts of its online presence — podcasts, a financial glossary wiki, the video affiliate network (which lets any site run Reuters video for free).

And its news blogs have yet to find their place in the noisy blogosphere, because they are built around events and don’t have consistent voices. One exception is the Oddly Enough blog, a collection of strange-but-true stories and photos that recently included a Chinese stuntman who squirted milk out of his eye.

But Reuters oozes with potential for a makeover. Here’s a service with 2,300 editorial staff in 130 countries that produces 600 photos per day, and in 2005 filed more than 2.7 million news items in 18 different languages. You just want to grab hold of it, try to comprehend it all, and make it relevant for each curious reader who could interact with it in some way to create a nouveau two-way, collaborative wire service of the future. Right now, the Reuters portals offer precious little in the way of customizing my experience or letting me interact in some way with the media there.

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But that’s not my concern, really — it’s the job of Dean Wright (pictured here), senior vice president and managing editor for Reuters Consumer Services, who manages those three web portals for Reuters. I had spoken to Wright before, when he was editor in chief at MSNBC.com, and had the chance to talk to him in person at the We Media Forum last week.

Alliance with Global Voices

The big news for Reuters was a partnership with Global Voices Online, a group blog that sums up blog conversations around the world. Wright told me more about how Reuters had invested money in Global Voices, and how the wire service saw itself as providing a “spine of the truth” for the world of blogs.

“We provided money to [Global Voices] to hire a managing editor and improve their infrastructure,” Wright said. “We’ve actually used them on our coverage of Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S. We had a page with Reuters text and video, and Reuters pictures, plus we had an RSS feed from Global Voices with some of the bloggers talking about the visit.

“My view is that Reuters can really help — I don’t know if ‘help’ is the right word, I don’t want to be condescending here. But Reuters can play an important role in the blogging world by essentially doing what it does best. Doing straight reporting, and doing what I call the ‘spine of the truth’ around which you can have these global conversations. And I think the global conversations are made better and more relevant by having this spine of truth. It’s much better that we’re there than we ignore it. And it exposes Reuters content to a wider audience of people too.”

The alliance with Global Voices is a nice start for Reuters, but most of its moves into new media have been baby steps — and they’re not played up very much for the average visitor to the Reuters websites. I also asked Wright more about Reuters’ nascent efforts in blogging. He told me the reporters were trying to keep their opinions out of the blogs — something that runs counter to the strength of blogs, in my opinion.

“So far we’ve done [blogging] with journalists who are really experts in their field,” Wright said. “In their blogs it gives them an opportunity to write what they know without injecting their opinions in there. I see it as solid reporting, and you won’t find in our blogs what our reporters think. You’ll see what a reporter sees, and hear what a reporter thinks to be true. And we’re able to do it fairly quickly in the editorial process, too…All our blogs are edited, and our comments are all moderated. We feel we have to do that.”

For a big news organization like Reuters or the New York Times or CBS News, there’s a push and pull between trying to loosen up the editorial process to embrace the blogging ethos and the fear that the high standards at that news source will suffer as a result. Wright also told me he would like to create a news portal in China, but is waiting to make a partnership with the right Chinese portal site.

“I think China has huge potential for Reuters’ business news, because there’s a growing entrepreneurial class in China that’s demanding fast business news to make decisions,” he said. “Reuters has been in China for a number of years. It reports on China for the rest of the world, and it reports in China. It’s been very clear that what we report in China is financial news. Everyone knows about the restrictions in China, and that’s what we’re living with there. Any site we do in China would be a business-oriented site.

“Probably the biggest obstacle in China is dealing with bureaucracy and finding the right partners. There are a number of very large websites in China with huge traffic, and we want to find a good one to partner with.”

But even as Reuters thinks about expanding geographically, it has to consider how it can remake its current sites to bring out the strong video and photographic journalism the service produces — and create multimedia presentations that will wow people. Wright says one big goal for him is to make the sites more visual, and tell stories better by weaving together video, pictures, text and interactivity. I asked him whether he had more trouble getting such an effort off the ground at Reuters vs. his experience at MSNBC.

“It’s not that there are walls that need to be broken down at Reuters, but it’s just that the walls surround such a large area that there’s so much territory to cover,” Wright said. “But that’s why I like it, because it’s such great material to work with, and I have so much support from my bosses. I think it’s in the great tradition of Reuters to do things in innovative ways. Reuters once used carrier pigeons to deliver stock quotes, used rowboats to deliver materials. It’s an evolution. I like to say I work for the only Victorian Internet news company, and like the Victorians, a lot of progress has been made.”

What do you think about how Reuters fits into the new media landscape? Does the blogosphere need a “spine of truth,” and what role can a wire service play in the swirl of media options? If you could share your own idea of what Reuters should do online, what would you tell them?