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The 155-year-old Reuters wire service has been reinventing itself for the modern age of decentralized journalism, where millions of people have the tools to capture the news around them. Reuters has made alliances and investments in blog aggregators Global Voices and Pluck, and with Yahoo for the citizen-submitted news site, You Witness News. Plus, Reuters made a high-profile move of putting a correspondent into the virtual world, Second Life.

And tomorrow, Reuters will unveil a new website devoted to coverage of Africa. Many people believe the news media has barely scratched the surface of life in Africa, only reporting on the most devastating news in the region. Global Voices, a blog aggregator that covers the world outside of Europe and America, will be a part of that new Reuters Africa site, which will link to Global Voices coverage from within its country pages.

For example, if you check out the Reuters Africa page on Algeria, there is a box of links to relevant Global Voices posts (see below), with the asterisked footnote: “Reuters is not responsible for any content provided by external sources.”

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I talked to Reuters’ president, Chris Ahearn, at the We Media conference in Miami, and he later told me about the Africa site.

“Africa is a continent we have been covering extensively for decades,” he said. “Now, for the first time, we are publishing this valuable service directly to consumers across Africa and the world to help them grow smarter and richer. We are especially proud to be integrating blogs and commentary, via Global Voices, into our Reuters Africa offering from the start. This further underlines Reuters’ commitment to new digital platforms and user-generated/moderated content with community oriented tools, to deliver the next-generation of news and information.”

Ethan Zuckerman, a co-founder of Global Voices, told me they were excited about the new African site because it will point to content on daily life and opinion — and not just to breaking news stories about war and tragedy.

“There’s a rising tone of anxiety and despair in the Zimbabwean blogosphere, for instance, but it won’t ‘break’ as a story unless the civil service strike goes off tomorrow and sparks a violent government response,” Zuckerman said via email. “In a perfect world, I think we’d find a way to help our friends at Reuters anticipate stories that might break based on our coverage — that hasn’t happened as much as I’d like.”

Still, Zuckerman has been happy with the alliance so far, allowing Global Voices to expand its coverage, hire a full-time managing editor, and translate more blogs than previously.

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Chris Ahearn

At the We Media conference, I had a chance to sit down with Ahearn and talk more about the various citizen media moves by Reuters, and also pick his brain on what the future of wire service journalism might look like. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

Tell me more about your moves into citizen media in the past year, and what your plans are going forward.

Chris Ahearn: The key is how do we continue to expand the potential network of sources to add value to our news services. Where and how do we reach out to different forms of information gathering? How can I help our editors and journalists do their jobs better and create more value for our website or news agency clients? Global Voices was a no-brainer, a good idea, with smart passionate people, bridge-blogging in underreporated areas. It’s extremely valuable. It tends to be someone like us and the bloggers on the ground in those environments. We’ve gone to them to augment our own coverage — the Mumbai train bombing comes to mind.

At Davos, the [Reuters] team hosted a variety of live streamed interviews with leading figures around the world. That’s not a big deal, that’s called TV. What I thought was interesting about it was it was done physically and also in a Second Life environment. As Adam was doing the interviews, there was a crowd of people watching, and also making their own comments that everyone could see as Adam was doing the interviews. Through a moderator, they could suggest additional questions or follow-up points.

That sounds like a pretty interesting model for the future. If someone is so passionate that they’d like to see the whole unedited interview process, how do you bring the audience into the newsgathering process? It’s not going to work every place and every time, but I see that as a potential future model.

Cut to investments in Pluck or You Witness News with Yahoo. With Pluck, how do we invest in people who have solutions for the digital newsroom? That’s one half of Pluck’s business. Media companies are not known as leading-edge technologists who create state-of-the-art tools, so who can help us get there and bridge between the worlds of professional journalism and amateur journalism? We liked what we saw there.

Marry that with BlogBurst which tries to make sense out of 15 gazillion blogs out there. What are the X number of bloggers that will matter to publishers? How can you bring order to it, how can you understand that, how can you augment that? We use it to augment our coverage, it’s not a replacement vehicle. It’s basically: ‘If you’re interested in that, here are some other people writing about it in blog format.’

You talk about bringing this in as a resource for reporters and editors. What’s their attitude about it? Does it take a change in mindset to accept that, or do they feel like someone’s on their turf?

Ahearn: I think it’s both. It goes one person at a time. Our online group was involved with everything. It was more the people who were away from the experiment, there’s a level of concern in the journalistic community, ‘Are they out to replace me?’ The answer is no, God no. It’s my job in management and running the business side to ensure that there’s as much choice out there for our editors as there can be to best address the audience.

The struggle here is how do you let the audience identify what they actually care about and how do you mesh that with the two pillars of control. As a brand, I do want to control what’s around me; as a consumer, I want to control everything about my experience. My own supposition is the reality is somewhere in between. One of the reasons newspapers are such a valuable thing or that people lean back and watch TV is that at times people say, ‘Show me, I like that serendipity.’ At other times I want to be very self-directed, I don’t like that on the page.

Do you think once people have control through TiVo or creating their own newspaper online, will they want to go back to leaning back again? Once they have that control, I can’t see them giving it back.

Ahearn: I still can’t make a major motion picture myself. As much as I think I’m pretty worldly, I can’t specify everything I want to watch tomorrow because I would have to know everything in order to define it. There’s still a place for packaging and programming. People like to paint them as mortal enemies. I’m a big believer in choice and free will. Giving people both is a good thing. If you do both well as a media company people consume more.

There is a big assumption I make in that, because I believe content creators should be paid. I’m fine if people want to do that [for free], but creators are making a choice that the reputation or social capital is worth more than making money in it. People should have the right to make that choice. But if I am monetizing somebody else’s content, that person has the right to make money with me. Whether it’s a contractual arrangement where I pay you for the syndication or ‘I don’t know yet, let’s tally it up at the end of the month to see what’s fair.’

Maybe it makes me more like old-line media, but gosh wouldn’t it be nice if YouTube didn’t allow people to steal things? I do believe information wants to be free, but free in how it’s consumed. In a world that has been predicated on control of distribution points and consumption points, this is a pretty cool golden age that we’re in. Is it dangerous? Yes. But I think we’re entering a golden age of journalism and we’ll look back five years from now and they’ll be a lot happier than they are now.

What will make them happier? Will things be less chaotic?

Ahearn: In a world where there is almost infinitely expanding information, I doubt it will ever be less chaotic. But as we start to arm the quote-unquote mainstream with the same tools as journalists, editors and reporters have, there’s an interesting asymmetry here. I talk to a lot of people who say, ‘How come blogging software seems to be a richer news-telling experience than some of the tools we put into journalists’ hands?’ Interesting dynamic, that.

The cost of newsgathering has plummeted. How do we take that and deploy more resources into newsgathering and news presentation? Why is it that right now, at a time when the world is getting more difficult to understand based on everything that’s happening are news organizations pulling out of so many places around the world? Why?

Maybe the bureaus closing down are a precursor to everyone having their own personal bureau. That you can somehow grasp all this information that’s being sent to you. Many services like You Witness News are trying to do this, but I’ve always felt that someone could create a giant wire service to take in all that. But you’ve got a lot of minds to change on that.

Ahearn: Going from 2,400 journalists to 24 million sources — that’s a lot of scale and there’s some skepticism, but how might that change the news cycle or the ability of people to make sense [out of everything]. I also wonder how much time is wasted in the rewriting of someone’s else’s copy that doesn’t really change the story or add that much unique value. What’s the obsession with that? I like a world where there’s different levels of news trust and brands and people can mix and match. If you have something unique, then go for it. Everybody is guilty of it, everyone has their unique version, but if you matched them up, how much are they really unique? How much is there overlap vs. a story you really, really need to tell? Can you spend your resources on something incremental?

But can we get past the in-grown tendencies and legacy ideas? What will it take to get past that?

Ahearn: It’s only this decade that online newspapers have become more than just recitations after they were printed. Our CEO [Tom Glocer] says ‘we were made for the Internet age; we don’t have a press, we never have.’ I think we can continue to add value and I do believe that everybody is your partner and everybody becomes your competitor. My clients have other ways of syndicating and sharing, and I think, ‘Wait a minute. That’s no different than what we do.’

So everyone can have their own wire service?

Ahearn: Why not? Everyone already has their own way of syndicating columnists. I think the future of the news media model ends up with everyone as a syndicator and everyone is a publisher or broadcaster and where everyone has pay-per-use services and subscription services. That’s fine, people will gravitate to the brands they really want. I listen to NPR to the morning, it’s my habit, it’s my aural wallpaper. But it doesn’t make me any less loyal to Reuters. I read a lot of Reuters and lot of other things too.

Everyone has their daily content they get from whatever sources they can, it’s just that now they have more access to international sources and citizen media and blogs and everything else. It’s amazing what we have access to, but the missing thing is the window into it, or the context.

Ahearn: Well, I give Yahoo a lot of credit. I think they do a pretty darn good job, and they’re a good model for every publisher to look at. Everyone should be doing that. The thing that drives me a little nuts is, I turn it around and say ‘I really trust an audience. If I give them good value, they’ll come back to me.’ Even if they find me, they may not even realize they’re reading me every day. Over time, they will, and to be a part of that consideration every day, you can build a good business on that….That’s how I think we break the back of this all-pro, all-amateur — never the two shall meet.

You just put it all out there together?

Ahearn: I’m not saying that. I’m saying that for the brand you have, you have to do what makes sense. It’s not a free-for-all. As you move further away from the brand, there’s more trust risk there. The opportunity is to make sense of that. The more context you provide, the better the discussion with your reader, and your reader is better informed. And the last I checked, the business we’re in is to inform people.

*****

What do you think about Reuters’ moves into citizen media? Are they steps in the right direction or are they not going far enough? What will it take for Reuters to change its old ways and include the audience in its newsgathering operation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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