A new job, the same mission
On September 1, I will take up the position of Head of Communications at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. This is what I plan to do and how you can help
Paul Julius Reuter arrived in Aachen with his wife Clementina at the end of 1849. After failing in a few ventures, he had spotted a business opportunity: a 76-mile gap in the telegraph line between Paris and Berlin. Bridging this gap between Aachen and Brussels required what we would call today a venture capitalist. A local brewer named Heinrich Geller lent Reuter some money and provided him with dozens of carrier pigeons. Those pigeons gave Reuter a competitive edge. As they travelled much faster than the 10-hour train between Brussels and Aachen, they could convey accurate stock and commodity prices to anyone willing to pay for them.
Two newspapers from Cologne and Brussels were probably Reuter’s first subscribers. Many others would follow. As John Entwisle explains in this piece, none of this would have been possible without Clementina, who worked as an unpaid, full-time assistant of her husband. “Even a simple pigeon operation needed two people; someone to run the office while the other went frequently to the telegraph office, to the railway station, to see subscribers and so on. (…) The fact that Clementina was unconventionally able and experienced turned Aachen into a business possibility,” wrote Entwisle, who worked as Thomson Reuters corporate historian until the end of his life.
Anyone who’s founded a news startup will recognize herself in this foundational story. The ingenuity is there, as are the risk-taking and the lack of resources. Paul Julius and Clementina launched a successful subscription business by finding a simple solution to a real problem. Their obsession with speed, technology and distribution sounds very relevant today. As Joseph Pulitzer, Henry R. Luce or Jonah Peretti would do in the coming decades, the Reuters succeeded by focusing on their customers’ needs.
I’ve been thinking about Clementina and Paul Julius Reuter as I prepare to take up the position of Head of Communications of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. In a world where journalism is under threat in so many countries, my focus at the Institute will be on the journalists who are shaping the future of journalism, as the Reuters did in 1850. They are the ones who apply for our fellowship and leadership programs and the ones who can learn the most from our research. Journalists are the Institute’s most important stakeholders. They should be at the centre of what we do.
We are uniquely positioned to meet this challenge. The Reuters Institute is at the center of a valuable network of hundreds of journalist fellows. It produces dozens of papers and factsheets every year about relevant topics such as populism, local journalism, pay models and news avoidance, and publishes the authoritative Digital News Report. However, the Institute should be even more open to journalists and to society as a whole. We should build a closer relationship with journalists, editors, media executives, technologists, policymakers, and relevant researchers at other institutes who are willing to understand what’s happening. We could learn a lot from them.
As I pursue this goal, I’ll build on the substantial work done by my predecessor, Caroline Lees. I will also work closely with Kate Hanneford-Smith, Meera Selva, Rasmus K. Nielsen and Alan Rusbridger, who selected me for this job.
I remain optimistic about our industry. During my time here in Oxford as a journalist fellow, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of the women and men who are shaping the future of journalism today. They are people like Esther Alonso and Amanda Michel, who are growing memberships and contributions at eldiario.es and The Guardian and preserving journalism as a public good. Or my fellow Javier Borelli and his colleagues at Tiempo Argentino, who run the newspaper as a cooperative after reclaiming it when its owner shut it down in 2016. Some of these innovators like FT’s Renée Kaplan or The Times’s Alan Hunter work for global newspapers and transnational news organizations. Others like Clara Jiménez Cruz and Julio Montes run smaller nonprofits like Maldita and fight against a tsunami of misinformation with the help of a thriving community who offers them money, knowledge and a lot of hope.
As every journalist from my generation, I’ve lived through two decades of digital disruption. I started my career at the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in June 2000. Back then our website was a very small operation. Most of our resources (and our revenue) came from print. When I left for London in 2007 to work as a foreign correspondent, El Mundo’s circulation reached 336,000 copies. It was 83,000 in January 2019.
As a journalist, I could see firsthand the downsides of the digital revolution. Yet I’ve seen its promise too. When writing this long-form series that received the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Award, I noticed how an important story on the Exxon Valdez oil spill could benefit from using technology, video and design. While I covered the 2016 U.S. presidential election for Univision, I was encouraged by the young Latinos I met in places like Altoona (Pennsylvania) or Canton (Ohio), who told us about their anxieties in person and through social media. In the middle of such a vicious campaign, it was important for them to know that our reporters cared about them.
In the last few years, I’ve written for El País, Letras Libres and Nieman Reports, and worked on digital strategy for the March Foundation. I also became the co-founder of a couple of news startups: El Español and Politibot. El Español raised more than €3.6 million through a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2015. Politibot, a startup that creates charts and distributes them through messaging apps, is now sustained by hundreds of members who pay to keep its content free.
Journalism is under threat for different reasons in countries as diverse as Hungary, Australia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines, Nicaragua and the United States. Some of these threats have to do with the spread of misinformation and the rise of authoritarian politicians. Others come from the dominance of technology platforms and the decline of the business models of the past.
No one has a silver bullet to overcome these challenges. But at the Reuters Institute, we can empower the young leaders who are reinventing their craft and ensure they can learn from different experiences and get valuable insights from our research. This will be my goal from now on: to create new spaces where journalists, academics, technologists and policymakers can learn from each other and have a truly global conversation about the challenges journalism is facing today.
In doing so, we will need to bridge our own 76-mile gaps as Paul Julius and Clementina Reuters did in 1850: the gap that separates technology from editorial, researchers from practitioners, the newsroom from the business side, media owners from policymakers, news organizations from technology platforms, small startups from powerful media groups. Every one of those communities is essential to rebuild the news ecosystem. They often share misconceptions about each other and find it difficult to reach out to the other side. As Head of Communications of the Reuters Institute, my job will be to ensure we get enough carrier pigeons to bridge those gaps.
After working as a journalist for 19 years, I know that reducing those divides won’t be easy. Yet I don’t think there is any other way to shape a sustainable future for journalism that really matters. As Rasmus wrote in this wonderful piece, “journalists cannot build this business alone (…), but they need to play a leading role. No one cares more, no one has more at stake, and no one is better positioned to build new businesses around journalistic values, editorial independence, and the timeless aspiration to seek truth and report it.”
Paul Julius and Clementina Reuters left Aachen in March 1851. Their carrier pigeons had become obsolete after the France and Prussia bridged the 76-mile gap in the telegraph line. On October 14, 1851, they rented two rooms at 1 Royal Exchange Buildings near the London Stock Exchange and started a new venture. This time they bet on a new technology: the world’s first undersea cable that would connect London with other European capitals through the English Channel. On November 13, the cable worked and the rest is history.