Interview: The man who will turn off the lights of Fleet Street

It takes no fewer than 2,400 journalists to staff Reuters' global news operation. The executive in charge of them all, David Schlesinger, talks to Tim Webb
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The Independent Online

It's official: Fleet Street is dead. Reuters, the last news organisation to reside there (The Beano doesn't count), is moving to Docklands in east London early next year.

It's official: Fleet Street is dead. Reuters, the last news organisation to reside there (The Beano doesn't count), is moving to Docklands in east London early next year.

The 150-year-old company, founded by a German immigrant, is now led by Americans. The chief executive, Tom Glocer, is the first non-European to occupy the post. Less well known is another American, David Schlesinger, who became global managing editor in October. The one-time teacher, 44, started his Reuters career as Hong Kong correspondent in 1987, then became financial editor for the Americas in 1995, moving up to executive vice-president and editor for the Americas until his current posting. He is now responsible for 2,400 journalists in 197 news bureaux in more than 90 countries. But don't make the mistake of asking him if he misses being a journalist. He good-naturedly insists he still is.

In recent years, Reuters has become more associated with losses, job cuts and number crunching for its customers in the City than its journalism. The easygoing Mr Schlesinger arguably has a tougher job than his compatriot.

More than 90 per cent of Reuters' revenues comes from the financial services industry. They pay for Reuters' 400,000 terminals worldwide, which provide financial data and its rolling news wire service. The group also sells its news content (text, television and photos) to media companies, but its audience is overwhelmingly finance-oriented. "We are mostly selling to traders and portfolio managers, people who make long-term decisions," Schlesinger says. "We do not have a litmus test to see if it will affect markets. Our role is to help clients make decisions: 'Should I invest in this country? Should I evacuate staff from that country?'"

Political events always have a knock-on effect on currency and stock markets, he says, so it is vital that Reuters reports them all. Schlesinger does not divide his journalists into business or general news reporters. "You are expected to do it all," he says.

Under the Fast Forward restructuring programme announced last year, £440m of savings have been targeted by 2005 and 3,000 of Reuters' 16,000 employees will lose their jobs. The company had little choice after losing almost £500m in 2002. "That's partly because our clients - the financial industry and the media - have suffered a downturn," Schlesinger says. "But that's partly our fault as well." Competitors, notably Bloomberg, targeted Reuters' customers, offering them better services for less money.

Editorial has not been left unscathed. In October, when the editorial department was targeted for the first time in the restructuring, more than a dozen senior managers lost their jobs.

One initiative has been to outsource journalism to India, hiring six journalists in Bangalore last month as part of a trial to report official company announcements. "It leaves existing journalists to do the more in-depth reporting," Schlesinger insists. "The challenge is to save money but also improve the quality. It's difficult. No one likes to see changes where people lose their jobs. But the editorial policy has not changed as a result of Fast Forward."

The Iraq war provided an opportunity to show Reuters' journalistic talents, but it came at a price. Two cameramen were killed in separate friendly fire incidents involving US tanks. Taras Protsyuk was killed in April 2003 as he was filming the invasion of Baghdad from the Palestine Hotel, used as the international press's headquarters. It is thought that soldiers spotted his tripod and mistook him for an Iraqi artillery spotter. Mazen Dana was killed in August when another US tank mistook his television camera for a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher.

Schlesinger says lessons must be learnt by the US military and has been meeting with Pentagon officials to draw up new guidelines. "We suffered badly during the war. It involved a lack of communication and misunderstandings. I'm spending a lot of time working with the Pentagon pushing the safety issue. Battlefields are dangerous places. But soldiers have to learn the difference between an RPG and a camera."

Despite the deaths, Reuters has 40 journalists in its Baghdad bureau. "Nobody is there under duress. There is no stigma attached to people who want to come back," he says.

Because Reuters sells news to companies all over the world, it must be seen to be as impartial as possible, which is not always easy. Its editorial policy bans reporters from using the word "terrorist", except in direct speech. Schlesinger says: "We try not to use emotive words. We report that a bomb goes off, not that a terrorist has planted it. Viewers must make their minds up."

Schlesinger, who is still based in the US but will move to the UK soon, is passionate about his profession. "I miss being out there reporting," he admits. As Reuters has expanded its financial information service over the past 20 years, journalists have become outnumbered by software programmers and sales teams. But you get the feeling that this hack will fight to keep journalism at Reuters' core.