Spending a weekend in Oxford is always a treat, but spending it with the likes of Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, Nathalie Nougayrede, Director of Le Monde, John Stackhouse, Editor-in-Chief of the Globe and Mail, and more than 100 fellows from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, was a really uplifting experience. I say uplifting, because a large degree of optimism in the future of journalism emerged from two days of celebrations and discussions.
The fellowship program was first launched by the (then) Reuters Foundation 30 years ago, and its anniversary was celebrated in style with almost 200 participants, mostly still journalists, coming from all around the world, with their suitcases full of memories and ideas. Seven years ago, the fellowship became the Reuters Institute, a partnership with the University of Oxford.
Mark Thompson kicked off the two-day event with the Reuters Memorial Lecture. And no, he didn’t talk about the BBC. Instead, he gave a fascinating insight into the complex dynamics of pay-per-read and digital advertising.
It is remarkable to see how the rise of social media is forcing long and well established publications such as the New York Times to re-think the entire business model, making video a key asset of their offering. “It’s one thing,” said Thompson, “when you compete with other newspapers in terms of digital impressions. It’s another when you compete with players such as Google and Facebook with their billions and billions of impressions.” He said the newspaper he manages leaves money on the table with advertisers because they don’t produce enough videos, the Holy Grail of advertising online.
Mark Thompson stressed the importance of quality journalism, highlighting how time, accuracy and authority are even more precious at a time when everybody creates and circulates news via Twitter. I agree with him. Social media is not a substitute for journalism, and newspapers brands are surely not becoming obsolete.
What I found fascinating about this Oxford gathering was the palpable level of optimism shared by the executives of prestigious newspapers. Both Nathalie Nougayrede and John Stackhouse depicted a future where newspapers will become more and more competitive, both commercially and editorially. It was refreshing to see an outspoken French woman outlining – in flawless English – the challenges and the opportunities ahead of the French media landscape. And it was captivating to find out how the Globe and Mail had shut down its print edition for a day - this past Labor Day - to drive users to a new, and enhanced online edition. The risk is part of a wider and bolder strategy at the Canadian newspaper that gives editors a financial premium if their audience online grows. The move, so far, has paid off, but it has also raised eyebrows among those who fear the red line between editorial and commercial could be blurred.
The role of women in journalism was also on the agenda. I was the moderator of an interesting panel which included Suzanne Franks, Professor of Journalism at City University, Sue Lloyd Roberts, Special Correspondent at the BBC, and Laura Saarikoski, Sunday Editor at the Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper. Despite the recent boom in the number of female students enrolled in journalism courses around the world (in some cases up to 90% of the students are in fact women), only a tiny percentage makes it to the very top. Why? The panelists were unanimous: childcare and family responsibilities. Even in Finland, where the government has a clearly progressive agenda when it comes to equal opportunities, maternity and paternity leave, a good number of women make it to middle management positions, but not to the role of Editor-in-Chief. According to Laura Saarikoski, this is due to the fact that women have an embedded guilt complex, which prevents them from putting career at the very top of their priorities. I don’t fully agree with such a view, and the fact that two women are leading the editorial teams at the New York Times and at Le Monde proves that things are changing fast.
I agree more with Suzanne Franks when she says that the career of most female TV presenters ends at 45. Sue Lloyd Roberts puts it in a very powerful way: successful female journalists are seen as a ‘third sex’. “They simply don’t know what to make of you,” said Sue, admitting that while reporting from tribal Afghanistan she was allowed to drink tea in the company of local men, while their wives remained segregated to the kitchen.
Seeing over 100 fellows from more than 40 countries in Oxford this weekend is direct evidence of the great success of the Reuters Institute, which the Thomson Reuters Foundation partly funds. Great credit goes to David Levy, its Director, who has in four years succeeded to transform the Institute into a global player, with its trusted publications massively downloaded around the world. The Institute is today at the forefront of providing trusted information and data for media and policymakers adapting to the new challenges of the profession.
As Mark Thompson puts it, “Why did Jeff Bezos buy the Washington Post? Has he seen something that the rest of us haven’t?” We don’t have the answer. And that’s why we need the Reuters Institute to pursue its mission of shedding light and providing analysis in the fast evolving media landscape.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is fully committed to journalism and to supporting the RISJ. Our Chairman, David Binet, came all the way from Toronto just for the event, as a testimony of this lasting bond.