The Digital Journalist
What's Happening at Rooters?
December 2004

by Horst Faas

As a former Associated Press senior photo editor, and personal friend and professional foe of many photographers and editors at Reuters, I have watched the Reuters Pictures service being conceived, born, grow up and change from my base in London. With mixed feelings, I attempt to trace what has happened at the agency recently. (With thanks to professional media watchers at The Guardian, The Independent, Photo District News, U.K. Press Gazette, the memoranda writers at Reuters and colleagues).

In the good old days it was easy to find out what the shakers and movers in London's Fleet Street were planning to out-scoop the opposition. It was a pleasurable duty of this photo editor to collect gossip about what made the photo desks at London newspapers and agencies succeed or fail, who may get sacked or could be persuaded to defect and move on to a more profitable job.

All it took was a healthy liver and a stroll from the Stab-in-the-Back to the Hoop-and Grapes, the Punch Tavern, El Vino and to the other wonderful pubs around the Street of Shame. I remember well the exciting time when I learned over many bottles of Bordeaux in the Golf Club (of course, another pub) the inside details of how the legendary Charlie McCarty was building the new Reuters Picture Service on the ruins of UPI Photos. That was 20 years ago.

In the past weeks the question has been again, What's happening at "Rooters"?

This time it was difficult and confusing to separate the facts from the fiction for a clear answer. The pubs or the journalists in them have disappeared and the new generation of shakers and movers, with all their fancy titles, in what was once Fleet Street don't pub-crawl, don't drink (or don't dare to drink) and don't talk shop over just-one-more rounds. It doesn't help that many of today's movers and shakers are textbook managers rather than experienced journalists and are somewhat alien in the world of gossip and old-fashioned journalism that we once enjoyed.

Staff Memoranda, What-the-Papers-Say and PDN

Reuters internal memoranda, terse statements by company executives and reactions from Union and Guild officials - attributable and non-attributable - quotes from Reuters photo staffers, news items and commentary in the media sections of London's papers, the U.K. Press Gazette - and most of all Photo District News (PDN), New York - help to fill in the puzzle.

PDN's clever New York writer, Jay DeFoore, seems to enjoy a priority mailbox for all Reuters internal memoranda and information sent to the staff. It can all be read in full as attachments to his articles. The Web site of Photo District News must have had a lot of hits recently from worried and concerned London photo journalists.

Globalization Buzz Words

Shrouded by the buzz words of globalization, the plans of Reuters, the international news agency, and actual developments must be read and interpreted the way the Kremlinologists of Soviet times used to read between the lines of TASS and Pravda in order to explain what is all means.

As Mao Tse-Tung had the "Big Leap Forward" for China, Reuters has a "Fast Forward Plan" to improve the world agency's services and budget line. The "Fast Forward" restructuring plan expects to save Reuters 440 million ($855 million) by 2006 and reduce the workforce from 15,000 to about 13,000. One of the key goals of Reuters' "Fast Forward" program is "transformation": doing what Reuters does in a different way to serve customers better and more efficiently, according to a memo from David Schlesinger, global managing editor of Reuters' news operation. Reuters is trimming its costs as part of its "Fast Forward," according to The Guardian: " 340 million ($660 million) on head count reduction, 100 million ($195 million) on efficiency savings.

"There is talk of the News2Web system, the flag-bearer for Reuters's strategy of putting its entire business online," The Guardian adds - but it isn't ready on time and has been pushed back to 2006 because of technical hitches, with a resulting budget leap.

Outsourcing to Bangalore

The Media Weekly of The Independent carried the headline, "Indian Mutiny Looms at Reuters," referring to the reaction of editors in Reuters' workplaces that may be threatened with "outsourcing" to Bangalore, India. Outsourcing is a relatively new word in the British English vocabulary and has a good chance of winning top prize as the worst word creation of the year.

While editors at Reuters' financial information desks in the U.S. and Britain, at the editorial reference unit in London (a library that produces background and chronologies) or at the "Washington Daybook" (a diary service) may look up Bangalore on the map, photo editors at Reuters' London and Washington international photo desks worry that their jobs may go to Singapore.

The London Independent suggests something to the possible victims of "outsourcing" to consider: "Ask yourself, are you certain that what you do could not be done by a clever young graduate on the other side of the world, at a fraction of the cost?"

There is an odd dispute going on about the outsourcing of "high-skill editing jobs," somehow setting them apart from the "run-of-the-mill jobs" that have been gradually "outsourced" since Reuters set up a center in Bangalore.

Reuters has denied that it has plans to relocate "high-skill editing jobs." Insiders and some staffers say that senior management ordered a budget reduction and that relocation of jobs abroad has become inevitable.

The Independent, referring to the "Indian Mutiny," writes that "morale (at Reuters) has collapsed in recent months because of suspicions that the management wants to relocate every job it can to Asia. An informal ballot in the London office found that 84 percent of the staff were ready to consider a strike."

The National Union of Journalists, London (NUJ) adds, "Redundancies would do irreparable damage to the company's reputation for editorial accuracy and integrity."

The concern at Reuters mainly involves staff in Britain and the U.S., the company's biggest, and in labor terms, most expensive divisions.

On the U.S side Peter Szekely, chairman of the Reuters unit of the Newspaper Guild, sounds equally critical, as quoted by several sources. "The idea that you can produce the Daybook in Bangalore without loss in quality is laughable. The idea that you can have people on the other side of the planet trying to cover events here (in Washington) is flawed, to say the least."

Centralizing Photo Filing in Singapore

"Reuters has announced a plan to centralize its photography operations through a global desk in Singapore, requiring the relocation of several desk positions from London and Washington, D.C.," reported Jay DeFoore from PDN, based on the Reuters memoranda he saw.

He quotes Reuters' global picture editor, Thomas Szlukovenyi, who overseas the phases of a broad reorganization of the news service's picture operation.

Reuters currently has major editing centers in Singapore, London and Washington, D.C.

Szlukovenyi said "centralizing photo filing and client transmissions in Singapore will create greater efficiencies in the other Reuters offices." A large desk in London is "financially not feasible," Szlukovenyi says, and Singapore was chosen because "obviously, it's cheaper."

David Schlesinger, global managing editor of Reuters' news operation, added in one of his memos: "This bold move could eliminate some of the regional bottlenecks we have had and get pictures to customers quicker. It would also let us put some more pictures editors in the field, improving the quality of the file and making sure we are in front of the action."

Not only photo operations will head to Singapore, Schlesinger revealed. "To gain efficiencies, we plan to move our London graphics unit to Singapore, where staff will be able to work alongside the new global pictures desking operation. This will create a global hub for visuals in Singapore."

Schlesinger wrote that "... inevitably, major moves like these will be disruptive to many people's professional and personal lives." Tom Szlukovenyi, according to PDN, "declined to say how many jobs would be affected, noting that the exact number won't be decided until Reuters management negotiates the changes with the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents 450 Reuters employees in the U.S."

Reuters Newspictures' New Structure

Reuters executives point out that the company's photo desks in London and Washington, D.C., will not be shut down. Tom Szlukovenyi outlined this in the "first phase" of his plans to reorganize Reuters Newspictures.

For the future, Szlukovenyi sees that most newspapers will reduce the number of their picture service subscriptions to one national agency and a second global service which "excels in major international news, sport and entertainment, plus some high-class local pictures." He wants Reuters to adjust the structure of the photo servicer to fit better into this second role.

Not surprisingly, he says what every global agency photo editor would say: "Our main focus is still on winning the front pages and the section fronts in the highest profile markets - but we will also try to cater more to local interests. We don't want to compete head-to-head with the local agencies, but we want to beat them in their own market on selected jobs simply by being better photographers."

It all sounds very much like Charlie McCarty 20 years ago, especially as Szlukovenyi's memo continues with the statement, "A good picture is a good picture and will get used."

But No Details On Singapore Yet

Changes announced so far to the staff stop short of detailing the "outsourcing" move to Singapore. A dozen or so editors at the Reuters London international picture desk will have to wait until after Christmas to learn if they will lose their jobs.

Peter Szekely, chairman of the Reuters unit of the Newspaper Guild, said Reuters' management has targeted three of the seven jobs on the D.C. photo desk for relocation.

Structures and Appointments

Tom Szlukovenyi has given some details of Reuters' new world order.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa will be edited by four chief photographers, coordinating coverage and "keeping an eye on budgets."

  • The Europe Central region - Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Central Europe, Turkey and the former Soviet Union states - will be overseen by Pawel Kopczyinski from Berlin.
  • Europe West - France, Benelux, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Greece and French-speaking Africa - will be run by the Reuters and UPI old-timer Mal Langsdon.
  • The U.K. and English-speaking Africa will be overseen from London by David Viggers.
  • For the Middle East, two positions in the Gulf region and Arabic-speaking Africa are being considered but not yet decided.

A coordinating editor-in-charge - Jonathan Bainbridge - will coordinate from London with the regional Europe, Middle East and Africa chief photographers.

For the rest of his global operation Szlukovenyi announced that:

  • The U.S., Canada and the Caribbean will continue to be run from Washington.
  • Latin America will be overseen from Sao Paulo by the newly-appointed Rickey Rogers.
  • Asia will continue to be run from Singapore, and
  • A new global sports picture editor will be created.

... more changes and appointments in the next round-robin letter.

More Photographer Positions Promised

While cutbacks are biting into many departments of the company, Reuters is reportedly forging ahead with plans to increase its photo report, both in the United States (with 10 new photographers) and worldwide (with 20 new hires), according to Tom Szlukovenyi.

More Entertainment

Plus: Reuters is increasing entertainment and celebrity coverage.

In November, Reuters appointed Sam Mircovich as entertainment picture editor. He has worked for a range of media organizations including the Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times and Reuters, and has covered most of the key events in the entertainment calendar, including the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globe Awards. In announcing Mircovich's appointment, a Reuters blurb said, "Reuters' entertainment coverage aims to provide high-quality pictures of fashion, film, music and many other entertainment events around the world. He will increase the size of the entertainment team in the U.S. by adding a number of new photographers to cover stories in Los Angeles and New York."

Monique Villa, global head of news, pictures and sports at Reuters said, "He will play an important part in the expansion of our entertainment coverage. This is just one of the many investments we are making to grow our picture business."

Raids and Defections

The job market for top photographers in the news agency business continues to be lively - and while Reuters announced hires for 2005 they have also suffered losses.

In 2004, two of Reuters' top photo talents in London jumped ship: Ian Waldie - an Australian who held the fort for Reuters in the north of Britain and annually collected top British photo awards - joined Getty Images, while Dan Chung moved to The Guardian to handle top foreign photo assignments as far away as China and Iraq.

Getty Images continued throughout the year to raid top photographers and editors from its competitors and is obviously systematically expanding news, sport and entertainment coverage.

In November, Getty Images took Andrew Wong (Beijing) and Win McNamee (Washington) from Reuters.

Win McNamee, son of famed Newsweek photographer Wally McNamee, is already a photo agency veteran: He joined Reuters almost 15 years ago. Number two photo editor for North America at Reuters (next to Gary Hershorn), Win McNamee is taking over as the chief photographer for the Americas at Getty Images, based in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Wong was Reuters' chief photographer in Beijing. Moving over to Getty Images, he will be director of photography for greater China. Getty Images is setting up a full-scale bureau in Beijing.

Reuters' Gary Hershorn, McNamee's immediate boss, commented "that it is a compliment that Getty is dipping into the Reuters talent pool," according to PDN's correspondent.

"I'm not going to roll over because Win and Andrew chose to go to Getty," he said. "These are quality people, A-list people, talented, strong, decent people. I take it as a compliment that Getty feels that we have such strong people."

Hershorn - a photojournalist's gentleman of the old school, indeed.

Global picture editor Tom Szlukovenyi assigned Reinhard Krause to replace Wong as its chief photographer in Beijing. Krause, with Reuters since 1989, has been chief photographer for Jerusalem since 2000. Win McNamee's replacement may emerge later.

Meanwhile, at the AP ... (but that is another story).

© Horst Faas