Reuters president shares thoughts on the post-COVID future of media and its leaders

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


One thing that business leaders have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that their teams can be productive remotely as well as at a corporate office, says Reuters President Michael Friedenberg.

“I think the move towards hybrid is going to really go less to what your job and role is and more to the work you’re planning that day and if you need to brainstorm with people or not,” Friedenberg told INMA members during a live Webinar interview on Wednesday.

Safety is the paramount concern, he added, and Reuters won’t force anyone to go back to work in the office until they’re ready.

INMA’s Mark Challinor had a few questions for Friedenberg about Reuters and his perspective on the future of news media.

INMA's Mark Challinor interviews Reuters President Michael Friedenberg about the future of news media.
INMA's Mark Challinor interviews Reuters President Michael Friedenberg about the future of news media.

INMA: The first quarter 2021 results for Reuters just came out, and they’re very impressive. What’s the secret of your success?

Friedenberg attributed this to several factors. In any sort of downturn or recession, companies that continue to focus on talent, people, and investment are likely to accelerate faster and come out of it sooner.

“We definitely took [COVID] as an opportunity at Reuters to understand that we had to navigate a very difficult period of time. Thankfully, due to the diversification of our business model we were able to navigate those churning waters.”

At the same time, Reuters did not focus exclusively on keeping its heads above those waters, but also took advantage of opportunities to invest in core areas of the business — which are now paying off dividends in 2021.

These core areas were focused on four key components:

  • Reimagining the customer experience. It’s about how you engage your customers to ensure the value of your product is getting through in the customer experience. “I think we’re very good at generating four million stories a year across the globe, and I want to make sure we’re not just focused on the creation of content, but also the verification of content and distribution of content,” Friedenberg said. Wherever they are engaging with their customers, they want to make sure they are delivering on those customers’ expectations — or exceeding them.

  • Optimising and modernising by simplifying the product portfolio and development. Friedenberg said it’s about the proper blend of art and science between technology and editorial. To move fast, you need to keep things simple. “Accuracy and speed are paramount in our industry, and to deliver on that we have to invest in technology and keep things simple.”

  • Finishing the shift to the Cloud by 2023. For Thompson Reuters there is an overall change happening, with a plan to invest US$500 to US$600 million in technology, product, and engineering. 

  • Creating an innovative culture of world-class talent. “Talent and culture eat strategy for breakfast,” Friedenberg said. “The focus on diversity and inclusion is absolutely essential in today’s world. If Reuters is going to be the newsroom that reports the world, we need to have a newsroom that’s reflective of the world.” 

INMA: Can you talk about the media transformation during the COVID period — the so-called “COVID infodemic”?

“To be honest, I don’t think our coverage changed,” Friedenberg said. “If anything, we doubled down on our philosophy of being global and local.”

He referenced the Reuters mission of being fact-based journalism that brings a global and local perspective, cutting across the intersection of how news is impacting people at a general perspective, a public service journalism perspective, and a market-moving perspective.

“Certainly COVID, as a global pandemic, touched on all those elements. This is a story I really believe Reuters has covered extremely well from all the various aspects across the globe.”

INMA: What have you observed in the current media environment about the commoditisation and consolidation of news?

“I think we’re entering a very exciting period,” Friedenberg said. “I think the world is starting to recognise that quality journalism is not easy to do.”

In this era, quality service journalism is more important than ever — but what Friedenberg does worry about is misinformation.

“If you look at the supply chain of content, going from creation to verification to distribution, we just have to make sure as an industry that we’re committed to that. Because over the past decade, I think we’ve gone from creation right to distribution and then are reacting on the verification side.”

This supply chain of content, with verification coming before distribution, is essential to building trust in the media industry.

Reuters President Michael Friedenberg talks to INMA members about the future of media.
Reuters President Michael Friedenberg talks to INMA members about the future of media.

INMA: How has Reuters’ subscription business performed during COVID? 

The Reuters model is set around three customer bases, Friedenberg said:

  • Refinitiv, through a third-party contract, providing market-moving news.

  • B2B of approximately 3,000 broadcasters and media companies around the world.

  • B2C, called “Professional,” consisting of, events, content marketing.

The B2B, or agency, customer base was the most challenging during COVID.

“It’s a tough environment right now,” Friedenberg said. “The pressure on the digital advertising space continues to accelerate regardless of the pandemic. As our customers continue to be pressed, we’re working alongside them to make sure we’re providing them the best value for their partnership with Reuters.”

INMA: Many legacy media companies are wrestling with digital subscriptions. Is there any advice you can offer from your experience?

Listen to your customers, Friedenberg advised. Become customer-obsessed.

“They’ll actually tell you what they want and how they want to partner with you. How you do that in a simple, effective, and scalable way is then up to you. Digital subscriptions is absolutely an area you should be leaning into.”

There are other exciting areas as well, he added, such as audio, video, newsletters, and cryptocurrency.

“These are all new and exciting areas on a technology basis, that you need to understand what your customers’ needs are and how you fill those voids.”

World-class editorial fuels world-class business, and you can’t have one without the other. Friedenberg said organisations must align their values and missions around them. To invest in editorial, you must have a world-class business.

INMA: What are your thoughts on collaboration between media companies?

Silos exist, not only internally but externally as well. When Friedenberg sees 100 reporters all trying to get the same photograph, he wonders if there isn’t a better way to do it.

“I think there is. We have Reuters Connect, which is a really efficient marketplace where we partner with over 80 different media companies offering their content. We’ve also set up partnerships with USA Today in the United States to help out with sports photography, and in the U.K. with the Press Association. 

“These are all areas where I think we need to challenge ourselves, given the macro-economic conditions. It’s a time for us in the industry to change the way. It doesn’t always have to be owned and operated — there are different ways you can get the same results, or even better results, but leaning in and thinking differently with partners.”

INMA: Let’s talk technology and innovation in media. What is your view?

“I think the best media companies in the world right now look at technology and the Internet in three buckets,” Friedenberg replied.

  • Content-based Web.

  • Commerce-based Web.

  • Cognitive-based Web.

“I really think it’s imperative that you have product in each of those buckets.”

The cognitive-based bucket consists of technology such as AI, AR, VR, cryptocurrency, and Cloud computing. The ability to bring those technologies together, be accurate and fast, and deliver a great customer experience will pay dividends in Friedenberg’s opinion.

“To me, that is the key right now. You don’t necessarily need to be a technology company. What’s really important is where you understand within your business where you need to be technology-enabled, technology-driven, or a technology company.”

There are shades of grey within that, he acknowledged, and there are often conflicts about whether an organisation is (or should be) a technology company or a media company. But figuring that out, and embracing innovation through technology, is key.

INMA: During a period such as COVID, strong leadership is more crucial than ever. What skillsets would you say are required for future leadership?

“I don’t think the attributes of a great leader have changed at all,” Friedenberg said. “They just might have been amplified. The mixture between IQ and EQ has never been more accentuated than during this period of time. 

“I think it’s great to be a smart leader. But to understand that everyone in the world today is dealing with something on a personal and professional level, where you need to show empathy, you need to show care, you need to lean in and do more communication than you’ve ever been required to do — just really be caring of everyone’s plight.”

All the while, these people still have a job to do and times are still turbulent. Friedenberg advised leaders to be strategic and focus on their people first. Transparency is key. At the same time, leaders must be customer-obsessed.

INMA: How do you think revenue mixes will change a year from now once the COVID dust has settled?

The first thing Friedenberg has learned is that just when you think you’ve planned for everything, don’t think you have all the answers.

“I don’t think anyone saw a global pandemic about to come. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. The more you lean in to your customers and look at the diverse revenue streams that have been created over the past year, and you can emulate and even drive some of that new innovation out of your own organisation, I think it’s invaluable.”

While we are on the upswing out of the pandemic, times may still feel difficult. But Friedenberg sees an upswing in opportunities and the markets coming back. The huge tech players such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon have obviously benefited the most, but there is space for media companies as well.

In closing, Friedenberg reiterated the key factors that media industry leaders must focus on:

  • Give priority to your talent; be transparent, highly visible, and communicative with them.

  • Diversity is an absolute essential.

  • Continue to be curious and to innovate.

  • Be customer-obsessed.

“These are things that I think we all know, but it’s good not to get distracted and to stay focused on those areas.”

About Shelley Seale

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