Keeper of the Commentary

Reuters op-ed editor James Ledbetter discusses new hires, the Web and social media

Gone are the days when Reuters was just a wire service. Former Slate media critic Jack Shafer, hired last week, is only the latest appointment op-ed editor James Ledbetter has made in his effort to turn the Reuters opinion page into a leading source of commentary. Shafer won’t be the last. Ledbetter spoke with Adweek about his ambitions for the site and about why good columnists are so essential to successful news organizations.

What is the editorial direction of Reuters' opinion content?

We are in the process of substantially increasing the volume of opinion material that we produce and the range of the issues that we want to offer an opinion about. We want to get ourselves in the midst of all sorts of issues and news stories that we know Reuters’ readers, existing and potential, care about.

Is this part of an effort to make Reuters more than just a wire service?

That’s right. We really want to be a leader in the space of opinion and commentary, which has never really been an explicit goal for Reuters in the past. Hence the hiring of [former New York Times reporter] David Rohde, who starts later this month; hence the hiring of Jack Shafer, who starts Monday. And there will be more—both in terms of staff people like them, but also contractors, contributors, and one-off contributions. It’s very exciting.

Reuters had a reliable model in being a straightforward wire service, without worrying about unique content or opinion pieces.

I don’t see the two as in any way mutually exclusive. You don’t have to look very hard at the staffing levels of American newspapers to realize that places where you might have had local columnists or a local opinion staff commissioning pieces—in many places those jobs no longer exist. We think that there is a role within the traditional Reuters marketplace for opinion and commentary.

News organizations are increasingly using columnists to draw in readers—from Bloomberg View to the Times’ expansion of its Week in Review section. Why is that happening?

I think the media world that is being shaped by the Internet and social media is increasingly a place where fast, insightful analysis is driving the cycle. Once upon a time, you had your news, and then the next day or three days later you’d get William Safire’s opinion about it. Now we have a situation in which the people who are really good at [opinion and analysis] are the people who are making the news or strongly shaping the way that readers take their news in. Nothing brought this home as clearly as the financial meltdown of 2008. There was this hunger for smart people to explain these mysteries that were destroying our economy. There are parallel examples of that in politics, in culture, in science. The news organizations that don’t put intelligent opinion in the mix are increasingly perceived as inadequate.

Some people have expressed concern that big-name writers are going to go to Reuters and then disappear.

Well, there’s a genuine issue there that’s not in any way exclusive to us, which is, “How do you make sure that the fantastic voices that you’ve gone to all this trouble and expense to hire get heard?” Certainly, there are opinion aggregation websites where there are so many contributors that it’s hard to even name a single one. It is a genuine issue, but we have had some design changes in recent months that should help us prevent that kind of obscurity. If, six months from now, you haven’t read a Jack Shafer column, call me.

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