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Summary:

The decision by Reuters to shut down its ambitious Reuters Next web-redesign project stems from an ongoing conflict between the money-making subscription business and the money-losing consumer web operation

In a surprise announcement on Wednesday morning, Reuters announced that it was shutting the doors on its massive and ambitious “Reuters Next” project — a two-year, multimillion-dollar effort that was supposed to reinvent the news service’s web strategy and bring it into the 21st century and beyond. New CEO Andrew Rashbass said in a memo that the project was chronically over budget and nowhere near being ready to launch, so he killed it. But the bigger picture behind his decision is that Reuters is fighting the same kind of battle against the future that newspapers are, only it’s happening in slow motion.

According to a number of insiders at the news service, the fact that Reuters Next was over-budget definitely hurt its chances of survival, considering the Reuters news unit (which is part of Thomson Reuters) lost $59 million in the most recent quarter and the new CEO is presumably looking for things to cut. But the web-facing aspect of Reuters has also been in conflict with the business-to-business side of the service for some time — as former social-media editor Anthony De Rosa mentioned in a tweet — and the decision to kill Reuters Next likely had more to do with that conflict than it did with any financial investment.

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Business customers are the most important

Like its competitor Bloomberg, the main business at Reuters — that is, the one that actually makes money — is the part that sells news from the service’s own correspondents and media partners to banks, investment houses and other corporate customers, including other news publishers, content companies and web portals like Yahoo. Both inside and outside the company, the decision to kill the reinvention of the consumer-facing side of Reuters was seen as a clear indication that the service sees its terminal and agency business as the most important thing rather than the internet.

In case the message wasn’t clear enough, Rashbass said that the current version of Reuters’ web operation was just fine for now — despite the fact that staff say it is a ridiculously time-consuming exercise to even insert a hyperlink in a Reuters story online, and the service routinely suffers technical issues that take down its blogs and other content, in some cases for days at a time.

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In some ways, this decision makes perfect business sense: the terminal and agency business generates real cash, which Reuters clearly needs, while the web side of the service likely generates very little. So why not cripple it or even kill it outright? This is fundamentally the same choice that newspapers have been going through, and continue to go through — their online versions are making peanuts when it comes to advertising, and print ads are also in decline, so why not just put up a paywall and charge readers? For many, that is the only option they can see to remain in business or return to profitability.

Reuters web becomes a storefront window

The inevitable result of this, however, is a much smaller business — perhaps a profitable one, but smaller and likely less influential as well. Since only a fraction of existing readers of a publication will ever subscribe, relying solely on them means shrinking your reach dramatically. That’s why outlets like the New York Times have a metered wall sprinkled liberally with social-media holes and workarounds: because they want to retain as much of their reach and influence as possible, while still pushing the subscription model.

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In a sense, Reuters has made the same decision. Instead of a paywall, it keeps the best version of its news and other content for its paying customers, and leaves the web as a kind of freemium version — a storefront window filled with things like Felix Salmon and Jack Shafer, to try and entice potential customers into paying, and to try and spread the image of Reuters as a place where smart writing appears so as to attract more potential corporate clients.

As with newspapers, however, the problem for Reuters and Bloomberg is that the high-paying customers they rely on for their livelihood are also gradually realizing that much of the information they get from those services is available elsewhere, and if not for free then much more cheaply. Reuters can still charge huge sums for as little as two second’s worth of advance notice when it comes to certain market moving information, but the days when that was the norm are gone forever.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni

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  1. Do you want to understand what’s going on with everything in the world now because of digital equality? It’s like this: remember before Apple pretty much invented desktop publishing? Services like publishing were only accessable through specialized businesses that invested and focused on publishing and you had to go through them to get published. Then, post desktop publishing, anybody could hack up some graphics and text at home. Then the WWW came along and enabled a distribution platform so that anyone could publish their own stuff and get it out to whomever. That’s what is happening to all information/media related industries. The democritization of business levels the playing field and may the best content, services and distribution win.

  2. Good to see you are still filing out there Mathew. Alas, there are so many similarly grim stories out there. But I had not heard this. It makes me wonder where we will all be in a few years.
    Where are you hanging your hat these days. I am in Beirut at the moment. Your ancient friend with two ‘t’s’, Matthew Fisher

    1. Thanks, Matthew! Great to hear from you.

  3. It’s not like a newspaper — newspapers are losing advertising they had and have a high cost base. Reuters Next had few if any prospects for any ad revenue at all because online advertising is so cheap even if you do manage to sell it. They’re pretty distinct problems.

    1. Thanks, Tim — you are right, of course. My point was that both are facing a conflict between their desire to monetize their content through a subscription business and the need (or desire) to have an open web platform and broad reach as well. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Well yeah! So what is the solution?
    Get regressive and close all digital mediums and stick to print so that advertisers dont have any other choice other than getting their advts published in print medium, there by keeping the print mediums alive?
    Can the disruptive digital news world be reversed? Mostly likely and definitely the answer is a big NO.
    So what is going to happen?
    Here is a possible scenario – All digital advt serving conduits will increase the advt rates multifolds and get the industry survive?? This is what is likely going to happen if the digi wants to survive the very monsters it created.
    And this needs to be done, like now.

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