The Rise of Reuters – The Era of News Agencies

The Rise of Reuters

Communication was central to the expansion and consolidation of modern European empires, the largest and the most powerful being the British Empire, which at its height, 1880-1914, dominated a quarter of humanity. The fortunes of Reuters, the most famous international news agency, can be seen to run in parallel with the growth of the British Empire.
The Era of News Agencies
The expansion of trade and investment during the nineteenth century had led to a huge growth in the demand for news and contributed to the commercialization of news and information services. Reuters astutely exploited this demand, helped by the new communication technologies, especially the telegraph. For British and other European investors Reuters telegrams were essential reading for the latest news from various corners of the British Empire. By 1861 these were being published from more than a hundred datelines, including from the major colonies – India, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
By the 1870s, Reuters had offices in all the major strategic points of the empire – Calcutta, Bombay and Point de Galle on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, the end of the cable connection with London, from where Reuters supervised its services to Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Australia. In 1871, Shanghai became the headquarters of the growing Reuters presence in East Asia, and after the beginning of commercial mining of gold in southern Africa in the late nineteenth century, Cape Town became another nodal point in Reuters’ global network. By 1914, Reuters news service had three main channels covering the empire: London to Bombay; London to Hong Kong via the Mediterranean to Cairo, Aden, Ceylon and Singapore, and another to Cape Town, Durban, Mombasa, Zanzibar, the Seychelles, and Mauritius (Read, 1992).
The expansion of European capitalism had created a pressing need for improved commercial intelligence and with the development of communication, the value of world trade itself grew more than 25-fold between 1800 and 1913. This relationship between capital and communication was an aspect of what has been called ‘the Reuters Factor’, which ‘functions like a multiplier that turns an increase in the supply of information into an increase in business’ (Chanan, 1985:113).
Reuters also enjoyed very close relationships with the British foreign and colonial administrations. During the second half of the nineteenth century the agency increasingly functioned, in the words of its official historian ‘as an institution of the British Empire’ (Read, 1992: 40). As Britain’s most important colony, India played a ‘central part in the Reuter empire within the British Empire’, constituting a major market for commercial news (Read, 1992: 60). Reuters’ revenues from India more than trebled from 1898 (£11500) to 1918 (£35 200) (ibid. 83).
Though it claimed to be an independent news agency, Reuters was for the most part the unofficial voice of the Empire, giving prominence to British views. This subservience to imperial authority was most prominent during imperial wars such as the Boer War (1899-1902), during which agency reports supported the British cause and the British troops. In the same way Reuters news from India was mostly related to economic and political developments in the Empire and largely ignored the anti-colonial movement.
Defending the Empire came naturally to Reuters: in 1910 Reuters started an imperial news service and a year later, the agency made a secret arrangement with the British Government under which it offered to circulate on its wires official speeches to every corner of the Empire, in return for an annual fee of £500 from the Colonial Office. During the First World War, Reuters launched a wartime news service by arrangement with the Foreign Office, which by 1917 was circulating about one million words per month throughout the Empire.
Reuters’ Managing Director during the war years, George Jones, was also in charge of cable and wireless propaganda for the British Department of Information. Though this service was separate from the main Reuters wire service, whose support for the war was more subtle, it rallied opinion within the Empire and influenced the attitudes of the neutral countries. As one British official wrote in 1917, ‘At Reuters the work done is that of an independent news agency of an objective character, with propaganda secretly infused’ (quoted in Read, 1992:127-8).
Though this service was discontinued after the end of the war, Reuters entered into another agreement with the Foreign Office under which the agency would circulate specific messages on its international wires, to be paid for by the government. This agreement remained in force until the Second World War. However, apart from support from the government the major reason for the continued success of Reuters was the fact that it ‘sold useful information enabling businesses to trade profitably’ (Lawrenson and Barber, 1985:179).
The wider availability of wireless technology after the First World War enabled Reuters in 1920 to launch a trade service, which became a crucial component of the economic life of the Empire. New technology made it easier to send and receive more international industrial and financial information at a faster speed. As the globe was being connected through trans-oceanic trade, such information – for example, New York prices for Indian cotton – had a high premium for traders who were depending on the accuracy of Reuters commodity prices and stock market news from around the world.
Reuters’ domination of international information was helped by its being a member of the cartel and it remained the world news leader between 1870 to 1914. But the weakening of the British Empire and the ascendancy of the USA forced Reuters to compete with the American news agencies, especially Associated Press, with which it signed, in 1942, a wartime news-sharing agreement, effectively creating a new cartel for news. In the post-war period, Reuters continued to focus on commercial information, realizing that in order to succeed in a free trade environment, it had to work towards integration of commodity, currency, equity and financial markets, ‘around the clock and around the world’ (Tunstall and Palmer, 1991:46).
By 1999, Reuters was one of the world’s biggest multimedia corporations dealing ‘in the business of information’, supplying global financial markets and the news media with a range of information and news products, including ‘real-time financial data, collective investment data, numerical, textual, historical and graphical databases plus news, graphics, news video, and news pictures’. In the past five years to 1998, financial information products revenue accounted for 64 per cent of the total while media products revenue accounted for less than 7 per cent of the total revenue (Reuters Annual Report, 1999).
By the end of the twentieth century, what had been started in 1851 by entrepreneur Julius Reuter, whom Karl Marx called ‘a grammatically illiterate Jew’ (quoted in Read, 1992:26), had become the world’s largest provider of financial data, besides being the largest news and television agency with nearly 2 000 journalists in 183 bureaux, serving 157 countries. Its news was gathered and edited for both business and media clients in 23 languages, more than 3 million words were published each day. With 1998 revenue of £3032 million, Reuters was one of the world’s largest media and information corporations, with regional headquarters in London, New York, Geneva and Hong Kong, and offices in 217 cities (Reuters Annual Report, 1999).
One major growth area for the agency which started sending news and commercial information via pigeon in its early years, is the Internet, given the steady growth in online trading. By 1999, it was providing news and information to over 225 Internet sites reaching an estimated 12 million viewers per month. It was planning a global news service on the Internet and had created Reuters Ventures to co-ordinate its on-line operations which include a joint venture with Dow Jones to provide a business database (Barrie and Martinson, 1999).

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