Conversations on press freedom #4: Alessandra Galloni

World Press Freedom Day falls on 3rd May. Through a series of interviews and articles with journalists and activists, our Artistic Director Euchar Gravina is exploring press freedom as a fundamental component of any healthy democracy and transforming communities. This time, we chat with Alessandra Galloni, Head of Global Reuters.

I have known Alessandra Galloni for the past two years. Never short of energy and enthusiasm, it’s hard to imagine she ever gets time to rest. She can be chatting to you from anywhere: one day it’s New York, the other Iceland, or perhaps even Brussels or Mexico. At other times, it’s from her living room in London listening to her kids playing the piano in the next room (and possibly singing along, especially if it's a tune from an Italian opera. Hint: La Traviata). Alessandra had me hooked on her anecdotes from the day I met her - it takes a genuine effort to pull yourself away from a last-minute journey to Lebanon to interview Carlos Ghosn following his thrilling escape from Japan in 2019, or from a passionate account of her team’s hard work in investigating the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Over the past two years, I’ve also come to learn that Alessandra appreciates all things Italian, and speaks fondly of the rich history and culture of Rome.

And it’s from the Italian capital that Alessandra spoke to me a few days ago. She had been up late into the night working and left me a message at around 3am to fix a time for a chat about this series of interviews for the next day. We settled on Sunday afternoon, and as has become the norm nowadays, top of our agenda was the current pandemic. She had just left London with her family a week before. “I’m very impressed with the way things are being done here. We arrived in Rome only a few days ago and, of course, we’re now in quarantine. But for these two weeks in isolation, we’re getting everyday calls from the doctors and the health teams record our temperatures. Even with waste collection... they’ve installed a new system for collection just outside our place!”

Rome during the pandemic: President Matarella on Liberation Day, 25 April 2020

(Photo: Quirinale)

Alessandra Galloni’s knowledge of and affection for Italy does not only come from her family ties or from her being an Italian national. Back in 2013, she joined Reuters, one of the world’s largest and leading multinational news conglomerates, as Editor of the South European Bureau. Before that, she worked for a long time as an economics and finance reporter and editor with The Wall Street Journal. “I’ve always wanted to be a journalist and I’ve been one all my life! Even back in my highschool in the US, I was involved with writing and reporting for the school publications.”

Today she is ReutersGlobal Managing Editor. Her role involves bringing together and setting guidelines to the news agency’s bureaus across the globe, with around 160 people working in 200 locations. “We are everywhere, and we’ll go everywhere to cover news. Our output is a testament of that, with more than 3 million items of news every year, from a headline to an analysis to a big investigative story.”

Reuters Building, Canary Wharf (London)

I was aware that, probably, we only had a few minutes to chat in between her moving from one conference call to the other, so I honed in on my questions. I asked Alessandra to tell me more about her current job, which she has been in since September 2019 after nine months in a similar position. “My main task is to set the bigger agenda with my team for our global newsroom. We constantly ask ourselves: which are the most important stories we need to cover? What are the most important editorial lines we need to emphasise? What new questions should we be asking? When we have an answer to that, everybody takes this bigger agenda and works around that in their own way! There are the editors and bureau chiefs, along with their own teams of journalists reporting from the ground.”

In a fast-paced world, accustomed to breaking news and instant reporting to match the speed of developing situations, it’s always essential to keep refreshing the inquisitive angle from which reporting is being carried out. “For example, one of the most important things during COVID has been to set clear agendas as the crisis developed and shifted. We started off with stories covering what was happening on the ground, how it infiltrated certain countries and led to fastly growing infection rates.” This involved mostly stories in a local context, telling the stories of communities which were initially hit by the first waves of the pandemic. More recently global themes have emerged, particularly around the search for a cure and vaccine and the reopening of different countries. “Now, we’re moving to reporting which covers how different countries are planning and trying to reopen their societies and economies, how infection rates are being treated and what’s being done about immunity testing. There’s big talk of contact tracing applications, which brings with it several questions that need to be asked - and answered - as well as stories on how people can start to slowly go back to work.”

A rally organised by small business owners stops by the Rialto bridge to commemorate the health care workers who died amid the outbreak, as Italy begins a staged end to a nationwide lockdown due to a spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Venice, Italy, May 4, 2020.

REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

It was quick to gather that, as an editor, Alessandra was a firm supporter of a bottom-up approach to running her team. “Stories should ideally come from the ground… I always encourage reporters to come up with stories which they can discuss with their editors. Journalists on site know the stories, the contexts and observe developments much better than anyone at the headquarters and this should be valued at every stage of our work.”

Nonetheless, she assures me that stories do not only originate where they are happening or where they evolved. It’s always as important to look out for stories which are less conspicuous. The process behind this usually kicks off once a journalist is at their desk. “Many times something happens and it needs reporting, it requires a published account. That’s when the work of ‘reporters-in-the-moment’ comes to life. However, there are times when editors in New York or in London propose ideas first. They came across a story, or are helping out in reporting one, when something suddenly does not look quite right and arouses suspicion. Or there’s something which they can’t understand or seem to make no sense when they put all their information together… The best way forward there is to embark on an investigation (...) to be a great journalist is to be curious! Journalism is not something you reach by studying at university or in college but rather through experience in the trade matched by a great passion to discover, pose questions and seek answers. It’s this way that journalism becomes an essential public service, the watchdog of society.”

A protestor shines a torch on a photo of assassinated anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia during an anti-corruption protest against the government of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, in Valletta, Malta November 16, 2019.

REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

As an experienced journalist on the ground but also at the heart of media management, Alessandra has seen the world of the press go through several challenges, some of which have been and still are existential. “It is definitely a shrinking industry and I have seen many jobs lost in the past decade.” This has been down to several causes, including chronic income losses. “Through the financial pressures of the past few decades, media organisations had to come up with several new and bold strategies to survive. The main source of revenue has been advertising.” Yet, she quickly adds, the current pandemic has exposed the volatility of this income stream. “The first thing that companies have cut back on amid the pandemic is advertising spending.” The introduction of online subscriptions, sometimes to counter the dwindling number of printed-news consumers, has also been another innovation that has helped several outlets. “The internet has nonetheless brought with it a new challenge in readership as this is being spread across a much bigger number of sources. New platforms such as Twitter, whilst helping out with spreading news, has allowed for an increase of online journalists… Everyone can be a journalist, in a sense, as they report what’s going on. And this has of course been posing a threat to the survival of mainstream media organisations.”

In recognising the power and value of readership, a lot of effort goes into acknowledging the appetite and attention of those who follow the news as well as the impact that such stories can have on society. There is also the pressure of publishing stories which reflect the truth as objectively as possible, and which simultaneously manage to capture the public’s attention. Stories too, must prove themselves to be a good financial investment. As Global News Editor, Alessandra is constantly faced with making decisions on which stories her newsroom should chase and which others - though still important - might not be as critical or effective in the grand scheme of work. “Because of finite resources, there are times when stories have to be turned down in favour of much bigger ones.” Indeed, setting out budgets and allocating funds to different bureaus is also at the heart of her managerial work. Where does this money go?

“Reuters, being one of the leading news organisations in the world, is well-funded. A lot of this firstly goes into ensuring the security of our journalists. We have reporters covering wars, entering areas of great danger. We always send a security operative along with them to help make covering the stories safer. Others are constantly at the end of threats and we invest funds in providing them with bodyguards. Another area which requires a strong element of funding is the legal team which helps and advises us on publishing several sensitive stories or even supporting journalists caught up in legal battles over their work.” She mentioned the weekly security call with her team, during which they decide and discuss how best to plan protection for the days ahead. “One of our recent conversations included how we can protect journalists, including photo-journalists, as they enter hospitals to cover COVID-19. Lots of effort is going into that.”

Nurses wearing face masks take part in an event held to mark the International Nurses Day, at Wuhan Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, the Chinese city hit hardest by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hubei province, China May 12, 2020. China

Daily via REUTERS

With increased financial pressures as well as an ever-more demanding readership, I wondered about any negative implications this can have on editorial decisions - is it possible to balance the pursuit of important, but perhaps financially risky stories, with the survival of the newsroom? “We believe that if we give people true and base-fact information, they will put trust in our reportage.”

And indeed, Reuters is one of the more recognisable ‘brands’ of news-making, and its work sustains and supports that of some of the world’s leading newspapers and press groups. “I think this is the result of many things but at the heart of it is a set of trust principles which we uphold. All the journalists involved with the organisation are required, by statute, to follow them. The most important one is that we aim to be fair with everybody, to all sides. We are independent and impartial in the way we carry out our investigations and in writing our stories.” She emphasised the importance of not taking any sides, even when faced by hostile forces, including at times various governments. “Of course, I’m not saying it’s easy! Being balanced and fair, playing it down the middle is a massive challenge and takes a lot of work. However, it’s an existential issue for our nature of work and we must do all it takes to safeguard that.”

Police escorting Reuters' journalist Wa Lone following his investigations into a massacre in a Rohingya village, Myanmar. Wa Lone and fellow journalist Kyaw Soe Oo would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and be free in 2019.

Along with this comes the ability to deal with criticism, internally and externally. “We are aware that we can make mistakes and that means we’re ready to acknowledge and correct them. Moreover, we always allow people the right to comment and reply. It’s important to inform them you’re writing about them in advance of publication and give them the chance to reply. We don’t like people to be surprised and that has led to trust to be built in our reporting.”

Another way of ensuring the quality of their reporting comes from how journalists handle their sources, the information provided, and the way they work with it. “Whatever the source is, caution is always critical! One should always be asking, why is this source approaching me? Why are they telling me this? Who are they and what are their motives? This way one could make more sure that adding quotes or following the source’s stories doesn’t result in the journalist being a mouthpiece for one side or the other”.

It was time to wrap up our chat. But before she hands over the phone to the kids so I can say hello, the conversation goes back to basics. Alessandra insists that the value of reporting doesn’t necessarily have to be found in the big investigative stories alone. “Ultimately, people need news to rely on to make decisions in their daily lives… how they should be spending their money, where is the economy going, what decisions to take on their pensions… small or big decisions which matter. The current pandemic is the perfect example of this, in this case a matter of life and death. Journalists are investigating the use and supply of ventilators, the provision of PPE, the interactions between scientists and politicians… We noticed some countries registering a very humble number of deaths with many questioning the truth behind that. It’s people like us who then have the duty to take these stories up and investigate.”

“And I believe society needs organisations like ours to discover the truth!”