British Journalism Review
REVIEW: Stephen Claypole in BJR
Midway through Michael Nelson’s memoir about his life in Reuters there is an anecdote involving…
REVIEW: Patrick Middleton in the Riviera Reporter:
There’s a constant flow of books… Read More >>
REVIEW: In at the birth of a revolution, and the story of Castro’s revenge. Robert Elphick, a former Reuters colleague of Michael Nelson, reviews his memoir for The Baron:
This is a book that started small and I have to declare an interest. I was there at the beginning when Michael Nelson told me he was embarking on the task of writing a short memoir... Read More >>
REVIEW: How A Century-Old British News Agency Made The Headlines Going Digital, December 4, 2011 by Alex McCallum on Amazon:
Mike Nelson was a rare bird at Reuters when the technology revolution began to eclipse traditional methods of transmitting news and financial market data — he had a great talent for management…
|AMAZON Review:This review appears on the Amazon.com website:
Castro & Stockmaster a Life in Reuters by Michael Nelson
By Alec McCallum
Mike Nelson was a rare bird at Reuters when the technology revolution began to eclipse traditional methods of transmitting news and financial market data — he had a great talent for management.
Nelson was a good reporter and editor, too, as a young correspondent in places like Bangkok and Singapore, but the century-old British news agency he joined in 1952 after graduating from Oxford University was not short of journalists. What Reuters needed were leaders with strategic vision and organization skills to manage the digital transformation, and it was Nelson – barely into his thirties – who was the first to demonstrate these capabilities, and then he continued to be the agency’s pre-eminent executive over the next four decades.
Interestingly, the page design of his book is a reminder of pre-digital days, a clever move if intended. The 14 chapters divide up into self-contained segments, just like the short “takes” that would emerge from a noisy, stuttering Reuters teleprinter. A typical sequence: Fidel Castro Gives An Interview, Brass, Ted Turner, British Sang-Froid, Sky’s The Limit, etc. It’s a very useful approach, given the extremely varied life that Nelson led at home and abroad, enabling him to combine stories of his personal life with his business life, and keep the reader turning pages at a good pace.
On the personal side, Nelson doesn’t have a privileged background, as his Oxford degree might suggest. His parents (father Alfred was a World War 1 soldier) lived in a government housing project when he was born in 1929, and he remembers being caught in the WW11 London blitz, and lucky to survive. As a teenager, he was a bright spark at grammar school, however, and went up to Oxford as a member of Magdalen College where famed historian A.J.P. Taylor was one of his tutors.
Cuba’s Castro of the book’s title is one of the many sovereign leaders, dignitaries and personalities that Nelson encountered as a rising star at Reuters. The Stockmaster is the stock quote machine that gave Nelson his opening. Made by Ultronic Systems Corp., eventually a subsidiary of General Telephone & Electronics Corp. (now GTE Corp.), the Stockmaster desktop was crude by today’s algorithmic-speed standards, but a dramatic breakthrough when launched in the mid-1960s. Nelson’s masterstroke was to acquire the Stockmaster rights for Reuters outside North America.
After Stockmaster came Videomaster, another Ultronic invention with a full screen (instead of Stockmaster’s three tiny circular windows) and the ability to display news as well as stock quotes. Nelson then decided that Reuters should develop its own quote system based on currencies, and the highly-successful Monitor service was launched in 1973. A decade or so later, Nelson’s vision culminated in Reuters going public – it was the first dual London-New York Initial Public Offering (IPO) in history.
It would be a mistake to think that these breakthroughs transforming Reuters went smoothly. They didn’t. Journalists being journalists, there was considerable resentment by many (including members of the board) that financial information had come to dominate Reuters’ strategy and revenues. There was talk of splitting the agency into news and commercial. At one point, the IPO was in danger of being cancelled.
But Nelson, whose executive qualities included a cool head and preparedness to the nth degree, kept a strong and steady hand on the tiller. In this respect, he revealed a striking similarity to the news agency’s founder, Paul Julius Reuter, who was an astute businessman and found initial success supplying stock quotations in an earlier technology revolution – abandoning carrier pigeons in favor of the electric telegraph.
When it came time for Nelson to retire, in 1989, he was only 60 years old. What he had accomplished, though, in 36 years, could have filled a full lifetime. But, of course, the technology revolution refused to stop. The Internet would soon be in full swing and, in 2008, Reuters would merge with the Thomson Corporation of Canada. In short, the media is still in the process of sorting itself out.
The publication of Nelson’s book, therefore, comes at a good moment, because he was ahead of his time. This account of his life, his accomplishments, and his memories as the cornerstone leader at Reuters, is an important chronicle of how the digital revolution in news and financial market data got started. Just as Julius Reuter set him an example to follow, Mike Nelson gives some good pointers to his successors. Not only that, Nelson can still write a good story!
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