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Happy Birthday, Reuter

Happy Birthday, Reuter

Associate Editor

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Everyone one of us who cares about news is familiar with Reuters. But until I heard “The Writer’s Almanac” on NPR the other day, it never occurred to me that there was a man, Paul Reuter, who started it all, let alone that he was the son of a rabbi who converted to Christianity. You can hear Garrison Keillor tell you about the man by clicking here:

Here’s the Writer’s Almanac text: (July 21. It’s the birthday of) Paul Reuter-born Israel Beer Josaphat, the son of a rabbi-in Kassel, Germany (1816). After finishing school, he worked at a bank, where he came into contact with a renowned physicist who worked to apply math and science theory to the practical uses of electricity. He also experimented with the telegraph, and young Josaphat was greatly enthused by the prospects of the new technology.

When Josaphat was 29, he moved to England and converted to Christianity. He changed his name to Paul Julius Reuter, and one week after his baptism in London, he got married at the same Lutheran church where he was baptized. He moved back to Germany, where he worked at a publishing company. He published controversial political pamphlets, which caught the undesirable attention of German government leaders, and Reuter had to flee to Paris.

He earned a living as a translator for a news service agency. Then he moved back to Germany and started a financial news agency that relied on carrier pigeons. At the time, there was a short gap in the telegraphic lines between Berlin and Paris. In order to deliver stock prices and other economic news, pigeons were used between Aachen (the end of the German telegraph lines) and Brussels, Belgium, where the lines picked up and ran to Paris. It was four times as fast to send the messages by pigeon than by the post train. When this missing telegraph link was completed a few years later, his pigeon carrier service-which had a fleet of more than 200 birds-went out of business.

He went back to London and set up an office close to the London Stock Exchange. From here, he used the telegraph to transmit financial news, mostly stock market quotes, to and from Paris. For several years, he tried to persuade newspapers that they could greatly benefit from his services. In 1858, The London Times and others subscribed, and Reuter’s news agency became an integral part of European media.

Reuters was the first in Europe to report the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which they found out about less than two weeks after it occurred. An American agent of Reuters hired a tugboat to catch up to the mail boat that had already left the U.S. and was heading across the Atlantic, and then he tossed onto the ship a canister with the news. When the ship was off the coast of Ireland 12 days after it left America, Paul Reuter came out to meet it. He telegraphed news of the Lincoln’s assassination to London. The agency was more than a week ahead of its European competitors in reporting the news.

In an 1883 memo, he wrote about what type of news should be reported over the wires: “fires, explosions, floods, inundations, railway accidents, destructive storms, earthquakes, shipwrecks attended with loss of life, accidents to war vessels and to mail steamers, street riots of a grave character, disturbances arising from strikes, duels between and suicides of persons of note, social or political, and murders of a sensational or atrocious character.” He further instructed “that the bare facts be first telegraphed with the utmost promptitude, and as soon as possible afterwards a descriptive account, proportionate to the gravity of the incident.” His instructions in this memo formed a sort of industry standard for future news media.

Reuter shares a birthday with Ernest Hemingway. More on him by clicking the link above.

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