Alexandre Peyrille, AFP director for Argentina and ParaguayTuesday, January 28, 2014
‘In an ocean of information, people don’t know what to believe in’
BUENOS AIRES — Alexandre Peyrille started working at Agence France-Presse (AFP), one of the world’s largest news agencies, straight out of university. He had always dreamt of covering Africa, but by the time he got offered a position in Ivory Coast he was already tired of conflict zones: he had spent time in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and was longing for some stability.
He decided to stay in France for a while, where he started a family and got re-energized for some more travelling. Then came Mexico and Colombia and nowadays Buenos Aires, where he is AFP’s director for Argentina and Paraguay.
Last week, he talked to the Herald about his work, the impact that social media has had on the information industry and the challenges meeting news agencies today.
Since you started working at AFP 15 years ago, a lot has probably changed in the way you do your job everyday. What major changes did you witness?
When I started working at AFP, international agencies were the only ones working live, producing news every minute. There was also the international service of the BBC and some other international radios...but at that point, agencies had a sort of monopoly, a dominant position on that segment of the information industry. Then came the Internet and the revolution it unleashed, and the sources that were able to provide news on real time multiplied. Nowadays, every medium — even the tiniest local newspaper — has the ability to provide information in real time, 24 hours a day. There’s a lot more competition... but I believe agencies have a bright future. Inside this ocean of information, people don’t know what to believe in...
So they believe in agencies?
Agencies have made a name for themselves and have become reliable brands. We are like lighthouses in an ocean of information that is often contradictory. That’s our asset and it is a consequence of the way we work: we double-check facts and never send something out just because we think it’s going to make big headlines. We send information out only if we think it’s relevant and reliable. We want to be a reference when it comes to being a serious source of information that doesn’t publish rubbish. Nobody is 100 percent objective, but I believe agencies are the most objetive form of journalism.
How did the emergence of Twitter, Facebook or blogs affect the work you do everyday?
Twitter, Facebook and blogs have become extra sources of information. But when it comes to social media, there’s very important preventive work to be done: discriminating between official accounts and fake accounts is very important, for example. What I am saying is that social media is a source of information but it is also a source of misinformation. There’s no denying, however, that the influence on the information industry has been huge. I think a key moment was the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death via TMZ, a celebrity news website in the US. (Editor’s note: for about an hour, TMZ was the only source reporting on Jackson’s death, while most media waited for a more “serious” source to publish the news). I think it was one of the first times that a non-traditional source had a scoop on news that had an international impact.
Nowadays, however, most media break news on Twitter. What consequence does this have on your work?
We’ve got more work to do. Because there are so many sources of information, we spend a lot of time trying to verify what is true and what is not. The need to report on news as fast as possible was already part of agencies’ DNA, so that didn’t really change.
So you are basically saying that social media made your job more complicated...
I guess what I am saying is that social media puts a huge volume of information at our disposal and that forces us to do more verification work. At the same time, we also use social media to reach customers, as a company and also as individual journalists. During the trial against (former IMF director) Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Washington, there were AFP journalists passing on information directly from the courtroom from their Twitter accounts. They are also tools we use. There’s been a democratization process that it makes possible for just about anyone to transmit information in real time. And when it comes to receiving that information, it’s the same thing. Before the Internet, only media that had a subscription to a news agency could receive information in real time. Now, it’s hot news for everyone (laughs).
So social media has brought the public closer to the news...
Exactly. I think people now are more aware that the information they are consuming a lot of times comes from a news agency. Inevitably, you are reading news from agencies every day. Everybody does it even without noticing it. It’s the agencies that set media’s agenda around the world. The impact, the power, the influence is huge. I don’t think there are other entities with so much influence that go so unnoticed.
And how does one remain objective, independent with so much power?
We get pressured, of course. But ultimately, I think the pressure is more on the medium that decides to run the story that on us. I think international agencies are pretty much left alone.
Even in France where you are the national news agency?
In France, when you are writing about very political stuff, there can be some pressure. But I have never personally felt any pressure because the areas I covered were not as political. I guess there can be pressures when you are covering the presidency or if you are very, very close to power.
What do you read every day?
I like to read Le Monde, L’Equipe, the media from the country I work at. BBC world is probably my main reference. But more and more I end up reading a story that somebody tweeted, just because I found it interesting and not because it comes from a particular source. I think people are becoming less “mono-media”: they end up reading a story on something in El País, a story on something else in The New York Times, etc. It’s “pick, choose and refuse” from all the available options. Social media has definitely changed media consumption habits.
What are the challenges for news agencies in the near future?
News agencies have historically adapted. Every time a new platform appears, we try to be on it. We’ve got apps for smartphones, we are present on social media, in television, on radios...We’ve got screens at international airports, in taxis. We are not creating the platforms but providing the content. A very important question that news agencies are asking themselves these days is for how long we will continue to have information on paper. Newspapers, magazines and any type of paper-based media still represent an important part of an agency’s revenue. In 20 years, how many printed editions of newspapers will there be? This is important to agencies because newspapers are a sustainable business model. The news website business model still has to be built, developed and has to reach the same level of sustainability that newspapers have. In commercial terms, we are trying to widen our audience by selling our services to companies and websites rather than just to traditional media. The revenue produced from sales to the digital world is rising but we remain very alert and exploring new territories so that we don’t get stuck in a business model of the past.