Reuters’ Threlfall talks Davos coverage strategies
Axel Threlfall is an editor at large at Reuters who will be attending and covering the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
He hosts high-profile engagements and thought leadership events for and on behalf of Reuters and Thomson Reuters, such as the Newsmaker series and the World Economic Forum news show in Davos. He was previously lead European anchor for Reuters Digital Video.
Prior to joining Reuters, Threlfall spent four years as an anchor for CNBC in London. Before that, he was an editor with The Wall Street Journal in New York and a news reporter for Bloomberg in London. He has also advised businesses and NGOs on their dealings with the international media.
Threlfall is frequently asked to moderate events for international organizations, including the United Nations and the OECD. He has a BA in History from Durham University and a postgraduate degree in journalism from City University, London.
Threlfall spoke with Talking Biz News by email about covering Davos. What follows is an edited transcript.
Why is Davos so important for Reuters to cover?
The World Economic Forum in Davos brings together, in a remote mountainous resort, hundreds, if not thousands of global decision-makers – the lifeblood of any news organization – for four days of often heated discussion about the state of our world, what’s right with it, wrong with it and how we might improve it.
Given its billing as a forum for discussion, most attendees are in Davos because they have something to say, something to share and most are eager to debate the issues that will shape our futures. It is this opportunity to get so close to such a large number of these decision-makers, talk to them, challenge them, find out what drives them, that makes Davos such an important event for any news provider.
We break news and we gather opinions from newsmakers who shape the direction of play. Such access to so many of the world’s political and business elite in such a short period of time is a rarity and simply cannot be overlooked.
What have you learned from previous years that influences coverage this year?
Plan your coverage diligently and carefully, but be prepared for your plans to be thrown into disarray at any time. Interviews planned months in advance are cancelled or postponed, others are offered with seconds notice. Given our reputation as a trusted and accurate news source, Reuters has superb access to government, business and civil society.
People want to talk to us. But we can’t talk to everyone. So we need to be savvy in identifying those individuals who we believe can speak most pertinently to the main stories of the day. This is not always the obvious interview. Find sources others may overlook. Asks questions others aren’t asking. It’s refreshing for us, as journalists, but importantly it’s refreshing for our sources and will often lead to the exclusive.
What kind of preparation do you do before you get there?
Preparation starts many months in advance and is guided to a large extent by the Davos program, the list of attendees (which will change up until the last second) and the themes that will shape the conversation. Our producers and bookers will liaise with our vast network of reporters around the world and start reaching out to guests for the live shows, as well as for other Reuters programs we plan during the week.
Each show features a high-profile guest host (usually a minister or CEO), someone who can talk to many of the main themes and who will help me conduct interviews with other guests, so this is something we need to pin down quite early on. Of course, the news of the moment will dictate our coverage on the day, and will often throw a wrench into a well-planned rundown, so there is only so much we can do ahead of time. A thorough grasp of what’s going on around us (guided by our own correspondents) and a deep pool of guests to quiz about the issues is a crucial starting point come Day 1.
Are there particular stories that you’re interested in this year?
The theme of this year’s forum is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” These titles can act as loose guides to our coverage and several obvious stories spring immediately to mind. A few hours before penning this, I read that U.S. President Donald Trump will now attend the Davos meeting, making him the first sitting U.S. president to attend since Bill Clinton back in 2000.
His attendance and any utterances will certainly be closely scrutinized and will shine a light on many issues, including the much-discussed themes of globalization and protectionism, U.S. tax reform, relations with North Korea, Iran etc. India also plans to send its biggest ever delegation of ministers, so we expect plenty of discussion on its developing role as a global economic power as well as its role in ensuring stability in Asia.
After a year of scandal in the world of showbiz and beyond, gender equality will also be near the top of the agenda, something signaled by the WEF with its decision to make all the co-chairs for this year’s event women. Other than that, AI, Big Data, digital disruption (not least bitcoin and the challenge of cryptocurrencies) are all subjects we are keen to hear guests’ views on.
How much time do you spend chasing people vs. actually reporting?
Good question. As I mentioned, good planning and lining up a solid stable of high-profile interviews is critical. We do as much of that as we can before we get there. I host a live show each morning filled to the brim with guests, but things do change fast. If big news breaks, our guest line-up will change. Luckily Davos is full of world leaders often in chatty moods. Our task is to get to them first if we can. We have producers and bookers who will spend much of their time doing this, but again, the quirks of Davos help. It’s often enough to stand on the street with a notepad or camera. You’re sure to run into plenty of potential recognizable interviewees trudging past in snow boots.
Do you find that most executives are willing to talk about anything?
There does seem to be a “Davos camaraderie” that some reporters think allows delegates to let down their guards somewhat. Most executives seem happy to shoot the breeze about most of the big themes – globalization, inclusive growth, disruption of every kind. Most are also prepared to give a running commentary on “how this Davos is going” compared to previous years. But when it comes to their own businesses they tend to be as tight-lipped as normal.
Having said that, they spend many hours in Davos in meetings with existing and prospective clients. Many a deal is said to be negotiated in this mountain resort. That, of course, provides reporters with opportunities for a little digging and, if successful, the occasional exclusive announcement.
How much competition is there among the media covering Davos?
The world’s media descends on this mountain town for the World Economic Forum. As a result even before the week starts the competition for space, for the best studio, the best backdrop is fierce. When proceedings get underway, journalists pile into the Congress Centre for the open sessions, and clamor to get the first interviews. Cameramen jostle for the best position to catch heads of state on their way to meetings.
At events like this one, there will always be the mad rush to secure the first interview, the exclusive. And the race to do so and the methods used can also be fierce. We are certainly there in force. No Davos attendee can miss the army of reporters, photographers and cameramen in their Reuters-branded jackets. But at the end of the day, that Davos camaraderie seems to return and groups of reporters from all over the world are often seen sharing stories in the bars of the town.
Is there actual news that gets broken every year?
Absolutely. Just the opening keynote will provide plenty of fodder for journalists. Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping gave his now famous defense of globalization. A year before that Canadian PM Trudeau spoke passionately about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Other keynotes over the past few years have included Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
This year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will deliver the opening address and we can be sure that U.S. President Trump’s appearance will provide the media with a host of standout headlines. Davos is a forum for discussion, in an effort to move things forward. Deals get done, announcements made, inflammatory remarks noted. The potential for news is enormous. And the world’s media is there, hanging on every word.
What’s your typical day like?
Long. Up around 0430, a trudge through the snow to the studio located in the Davos old library. Read in, go over that morning’s rundown with the executive producer and the director. Help write the headlines and shape the top of the show. Catch breakfast as the teams arrive for the day. At 0700, a quick rehearsal of the top of the show, 0715 meet with that morning’s guest host and any other guests arriving for breakfast. 0730 show begins. An hour of lively, live discussion. At 0845 out of the studio to begin putting together next day’s show.
A day of prep, broken up by pre-recorded interviews with heads of state, government, business at hotels, in the Congress Centre and in the snow. This year I also host a separate interview series for Thomson Reuters called Answers On and will moderate a discussion sponsored by the Japanese government on Society 5.0 – Searching for Unicorns. Will leave the Reuters newsroom around 1900/2000 for a beer and some dinner, before catching up on the day and turning in.
Is there any time for skiing?
Very little, which is tough given that everywhere you look you see mountains and beautifully groomed pistes. That said, I ski very badly, and broken bones wouldn’t go down well on the set. To be fair, when all is done after the final show, we have a small window to hit the slopes. It’s usually a mellow afternoon, given all our energies are well spent by Friday.