Monique Villa: Human stories shine in the new media landscape

Journalists have a responsibility to reflect the world more accurately, believes Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But as she tells Lucy Purdy, there is now a resurgence in human-centred stories and media that triggers positive change

No stranger to the thrill of a scoop, Monique Villa’s eyes shine when she speaks of the adrenaline she feels being a journalist. A former news-breaking globetrotting reporter and news agency chief, and now head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, her career has been fast-paced and varied.

Since being appointed CEO in 2008, Villa has transformed the Thomson Reuters Foundation into a global corporate organisation, leveraging the tremendous power of Thomson Reuters to run programmes that bring about change and empower people across the world. She has been ranked among the world’s 100 most influential people in Business Ethics by Ethisphere and is, above all, a passionate advocate of in-depth journalism. That is, the responsible, human-centred weaving of stories that matter.

“I think there is a huge space for the media to be more positive”

A student of political science and law, French-born Villa only entered journalism when she accompanied a friend to an interview at the Centre de Formation des Journalistes in Paris and decided to try it too.

“It was only then I discovered that I loved it. I realised that journalism was what I was made for,” she says.

Villa began to travel the world as a reporter for Agence France Presse, posted in Rome and London. Though her career has led her to the top of the global news agency industry, she has not been afraid to question the way it operates. When she first entered the profession 40 years ago, it almost entirely male-dominated – simply being a woman was radical. But this has undergone a huge shift, much for the better she insists.

“The influx of women in journalism has been huge and it has completely changed the way we report. Wars for instance were mostly covered by men and their focus was often more on arms and fights than on the human angle. This has changed completely, largely because of women’s influence I think. You can’t imagine 30 years ago the kind of coverage of Gaza in the way it was done recently. By showing things which are human, people relate to it and are moved to act.

“Another thing is the incredible space we now give to features. If you look back 20 years ago, the front pages of Le Monde, the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal would always be hard news. But now there are plenty of features on front pages. Instead of a piece about a conflict being about the number of rockets used, it’s about the people who have been affected. To me this is a positive sign. Editors are trying to go beyond the obvious.”

“If you improve the situation of women, you tackle the very root of poverty”

Villa acknowledges the “enormous” responsibility of being a journalist and is clear that the media actively shapes our perception of the world as well as reflecting it. So does she think the media strikes the right balance between positivity and negativity?

“I think there is a huge space for the media to be more positive,” she says. “I commute to Canary Wharf from Notting Hill most days so I read a lot of papers. I think that they sometimes try to bring positive news. The Evening Standard runs campaigns for children to read books, for example. There’s an effort to show what is meaningful, even if another 20 or 30 pages are filled with gossip on people I’ve never heard of.”

The role Villa has sought to play in improving this situation is through the foundation’s team of 29 staff journalists, dedicated to shedding light on underreported issues. “We look at what the mainstream media doesn’t cover,” she says.

These include women’s rights, “because if you improve the situation of women, you tackle the very root of poverty. Their children will be better fed, better educated, so it’s a virtuous circle”. The foundation also runs the annual Trust Women conference: a movement to put the rule of law behind women’s rights through concrete action.

“I know that we have huge, real impact with these stories,” she says. “We are a charity, and this means we can speak about the real issues, which are not always sexy. Female genital mutilation for example; it’s not ‘nice’, but it is important.”

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Tangible, positive change also sears from TrustLaw, the foundation’s global pro bono service, which connects NGOs and social enterprises with some of the world’s best lawyers. Launched in 2010, 425 firms have now signed up to donate their valuable brain time for free in the UK and US as well as in countries such as Nepal, China and India.

Says Villa: “In the four years it has existed, beneficiaries received $35 million (£22m) of billable hours through TrustLaw. You can’t calculate the benefit in the same way for the NGOs and social enterprises involved, but it’s huge. It’s extremely fulfilling.”

Villa mentions that a top lawyer accepted a salary cut of 40% to come and help her establish TrustLaw, such was his enthusiasm for the project.

“Particularly with young people in the, UK, US, Europe now, I see a search for values and meaning – what life truly means”

“Now I have five lawyers and it’s been more or less the same with each one. It gives me faith in society,” she says. “These are people who think that doing something meaningful is more important than working 50 hours a week and making lots of money. This is a really positive story.”

And it is one Villa is seeing retold in different hues across the world: new definitions of concepts of work, value and social impact.

“Particularly with young people in the, UK, US, Europe now, I see a search for values and meaning – what life truly means. Access to money and all the ‘things’ you think you want is really being questioned. People know that this utopia of stopping work at the age of 60 is over, and so they want to do something meaningful with their career and life.”

For a woman who admits she thrives on the buzz of a new challenge, Villa seems to have found her niche in this role, combining her journalistic ability to read the world and tell its stories, with bringing about tangible positive change – and large scale change at that.

“The position I hold at the foundation is just fantastic,” she adds. “It’s the most fulfilling job I’ve had in my life.”