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Kim Fletcher

Endangered species

British Journalism Review
Vol. 25, No. 1, 2014, pages 43-48


Kim Fletcher edits the BJR.


Contents - Vol 25, No 1, 2014

Editorial - Constant revolution 3


Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic 5
Peter Jukes, Peter Oborne, Ivor Gaber, Alison Bethel McKenzie, Paul Donovan, Duncan Campbell


Nicholas Jones - Where BBC bosses went wrong 21

Don Berry - A model for good court reporting 29

Bénédicte Paviot and Andrew Gimson - No sex, please. We’re French 37

Kim Fletcher - Editors face their final edition 43

Jeremy Dear - A country where the truth kills 50

Tim Luckhurst and Lesley Phippen - Let’s teach journalists to be good 56

Roy Greenslade and Steven Barnett - How to fund local news 62

BOOK REVIEWS
Alan Rusbridger on press freedom 69
Bill Hagerty reads red top memoirs 71
Jonathan Fenby examines serious news 73
Ivor Gaber explores data journalism 76
Michael Leapman revisits Jon Swain 78
Twitter Watch - 20
Quotes of the Quarter - 49
Ten years ago - The way we were - 68
News - The Paul Foot Award 80


 

A recent sacking reveals an historic change in the traditional structure of the newspaper industry


British newspaper editors rise and fall like football managers, the beneficiaries or victims of proprietorial whim. In the decade that the Barclay brothers have owned the Telegraph titles, their chief executive, Murdoch MacLennan, has shown seven to the door, five of whom he had previously welcomed to the editorial chair: that’s three from the Sunday paper, four from the daily.

But the departure in January of Tony Gallagher as editor of The Daily Telegraph was no run-of-the-mill defenestration. Written into Telegraph Media Group’s announcement of his departure was evidence of a fundamental shift in a long-established hierarchy within UK newspapers: “TMG has decided to restructure the Telegraph titles in order to build a wider audience and revenue in the digital media world. Chris Evans, assistant editor (news), has been appointed acting print editor of the Monday to Friday editions of The Daily Telegraph. Ian MacGregor, editor of The Sunday Telegraph, becomes the acting weekend print editor of the Saturday and Sunday editions. Both will report directly to Jason Seiken, chief content officer and editor-in-chief.”

The title “editor-in-chief ” seems to sit as an afterthought, a bow to an old world. The real role, in this digital age, is “chief content officer”, to be held by the recently arrived Seiken, an American credited with digital success at PBS, the nearest thing to the BBC in the US. We shall address the meaning of “content” a little later. First let’s discuss how the mighty position of “editor” has lost its power. Gone is that figure charged with the creation and protection of a newspaper’s character, a man or woman to inspire, lead and direct a team of journalists in pursuit of a single, possibly idiosyncratic vision that chimes with the instincts of an army of readers. The job now is to oversee the packaging of content into the paper, one of several delivery vehicles; a role for two men, splitting the work of the week between them. Their roles, spelt out at pedestrian length and sprinkled with capital letters, take on a more workmanlike quality. Their titles are longer, their influence is reduced. They are managers rather than creators. No wonder editors elsewhere were ringing each other within minutes of Gallagher’s passing to seek reassurances about their own life expectancy. “Are we all doomed?” asked one. The answer is probably yes.


When editors mattered

There’s a certain irony in the Telegraph being the first to ditch the role of editor, for the title was for many years associated with strong and opinionated editorship. Charles Moore, in the chair from 1995 to 2003, believed in banging on about Europe (against), unionism (for), hunting (for) and political correctness (against) with a zeal that was enjoyed by core readers but not necessarily attractive to new ones. “We’re in danger of being the pub bore,” said Jeremy Deedes, the then managing editor, whose admiration for Moore did not prevent his worrying about how the paper could bring in young readers to replace those dying off. “People stop going to the pub if they feel they are going to run into the bore.”

But any doubts about the commercial attractions of the paper’s core views were cast aside in favour of that crystal-clear philosophy and an assertive leadership that was supported, despite occasional quarrels, by the then owner, Conrad Black. Moore employed a large staff of leader writers and continued the tradition he had inherited from Max Hastings, another dominant male who believed in the merit of autocratic control. If staff needed to ask whether the Telegraph had a view on a subject, they were probably at the wrong paper.

Such figures exist today, none more so than the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, in charge since 1992 and regarded by many as the living embodiment of the newspaper editor. In a recent profile in the New Statesman, Peter Wilby identified the traits recognised by all staff: “Everyone who has ever worked for Dacre, who has just passed his 65th birthday, praises his almost uncanny instinct for the issues and stories that will hold the attention of ‘middle England’. No other editor so deftly balances the mix of subjects and moods that holds readers’ attention: serious and frivolous, celebrities and ordinary people, urban, suburban and rural, some stories provoking anger, others tears.”

There are other editors who still wield real power. Alan Rusbridger, polarising opinion among the left and right as much as Dacre does at the Mail (if in opposite directions), is as closely identified with The Guardian as Peter Preston was before him. John Witherow, moving from The Sunday Times to replace James Harding at The Times, has quickly brought his own interests to that paper, just as his predecessor did. It is remarkable how swiftly an editor of strong mind can influence the look of pages, the selection of news stories and the subjects for feature writers. The point is not that any of these editors build a profile outside – though Rusbridger has – but that they exercise total power inside the papers they edit. Every journalist who has worked on a paper understands the importance of “an editor’s must”.

Andreas Whittam Smith, founding editor of The Independent, once explained his philosophy to me: “Trust your judgment. It’s important as editor to go with things that interest you. The chances are they will also interest your readers.” It is this ability to lay down an editorial position and a philosophy that is such an important function of editorship. It is what makes one title different from another, for we know that most journalists who write have little difficulty moving from one to another.

The editor must believe in things and see those beliefs reflected in the newspaper. They may be big things – politics, foreign policy, the role of government – or quite quirky things: art, bird watching, theatre. They should also have the passion and the confidence to campaign and, ideally, to feel it from the heart rather than from any sense of commercial advantage. The editor is not merely a manager of personnel, but director or conductor, creating a balance of interests within the pages and a guiding view. An editor makes those who work on the paper and those who read it feel there is a human being at the helm.


The last of their breed

It may seem paradoxical to describe figures with the continuing power of Dacre and Rusbridger and yet aver that the game is over. The point is that they are likely to be the last of their breed. Those who have listened closely to the new language of newspaper management will not greet the demise of the editor with any great shock. The post was moving to the wrong side of history once the economics of journalism began to change. Journalists tend to make the mistake of thinking that the point of newspapers is to write stories and make trouble. Who can blame them – in those days their activities promoted profitable readerships – for getting the idea that power was theirs? But when an industry is no longer profitable, managements begin to wonder whether editorial should have such control. Advertising and circulation departments make money, editors spend it. Dacre famously runs the Mail on the basis of editorial primacy, with all commercial departments operating subserviently. It works there still, but many other titles struggle for revenue.

So in recent years, some of us brought up to revere the title and office of editor – I know journalists of a certain age who still address the editor by his or her title rather than by name – could not help noticing a change in the attitude of managements. For generations, real power was wielded by proprietors and editors. Now managements adopt a new position, working to reduce the power of editor to that of any other head of department. In the new world you have head of advertising, head of marketing, head of circulation and – with no greater authority than those – head of editorial. To the world outside, the editor might still be monarch; to the world inside, they are merely a cost centre. It has been impossible to avoid the feeling that management has taken pleasure in cutting them down to size.

Where we were wrong was in thinking it would be changing economics that killed off editors. If we are to be entirely accurate, we must see that editors will die now because of the phenomenon behind those changing economics – the internet. It’s not so much editors that are downgraded, as the papers they are running.

Some of us fought hard to prevent ‘content’ becoming the default description of pieces you can read. We failed utterly. An industry that took pride in ‘stories’, ‘features’, ‘articles’ and ‘journalism’ is now happy to reduce its activity to the provision of something with so little obvious appeal it might as well come by the bucket. I have often told friends about an “interesting piece” I’ve read. I’ve never thought that I have “consumed great content”.

But we must resist the temptation to put speech marks around the word to mark any sense of discontent, for a new generation recognises that times have changed. In the words of an online comment on Roy Greenslade’s blog for Media Guardian, in response to a discussion about the new job title for Seiken at the Telegraph: “To start putting quote marks around ‘chief content officer’ is petty and silly. It’s a title – who cares?”

Well, it is just possible that readers will care when they can no longer differentiate one title – or brand – from another, each being packed full of that potentially anodyne stuff called content. It may be that journalists will care too, as they look in vain for leadership that goes beyond a request for more stuff to fill a page, a website, a mobile app. When newspaper websites began, they were servants to their parent papers. Now they have become the masters, typically taking a more middle-of-the-road approach in the belief that it will lead to a bigger audience.

Who is ultimately responsible with no editor?

There are other implications. Who is ultimately responsible for the stories? We used to know it was the editor. Editors have been ordered to court to explain themselves in the past. Is it now the chief content officer or some corporate body around him? Who explains his or her paper’s actions to the next iteration of the Press Complaints Committee? Are the readers to write to the ‘acting print editor of the Monday to Friday editions of The Daily Telegraph’? And who will receive the politicians, the CEOs and the new thinkers who like to speak to an editor: the CEO? The owners? A departmental head?

To ask these questions is not to take a Luddite approach. Papers are dying, things must change. We understand that the digital revolution has demanded new ways of doing things. Perhaps these developments are inevitable. Perhaps they will secure the future for a new generation of journalists and readers. Time Inc recently reappointed Norman Pearlstine, the man who served as editor-in-chief from 1994 to 2005, as chief content officer. Time editors now report to business units rather than to an editorial executive. Interviewed with the company’s CEO, by Adweek, Pearlstine explained his new role: “Having been an editor-in-chief for 11 years, I found that there were two parts to it. The first was that the editor-in-chief was really responsible for maintaining editorial quality, editorial integrity and editorial independence. That part of the job doesn’t really require a title, it requires presence… Chief content officer was in no way in opposition to the commitment to continue editorial quality, standards and integrity. The second part was the parallel universe that was almost a pride in not working with counterparts on the business side that led to innovation, creativity and new products.”

The business vision and relentless innovation chimes with the way Seiken explained his task on the day Gallagher left the Telegraph group: “Our competition is no longer only newspapers and we must innovate to survive.” His big task will be to fulfil the ambition described in the sentence before that: “We must reinvent the way we work and move beyond simply putting news and information online, and be an essential part of the audience’s lives.”

Good editors knew how to become a part of their readers’ lives. Let us hope chief content officers can do it too.