Do we still need a single individual to set the agenda? Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Is the age of a newspaper’s “imperial editor” over? Or just beginning?

Now that we have infinite space on the internet and huge volumes of data about what people read, is there a role for the powerful individual who shapes a publication according to personal taste?

In January of this year, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, Tony Gallagher, was fired. Editors get fired a lot, so this wasn’t surprising in itself. But Gallagher was highly regarded by his staff and thought of as having done a first-rate job by industry observers.

At first, it was assumed the sacking had been administered on the whim of the paper’s proprietors, the Barclay brothers. But there turned out to be a strategic reason for the change. Speaking at a conference last month, Jason Seiken, the executive in charge of the Telegraph Media Group, explained the new thinking:

“For traditional news organisations, particularly newspaper organisations, we’ve traditionally had a culture of the imperial editor who divines what the audience, the customer, wants, and acts on that through the editor’s vision. What is just as important these days is data, information, knowing the customer, making sure the customer has a voice in the coverage.”

In other words, it wasn’t that Gallagher hadn’t been doing a good job. It’s that his job had become obsolete. Editors, in the sense of powerful individuals who rely on their experience, intuition and taste to decide what readers can see, are surplus to the requirements of a modern news organisation.

You can see the logic. The role of editor emerged in an era of constraint: there are only so many words and pictures you can fit into fifty pages of newsprint. We now live in the age of abundance, in which anything and everything can be published. There is, in theory, less need for an editor to say what works and what doesn’t.

We also live in an age of instant and continuous feedback. We don’t need editors to intuit what is or isn’t going to be popular: we can look at the data. Huffington Post and Upworthy run different headlines for each story and let readers decide which wins: it’s the survival of the stickiest. As consumers, our choices of what to read or listen to are much more likely to be defined by ‘the crowd’ – our friends on Facebook or Twitter – than by individual arbiters.

So will editing soon be a dead skill, as obsolete as sextant navigation? I’m not so sure.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his wilderness years – or rather, its wilderness years – he found a company that was making a seemingly endless profusion of products: there were a dozen versions of the Macintosh alone. On the face of it, this frenzy of product development was evidence of a desire to please the customer, by anticipating their every need. Jobs saw it as a sickness.

Midway through a long product review session, he snapped. Making his way to a whiteboard, he wrote down all the current product lines. Then he started crossing them out. By the time he had finished, only four were left. He told his stunned executives to cancel everything else.

One of the lines he saved became the iMac, which was to be the company’s biggest success since the Macintosh. Another was the Macbook Pro, still one of its best selling laptops. Apple was back on the road to success. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” Jobs said later.

In corporate terms, Steve Jobs was the model of what Seiken calls the “imperial editor”. To an exceptional extent, he fashioned a company and product range that embodied his personal philosophy. He edited out of Apple’s product lines everything that didn’t fit his vision, as well as every feature of Apple’s products that weren’t necessary to their primary functions.

As for the customer - well, Jobs didn’t give a stuff about the customer. Actually, that’s not quite right. He cared very, very deeply about one customer: himself. He divined what customers wanted before they knew it, through the medium of his own taste.

Not all companies can or should be run like Apple under Jobs. But Apple had and retains one very powerful advantage: it is different. Whether you’re a fan or not, Apple products, and its brand, are absolutely unmistakable. That’s why Apple can price its phones and tablets higher than anyone else and still sell more of them. As Nigel Hollis, of the marketing research organization Millward Brown, put it recently, “Being different is the key to a brand being able to charge a price premium.”

Being different is the part of the puzzle to which media executives like Seiken haven’t yet found a convincing answer. News is a commodity. If a newspaper wants to charge more money to readers and advertisers, it needs to be compellingly different in the way it reports and presents its stories. But in the digital age, newspaper brands are finding it harder than before to give a reason for readers to click through to them rather than anyone else.

One solution to invent a new kind of format, like Quartz, with its distinctively short and contrarian takes on current affairs; Buzzfeed and its wickedly compulsive listicles, or the new data-driven ventures, FiveThirtyEight and Vox.

But generalist news organizations want to offer everything at once: news, opinion, data, features, video, podcasts and memes. The imperative to have a distinctive “voice” in the marketplace is therefore all the greater, and all the more difficult to achieve.

One of the ways to meet it will probably always be to have a powerful editor, who is in tune with the historic values of the brand, and can act as a prism for the incoming content, bending it into a unique and inimitable spectrum. The kind of editor who will ignore the data from time to time.

A/B testing of headlines and stories can tell you that readers prefer to A to B but it’s less good at telling you whether a certain kind of story is you. Similarly, there’s little to gain from getting the result of an A/B test if both A and B are lame ideas in the first place. Editors who can set unreasonably high standards for their staff,  as Jobs did at Apple, will always be valuable.

It’s no coincidence that there’s really only one British newspaper that can truly said to be thriving, off and online. The Mail’s Paul Dacre may be retiring soon. But don’t be too quick to assume he’s the last of an old breed.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.