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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?

Commuters travelling by train at Waterloo Railway Station, London, c1939.
Do we still need a single individual to set the agenda? Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

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.