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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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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