Its the language that gets you first. CEO in “brutal cull” of Johnston Press editors (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/apr/12/scotsman-editor-in-chief-johnston-press) is a great way to treat editors and subs as they have always treated the world – with a degree of lofty disdain. And I did not really catch on to the deep underlying question until I read Peter Preston’s commentary on this (Observer 22 April, 2012). I usually regard that great ex-Guardian editor as my sanity check, so it was a real shock to find that he had it completely wrong too. No commentary that I have seen has grasped the essence of what Ashley Highfield is doing by this mass firing of senior (and very expensive) editorial potentates at Johnston, or what it realistically recognizes about the nature of news online.
Let me first declare an initial prejudice. During a five year tenure as non-executive Chairman of Fish4, when it was owned by the regionals themselves, it was my observation that Editors were an embattled barrier to digital progress. This is a dangerous generalization, but invariably Editors wanted to run Web presence as if it were the newspaper, were reluctant in those days to allow their own digital media to scoop the paper, used their role as protectors and developers of the brand to diminish and hold down their digital presence, and all too often regarded digital as a subordinate medium which must reflect and emulate print, not create an entirely new approach to the way in which news and comment is digested and responded to by its ultimate users.
So I love Ashley for doing this. It would have been a shade better if he had used Cromwell’s words when dismissing the Rump Parliament – “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ be gone …” and, pointing to the green eyeshade rather than the mace – …”and take that bauble with you.” But one cannot have it all. At a stroke, some mighty expenses have returned to the bottom line and a space has been cleared where the CEO can set to work re-inventing the company. So why will he get closer to getting it right without editors than with them?
It is the nature of digital news services to replace the editor by the reader. The key considerations are concerned with collecting information and relating it to the interests and needs of a targetted audience. Writing stories needs sub-editorial skills, but a great deal of future story creation will be automated (I have already commented here on Narrative Science and Selerity). The critical marketing input will be the interfaces offered to users to customize and personalize the content flow. The key feature of that activity will be the mark-up, tagging and metadata added to the content in process of uploading. The editorial function will be ensuring its accessibility by everyone, whatever their angle of approach. The skill will come in making those interfaces appetising – a marketing role and not an editorial one if ever I saw one. And a role performed by the same marketing team who will manage the digital brand and explain what it is.
At this point I hear Mr Preston straining to get into the argument, for his article is all about the importance of the “leader” article, and the controversy which Polly Toynbee attracts with her views as a commentator in the Guardian. I have no doubt at all that Miss Toynbee, who is, or deserves to be, a national institution, will glide controversially forward through time until she reaches her own Diamond Jubilee. And online we shall have many of her ilk. Lots of bloggers, many outraged citizens, lots of local councillors defending the indefensible, and pressure and lobbying groups special pleading all over the place. And we shall have all of the social media and social tagging attributes that run alongside this. This flow of activity will be open to all and separate from the news flow – something which newspapers cannot seem to manage. In the process of story selection and arrangement throughout the paper, they editorially flavour the news, giving it a “meaning” to readers even though the reader is buying the proposition of fair and proper treatment.
Which brings me to the Editorial page itself. If the views available online are catholic and wide-ranging, and multi-sourced – then finding out what the newspaper or its online version thinks is irrelevant, and Mr Preston, in a circumspect way, seems to be approaching this view as well. I would go further and ask what place the Editorial column has had in the regional press in the past two decades. In truth it has been the most unread section of the paper and has no place at all online. Do I know what the view of the Bucks Free Press is on Mr Murdoch? No, and it would mean little if it did have a view. And I would find it out of place on my smartphone or tablet. Do you, like me, smile when you come across the comment column in the Waste and Pollution Management Journal and find them battling with the issues of the day? And, like me, you probably have that experience less often now, because the editorial pitch, the idea that the organ has to stand its brand value behind a clear profile of views and arguments, has almost gone, and with it went the need for the editors whose pride and joy the curation of those views once were.
Change has a price, but I could argue that Mr Murdoch, aided and abetted by his chums Mr Coulson and the Flame Haired Temptress, got there first by turning the Sun, the NoW and eventually the Old Thunderer itself into another way of expressing the powerful urges of a controlling proprietor. But he did not do this to the regional press or the B2B subscription magazine: they did it to themselves. Ashly Highfield has recognized that, and what he must do if he is to start over, and this clearing of the decks is a very appropriate starting point.