Its the language that gets you first. CEO in “brutal cull” of Johnston Press editors ( 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.

The 14th Fiesole Retreat for academic librarians, publishers and researchers continues to provide an accurate guage of the direction and rate of change. Looking down over Florence from the European University Institute is to be reminded that renaissance and reformation come to all who wait, only in the digital world they come quicker. So the conference agenda had librarians morphing into anything but librarianship, publishing defending the indefensible, and scholarship apparently rooted in the minds of both as pursuing a very narrow track of priorities and activities. While a new world was clearly waiting in the wings, we were all reluctant to signal the Last Post. And that’s just the problem with these civilized events – they are so civilized!

Bruno Racine, French cultural politician and Director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, set the style from the kick-off. In an untroubled world, his great priorities, alongside building greater audio collections and newspaper archives, were developing the great French Gallica collection and furthering the cause of Europeana. Like a bandsman on the Titanic, so much in our media minds this week, this sounded like an invocation to keep playing. Fortunately the untroubled water was soon disturbed by Carol Tenopir, quiet revolutionary of many years standing, who started to throw some hand grenade facts into the water. Did we know how completely the scholars had deserted the library? Well, we do now. In a world where between 78 and 88 per cent of articles read are read digitally, 62% of those readings are in the laboratory, 26% at home and 10% while travelling. Only 2% are conducted on library premises. As each subsequent librarian presentation began with a picture of ever newer and more lavishly appointed buildings, one deep psychological gap yawned open. The scholars have gone nomadic, but the services that support them are rooted in expensive real estate.

But not always. In a brilliant demonstration of how lateral thinking is not confined to certain roles or age groups, Sylvia van Petegham, Chief Librarian at the University of Ghent, talked about relocating her library, or, rather her users MyLibrary, in the Cloud. She underlined the importance of the Amazon announcement on CloudSearch (I have a fantasy of my grandchildren saying that I am so old that I could remember when Amazon was a bookseller!). She spoke of what her team had learned through the Los Alamos SharedCanvas experimentation, and she emphasized many times the collaborative nature of the whole enterprize. In fact, when her conclusions emerged as “provide detailed metadata for free; publish for machines; create stable and durable links and URLs “I knew that I was listening to a publishing presentation after all. She said that when she first saw what Google could do “I became a Humble Librarian”. I find that very affecting, but not wholly true. I suspect that she found at that moment that the professional divisions of the real world had fallen away, and it was perfectly permissable for anyone to do anything now. Clear the way, we need to find this lady a place in the Titanic lifeboats right now!

But in some ways Sylvia’s theme had already been established. Deanna Marcum, now running Ithaka S+K after her years running the Library of Congress, got us thinking about Knowledge Navigators, and the importance of capturing the art and lore of collections specialists before it was lost. Mike Sweet of Credo had reminded the preconference that there is nothing wrong with discovery services that cannot be fixed in the reference layer, and Alix Vance of GeoScience World alongside Fiona Murphy of Wiley illustrated the collaborative nature of niche content provision. But it was one of the questions that triggered a key idea: do we Brand library services successfully? Then I knew that a prognostication of the first Fiesole meeting that I attended 12 years ago was becoming true: librarians were becoming publishers, but what on earth would publishers become?

If the presentations of Blaise Simque and Stephen Barr, respectively CEO and International President of Sage were anything to go by, then the answer would be “Really Nice People”. And responsible executives moving along the track of providing users with what they apparently want – several Open Access options, plenty of scope in pricing models to deal with individual or small scale users, quality peer review, and grateful authors willing to be interviewed on video expounding the importance of having risk capital available to support new journals. No trace here then of the facile commentary in last week’s Economist on journal publishing margins (for which that worthy journal should be deeply ashamed). Or of the price-gouging, excessive profitability commentary which has marked comment on this sector this year. Sara McCune Miller sold her air-con unit for 500$ USD in 1965 to found Sage, and has left the company in trust to three charities. The problem is not here at all. It lies in the formats to which companies like Sage have become subject (journal, article etc) and the necessity to keep the present business model going until a new one can be put in its place. And while we all pay obeisance to the primacy of the research article, do we not sometimes fear its commoditization? What happens when Mendeley or ReadCube become the interfaces of choice – less full text reading, better current awareness, more visualization? And a powerful diminution of quality control exercised by peer review as the only indicative guideline to quality itself? We are on the very thin edge of a very long wedge.

But publishing is relatively easy to do and offers low barriers to entry. Later on in the agenda Svante Kristensson, Director of Sweden’s Boras University library , showed what a creative publisher can do online with collections that demand the full scope of digital resources – the Swedish School of Textiles. And Gino Roncaglio of Tuscia University demonstrated how layering enables more productive scholarly eBooks – and eLibraries. As we came to a giddy end I reflected that the challenge of the linked data world has not yet fully sunk in – but that a good number of librarians are as close to identifying the range of user expectations in the network as their publishing colleagues are. But for the researchers in the last year who have spoken to me and doubtless many others of their need to discover quickly sources of unpublished articles which confirm experimental results, or find and use data underlying published experiments, or obtain lab videos on procedures, or to get updates on compliance and best practice procedures I have no answers. The problem is, as Carol Tenopir reveals, that they are all at home or in the lab researching.

The Fiesole Retreats, which only meet in Fiesole every few years, are wonderful wherever they meet and always cast light into the gloom in the way that small meetings usually do. The Charleston Company and Casalini Libri started all this: to them goes the honour of a lifeboat all to themselves.

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