It was 1978, and as a 22-year-old research manager I was despatched to meet the formidable Editor of The Scotsman for the first time. Having squirmed in my seat as I explained what I vaguely understood about the latest readership figures, and detecting a friendly response, I asked the great man: “What is it like to run Scotland’s national newspaper?”
“Run a newspaper?” he boomed. “I run a COUNTRY!”
I’ve found myself recounting this story on various occasions recently, to an editor of a major national daily, and the owner of a group of local weeklies, among others. All of these conversations shared a common theme: namely the role of the editor in the modern world. And they all came to a different version of the same conclusion: that the role of the editor was diminishing.
When Eric MacKay was appointed, 155 years after The Scotsman’s launch he was its thirteenth editor, and held the job for 14 years. In the 27 years since he retired, there have been a further thirteen. Few of these later incumbents lasted more than two years in the job.
In the UK the spotlight has recently focussed on the role and regulation of the press, primarily the national tabloids, but despite government assurances to the contrary, a widespread fear is that the consequence of the various enquiries now reaching conclusion will be greater regulation, with further limitations on news-gathering and story telling.
Elsewhere there is a creeping paranoia among governmental and large private organisations over the threat that a free press poses to political and commercial interest. The result is greater control of information flow and dialogue through ever more labyrinthine press offices, and a smothering of informal, localised communication between reporters and the wider range of employees, be they the local policeman, regular civil servants or company experts.
Such controls are hard to define and harder to navigate. If an organisation puts a ban on employees speaking openly, what kind of regulation can overcome this? Yet the march is inexorable. And the availability of knowledge to citizens is increasingly diluted and distorted. The ability of the editor and his/her staff to present a full story is increasingly constrained.
A third pressure point lies in the editor’s job in an increasingly resource-deprived working environment. As one publisher said to me: “I want my editors to be out there, meeting their readers, being at the heart of their community. They should be a leading personality that people recognise and turn to... But today they are stuck in the office, subbing copy, or organising production. They spend very little time at events or meetings or interviewing people on big local issues.”
Not only should our editors be fighting harder than ever for access to knowledge and truth, but so they also have to interpret a far wider range of new generation sources. At one time an editor relied on a team of 10 or 100 professional, trained journalists. Today their core team may be greatly reduced, and they may well have to deal with ten or twenty times as many citizen contributors. Many simply blog away their views and prejudices, but among them are experts and valuable opinion formers, a new generation of sources who should be nurtured, interpreted and represented.
As Facebook and Twitter demonstrate, these contributions are a potent and alluring source. We may be nervous about this, but it is the New News. And just at a time when we should be celebrating and exploiting its power, the resources that should be converting this stuff into the news-medium of tomorrow have been emasculated.
The author of Eric MacKay’s obituary recalls him looking out of his window in the mid-seventies and exclaiming "Quality journalism my foot. Do any of those people out there want quality journalism? It's all over!" Well he was wrong. People still want quality journalism, but there are forces out there that are determined to diminish our quality to serve their own ends.
Meanwhile the definition of quality has changed. Inexorably.
The first question we have to ask is exactly what is the role of an editor today?
The second is how we give him the tools, resources and status he/she requires.
Editors today may not be able to boast they run a country. But they should certainly have the power and resources to make the societies they serve a better place.