Standing Up For Newspaper Editors In A Digital Age

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Alex Ferguson, FA Premier League, Greg Hadfield, Journalism, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, Facebook, Advertising, Newspapers

Editors of newspapers are supremely important. At the summit of a hierarchical pyramid of journalistic excellence, they make their mark on every edition, every day, every week.

The greatest editors have a visceral understanding of the needs and interests of a community of readers; they live and breathe the values to which their print titles subscribe. Generally, they spend years working their way to the top, learning from those who went before them while repeatedly proving themselves in a highly competitive environment.

They can truly claim to be "best of breed".

But unfortunately, when it comes to digital, the supremacy of editors is in danger of being undermined through their lack of hands-on experience and expertise. Their input is limited and their influence diluted. As a result, they risk being marginalised in a process that threatens the future of journalism.

In a newspaper career that began 30 years ago, in the days of typewriters and carbon paper, I look back - always with respect, sometimes with fondness - to every editor I worked for.

In every case, I felt it was a genuine privilege to work for an individual whose towering influence continuously shaped the product I and my colleagues helped to create.

It was a team effort, but there was rarely any doubt over who was in charge.

Comparisons are largely meaningless. But I'm sure many old hands, if pressed, would compare the traditional role of a newspaper editor to that of the manager of a Premier League football club. Specifically, Sir Alex Ferguson.

So what has changed?

In the mid-1990s, when I became the first national newspaper journalist to leave Fleet Street for the internet, few editors had even heard of the worldwide web - or the "information superhighway" as we had to explicate.

Today, all newspaper editors worthy of the name understand the importance of all things digital. They "get it".

A few senior newspaper executives are on Facebook, I'm sure; several even "tweet"; one of them may shortly "discover" Foursquare. I'm equally certain that most try to visit their newspaper's website several times a day - although I know one newspaper executive who manages it only on Sunday mornings.

But they don't live and breathe it. They "get it" intellectually and vicariously - often courtesy of digital colleagues who have little or no newsprint experience.

In some cases, digital strategy is led by those with technological expertise; in others, it is in the hands of commercial colleagues. Occasionally, excessive influence is exerted by people with no record of achievement in journalism, technology, or business.

In a period of speedy transition, this may be inevitable. Even the youngest of today's national newspaper editors had arrived in Fleet Street before the web became mainstream - while those who arrived after, say, 1999 have not yet reached the peak of their profession.

So when will we get the first Fleet Street editor who began a career in digital rather than print?

When the distinction between print and digital is an irrelevant throwback to a bygone age.

Meanwhile, the giants of journalism who edit our great newspapers should trust their instincts and assert their authority, both in digital and in print. They should concern themselves as much with the homepage as the front page. They should care as much about the visitor as the reader.

Most importantly, they should hold the fort for quality journalism until the next generation of newspaper executives - the "thirtysomethings" who have used the internet since their schooldays - are ready to take charge.

Previous generations of editors did not surrender editorial authority to the printers of the National Graphical Association in the 1980s, nor allow journalism to become subservient to the short-term needs of the advertising department.

Similarly, today's crop should not cede authority to the technologists in the IT department or to advertising executives who seek crudely to exploit e-commerce opportunities.

Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and internet entrepreneur, is director of strategic projects at Cogapp, an award-winning digital agency.

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