Thursday, October 29, 2020

The ‘hands-on’ role of the editor

How does a commitment to a hands-on role translate itself to the editor who has oversight of sophisticated and complicated technology? Jeremy Clifford, editor-in-chief of Johnston Press, is concerned that editorial leaders do not spend time and effort keeping up with the latest technologies that drive the industry. “I don’t know how to fix my car if it breaks…you just need to know how to drive it,” he says. “If you waste your time trying to work out how to use Crowntag or learn Socialflow [analytical tools] and that sort of thing, you won’t concentrate on the core part of what your job is which is making sure that you find the best journalism. You create the best content that you can and that’s all that a real leader needs to do, the tools of the job, they just need to know what tools and how to apply them.”

This attitude could be construed as a minimalist approach to challenges that might appear either too complicated, difficult to learn or time-consuming to perform. Professional engagement with craft skills or technical know-how is not a new issue for editorial leaders. Tasks as relatively simple as ‘cropping’ a picture [deciding which part of a full image to use for publication] and writing headlines that fit in the available space were often performed by the editor, who was able to exert authority and gain credibility by executing them with a high degree of skill. With the advent of computerised newsrooms in the 1980s, some editors chose to engage with the ‘new technology’ while others remained outside.

Many editors around the country are responsible for a complex collection of newspapers and websites. Joy Yates, Editorial Director of Johnston Press North East, says: “I run eight titles and that wouldn’t have necessarily been the case before. I edit three daily titles and when I first became an editor you had one title whether it be a weekly or a daily so I think the scale has very much changed and it makes the approach to what we do is very different. The management structure is far leaner because content is our USP and we have to drive content.”
In order to keep on top of that content Yates relies on what appears to be a traditional news conference, or meeting of editorial department heads, in both the morning and afternoon. “I will always know what’s on the front pages as we have quite a strict conference structure. I might not always get into all of the conferences because if I’ve got a meeting like this but I’m not going to say to the team ‘oh you’ll need to put the conference back an hour’, I have to trust, entrust the power the team that I have to do that so I would never change the structure that we have just to suit my diary for that day.”
For Helen Dalby, Senior Editor and Head of Digital Reach North East who is not a trained journalist but came up through a digital route, there are different concerns. “Moving from a primarily operational role to a more strategic one brings with it the difficulty of letting go of the reins, but I’m lucky to have an outstanding team of digital publishing editors and content editors to work with,” she says.

 Not just ‘how’, but ‘where’

The physical location of the editorial leader can have immediate impact for both the individual and those he is working with. “Do I have an office? No, I can’t stand working in office,” says Ian Carter, Editorial director, KM Media Group. “There is an office that we share and we use it if someone is about to get hired or fired but by and large I like to sit on the news desk and be in the thick of it, because why on earth would you want to lock yourself away from where the fun is?”
But that fun can have a downside. “The toughest part of my job is the fact you are never, ever off duty and it is tough and it puts a strain on everything but equally its self-inflicted because I can’t ignore a story if it breaks. There’s no end point anymore. In one sense there’s no end to it,” says Carter.
Upon arriving for the interview with Marc Reeves, West Midlands Editor-in-Chief, Reach Midlands Media Ltd. who has direct responsibility for eight daily titles, 30 weeklies and their attendant websites, he was sitting in the middle of the newsroom alternately looking at a computer screen and engaging with colleagues. “I sit on the desk all the time when I’m here, if I can. It’s a conscious effort to find time to do some journalism because otherwise it would be squeezed out,” he says.
“I think that it’s really important for me to continue to be active, particularly in Birmingham with the titles I’m directly editing and managing. I think a good editor will walk down the street and come back with a few stories sticking to him or her and I think that you’ve got to be able to do that. It doesn’t mean that you’re writing all the time, of course it doesn’t.” Echoing Tunstall’s observations of the editor as ‘chief processor’ Reeves says he no longer writes headlines. “I used to be a production sort of focussed editor, you just can’t do that anymore and neither should you be because there are people way better at doing those functional things than you are. But first and foremost, your job has to be rooted in the journalism that you’re doing.”

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