Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What makes a great editor? Discuss...

Where’s David Attenborough when you need him? Two giants of the journalism jungle squaring off in a very public squabblefest about who did what better. Plenty of heat but does it shed any light on journalism’s current debates? Alan Geere heads into the forest of words. 

PAUL Dacre was never given to public pronouncements during his 26 years as editor of the Daily Mail, so his 4,500 words delivered to the Society of Editors conference were eagerly dissected.
He rounded on the BBC, the Leveson inquiry, journalism academics and his bete noir, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian for 20 years while edited the Daily Mail.
Referring to Rusbridger’s book Breaking News Dacre said: “Its real message – and how insidiously it drips through the pages – is that virtually every national newspaper in Britain is scurrilous, corrupt and amoral with one iridescent exception.  Yes, you’ve guessed it …The Guardian.
REFLECTED GLORY: Paul Dacre at the SOE conference
“Unedifyingly, it manages to combine rather cloying self-glorification and moral superiority with an almost visceral contempt of and disdain for the rest of the press.”
Rusbridger countered with a self-penned riposte in the New Statesman and responded to the direct criticism by writing: “Most of it seemed terribly myopic and insular and – for a man with such success, riches, power and acclamation behind him – incoherently angry.”
Ooof No 2!
While this stand-off might entertain the masses of journalists who don’t earn a small fortune editing a national newspaper or armchair media watchers who are intrigued by this public cut-and-thrust there were other comments hidden deep in Dacre’s speech which have got the journalistic, and academic, community more exercised.
“The mainly left-wing Professors of Journalism – is there, by the way, a more ludicrous subject for academic study – will order box loads of this book [Alan Rusbridger's] to demonstrate to their students how appalling Fleet Street is. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to churn out graduates for non-existent jobs which is why so many idealistic youngsters end up disillusioned and working in public relations, leaving us with a Britain where there are now more PRs than journalists – another depressing and insidious contribution to the democratic deficit. And today, my heart bleeds for those dedicated young journalists who were lucky enough to get jobs, yet are being denied, by our industry’s belt tightening, the opportunities I enjoyed.”
Oooof No 3!
Dr Margaret Hughes, chair of the Association for Journalism Education, and like a lot of the members she represents a journalist for many years reminds Dacre that journalism is a serious business. “The last few years have shown us this acutely, particularly when we look at how perceptions of role of the news media is influencing political and public life,” she told PJ News.
“Good journalism, and good journalists, require the ability to think critically and analytically about the complex world in which we live. Journalists are required to interpret complicated issues and help audiences make sense of the world. As such, the development of critical thinking that lies at the heart of all journalism education within the academy is not just necessary for considered and thoughtful journalism, I would argue it is a pre-requisite.
“Journalism requires the most talented, curious and thoughtful practitioners and there is no better place to develop this knowledge and skill set than within an academic environment, such as a university. So, yes, that does mean that journalism is a worthy subject for academic study and that it quite rightly has a place within the academy, indeed I would go so far as to say at the heart of the academy.”
Steve Hill, a journalism lecturer at the University of Westminster and co-author of Online Journalism: The Essential Guide has another view. “It is simply snobbery, from a certain section of the elite who believe that young people should only study ‘the classics’ or STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] subjects - and preferably at Oxbridge rather than an old Poly. It’s not even original. I recall Kelvin MacKenzie was prone to similar rants. Very depressing.” 
And what about Dacre’s comments that about professors who ‘churn out graduates for non-existent jobs’? “One of the most challenging aspects of being a journalism educator these days is that we can no longer say that a good education will lead to a great job, but then when could anyone ever really say that?” says Hughes 
“What journalism educators now understand is that while we may well be preparing young people for workplaces and environments that do not exist in the way that they did in the past, the knowledge and skills gained on a journalism degree programmes are multi-disciplinary in nature.
REQUIRED READING: School of Journalism starter pack
containing, as Dacre thought it might, Rusbridger's book
“We prepare young people for a changing world of work, where the skills they learn can be used in a multitude of settings in which they will be valued for the skills and knowledge they bring and in which they will be able to carve out exciting and rewarding careers founded on what they have been taught as part of the excellent journalism education that is offered at universities across the UK.”
Claire Wolfe, head of journalism at Worcester University and a well-regarded journalist in the Midlands says that although newspapers are contracting there are other openings. “Students from journalism courses have shown themselves to be highly employable. Journalism courses help to develop communications skills, confidence and introduce them to the requirements of work via the often mandatory work placement modules,” she says.
And to conclude on a philosophical note, David Baines journalism lecturer at Newcastle University and a former sub-editor on the Journal says Dacre seems to equate a degree in journalism with the traditional training course.
“A degree at undergraduate or postgraduate level in journalism is not simply preparing a student for a traineeship on a local newspaper, but for life and a career in an increasingly complex world. An education which develops in a student the critical-reflexive skillset, toolkit and outlook of a journalist, would benefit all in the global economy,” he says.


National newspaper headlines such as ‘Dacre v Rusbridger: two titans of 21st century journalism united in distaste’ give the general reading public the idea that beleaguered journalism is in trouble from within let alone outside.
But these are, to slightly misquote the great journalist Charles Dickens: “The best of times, the worst of times.” There has never been such a great opportunity to get involved in journalism across a multitude of platforms that hadn’t even been invented when Paul Dacre was editing the Leeds University student newspaper and Alan Rusbridger was a trainee on the Cambridge Evening News.
But in order to tame these multi-headed beasts of 24/7 digital news, aggregated and curated content plus the fog of misinformation and fake news the world needs people are educated – sorry, not just trained – in how to make sense of it all for everyone’s benefit.
Both Dacre and Rusbridger were brilliant editors. But they were of their time. Those times have moved on and editorial leadership is moving in different directions. Journalism, as never before, needs insightful, committed people and as the NCTJ report concludes those currently working in this noble game are more confident than ever.
We seem to be going in the right direction. Let’s hope Mssrs Dacre and Rusbridger can pull together too.
*I must declare an interest or two. I am one of small, but growing, band of journalists-cum-academics who have chosen to share their knowledge and experience with both the next generation of journalists by teaching and also the wider academic community through research. I have also served on the board of the NCTJ.

  • A version of this article appears in the 'Insight' column of the January 2019 issue of PJ News

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