It was 1978, and as a 22-year old research manager I was dispatched to meet Eric MacKay, 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 MacKay was appointed to the top editorial spot, 155 years after The Scotsman’s launch, he was its 13th editor, and he held the job for 14 years. In the 27 years since he retired, there have been 13 more. Few of these later incumbents lasted more than two years in the job.
I write about this disquieting development as attention — particularly in the United Kingdom but other parts of the world as well — mounts about the role and regulation of the press. The fear: greater regulation with further limitations on newsgathering and storytelling.
Meantime, paranoia continues to creep among governmental agencies and private corporate interests over the threat a free press poses to political and commercial interests.
The result is greater control of information flow and dialogue through ever more labyrinthine press offices, and a smothering of informal, localized communication between reporters and public employees.
Such controls are hard to define and harder to navigate. If an organization 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 recognize and turn to.
“But today they are stuck in the office, subbing copy, or organizing production. They spend very little time at events or meetings or interviewing people on big local issues.”
Editors have to fight harder than ever before to access knowledge even as they attempt to navigate an ever-wider sea of possible news sources.
At one time an editor relied on a team of professional, trained journalists. Today, that core team has been drastically reduced: Editors now have to deal with dozens of citizen contributors, some of whom merely blog away their views and prejudices but others who are experts with valuable opinions.
The ‘new news’
As Facebook and Twitter demonstrate, these contributors 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-1970s and exclaiming, “Quality journalism my foot. Do any of those people out there want quality journalism? It’s all over!” Mr. MacKay was wrong. People still want quality journalism, but there are dangerous forces that are determined to diminish the newspaper industry’s quality to serve their own ends.
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 better places.
Jim Chisholm is a France-based independent media consultant. Contact him at email@example.com.