Peter Preston 

Digital age is making newspaper editors redundant in more ways than one

Peter Preston: the digital-first era is putting local newspaper editors out of a job – and in the world of 24-hour comment and Twitter, is there a need for them at national level?
  
  

Some journalists shrug at the news that BBC local radio may lose its station managers. Bon voyage, bureaucrats! But shrugs turn to shivers when it emerges that the corporation's next director general need never have made a programme, or indeed edited anything. And now Johnston Press, commanded by a former BBC digital wizard, begins to abolish editors for individual papers themselves, merging and melding from Edinburgh to Leeds as though they were, well, managing local radio stations.

Are editors, too, on their way to a cyberspace version of journalism's knacker's yard? It's a question, of course, that excites the Society of Editors – and one that Lord Justice Leveson, back from an Easter break to examine proprietors about who controls what, may also find compelling. Can you have editors' codes if you don't have editors? Can editors be responsible in law if they don't exist in reality? Yet the whole proposition isn't quite as outlandish as it can be made to seem.

Editing, through history, has been a role without a settled job description. Some great names – like CP Scott – contrived to combine it from Manchester with holding a Liberal seat at Westminster. Some still sweat late at night over every headline: some, in quite recent memory, preferred an early preprandial drink at the Garrick club. What you do, in sum, varies over time and from paper to paper. But digital rocks even our most traditional worlds.

Putting digital news first – the increasingly familiar slogan of a new dawn – means that the editorials are up there fast on website after website, sitting alongside the columnists of controversy, aiming to recruit unique visitors or paywall subscribers, the financial props of pending salvation. But is there truly a need, on the net, for some judicious, representative encapsulation of what a paper collectively thinks (about Syria, pasties or zillionaire charity)?

The very nature of leader writing would seem to query the proposition. One Guardian column from Polly Toynbee the other day produced 1,257 responses online – while five whole days of variegated leader comment managed only 1,201 rolled together. Toynbee doesn't shrink from stirring things up. She goes for the jugular wherever she finds it exposed. But exposition, discussion, expert and sometimes necessarily inconclusive analysis by anonymous scribes in the name of an editor who may or may not have been involved that day? You don't find that on the Huffington (no newsprint) Post. Arianna tweets her own opinions when she feels the need. Tina Brown, editor-in-chief at Newsweek and the Daily Beast, puts her name to a weekly slot in print, but not online.

The first Murdoch tablet-only newspaper clone – The Daily – can see its editor dispatched in a trice to help mend Mr Murdoch's New York Post website as though he was a jobbing plumber on call. No wonder Dan Gillmor, Arizona's supreme guru of internet revolution, is already prophesying the end of this, on the one hand, and that (on the other).

In web world, writers have views, but collectives don't. In web world, audiences deal in blogs, tweets, even old-fashioned emails – but never that most beloved historic feature, letters to the editor (at 60p a Royal Mail throw). In web world, the globe keeps turning 24/7, so there's seldom a moment where defining choices have to made. It's a race without a finishing line, a voyage of discovery without a harbour. Once upon a time, BBC news bulletins at six, ten and the rest used to have their own discrete teams of editors: now, more and more, they're just carved from the maw.

The dynamics are different in web world, too. For one thing – whether actively participating or not – the audience is omnipresent. It can respond actively, swamping the newsroom in tweets. But its rather more passive, judgmental role is always on hand as well. How many hits on story A? How much clicking interest in B and C? There'll be a list of the five or 10 most-read tales up on screen and possibly in the newsroom itself. Success (in unique visitor terms) can be measured hour by hour – success with mystique and, theoretically, revenue attached.

You're not, in any traditional sense, editing the news. You're an intermediary-cum-overseer, manipulating it to best effect, steering rather than decision-making. And the advertising on which your job depends doesn't arrive from a different department beyond your ken. It is, psychologically, part of the whole operation – and the people who sell it, just like the technical staff on whom delivery depends, are all on the same, intermingled team.

Now, analysis in such terms isn't prescriptive: it's not a matter of good or bad – or, frankly, designed to unleash a fresh torrent of tweets. It merely describes a process under way. This is a process that Ashley Highfield, now chief executive of Johnston Press, understands instinctively from his digital days at the BBC (as he turns his smaller daily papers into weeklies and calls on wider, deeper local web coverage to fill the gaps). It's a process you'll see over at ITN as an editor-in-chief retires and is not strictly replaced (because a bright chief exec now does the overarching job). It's why David Abraham at C4 could be the new chieftain the BBC needs.

Journalism, via web or app, can still be fine and probing, spurred on by great section heads, but it cannot be edited in any strict sense, any more than TV cable news churning day and night while controllers sleep. Leveson and his supplementary silks have often looked askance these past few months when an editor in their witness box hasn't kept proper audit trails, doesn't remember the decision in question or, just flat-out, was doing something else at the time. But that's the nature of the job – a job in the throes of profound, sometimes barely realised change.

Think of Paul Dacre editing his Mail (as described by the New Yorker). Where's the terminal in his office? There isn't one. Think of Tony Gallagher at the Telegraph producing his paper via iPad conferencing. Think of John Paton, America's digital-first apostle: "For God's sake stop listening to newspaper people… Put the digital people in charge of everything. They can take what we have built and make it better." Think of Highfield, an appointment with added symbolism. Then book your seats, no more than a dozen years hence, for the first annual conference of the Society of Aggregators, Moderators and Administrators.