In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Editors are needed as never before

EDITORS, who needs them? And what are they for anyway? Has the digital age finally done for the men (and women) on the back bench?

A bit like Roman emperors in the Coliseum, editors have, by giving a simple ‘thumbs up’, the power to create heroes or, with a ‘thumbs down’, to kill off the gladiators of politics and the glitterati of sport and show business.

It is the editors who decide who will be victorious and who will be vanquished.

So what will happen now if it’s a case of ‘editors no more’, as predicted by John McGurk, a former editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday and managing editor of the Daily Telegraph?

In the wake of the departure of Tony Gallagher as the editor of the Daily Telegraph, which broke the expenses scandal, McGurk says there was a time when newspaper editors were the masters of their publications.

They often shunned the management and the advertising staff in the name of editorial independence.

This is supported by Lamlash-based Gordon Terris, the now retired advertising director of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, who told me this week: “The legendary Daily Record editor, Bernard Vickers, in a moment of clarity described the relationship between himself and his MD, Vic Horwood, thus: ‘Vic and I walk hand in hand, with him a respectful half step behind me’.”

But McGurk wrote: “Nowadays, it’s a very different picture. Editors have come under the heel of new-wave digital gurus with visions of a digital future and who talk a digital language only they fully understand.

“Proven successes don’t seem to matter in the new world where real digital successes have still to be discovered.

“Gallagher, a highly-successful editor who was no digital alien, has been replaced by a new system rather than a new editor. This departure effectively signals the end for the newspaper editor.”

McGurk says that editors of regional newspapers, like me, lost their standing when the accountants moved in.

The number crunchers demanded that their papers were produced as cheaply as possible, and it was a case of never mind the quality, feel the bottom line.

But I beg to differ. This is only partly true. We may have lost standing in the trade, but out in the community we were appreciated and respected.

Editors are still respected – and still needed.

The process of running a newspaper bears little resemblance to how it was done even ten years ago when editors still ruled the roost often by the sheer force of their personality.

It was the editor, McGurk avers, who declared the politics and derailed the politicians; directed the tone and the shape; decided what was in and what was out; decreed which campaign or investigation would be launched; discharged budgets; demanded more pagination; debunked advertising; defused the management; delivered the marketing strategy and then designated where to go for lunch.

In reality, not a great deal has changed.

Editors never really held the purse strings – that was the managing editor or managing director’s job – and they seldom, if ever, got out to lunch, not on local papers anyway, but they did all of the above.

And they still do it, in addition to drawing up the news and features schedules and chairing the editorial conference, laying out pages, reporting on news items and representing their titles out in the community.

There is no digital input involved when it comes to giving talks to schools, youth groups, Woman’s Guilds, Rotary Clubs and the rest and meeting public representatives.

Digital is not present down in the pub or on the street or public transport where, if you have your ear to the ground, you can pick up exclusive stories, not lifts from the net.

Now that newspaper staffs have been cut to the bone and offices have been closed in Scotland’s High Streets, editors are needed as never before.

Trinity Mirror seems to have recognised that here in Scotland with the appointment this week of editor-in-chief, Allan Rennie, as managing director at Central Quay.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.