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November 18, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:47am

Rusbridger on the qualities needed to be an editor: ‘Passion, calm, breadth, focus, nerves of steel and empathy’

By Alan Rusbridger

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains why the modern editor needs to be more than a public intellectual

CP Scott, the greatest of all Guardian editors, would arrive at the office at the civilised hour of 6pm. After consuming two boiled eggs, some milk and an apple he would set about writing, or editing, the Long Leader.

Later in the evening, while waiting for the sacred text to be typeset, proofread and corrected, Scott would dictate correspondence and talk to one or two colleagues before stuffing a stout bundle of readers’ letters into a coat pocket and cycling home.

By and large he left the commercial running of the paper to others.  He had no interest in the sports pages, and not much more in general news. Of course, in time, he ended up as the owner as well as the editor of the paper he edited  (not to mention a Liberal MP for some of his editorial career of an astonishing 57 years). But what mattered to him most was what the paper thought.

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The editor-as-public intellectual is a rare beast these days. When would Scott have time to think in a 24/7 world of continuous production and breaking news? What about the management meetings; the HR training; the awaydays to discuss new revenue models? Sure, the editorial stuff’s important, but who’s going to talk to the product managers about the new mobile app?

When would he finally get his head around the latest bit of kit that could serve up the precise metrics on how long a 45-year female living in Stockport spent reading a piece of content on transport policy? Who would help shape the strategy document on the future of newsroom video? Is it time to outsource the moderators? Or close down comments altogether?

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Who’s going to sit in on the legal conference on whether or not to settle? Millions could hang on it. Who would meet the mega-rich client who wants to fund some “creative partnerships”? Who would liaise with Marketing over the campaign which isn’t quite right yet?

When would he even find time to tweet?

Meanwhile, our great public intellectual is expected to have an incisive take on the future of NATO, the menace of Modi or the effectiveness of quantitative easing?

Something has to give in a modern editor’s life. By all means stay on the backbench until 10pm every night shouting at sub-editors and tearing a blue pencil through page proofs until you’ve crafted the newspaper you feel happy with.  But that time and furious energy has to come at the expense of something else.

The late Harry Evans was probably the last great editor who could do it all – and wrote the textbooks to prove it. But his superlative skills, honed in the weekly pace of the Sunday Times, famously came a bit unstuck when faced with the wholly different challenge of cranking out the sister daily night after unrelenting night.

And those were the days with just one main deadline a day – not dictated by the whirring hamster wheel world of social media where every minute of every day can throw up something demanding an instant reaction or response. And in which virtually nothing from the past can be taken for granted as a fixture in the future. Rebuilding the plane in mid-flight.

Some qualities shouldn’t change. The best editors have passion as well as calm; breadth as well as focus; nerves of steel as well as powers of empathy. They must have cool judgement and, preferably, a backbone.  Most of the time it is the reporters, not the editors, who are most exposed and who are taking the most risks. The editor is there to back them and bring the institutional protection of the organisation to shield them.

But the hard question today is what do you give up – or, at the very least delegate? Some editors have great commercial instincts: others have (and want) no say at all in the paper’s P&L. The former may work well – or can lead to ethical deep waters.  The latter is fine, so long as an editor has owners or shareholders who understand how great journalism is made – the time it takes, the skills it needs, the resolve and resources required to defend it.

Some editors are blessed with outstanding managing editors who can shoulder much of the non-editorial burden. Good delegators will thrive better than control freaks. It’s also important to have something else in your life – a hinterland. The compelling, pressure-cooker intensity of modern-day editing does not sit well with good mental health.

The Americans deal with this increasingly impossible job rather better, splitting the role of editor at least two ways. The executive editor looks after the news pages, but has no involvement at all with comment.  The opinion editor is more likely to be an old-style public intellectual – free to read books, think great thoughts, and orchestrate a team of people who have insightful and provocative views.

Good editors should know a little about a lot, and be honest about what they don’t know. They should understand their main job is to give readers true information about things that are, or will, be important to their lives even if a) the readers don’t (yet) understand why it’s important; and b) those stories don’t always attract clicks, or eyeballs or advertising.

A much less significant part of the job is telling people what to think. Trying to influence opinion is an entirely different activity from trying to keep people informed.  British journalism is rather unusual in blurring the line between the two – usually, in a bad way.

Younger readers are much more sceptical about who is telling them stuff, and why.  The long journey to rebuilding trust in journalism may well have to begin at the top – with more open competition for editing jobs and more transparency about the nature of the task.

Mike Randall, former editor of the Daily Mail, estimated that, on an average day, he took 200 decisions. He reckoned if he got half of them right he was doing okay.

That was in the early 1960s. A different world from CP Scott and his two boiled eggs. And a different world again from the crazy, exhilarating, non-stop attempt to impose order on chaos that passes for an editor’s life today.

Alan Rusbridger is the author of News and How To Use It, published by Canongate on November 26.

[To read more incisive comment from Alan Rusbridger and other industry experts go to the Press Gazette comment section]

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