What makes a good editor?

The gap between editor and manager has disappeared altogether, with old job descriptions being questioned and redefined as never before. Former senior editor, Jonathan Baker, explains: 

Technical staff contribute more and more to the editorial process. Technophobe journalists whose kit list once began and ended with a pen and a notebook are now routinely carrying out quite complicated functions to get material back to base and on air.

But what about the role of one of the most important cogs in the BBC news machine: the editor - is that evolving too?

The word ‘editor’ is included in dozens of job titles. I am talking about ‘The Editor’ - the person who is in charge of a programme, responsible for it, and accountable for what it broadcasts.

Time was the duties of the job began and ended there: the editor concentrated solely on the journalism and the content. All of the supporting functions of administration and bureaucracy were handled by managers or by personnel.

"There are so many calls on your time. That means setting the course for your programme and the production team and being clear about your editorial agenda"– Jonathan Baker

Gradually the roles of editor and manager began to merge. That meant editors had to take a bit more interest in staff issues, such as doing appraisals, and money - balancing budgets. And it meant lots more meetings.

Some editors spent less time actually putting their programmes on air than they did away from the desk attending to a growing list of other responsibilities. Even when I was a programme editor, this process had reached the point that you sometimes felt you were a manager first and an editor second.

My successors are heavily committed to helping deliver strategic projects (such as BBC North and W1), to helping shape the future of News (delivering budget savings and other DQF objectives), and making sure their programmes and their processes are fully compliant.

The gap between editor and manager has shrunk to the point that it has disappeared altogether. Taking a part in the leadership and running of the wider operation is now part of what it means to be an editor.

That is no bad thing. But it can be hard to keep all those plates spinning at the same time.

It seems to me that it is much harder being an editor today than it was when I was last in charge of a programme, not that many years ago.

There are so many calls on your time, and all of them are legitimate.

Naturally, you have to deliver great programmes. That means setting the course for your programme and the production team and being clear about your editorial agenda.

It means making the most important of the hundreds of editorial decisions that go into any programme, relying on your experience, judgement and the editorial values and guidelines under which the BBC operates, often in the face of pressures from both inside and outside. And, beyond that, you have to play an active role in the leadership and future direction of the organisation.

My generation likes to think we did all that too, and indeed we did. But, in an age of greater scrutiny and compliance, social media and much closer relationships with the audience, the pressures today feel much greater.

Even so, my impression is that editors actually edit individual editions of their own programme rather less often than they used to. Most are fortunate enough to have strong teams around them - people whom they trust absolutely to make the dozens of calls that go into the making of a programme.

With that degree of support, and with all those other things to do, it is easy to let the journalism slip down the list of priorities. An editor who does not admit that sometimes happens is probably not being entirely honest. It certainly happened to me on occasion, in what I have suggested was a less frantic time.

Obviously it is a tendency that you want to guard against at all costs. Because, although today’s programme editor has a lot on his or her mind, the quality of the journalism and the content of the programme must always be the top priority.

And that, at least, has not changed.