Are editors moribund?
There was an interesting piece by Peter Preston in the Observer about what role editors have in a world where we can see minute-by-minute exactly what the audience is choosing to read, watch and listen to.
We still have to find the news, gather it, report it, produce, publish and broadcast it before we get to see what the audience makes of it. At that point, increasingly, we have to be aware of a whole range of information about how the audience is responding to what we are reporting. This includes the new "real-time stats" on the website – how many people are reading the story – but also the thousands of e-mail and telephone comments and contributions coming in to BBC News via its website, TV and radio programmes every day.
As a way of understanding our audience and their interests, all this is very useful. It also adds a whole extra dimension of editorial awareness and thinking.
When we launched the stats service, I remember noting that some themes were consistently popular – stories about sex, space, technology, showbiz, the environment, animals, to name a random assortment. But, inevitably, so do the big news stories of the day. We had one of our record peaks for traffic this month for coverage of the UK terror alert. Lebanon has been at or near the top of the “most read stories” for weeks.
People want to know what’s happening in the world and why, what’s important, how it might affect them. It’s an age-old need for news which hasn’t gone away, and the new era of instant stats and feedback bears this out. It just means that as editors we have more ways of gauging and responding to this need, and registering, most days, the sheer diversity of interest.
An example: On the UK terror alert story this month it was clear straightaway that our airport information story was getting lots of traffic online. We made sure we devoted journalists to it for continuous updates, airport-by-airport, for a full 48 hours. That was a difficult editorial decision about allocating precious staffing and resources, made easier by the knowledge that readers were seeking out this information in a major way.
There’s another obvious point to make about editing in the world of instant feedback: you still need an editorial identity and voice of your own if you want to be recognised. So while people can use the “most popular” button to select which stories they read, it is the editors who provide the framework, by deciding which stories to cover, how to cover them and with what priority across BBC News web pages, TV and radio programmes.
Yesterday morning the most popular e-mailed story was the impact of cold weather on the basil crop in northern Italy and possible dire consequences for the future of pesto sauce. An interesting story, for sure. One that might affect many readers. But we didn’t lead the site with it.
Still, we know that if there’s a follow-up story - on the economic damage, the grape harvest, or the future of pesto sauce – it’ll have an audience.