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Are editors moribund?

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 13:18 UK time, Monday, 21 August 2006

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.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteBut his contention that this means “editing - at least for the Beeb online - has become a more passive concept” or even “moribund” - is not quite how it feels where I am sitting.

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.


  • 1.
  • At 06:33 PM on 21 Aug 2006,
  • Christopher Harwood wrote:

I certianly hope the idea that editors are redundant never catches on, especially at the BBC. Websites can rely on collective intelligence to an extent, but a well chosen editor is the most efficient way to deflect attempts to abuse and spam the system. For example, Google has a brilliant system for ranking search results, but it must be constantly tweaked to deal with linkspammers and other attempts to artifically inflate a site's rank. Wikipedia works as a descriptive, encyclopedic bibliography, but it is also a fountainhead of anonymous libel which people take all too seriously.

I follow the news with BBC because it is already too bothersome to cut through the personal/corporate agendas, political agendas, and demographics pandering in American media in order to suss out the actual news. I would hate to need to do the same here.

  • 2.
  • At 08:27 AM on 22 Aug 2006,
  • Brian wrote:

Your example of the airport security story is a good one - though surely you could have guessed in advance that people would find that useful? But my question is to what extent does the rest of the media look at these stats? If i worked on a newspaper I'd be fascinating to know what of today's news tomorrow's readers will be interested in. And does this apply to people deciding what issues to cover on the TV and radio news programmes too?

  • 3.
  • At 08:51 PM on 22 Aug 2006,
  • John wrote:

The trouble is that we never really know what is pushing a story to the top of the lists, more precisely are lots of people ending up on a particular page because someone somewhere else has linked to it, raher than because it catches peoples' eye on the BBC news site proper. Earlier this week, one of the top five stories was a collection of two year old photos of the Millau bridge. I bet that you would have to dig deep into your site just to find a link to that and would love to know what pushes such stories to the top of the read list.

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