The editor-in-chief of the future: a job description

What do the editors-in-chief of the future look like? What are her responsibilities? What skills does he have? How different are their roles from editors of the past?

These questions struck me when I was reflecting on Twipe’s Digital Growth Summit, which I hosted earlier this month. (My general thoughts on the event are here.) 

The reason why these questions arose was that there were so few editorial representatives at the summit,. It was mostly attended by CEOs, COOs, heads of marketing, heads of product and heads of digital. 

And yet the things were were talking about – future products, new audiences, the digital transformation of newsrooms, the effect of the tech giants on publishing – are precisely the kind of things that editors-in-chief should be thinking about and, indeed, acting on. 

Why weren’t more of them there, listening to some of the latest thinking on these subjects? They really needed to be.

In my experience, the main engine of change in news businesses is the editor-in-chief and if he or she isn’t engaged in a subject then it might as well not exist. Editors and reporters are expert at sniffing out their boss’s relative interest in any topic and will act accordingly. An editor-in-chief’s dismissive look during the pitch of a story is often enough to see it hitting the spike without any further words being exchanged.

For all the clarity and speed of decision-making this strict hierarchy brings, if the top person isn’t thinking about the future, and developing ideas to succeed in it, then you’re in trouble. 

I know that there is a lot of pressure on their time, and without wishing to put too many noses out of joint, I’m going to say that the majority of the current crop of editors at publications big and small don’t spend enough time understanding the profound shift that is taking place in their industry. 

Broadly speaking – and this is the topic for another post – we had Digital News 1.0, when news organisations shifted their print content straight to digital and thought little else about it, hoping that advertising would make it pay. 

Digital News 2.0 saw more attention paid to digital storytelling, social media and other formats such as video and audio, alongside the growth in monetisation through subscriptions or similar mechanisms. 

Now we are looking at Digital News 3.0 where the embrace of data will bring about a much more complex form of user- and needs-based journalism, tailored initially to much more clearly defined audiences, and then to individuals. And in which the formats for stories will be expected to blend seamlessly into one another. I’d argue that the change required to accomplish this successfully is bigger than the previous two combined.

Speaking as a former head of digital and a former print editor, I know that this is going to require a completely different skill set and approach from the editors-in-chief of the future. Let me break them down in the traditional way of job descriptions into responsibilities and skills.

Responsibilities

Ensuring the journalistic side of the business produces content that aligns with the company’s overall strategy (ie, don’t be producing tons of clickbaity SEO-based content chasing high traffic volumes if your business is subscription-based).

Producing compelling content for owned digital platforms, the tech giants’ bespoke news offerings, social media (current and as yet unthought of), video, audio … oh, and print.

Transforming your newsroom, being careful to get the balance right between building new digital capabilities and preserving print operations – though in most cases you’ll probably need to push harder at the former, which is going to upset a lot of people.  

Managing teams of reporters and editors, alongside audience strategists, social media journalists, newsletter editors, video and audio specialists, developers and product people – and really, truly understanding what all of them do! 

Ensuring that the priorities of product development are aligned with editorial and business objectives, and aren’t just guided by what someone said to you at dinner or what you like in the New York Times app. 

Increasing the diversity of your newsroom, in every single way – race, age, sex, gender, socio-economic background. You’ll also want to bring in some digital people who have never set foot in a newsroom before.

Skills

Ability to set a clear editorial direction for your staff, while remembering that “you are not your readers”. In print, you could produce a paper for the reader of your imagination. Now, in digital, we know exactly who our readers are and what they are interested in and you’ve got to respond with content that resonates for them. That’s a lot of people to be thinking about while making sure there is a coherent whole.

Deep understanding of different data points and, crucially, how to derive insights from them. You need to be able to see what lies behind an outwardly impressive “big number” because your staff will be quoting them all the time.

A familiarity with different kinds of storytelling and what stories work best in which format.

A knowledge of strategies for off-platform distribution of content because you need to be able to ask tough questions of your social team (among others). It’s not enough to say proudly: “We’re on TikTok” – you have to know why you’re on TikTok and what the expected outcomes are.

A thorough understanding of product thinking – designing a service or product based squarely on meeting both customer and business needs and balancing the two off against each other. In a world of finite development resources you need to understand the importance of setting priorities for your roadmap and sticking to them. You also need to be able to talk knowledgeably about these things in order to bring the rest of the business with you.

Understanding of digital development processes, knowing that everything takes more time than you might think and has multiple dependencies. This means you won’t be asking for a new product feature on a Tuesday and expecting it to be in the app by Friday, because you know this will discombobulate a finely ordered development process.

The ability to manage diverse teams. Each will require a different style of communication at the very least. Millennials, for example, are a lot more likely to respond to the sense of a shared goal, while Gen Xers are more willing to accept that they’ll just do what the boss says.

A talent for change management. Journalists are like most people – we don’t like change – and you are going to be leading them through the biggest change in our industry for years. You are going to need subtle skills as well as resilience to make the transformation stick.

You can’t do it all yourself – as you could, at a pinch, try to do in print days – so you’re going to have to be adept at the skills of delegation. 

The humility to understand that to do all this you are going to have to listen to people who may be younger and less senior than you but know a hell of a lot more about the subject at hand  than you do.

The flexibility to realise that all this is going to change again, and much sooner than we think.

That's quite a collection of responsibilities and skills. So where do such people come from?

In truth, you probably have quite a few in your organisation already, but perhaps not in the jobs that have traditionally produced editors (news editors, political reporters and so on). 

Instead, they will be digital specialists, maybe even product people, perhaps some digitally curious reporters. In truth, they could come from anywhere – and from a business that has been quite conservative in its attitude towards change that should be an exciting prospect.

Hunter Brunt Media Ltd. Company number: 13546179
Registered address: 45 Harcourt Road, London, England N22 7XW