The future of the editor

I wrote a piece some time ago for What’s Next magazine, looking at the future of traditional editors in a digital world. The magazine has now finally come out – and so here is an edited version of the text, below.

In 1885, the owner of the New York Herald newspaper commissioned the science fiction author Jules Vernes to write a short story about life in America a thousand years in the future. The result – which finally appeared four years later under the title “In the Year 2889” – contained among its predictions a 29th-century newspaper called the Earth Chronicle which “instead of being printed… is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen and scientists, learn the news of the day.” The Earth Chronicle, Vernes added, had over eighty-five million subscribers.

Minus a few details like the colonisation of the solar system, we seem to have arrived at Vernes’s vision around nine hundred years early. Every day, hundreds of millions of people listen to and read the words of millions of others, via a communications network that connects over half of the world’s adult population. Yet this new global order has thus far proved inhospitable both to the newspaper industry and to most other traditional publishing and media businesses. Eighty-five million people watching a video clip or listening to a song is an everyday occurrence in 2011. But eighty-five million people subscribing to a newspaper remains pure fiction.

It’s easy enough to understand, then, why such excitement greeted the news in April 2011 that the “social magazine” app Flipboard – which launched on iPad less than a year previously – had successfully attracted a second round of funding that valued the company at $200 million. Flipboard is the poster child for a new phase in the relationship between digital consumers and the kind of daily content that has for the last two decades stubbornly refused to reproduce the printed world’s revenues: an app which attempts to combine online culture’s bottomless diversity with the compactness, elegance and advertising opportunities of traditional magazine publishing.

At heart, Flipboard is simply an attractive re-imagining of the kind of syndication software that web users have been using for most of the last decade. Readers submit the details of the social networking services they use and the web feeds they follow, and these are automatically converted into a magazine-style experience on the iPad, complete with high-quality fonts and formatting, large images, headlines and standfirsts, and the eponymous “flip” interface, which allows both easy browsing and full-screen viewing at the touch of a thumb.

Traditional online advertising and businesses models for magazines have tended to put business considerations at war with user experience: banner ads are ugly and distracting, while paid-for restrictions on content cut against the grain of a culture of spontaneous sharing and trends measured in minutes rather than days. Compare this to readers of a publication like Vogue, for most of whom glossy advertising and the production values of an exclusive product are an integral part of the magazine’s pleasure. Today, however, as Flipboard’s CEO Mike McCue sees it, the moment has arrived for “something totally new” online that manages to channel “the timeless principles of print, the traditions of design typography, the rhythm of storytelling”.

This “something totally new” is closely connected to the most significant recent transition in digital culture: the move from searching to social activity as the heart of the net. During the web’s first decade, going online above all meant using a search engine to wander though a universe of open information. By the time Google arrived on the scene in 1998, the ability to search and navigate many millions of web pages at will had already begun fundamentally to disrupt the way in which much of the world read, shared and thought about media.

Over the last few years, however, a second trend has had even Google playing catchup: social media. Suddenly, the open web doesn’t have all the answers. People looking for guarantees of relevance, interest and convenience increasingly turn to individual digital relationships and networks of contacts for answers. In the words of US editor, blogger and author Alexis Madrigal, “Twitter acts as a kind of human recommendation engine in which I am the algorithm.”

Which brings us to the present, and to an intriguing new middle ground in the form of Flipboard: a service that keeps editorial power in the hands of its users, but whose expertly elegant design also makes the case that certain kinds of constraint represent a more worthwhile premium than ever.

Flipboard also presents the world of traditional publishing with a new form of a familiar digital challenge: if the reader themselves is acting as the editor selecting the content, and the design team behind Flipboard are the ones bringing this content to life, where does this leave those professionals who have historically made their living from the careful selecting and presentation of texts – that is, editors themselves?

Flipboard is neither the first nor the only service to have posed such questions. As early as 2007, a service known as Feeddo – latter renamed Feedly – presented a user’s favourite websites and feeds in a curated, magazine-style format; a trick that later services like The Tweeted Times and Paper.li have continued to develop.

Going one step further towards print, Hewlett Packard’s online service Tabbloid launched in November 2008, offering its users a “daily electronic magazine” which compiled their selection and favourite feeds and sent it in a printable pdf format directly to their inbox. The style and customisation options were basic, but this was a timely recognition of the enduring appeal of content that can simply be picked up and read from beginning to end.

In November 2009, this trend reached perhaps its logical conclusion with the launch in Berlin of Niiu – a personalised daily newspaper service that, for the same price as a standard German newspaper (€1.80), would deliver to each of its subscribers a 24-page printed paper based on their personal selections from 17 international and German newspapers and a range of websites. Custom inkjet printers meant that every single subscriber could receive an individualised print publication seven days a week.

Niiu may sound like the world’s first editor-free printed newspaper. And yet Niiu’s readers – like the users of the digital services that preceded and enabled it – are not acting as editors in the conventional sense. Much as in the case of social media, their editorial input lies in selecting which trusted sources and individuals to follow, not in selecting which individual pieces they wish to read.

In this sense, the reader’s role is not so much that of an editor as that of a delegator – outsourcing the selection process to others, who themselves are making their selections from other sources. It’s a chain of connections that can consist simply of social memes rippling through the ether, but that often also ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) in the traditionally-edited work of a magazine, newspaper or broadcast reporter – or the less traditionally-edited but increasingly professionalised work of a leading blogger.

Choosing who gets to edit your information about the world is, of course, almost exactly what has been going on in the newspaper and magazine businesses for the best part of several centuries: readers pick publications for their political stance, their tone, their taste, their ethos. In this sense, little has changed. The cardinal relationship within media consumption remains one of trust. It’s just that almost anyone, now, can attempt to earn to win others’ trust in their taste – and that trust may be more ruthlessly predicated on knowing what’s trending, trendy, or just plain amusing than on any other criteria.

Here, then, is the billion dollar question: what’s an editor to do, short of flinging up the paywalls and hoping to tough it out Murdoch-style? Flipboard may be in the ascendant, but those hoping to be saved by imitation will be disappointed. Much like other powerful digital platforms, once someone has a (free) copy of Flipboard sitting on their iPad, their need for other such applications is low. It offers a fine means of consuming others’ content; but the whole point of the service is that it offers a complete, customisable package.

A better and clearer question is, perhaps, what an editor ought not to do. With Flipboard and a host of other elegant apps in hand, most iPad users are not going to look twice at a magazine app that simply reproduces print content onscreen. Good design starts from first principles – and few things look more stale or inert on a 21st-century device than the static pages of a 20th-century publishing format. In this sense, many editorial ambitions may be better off being scaled back, and concentrating on what can uniquely be offered to readers: distinctive content, a trustworthy brand, an elegant physical edition, and open partnerships with leading digital services.

One service looking much like this launched in early 2011, thanks to a collaboration between the The New York Times R&D Lab and the URL shortening service bitly. Called News.me, it is – like Flipboard – an iPad app with an attractive, magazine-style interface. Unlike Flipboard, however, News.me started out by charging its users $0.99 per week – or $34.99 a year – in exchange for curation of their social media stream, promising to display only “the most interesting links that people you follow on Twitter have recently shared”.

News.me was a bold experiment in attempting to monetize the combination of curation, quality and convenience. Come September, however, it had already ditched its subscription and launched itself as an independent company from bitly: a bold or a desperate move, depending on your perspective, and one whose consequences it will be intriguing to watch.

Yet whether News.me fails or succeeds, it is becoming increasingly clear that a mature digital world of smartphones, tablets and social media is not a purely “open” place any more than media are likely to entirely abandon all forms of print for pixels. Rather, both open and closed systems are flourishing – and competing – in parallel, and vying to win the limited attention and trust of consumers.

There is little place in this world for a soggy middle ground of publications with neither the virtues of print nor the ability to meet digital expectations. And this means both a leaner and a more nervous business all round.

The skills of a good editor – discernment, selection, synopsis, presentation, evaluation – remain at more of a premium than ever. The problem is convincing an audience to value these: something that it increasingly seems can only happen either within a well-defined niche, or as part of a constantly shifting network of recommendations, connections and commentaries.

The danger, here, is narcissism on one side and irrelevance on the other. Many old media colossuses will tumble. The potential rewards for those able to stay close enough to their audience, however, are substantial. The fantasy of Vernes’s daily conversation between 85 million loyal subscribers and the experts they trust to interpret their world may yet have its day.

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