FEATURE 

Life out of the Editor’s chair

The regional newspaper editor has become something of an endangered species. Title closures, frequency changes and company restructures have all taken their toll. Former Lancaster Guardian editor, Sue Riley, looks at what some of her erstwhile colleagues have been getting up to.

By Susan Riley

Three years ago, I attended a North West editors’ forum; there were eleven of us, a mix of daily and weekly Johnston Press editors. Today, just two of that original line-up remain. (To be fair, it should be said that three of us who left, one to edit a daily, were replaced). It’s just one small example of the current squeeze on the newspaper industry – and editors in particular.

Go travelling

When I became editor of the weekly Lancaster Guardian in 2001, it was a good time. Owned by Regional Independent Media, there was a relatively buoyant advertising market, rising circulation figures, lots of reporters and many awards won. Fast forward nine years and I made the incredibly difficult decision to leave. My job had changed beyond all recognition; I never got out of the newsroom and most people in the city where I worked would have difficulty recognising me because I rarely fulfilled my role as a community editor anymore. Handing in my notice was a risky thing to do with so many editors being made redundant around me and I realised I might never find another job in journalism in the future. But my wanderlust had returned and, like most newspaper companies, JP didn’t have a sabbatical policy, so I decided to leave. Some colleagues thought I was brave, others that I was being downright stupid. The only certain thing was that I was suddenly part of a growing statistic, just one of dozens of experienced editors to leave the industry in the past couple of years.

When the Society of Editors was formed in 1999, regional editors made up two thirds of its membership; now that’s less than half. The society’s executive director Bob Satchwell explained: “There are special reasons at the moment because of the big pressures, structural changes, technological changes, new challenges of finding new platforms as well as immense commercial pressures. I think quite a few editors have been in place for quite a long time. I always thought that editors, particularly on dailies, needed to have a bit of a shelf life, 12-15 years, something like that. Papers are for young people and you are in your prime in your 30s and early 40s; not to say you are on the scrap heap after that but you are at the height of your energy and creativity then.”

Bob decided to leave his editorship of the Cambridge Evening News the day after he turned 49 and he remains upbeat about the opportunities open to former editors. “There is life after newspapers which is good for editors. Being an editor qualifies you to do so much, so many different things.”

Public relations

Yet it’s no surprise that most former editors use their skills to go into public relations, marketing or set up their own media consultancy. Jon Grubb, 45, did just that. After 22 years in journalism, the former Lincolnshire Echo editor set up Grubb Street Media a few months after leaving Northcliffe last summer following ‘artistic differences’. Three months after he left, the Lincolnshire Echo switched to weekly publishing. “Editing a daily newspaper was my dream job and for many years I enjoyed the challenges, the successes and the communities I worked in. The people I toiled alongside at every newspaper I worked in were a joy. Lots of dedicated, skilled and genuinely inspiring people passed through those newspaper offices and I wouldn’t change that experience. I was sad to leave newspapers – and I still feel the ink in my veins – but the industry has changed beyond all recognition from the one I joined and it was the right time for me to leave. I am very happy that I did so,” he said. Jon is part of the shift of very experienced journalists and editors who have moved into PR. He said: “Generally, I’d say there are more PR professionals with real journalistic experience – in many cases more than the staff working on the newspapers.”

Some former editors have gone into politics. Former Sheffield Star and Halifax Courier editor John Furbisher left newspapers last summer to head the Conservative Press Office in Brussels (closely followed by his wife, Nicola Megson, who gave up her job editing the Derbyshire Times to move to be with him.) And this summer, axed Scotsman editor John McLellan was appointed as the communications director for the Scottish Conservatives.

Staying in newspapers

Others take a sideways move to keep in the newspaper industry. After seven years, Richard Machin left his job editing two small weeklies in Lancashire (Garstang Courier and Longridge News) to become a news editor on a daily paper in Cumbria. “I am now three months into my new job at the North West Evening Mail. It is a very demanding job and certainly the levels of pressure and responsibility have not diminished. But the big difference for me is that my new employer is part of a family-owned group, with a real emphasis on the quality of journalism and investment in editorial. I have a good team of reporters and we are still trying to do the job properly - getting reporters out of the office, engaging with the community. I took a pay cut to take on my new job and it is very hard work, so I don't think I can be accused of taking an easy option, but it is rewarding and exciting - and it has reminded me why being a journalist is such a great job.”

Switch to magazines

A few find themselves editing magazines. Years ago, former Birmingham Mail editor and group editor Roger Borrell was made redundant. “Things had slowed down – but nothing like as bad as today,” he said. He was then offered the editorship of Archant’s flagship Lancashire Life magazine. “It was a shock to the system. The language isn’t quite so industrial in magazines, staffing is mainly freelance and people gave me puzzled looks when I walked back into the office and barked: ‘What’s happening’. When it’s a monthly glossy, ‘what’s happening’ isn’t quite so relevant as when you’re prowling the newsroom floor.” He said one of the positive aspects of the current problems facing the newspaper industry was that so many experienced editors were now freelancing. “I have great freelances – including former editors who, like me, have rediscovered the joy of journalism,” he said.

Academia

Ah yes, the joy of journalism. Alan Geere, regional editorial director for Northcliffe South East and editor of the Essex Chronicle seems to embody that phrase. He has interspersed his editing life with three spells in academia and is just about to do that again. In August, he announced that he was leaving Essex to go to Kampala in Uganda to launch a new journalism degree at the city’s university. While working there, he intends to complete a PhD. “I’ve never been great at having much of a plan. I am coming up to 57 and I am going to do a PhD then hopefully once I have done that, I can use that industry expertise and some robust qualifications and I can see out my days running a journalism school in the US. I can think about other eras where the editor had been there forever and you never thought they were going… ever, particularly in the big cities. Experienced editors are an expensive resource and probably too expensive.” He also urged ex-editors to think beyond public relations and marketing. “We have lots of skills and talents which are easily transferable. We tend to do things quickly, accurately, we are good at talking to people… I have done quite a lot of work in charities, the third sector.” Bob Satchwell echoes that. “Editors are supremely qualified to do a whole range of jobs. What is sometimes missed by the newspaper industry is that editors can move into other roles; that experience can be invaluable and should be kept wherever possible within the newspaper.”

Steve Brauner left newspapers this summer after spending 32 years in journalism, 15 of them in the editor's chair. He recently joined Collinson Grant, a management consultancy based near Manchester which helps private and public sector organisations to restructure, cut costs, increase performance and manage people. “It's only when you leave journalism that you realise the value of the skills you have been using, almost without thinking about it, for years. The ability to communicate clearly in writing is a disappearing art but, contrary to what many people seem to think, it is as important as ever. This is especially the case where organisations are trying to analyse complex problems and simplify processes and structures. I love newspapers but, sadly, the industry has become a mug's game in which increasing levels of effort are rewarded by constantly diminishing returns,” he said.

A mug’s game or not, it’s still rare to come across a former editor who wouldn’t contemplate going back into the newspaper industry if the job and employers were right… or in some cases, if they could get the right backers to set up their own paper. But, sadly, the combination of those things are few and far between at the moment.