I’d be amazed if the Standard gets away with this

By FRASER NELSON, Editor of The Spectator


Weirdest thing about Osborne taking the Standard editorship is his idea that he'll edit the paper in the morning and then do parliament in the afternoons. Sarah Sands said she put in an 11-hour days in that job, which I can quite believe.

There's a story told about how Tony Gallagher's wife once brought his kids to the Daily Mail newsdesk so he could say goodnight to them. It's probably nonsense but it resonates because it squares with what people know of him: a complete professional, utterly dedicated to his job. Someone who prefers exposing politicians to joining their social circle (or anyone else's). The great editors usually all fit in this category: the ones who live the job. Who think that, for the time that they're editor, they'll give everything they have. And not try to mix editing a daily newspaper with doing the school run.

I do the school run, on Tuesdays and Fridays. I have no aspiration to edit a newspaper. Set aside whether I could do it: a job like that absorbs your life, and rightly so. The car comes for you at 6.45am and drops you off at 11pm. And to your family, you say: goodbye. See you when I get sacked - if you're still waiting for me. I'm not sure anyone has compiled the divorce rate for editors, but I suspect its eye-wateringly high because the job simply doesn't leave time for much else. Especially at a time when journalism is midway through an industrial revolution, when so much is changing - and the job means repositioning the title, sidestepping the landmines, adapting to the new opportunities. Newspapers and magazines are dropping dead world over; to keep them alive really is a full-time job. Never has the job of editing demanded (or deserved) more.

Some people may be able to balance senior newspaper positions with other things, but I know that I couldn’t. Andrew Neil once said that the reason he didn't marry when he was younger because he knew the life he intended to lead: one completely devoted to journalism. He said he had colleagues, similarly devoted to their job, who married anyway, who left broken marriages and fatherless children because they imagined that they could balance a family and their work. Knowing Andrew as I now do, it's funny to see him portrayed as a playboy. Paradoxically, it was out of respect for the notion of marriage and parenthood that Andrew avoided both - and no one who has met him could describe him as a sad or disappointed man. He was a hugely successful editor because he was a completely committed editor: it's quite hard to separate the two. And anyway, he is now married - having met the love of his life in his 60s.

There have been part-time editors – Boris Johnson did it brilliantly at The Spectator. But he was editing a weekly at a time when the business model was the same as it had been for generations; before the digital era, before display advertising revenue started to collapse. The Economist has said it expects zero advertising revenue by 2025; the Wall St Journal thinks it might be closer to 2020 Rupert Murdoch recently summoned his editors and top executives to a summit in the US where they were asked to describe how their titles could survive without print advertising revenue. The way Murdoch sees it, an editor without an answer to this question is not a proper editor.

While it may be (just about) acceptable for an MP to collect £650k as a consultant for a hedge fund, it’s outrageous for a newspaper editor to do so.

This has all been a long time coming; papers everywhere have long been trying to change everything. At first editors and journalists were kept out of this loop, relegated to "content providers" while managers called the shots instead. The result was calamitous. Editors who stayed out of these discussions ended up being given marching orders by managers, in a way that had never happened before. Ordered to move the journalism to where the consultants thought the money was. Thus the title would be deformed, readers would notice, go away and never come back. The threat to journalism isn't digitisation, but a bungled response to digitisation. The mortality rate of newspapers and magazine has never been higher.

I was once at a meeting of magazine editors, where they all described how their job is barely recognisable from that which they did five years ago. The bulk of it is thinking of ways you can adapt, in a way that protects and projects your title. So if I'm doing my job, then The Spectator magazine will read as well as any time in its proud history but will be well-positioned for whatever the future brings. My role: to protect my colleagues on the editorial side from non-journalistic distractions and do what I can to preserve The Spectator magic, and project it digitally. I often think of that line in The Leopard: if you want things to stay the same, then everything has to change.

So yes, the editor will oversee the main stories, the cover, read every page. But also make sure (for example) that the email newsletters, blogs and podcasts are on-brand, and effective in both serving and recruiting subscribers. And to hope that sales uplift offsets the decline in print advertising. This is far easier for a magazine than newspapers, who are far more heavily-reliant on advertising revenue. The Spectator's sales are rising at the fastest rate in 30 years, last week was our highest-ever weekly increase. But there's no real sense of jubilation because of the conditions in the advertising market.

When editors get together, talk fairly quickly turns to the industry. Whose strategies are working, whose aren't. The role of social media, the prospects for video, native advertising, the role of emails. How best to crack the relationship between digital and print. Whether the surge in New York Times subscription is bring driven by Trump, by a more secular trend or by a giveaway price. It's not so much about beating your rivals nowadays, but about how to save your publication.

So far, Osborne has spoken about the job as if he has been appointed political editor - saying he'll "shape the debate" and judge the government by what's good for London (while taking the Tory whip). Political coverage is an important but relatively small part of the job of a newspaper editor. Politics is not something I have to worry about at The Spectator because James Forsyth and the team handle it so well. The most time-consuming part of the job lies in other areas, as Osborne may soon find out.

And while it may be (just about) acceptable for an MP to collect £650k as a consultant for a hedge fund, it’s outrageous for a newspaper editor to do so. It’s unthinkable that John Witherow, Paul Dacre or Chris Evans would act as a paid consultant for a hedge fund, or allow any of their journalists do so. To give a speech here and there; perhaps. With payment, usually, to charity. But to be in receipt of two-thirds of a million quid a year from the most powerful hedge fund in Europe? Never. An editor can’t be in the regular pay of the financial services industry that he ought to be holding to account. And that's just one of Osborne's conflicts of interest.

The Evening Standard is now free to c900k Londoners; it depends entirely on a print advertising market now in freefall. The Murdoch titles saw ad revenue fall 30% last year, the FT 40%. There is no sign of this trend abating. So how will the Standard survive in a world where print advertising has dried up? As an editor, he'll need an answer. Without one: kapoof. The Evening Standard will join the Independent in the great digital resting place in the sky.

Perhaps George Osborne will be like the "guest editors" brought in now and again by radio shows and struggling magazines. He was a part-time Chancellor, and I'm not sure that his record vindicates his strategy. But I'd be amazed, with journalism in its current state, if any newspaper can really get away with a part-time editor.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre