Media: Who would be an editor?

They may wield power and earn huge salaries, but their jobs are no longer secure.
Click to follow
Most ambitious young journalists have a simple aim - to edit a national newspaper. But the events of this year may make many pause for thought. For 1998 has seen eight editors leave their posts, usually clearing their offices even before the triumphant headlines appear in rival papers the next day.

It is always a shock. One day they are omnipotent, courted by politicians and feared by their staff. The next they are bidding farewell to six- figure salaries and chauffeur-driven cars. Increasingly, the job is reminiscent of being a football manager - well-paid, high-profile and increasingly short-term. Indeed, the number of national newspaper editors departing this year was the same as the number of Premier League managers. In both cases, resignation is usually a euphemism for being sacked.

"Only in football is the pressure to get results so great and the loading of responsibility on one person similar," says Len Gould, the editor of the Sunday Mirror from 1996 to 1997. "Like the football manager, you get about six months before the chairman starts issuing statements of confidence."

The eight to depart their newspapers this year are an eclectic lot, proving that the job is equally as insecure on broadsheets and tabloids. They include people such as Jonathan Holborow at the Mail on Sunday and Stuart Higgins at The Sun, both of whom were editing market leaders and sitting on seemingly healthy sales.

The others to go were Phil Walker at the Daily Star, Andrew Marr at The Independent, Will Hutton at The Observer, Richard Addis at The Express, Bridget Rowe at the Sunday Mirror and Brendan Parsons at the Sunday People.

While their redundancy terms mean they are unlikely to end up on the dole, most find it difficult to settle into new jobs quickly. Consultancy seems to be the catch-all phrase that protects ex-editors from the more humbling experience of working for another editor who was once their equal.

What the events of recent years demonstrate is how the nature of newspaper editing has changed. In the past five years there have been 26 editors who have left their jobs without a better one to go to; most sat in the editor's chair for about two years. Only two of them - Peter Preston of The Guardian and Kelvin Mackenzie of The Sun - had been editors before 1980. Sir David English, who died this year, was the only other editor of recent times who could count his tenure in decades.

This marks a significant change from the generation before, when Hugh Cudlipp ran The Mirror from 1952 to 1973 and David Astor edited The Observer from 1948 to 1975.

Analysts believe the rapid turnover of editors is down to a structural change at the heart of the newspaper business. The industry is in decline, with circulations falling for 15 years. This means a company cannot grow by increasing the size of the overall market - the new customers are not there. Instead, a newspaper can only grow by taking readers from other titles. This means newspapers are just too competitive to allow for long- term security for their editors - unless they are beating the competition.

As a result, proprietors see their struggling titles failing to produce a decent return on investment and keep changing the man (or, occasionally, the woman) at the top in the hope of finding the one who can turn things around and lure readers from rivals.

Newspapers are, of course, unusual in that the product bears such a strong imprint of the person at the top. But the changed finances of newspapers also means it is cheaper to change the editor than invest in the paper as a whole.

As newspapers have struggled to hold readers, they have doubled in size over the past 10 years but without a similar increase in cover price. Even with new technology and the de-recognition of trade unions,profits have been squeezed.

This has led, particularly at the Express and Mirror titles, to editors being replaced by people claiming they can do things more cheaply. Conversely, some editors have resigned rather than implement more job cuts.

For the editor who can supply the holy grail of increasing sales, or even just halt decline, the rewards can be considerable. This is even more true when the competition tries to poach the miracle worker. Paul Dacre is believed to be earning more than pounds 650,000 a year. Other editors can expect anything from pounds 200,000 upwards, with substantial share options, pensions and other perks. Given their shortness of tenure, the key to an editor's wealth might well be his or her exit arrangements. A one-year contract, which means a six-figure pay-off, should clear all but the most Mandelsonian of mortgages, especially when combined with cashing in the share options and possibly holding on to the company Jag.

But they are unlikely to be driven by money. Star columnists, such as Richard Littlejohn and Lynda Lee-Potter, can earn similar sums without anything like the workload or fear of redundancy. And if they do get sacked, they just move papers. Additionally, columnists get to live and die by their own pen, but many editors will have died because of factors like budgets, which are out of their control. But then, as proprietors know, there is always someone who wants to step up to bat.

Andrew Marr has columns in two newspapers, but he has also turned himself into a company and is on the board of Lord Hollick's new media venture capital arm and will be presenting a television series next year. "The greatest advantage I find of working for myself is that it is good psychologically," says Marr. "As an editor you do things at second-hand - you hire the right person to do the right job. Now I do everything for myself."

Richard Addis, too, has become a company. His plan is to come up with marketable ideas and he is working on a project for the Mail on Sunday. "By creating a company, you can at last build up something that is of value to yourself," he says.

For many of the editors leaving their posts, the other main task is securing a pay-off. This usually requires signing a confidentiality agreement. Those who stay really friendly are those who manage to get kicked upstairs. In this year's crop, Will Hutton became editor-in-chief of The Observer and remains a columnist, in spite of the plunge in circulation under his editorship.

The one thing this year's crop of ex-editors has in common is their relative youthfulness. "The days of becoming editor in your fifties have gone," says Andrew Marr. "Then when you stepped down after years at the top, it was to a well-earned retirement. Now the rapid turnover means the trick is to get right what you do with your life afterwards. Simon Jenkins is probably the best model of how you manage it."

Jenkins, the editor of The Times from 1990 to 1992, now has that most British of careers - he is a member of the great and the good. As well as producing various weekly columns, Jenkins sits on an array of committees covering railways, the environment, historic buildings, world monuments and the Old Vic.

So there is one difference with football managers. Ex-editors rarely end up running their own pub.