Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Editorial Vision Will Prevail

By Alan Finkel

We’re awash with information, but good editorial teams can inform and amuse you better than any automated keyword search.

On the information battlefield, traditional newspapers and magazines are increasingly wounded by declining circulation while new media contestants join the fray at ever-greater rates. Everything is in flux and we don’t know how the action will pan out.

Complicating any attempt to predict the future is the certainty that previously unimagined media technologies will emerge. These could be heads-up displays in the passenger seats of our autonomously-driven cars, audio narrations in the voices of our favourite actors, or holographic broadsheets that turn their pages in response to our hand gestures.

At issue is more than just the question of clever products delivering greater convenience, and the corporate winners and losers behind them. It’s also about how, and how well, citizens are informed. This makes a huge difference to how nations develop their intellectual capital.

Things are changing fast. More than half of the New York Times’ regular readership is now online and one-third of under-30s Americans get their news from social media – the same number as those getting it from television. A mere 13% in this age group get any news directly from a newspaper.

Not only are the media that people use changing, but also the organisations and individuals producing the content. While TV, print and radio continue, they now also compete directly against one other on the internet. Traditional publishers compete against each other on the web, and against YouTube, Facebook, thousands of bloggers, aggregators, and a million other sources of information, misinformation, opinion and entertainment.

There is an explosion of choice, generally trumpeted as a wonderful thing, but there are downsides. Quality suffers. Anyone can be heard, but not everyone is worth listening to. As media organisations spread content over more channels you have to cast a wider net to find something decent. Too many options take the pleasure out of consuming media, and the process of finding what to read or view starts to take over from the actual reading or viewing.

Clever applications try to provide solutions to this problem. Filtering tools like Feedly, Flipboard and RSS viewers will bring you just what you want to see, but these remove the chance of discovering things outside the limits you prescribe. In contrast, as you flip the pages of a traditional newspaper or magazine you are carried on a journey of discovery arranged by the editor. You can’t be entirely sure where you’ll be taken next. It could be a wonderful and intriguing subject you would not have considered putting into the search criteria of your filtering package.

Even worse is unbidden profiling by web publishers who offer sites to you because other people with similar profiles have looked at them.

Contrast the filtering role performed by an editorial team. They live and breathe the news or their particular field of expertise. They can inform, amuse, extend and stimulate you better than any automated keyword search.

Good editorial teams are in the game of engagement with their customers, building up a relationship with them. If they provide consistently deep and considered analysis we can come to trust them, even while we might recognise their flaws as well.

During the technology-driven jostling for position, there has been a drift away from these organisations with the result that editorial capacity has declined – but it need not be terminal.

Good editing appeals to what is enduringly human in us. We are not automatons simply absorbing information according to a formula. We want engagement. We value expertise. And we do not always want to be in control of everything all the time.

This doesn’t mean that technology is unimportant. Winners in publishing in 30 years will be organisations with strong editorial vision and the best technology. Publishers should support superb editorial teams and deliver their content using the latest technology.

This approach will ensure a healthy industry that is well equipped to play the unique and vital role our society requires of the media.

Dr Alan Finkel AM FTSE is President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and Chancellor of Monash University.