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Reflections on Runnymede

The Society of Editors conference is always a highlight of the year for us here at HTFP. Apart from anything else, it’s a great chance to catch up with old friends and contacts and experience the camaraderie that, in spite of everything, still lies at the heart of our industry.

Some of my more memorable after-hours discussions included speculation over which regional editors are thinking of jumping ship to the Bahamas to become managing editor of Nassau daily The Tribune, a lesson on the origins of single malts from Scotsman editor John McLellan, and reminiscing with an old Derby Telegraph colleague over the great days when Mike Lowe and Keith Perch ruled the roost.

But what of the debates themselves? Well, I’m afraid I take the same view of the discussion over press regulation as another of my old editors, Neil Fowler.

In his recent Guardian Lecture at Nuffield College, Oxford, he said: "Of course the ethics of how we work are fundamental in any open society like ours, and is a vitally important issue, but if there isn’t a news industry to be ethical about, we are somewhat missing the point."

To be fair to the SoE, the last two or three conferences before this one have been much more focused on the commercial challenges facing the industry as opposed to the regulatory/political ones.

But that said, the commercial pressures do seem to have become more urgent over the past year, particularly in the regional press.

Most of the regional editors I spoke to felt that the conference was very ‘national’ in terms of its subject matter, with the debate over the future of the Press Complaints Commission just one example of the discontinuity between ‘national’ and ‘regional’ concerns.

There was a general unanimity of view from the regional editors present that the PCC does a good job for the industry, with one editor, Gerry Keighley of the South Wales Argus, echoing Nigel Pickover’s earlier call for separate regulatory regimes for national and regional newspapers.

More pertinent to the regional press was the brief Tuesday morning ‘breakfast’ session at which media consultant Jim Chisholm unveiled the results of the SoE’s recent survey into editors’ attitudes and the changing face of the industry.

A large proportion of the responses to this survey, which was featured on HTFP, came from the regional press.

Among other things, it revealed that while editorial headcounts have fallen by 29pc since 2007, print output has fallen by just 17pc while digital output has increased by 163pc – confirming that everyone is doing proportionately more work than was the case four years ago.

The survey results also contained some golden nuggets about what editors would do if they were sitting in the MD’s chair, including one who argued for the return of on-the-day editions with just two paragraphs on the web.

But so far as highlighting any potential new business models is concerned, the survey was less helpful.

A revealing exchange took place at the end of the Tuesday morning session between Chisholm, compere Alastair Stewart, and Gerry Keighley, now one of the longest-serving regional editors.

Gerry asked Jim whether his survey revealed how much digital revenue is unique to the web and how much of it is attached to the print product.  Jim replied: "I don’t know."

Interjected Stewart:  "And that’s the problem isn’t it?"  He’s right.