the editor’s algorithm

How about this?

How about we took the twenty years of Peter Preston’s editorship of the Guardian newspaper – analysing and cross-referencing every single story that was published, along with every single journalistic angle that was observed and chosen?

Then, just for fun, we could do the same with Alan Rusbridger’s twenty years just finished, at the helm of the same paper.

Yes.  I know.  Two questions arise.  The first being: is it possible?  The second being: why do it?

Firstly, the first.  We’d have to set up some kind of criteria, that is true.  Maybe something along the following lines:

  • each story could be defined in terms of:
    • length
    • wordcount
    • register (ie complexity of sentence structure etc)
    • subject matter
    • visibility (ie how prominent the paper chose to foreground it)
    • how long-running it became (ie a single-article story vs a narrative arc over time)
  • defining the angles would be more difficult, and perhaps I am not the best-placed person to decide this (lack of technical knowhow for starters), but some kind of sentiment analysis could probably come in useful here

The idea, then, and I only suggest the Guardian because it’s the newspaper I know best (it could, of course, equally apply to any publication with sufficient history), would be to create a mathematical representation – an algorithm if you must – of the editorship’s style and heteroglossia that each individual created, developed and left behind them, over their period of time as editor of the paper.

The sum of all their decisions – as well as the decisions of all their teams of course.

In much the same way as Rusbridger’s leaving describes:

Yet, nevertheless, and even so, allowing a singular editorial voice to be extracted, identified, typed, scored and made patent.

That’s my thesis, and one it’d be nice to be able to test too.

Don’t you think?


So there we have it: the editor’s algorithm.  A process whereby the accumulated intelligence and intuition of the Prestons and Rusbridgers of the world could almost be bottled, before being … what?

Well.  An application does occur to me: how about we had an online newspaper – just like the Guardian, in fact, is these days – whose content you could read and absorb, according to the filter of absolutely any historical editor the paper ever had?  Back to the days of CP Scott even.

Or, even, a Guardian edition of today, recomposed at the click of a button exactly as if it had been edited by a Kelvin Mackenzie or a Piers Morgan … or maybe a Ben Bradlee or a Tony Gallagher …

Now onto our why.  “What on earth would this be useful for?” I’m hearing you say (if, that is, you’ve read thus far!).  It’s a good question, and one I’m not exactly ready to answer.  But in the world of journalism and ideas, having an idea like this is surely worth writing an article about.  At the very least.  To be able to identify, at such a high intellectual level, the maths behind so many complex decision-making processes – processes that surely kick into play when a newspaper’s editor-in-chief creates, recreates, develops and sustains over such a long time a media voice of such complicated parts – would be fascinatingly uncovered by a project like this.

To be able to bottle top-class editorial decision-making, that ability to edit reality which often reveals so quickly so much useful truth about our planet and the societies that make it up, would be a grand achievement indeed – not only in order to understand highly competent journalism and its processes better; also, to apply the acquired knowledge to many other areas where high-powered data analysis, interpretation and (what we might term) an “applied intuition” is necessary.

Anyone up for it?  Come on!  Don’t be shy … as it says on my gravatar, I don’t bite at all!


  1. Miljenko Williams · June 1, 2015

    Reblogged this on MILJENKO.COM and commented:

    Here’s an idea from my blog an algorithm in order to bottle the very best of top-level editorial decision-making. It could, of course, be expanded to a wider leadership context. Why *not* search out and define what an “applied intuition” might exactly mean?

  2. Pingback: Environment and writing | MILJENKO.COM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s