Top editors speak on myriad challenges journalism faces and their belief in subscriptions

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


The journalist is on the front line,” said Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate of Rappler in the Philippines.

Technological disruption and economic pressures are not the only challenges newspaper editors-in-chief face around the world. Editors are confronted by rising political polarisation, declining public trust, and unprecedented level of harassment against journalists.

This is based on Directores, a new book by Spanish journalist Fernando Belzunce, who talked to 11 editors: from Ressa and Adam Michnik of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, to Alessandra Galloni of Reuters and Joe Kahn of The New York Times.

“I wanted to showcase the crucial moment journalism is going through and focus on what really matters — the fundamentals of journalism, its role and responsibility in society, and for democracy,” Belzunce explained in an interview with INMA.

The 47-year-old Belzunce is editorial director of Vocento and responsible for its national newspaper ABC, 11 regional newspapers, and two magazines in Spain. 

Key challenges

What’s on the chief editors’ minds? 

  • Threats to democracy from populism: Carlos Dada of El Faro in El Salvador told  Belzunce: “We have mistakenly assumed that democracy lies in voting, and we forget that democracy is, above all things, a system of checks and balances. When there are no checks and balances, it is no longer a democracy.”

  • Rising polarisation: New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn admitted: “Political polarisation is a big challenge for journalism. It’s not just in the United States but in Western democracies. We are looking at how to make our output more valuable to more people regardless of their political point of view.”

  • Declining public trust: Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times said: “[Readers] trust that what you are telling them is a fair reflection of the story, as journalists see it. If you lose the readers’ trust, then you have nothing.”

  • Social media threats to the society: Maria Ressa of Rappler observed: “Platforms prioritise the dissemination of lies over facts. They insidiously manipulate our emotions so that we can’t tell fact from fiction. Mark Zuckerberg is, in some ways, the greatest dictator.”

Interviewing his peers, Fernando Belzunce found the threats to journalism and societies are similar globally, partly because they share the roots: “Polarisation is driven by audience fragmentation, and the fragmentation is enabled by technology. Radicals ignore facts and use social media to create alternative realities, and then brutally attack journalists who investigate them.”

How should the news media respond? “With facts, facts, and more facts. We cannot accept realities that are not based on facts.” In his opinion, rigorous investigative journalism and transparency on how it works can help regain the audiences’ trust.


Business and technology transformation

Faced with economic pressures and new technologies, the top editors stay defiant and sound confident. 

“My interviewees agreed that the subscription revenue model aligned well with journalism because it rewarded quality,” explained Fernando Belzunce. “At the same time, advertising revenue models often pushed newsrooms towards quantity, and that hurt.”

  • Merging of the newsroom’s and company’s business strategies: Joe Kahn of The New York Times thinks a subscription model brought “a golden age for the newsroom, because the news we create, the journalism we do, drives the business directly. And so the company has an incentive to continually reinvest in journalism and attract more subscribers.” 

  • Balancing market logic with journalistic mission: Poland’s Adam Michnik believes his newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s success in digital subscriptions lies — counterintuitively — in publishing what readers need to read rather than what they want to read: “Our journalism is interesting and thought-provoking. Other media publish what their readers want to read but it is very boring.”

  • Balancing data science with human judgement: Globe and Mail in Canada embraced audience data and even automated its home page. Still, Editor David Walmsley reminded us that “journalistic judgement has to override everything.” 

  • New skills and technology in the newsroom: Wolfgang Krach shared how the profile of journalists and their skills changed at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany: “Three or four years ago, we had hardly any professionals to do audio journalism, visual investigations, interactive developments, projects with open source or Artificial Intelligence.”

I asked Fernando Belzunce what skills a modern editor-in-chief needs to have. “The role expanded,” he reflected. “Today, editors must understand technology, social media, marketing, subscriptions because they have to collaborate with the business side.” 

Does it mean the walls between the newsroom and the business side are crumbling? Should they? “No. We need to maintain these walls. I have a good relationship with our commercial director, but we have different roles. The core focus of editors-in-chief is still journalism.”

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. INMA members may subscribe here.

About Greg Piechota

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