Unpopular opinions are, by their very nature, a misery to defend. It’s not so much that they’re gnarly to argue around but one knows that one is writing oneself into a kind of obscurity. We have metrics that prove as much. Social media provides easy-to-read numbers that show which ideas have the most traction and which have taken on the downward career trajectory of a Mumford and/or Son. This is the model of a self-regulated zeitgeist around which the whole of socialised media is built, where nothing is as sobering as the effort that gets scant attention and few things are as depressing as the popularity of some otter that resembles the late Ken Dodd.

Newspapers feel this reality more than most, which is why some appear willing to go to extraordinary lengths to be read. Take The Telegraph, for example. According to The Guardian’s reporting, The Telegraph is planning to “link some elements of journalists’ pay to the popularity of their articles”, which, depending on your outlook, is an idea likely to appal or sound like one of those eminently bright innovations that make you wonder why nobody thought of it before.

Except somebody did think of it before. If The Telegraph chooses to go down that route, they’ll be the latest publication to adopt this increasingly popular form of front-loaded editorialising, where it’s reader feedback that adjusts the visibility of content. Reddit, the self-styled “front page of the internet”, operates entirely on the up/down vote model, but even traditional websites have analytics by which they can measure the engagement of readers (they know when you start to read, when you finish reading, and even what might have distracted you midway).

The result is a style of journalism that chases the market rather than advances independent thought. This is the market segment exploited by Buzzfeed with their bullet points and “17 things you didn’t know” approach to reporting. It’s novel for a time but eventually leads to a tyranny of content, a cookie-cutter uniformity like Axios’s “smart brevity” which limits paragraphs to a single heavily hyperlinked sentence.

These systems are built to work autonomously and writers have good reason to fear this kind of soft mechanisation. The hard mechanisation is surely coming once the adversarial networks behind “deepfakes” (those videos where fake Tom Cruise is indistinguishable from real Tom Cruise) turn their attention to more creative endeavours. Sooner or later, some bright spud will set up two rival computer networks: one to detect fake opinion pieces and another to create articles based on everything that pundits have ever written. Face them off against each other and maybe machines will start producing content indistinguishable from copy written by humans (realistically assuming that many readers aren’t too discerning).

If that (hopefully) distant reality is a nightmare for writers, in the short term it is something editors should be learning to fear. The instinct, after all, is to do away with editorial oversight. Machines already know how to select and order content, whilst performance-related pay is merely a humanised version of that, all but removing the editor’s guiding hand. This is the world of SEO, or search engine optimisation, one of the growth industries of the past decade, helping companies to dominate Google search results.

If the character of any publication is defined by its content, the role of editor has too often been mischaracterised as a secondary, non-creative act. Yet editors have historically held important roles as the personification of a publication’s ethos. It is a truism that behind every great writer sits a great editor (T.S. Eliot authored The Waste Land but it was Ezra Pound, acting as his editor, that ensured his legacy) but the same can be said of great newspapers. Roy Greenslade has argued that “there has never been a time when people […] knew the names of national press editors” but that doesn’t mean there was ever a time when the role of editor wasn’t vital.

Editing is a creative act, giving shape to often disparate voices joined in a single endeavour. Tina Brown, of Vanity FairThe New Yorker, and then The Daily Beast fame, offers the wonderful observation that “a magazine—a relevant one—should be a sound, not an echo”. In other words, editors lead. They do not follow. Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times, famously championed the cause of children affected by thalidomide. In his biography, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, he recalls feeling the constant urge to cover breaking news. “I was in the thick of all these events as an editor,” he wrote, “but determined to keep faith with the thalidomide children by campaigning week after week, month after month. The challenge was to keep readers interested.” That was the role of the editor. His job was to follow the rolling narrative of events but his duty was to challenge his audience by stopping to dwell on sometimes discomforting truths. “I was as eager as the next editor to find something new and exciting, but living close to the readers as I did then, I’d noted how we in the trade, absorbed by every story, became bored before the readers did.”

In bypassing the editor, algorithmic mechanisms – whether formalised in software or a pecuniary scheme that rewards page clicks – creates a positive feedback loop (meaning that the effects get more pronounced over time) which amplifies the worst instincts of both writers and readers. What we have learned from 30 years of the internet is that free content is priced according to its value. It has taken us a while to rediscover the importance of curated content and learn that paywalls are a necessary evil. The very act of editing – the craft of selecting, excluding, sometimes championing – as well as proprietorship, need to be celebrated, not reduced to the function of another dumb algorithm.