There has been much talk among various eminences grises of the newspaper business that the age of the sub-editor will shortly draw to a close, as cash-strapped mastheads decide they can do without a table full of grumpy pedants asking each other how to spell “by-election” and choking back theatrical guffaws as they read op-ed pieces out loud to each other.
Fairfax Media is laying off subs and looks set to follow the trail blazed in New Zealand by APN News and Media, centralising its sub-editing work to “centres of expertise”.
This follows an announcement by London’s City AM that the business free sheet would axe eight staff, including six sub-editors, in order to streamline their operation.
This prompted US internet evangelist Jeff Jarvis to suggest in his blog, BuzzMachine, under the headline: “Retiring the green eye shade”, that the blog would be the ideal model: “When I mess up, you tell me. And because this blog is more of a process — a work in progress — than a product — the world neatly packed into a box with a bow on top, as newspapers like to think of themselves — that works well.”
If ever a line of copy needed a sub-editor to turn it into plain English, that was it.
And the “it’s never wrong for long” model doesn’t work well for newspapers — and is even less likely to work as the pressure increases for reporters to file web updates to their stories every 10 minutes.
Those of us who have spent a little time in production are already thrilling to the frequency of errors creeping in as subs’ benches, straining under the combined weight of the staff freeze and extra, internet-related duties, are letting through some memorable horrors.
(Memo to the editor of Smage’s News Review: was it Volume 104 or Volume 140 of the Harvard Review that Barack Obama edited? I counted three mentions of the former and two of the latter in your Geoffrey Robertson piece last weekend. Although, to be fair, the version of the story that ran in New Statesman on June 19, and had Obama consistently editing Volume 140, was corrected to 104 by someone in the NS’s comment section, so there is some confusion.)
Having been a reporter and backbench copy editor who thought subbing would be a bit of a snack, I got a hell of a shock when I started my first shift downtable. There’s a lot of skilled work involved, more so with some writers than with others. To expect reporters to sub their own copy (what? On top of taking video footage, recording podcasts and filing to continuous rolling deadlines online?) is making mischief.
If you look at any of the umpteen websites that canvass the future of journalism and are discussing the decline in newspaper readership you will find a strong body of opinion that says one of the reasons that fewer people are reading newspapers these days is that they have become sloppy and untrustworthy.
I won’t comment on that. But I will say that the quickest route to sloppy and untrustworthy journalism is to retire the men and women in the green eyeshades.
Jonathan Este worked at The Australian and The Independent and is director of communications with the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance. His views are not necessarily those of the Alliance.