Have you noticed an increase in errors in your newspaper lately? Such things are hard to measure, of course. Mistakes in headlines, grammatical snafus and spelling mistakes have gladdened the hearts of vindictive pedants for decades. And for decades, people say it is getting worse. But this time they may be right, and there is a reason.
Over the past few months the Australian newspaper industry has been undergoing an historic change — the outsourcing or centralising of subediting. That is, the processing of copy, writing of headlines, captions and checking of facts not by a bank of subeditors assigned to masthead, but by a centralised battery system.
Starting earlier this year, News Limited newspapers, from the humblest suburban title to the mighty Daily Telegraph, are now having their copy processed in NewsCentral offices where teams of up to 100 subeditors process copy from all titles.
The idea of a sub having a connection to and loyalty towards a masthead is on the way out. This is the back story to the recent protests in Tasmania over the plans to move The Mercury subbing from Hobart to the mainland.
NewsCentral in Victoria began operations in January. New South Wales followed. Brisbane is also in full swing, as are smaller operations in other states.
Fairfax newspapers have outsourced a great deal of subediting — mainly of sections — to Pagemasters, where anonymous teams process copy remote from the push and pull of the newsroom.
The rationalisation of subediting is sad and worrying, but also predictable. In straitened times the “back end” of news production is a natural candidate for cost savings. Yet it is also true — and I am not confident that this is understood by the bean counters — that news organisations mess with this kind of thing at their peril.
When US journalism academic Philip Meyer did his ground-breaking research for his book The Vanishing Newspaper, he used robust statistical measures to measure commercial success, numbers of mistakes and credibility of titles. He proved that newspaper credibility was correlated strongly with commercial success.
And what was the key predictor of credibility? Not the talent or experience of the editor, nor the goals kicked by the investigative team. Not even the numbers of reporters. No, it was numbers of subeditors. Spelling errors and other mistakes damaged credibility more than any other single factor, and damaged credibility meant commercial decline.
I suspect that the knock-on effect of removing subeditors from particular titles will be felt for years. Subeditors used to have a training role. Decades ago, when I was young, they would yell from across the newsroom to interrogate you on your understanding of apostrophes. It was not gentle, but it worked.
In the better newsroom cultures, subeditors have continued to have a mentoring role. They have been the custodians of culture. And, of course, we all need them, to save us from the embarrassment of our own errors. Some would say we also need them to blame when things go wrong.
Now, on our major mastheads, they are anonymous and faceless. Over the past few weeks I have spoken to several people working in the NewsCentral outfits. They describe how a specialist sports sub might be assigned a fashion story, while the fashion specialist sitting next door subs sport.
They describe the difficulties of judging news value and pitch when the paper concerned is completely unfamiliar to them.
News Limited has clearly thought through the move — perhaps more thoroughly than Fairfax — and is doing a lot of things to try to overcome the battery feeling and shortcomings of NewsCentral. Each masthead has a go-to person who attempts to co-ordinate and answer queries.
And there is an attempt to create a nice workplace culture. A cutesy newsletter, Hubbub, circulates, carrying everything from personal stories about staff members’ families to news about the search for content management systems that actually work.
There is also an emphasis on training.
The approach seems to be that subs should feel the same attachment to NewsCentral that they might once have felt to a masthead. But all this is happening far from where reporters actually work. The mentoring role of the sub, it seems, is all but dead and that is a great loss.
Yet the battery impression remains, with whole floors of News Limited buildings filled with people who come and go, never knowing where they will be sitting or who they will be sitting next to, or what they will be subbing or what issues are animating the newsrooms on the floors above and below.
At Pagemasters, the Fairfax process is even more remote from the newspapers, and in fact out of Fairfax’s control. I hear stories about work having to be redone because of fundamental breakdowns in communications and misunderstandings.
So are there more errors creeping in to our papers? It would take a careful study, perhaps similar to that on accuracy carried out by the ABC in recent years, to be sure.
But some examples to hit my inbox over the past few weeks include this article from The Age, in which the name of the union is incorrect, although the acronym is right. Another article a month ago claimed that the Victorian chief justice was Mary Gaudron (in fact a former High Court judge) instead of Marilyn Warren.
The word communications was spelled with only one “m” in another News Limited headline recently, and on it goes.
Now, nobody involved in publication in Australia can afford to be smug about these kinds of errors. We have all made them. We have all, whether or not we admit it, been saved and let down by subeditors at various times.
But that’s my point. We need subeditors.
Personally, I suspect that as the news business re-invents itself, organisations will in time be forced to reassess whether they can really commoditise the back end in this way. I suspect that just as the major banks were forced to reassess and reverse their ruthless closure of suburban and regional branches, so too news organisations will find that rationalising subediting is a long-term false economy.
All good and honest writers would admit it, unless they are too conceited to do so. A good sub is a very fine thing, and the closer they are to one’s elbow, the better.
All we have to sell is our credibility, and the subeditor is the most important person to preserving it.