Reports of 'the death of the sub-editor' may not be exaggerated

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 13 February 2009
"Mention any major story of the last century and you can remember how you saw it in print."

The key words for me in that quote are 'last century'.

Even by the end of the 20th century the power of the printed press to shape our collective memory was failing. Ask people about the release of Mandela and the defining image is not a still one framed with a cleverly worked headline, it is the literally moving images of him walking away from Victor-Verster Prison.

If you ask people what they recall of the death of Diana, it is just as likely to be the rolling news footage of her body returning to RAF Northolt on Sky News as it is a black-bordered Sunday paper front page.

The quote above is from one of the user responses to the Press Gazette article about Roy Greenslade's call for the end of sub-editing. The rest of the comments almost universally condemn Greenslade for even raising the idea.

The same anonymous contributor wrote:

"What a dreadful world it would be if all newspapers looked like Greenslade's blog."

But in a 'dreadful' world where a generation is growing up spending 31 hours online a week, even more hours on top of that watching TV and playing games, and a negligible amount of time worrying about the layout of the printed word, that is no longer the rallying cry it once might have been.

It might be surprising to the modern mind to recall that Abraham Zapruder's amateur footage of Kennedy's assassination wasn't broadcast on network US television until 1975, 12 years after the event. Zapruder sold exclusive rights to the film to Life magazine the day after the shooting, and people only understood what happened by the still images, diagrams, and text descriptions in the press.

By contrast, mobile phone shots from the 2005 London suicide bombings were on air and, crucially, on the web, less than a couple of hours after it happened, and long before they had touched the hands of a print sub-editor.

I've a lot of sympathy for the plight of sub-editors in an aggressive economic climate for newspapers.

However, there are plenty of places away from news where the publishing process has developed quality assurance tools without the formal employment of a 'sub'. Any half-decent intranet CMS has a 'workflow' concept that doesn't allow people to approve their own pieces for publication, but that doesn't also require an entire level of business process called 'sub-editing'.

The importance of subbing is without doubt being diminished. You had to get things right in a purely print environment because you couldn't instantly retract. In a media environment where the shelf-life of a story on the web is significantly greater than that in print, it is much easier to correct as you go along.

If technology is transforming nearly every part of your production process and business model, simply drawing lines in the sand and saying "we stay as we are and we won't discuss changing" doesn't guarantee any of us in the news business a future.

By the way, naturally there is a prize for the first person to spot a spelling / grammatical / factual error in this blog post, and point out in the comments that I would benefit from the presence of a sub-editor on this site.

I've no doubt that I would, but my business model doesn't support the cost.

So I don't have one.

Regardless of what you might think of Greenslade, whether the newspaper business model still supports the current level of sub-editing cost has to be a legitimate question.


You can spell.

Roy seems to be insulated from the reality of just how rare that is these days.

I'm a sub myself, and I'm constantly surprised by how little our colleagues understand of what we do. It's not just about spelling, or grammar, or fact-checking - though, believe me, there are precious few writers around who are competent at those things. It's often more generally about making something bad - cliche-written, poorly explained, verbose - into something good. It's also about asking writers to explain what they mean when they write things that are ambiguous or plain incomprehensible. This requires tact, and it helps to have worked with the writer for a while. An outsourced sub - the idea punted on some of the Press Gazette pieces linked to - can't do this.

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