Who Cares About Sub-Editors?

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So Fairfax is trying to slash costs by outsourcing its sub-editing to Pagemasters, an AAP-owned editorial production factory that already produces some Age and Sydney Morning Herald sections.

Many pundits, especially those on Twitter, are agreed that this is A Bad Thing, and are especially indignant that Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood should be claiming that such a move constitutes "investing in quality, independent journalism".

Journalists know perfectly well that sub-editors are the very engines of journalistic quality. They edit stories for clarity, style and news value, craft punchy and contextually rich headlines, write informative photo captions, catch factual, grammatical or typographical errors before they can embarrass or defame, and knit together house reporters’ work with wire stories to create more comprehensive and comprehensible news coverage.

Let me be clear that Pagemasters may still be able to do all these things. Fairfax’s declining revenues are making old-fashioned in-house production look increasingly dispensable, and Pagemasters explicitly presents itself as the newsroom’s new broom.

"Particularly for newspaper publishers, outsourcing is a natural way to engender change and production improvements," says the Pagemasters website. "By starting afresh, we develop a new culture, a new enthusiasm and new expectations on satisfactory performance."

Pagemasters also describes what it does as "grunt work". Undeniably, it’s not a particularly prestigious newsroom task to prepare puzzles, TV and movie listings, form guides, sharemarket information and sports results — which are all services Pagemasters offers. But there’s something callous about the way Pagemasters would reduce the key sub-editorial tasks, such as headline writing, to this same, debased role.

Indeed, the recent, emotionally charged stop-work meetings at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have spotlighted that it’s mainly in-house journalists who most keenly grieve the loss of in-house sub-editors.

Freelance journos, who file their copy remotely and never have to look a sub in the eye, may not be so sorry to welcome their new Pagemasters. A freelancer acquaintance of mine once railed on Facebook about how some idiotic subbie had just ruined her sparkling prose. Sub-editors, she opined, should all be taken out and shot. I’m paraphrasing, but yes, she did indeed advocate the summary execution of sub-editors in general.

The sentiment struck me then — and still does — as both arrogant and juvenile, but it does reveal a general lack of empathy and appreciation for sub-editors’ labours. Their only time to shine is in the "best three headings" category at the Walkley Awards. Otherwise, writers blame them for butchering their copy, while publishers scapegoat them for errors that come to public attention.

And readers don’t really care. When Crikey media writer Margaret Simons penned an explanation of why sub-editing matters, one commenter called the article "totally vacuous", adding, "Margaret: most people have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about."

Book editor Mandy Brett wrote in a perceptive Meanjin essay earlier this year that an editor is "a servant whose principal task is to make someone else look good and not be observed doing it".

The invisibility of sub-editors means that they become indistinguishable from the masthead itself, so when readers complain a paper has gone downhill, they’re probably responding to something a sub has done. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the sub-editing is poor. Rather, sub-editing is so integral to the tone and style of a newspaper that these things, in themselves, can shape readers’ feelings about a paper’s perceived quality.

Consider, for example, the way so many progressive-minded people seem to have a weirdly virulent, knee-jerk hatred of the News Ltd press. For many, the way these papers frame their stories, and phrase their headlines and captions, in itself demonstrates poor journalistic quality.

But these subs are not bad journalists. They are doing their jobs magnificently — according to their employer’s requirements.

That said, the public — especially the online public — ironically celebrates sub-editors for their epic mistakes or puntastic wins. Much like leprechauns, sub-editors seem to be viewed as folkloric pranksters who creep from obscurity — but never from anonymity — to leave evidence of their wickedness in the everyday world.

When I see a piece of sub-editing that makes me laugh, it’s usually because it lets me glimpse the presence of an otherwise unacknowledged journalist. Even their disastrous mistakes and major production snafus transform sub-editors into real people, and generate sympathetic laughs. These are my people, and such "there but for the grace of Rupert…" moments are J-food that my colleagues and I share to nourish our underpaid workdays.

In 2006, I founded the Subeditorial Antics Appreciation Society on my blog. It then migrated to Facebook, and currently has a home at the online magazine I publish, The Enthusiast. I also like to tweet any examples I stumble across using the hashtag #subeditorialantics.

I originally meant the term "sub-editorial antics" to denote those deliberate little jokes and funny puns that reveal a sub-editor having fun at work. But the term has come to encompass both deliberate and inadvertent zingers, especially those moments when a sub-editor was clearly so focused on the job that he or she has missed a more glaring error. Here’s one of my favourites.

Sometimes, a particular news scenario is so redolent with pun-wrangling possibility that newspapers fall over each other to find the most humorous zingers. And then sometimes, sweet circumstance delivers the perfect raw ingredients. I like to think of the sub-editor typing in that golden headline at 9:05am, and then going out for a long lunch.

While amusing, wacky puns shouldn’t be a yardstick for sub-editorial excellence. Rather, they are shouts into a void of complacency about the vital way subs shape the news. Fairfax’s outsourcing plans have underlined a shameful truth: that relatively few people understand sub-editors’ role or value the precision and liveliness they bring to their mastheads. Whether or not Fairfax chooses to employ Pagemasters, any new production system will only produce journalistic quality if it grants sub-editors the professional respect they deserve.

 

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