"We get all of the blame when things go wrong and none of the credit when good things happen." That frequently heard occupational grievance - heard so often in pub conversations between co-workers - could have been invented for sub-editors. These journalists - and let there be no mistake: sub-editors ARE journalists - are the real crafts people of newspapers and wire services.
Subs are the perennially eagle-eyed people who spot the monumental f**k-ups in the making - misattributed quotes, the absence of a little word (like 'not' - as in 'The Prime Minister said the ALP was
But aside from correcting copy and saving a newspaper from embarrassment and multi-million dollar lawsuits, the best subs can also make the copy shine or least make it readable. Inelegant and clumsy grammar, jarring segues, cheesy leads, buried context, inappropriate or heavy-handed use of metaphor - all can be, and regularly are, purged from the raw material and honed into something that is a joy to read. Well, that's what sub-editors traditionally did (aside from eating bad food at their desks at ungodly hours). On top of all that, they wrote headlines that said 'read me' and captions that provided the missing information. When mistakes were made, the subs always got the blame. And when it all went right, who do you think received the kudos?
When you watch a movie, you don't see the script-writers and editors and story-boarders. You see the stars. And reporters in the last decade or so have become the stars of journalism. Their job is to dig up the information and get the interviews and write it all up in time for deadline. Well, that's the theory. The reality is that 90 per cent of the time these days, reporters are assigned to "event news". These are staged and pre-fabricated set-pieces - usually put together by a PR firm or paid flak - with ready-to-wear quotes and an appropriate visual. Of course, you could go and find your own news - something to distinguish you from the competition - 'but here's something we've prepared earlier'. Too easy.
This leaves reporters with the onerous task of cutting and pasting from an electronic media release, folding in a bit of wire copy to pad out the missing detail and context and sticking their names on the top. Always the names on the top - the most important part, after all, even for a six-par story. Talk to a harried sub-editor and they'll tell you that many reporters can't even get that right. So the subs - at least the good ones - go online themselves and check the facts and search the archives for the context and start to realise that the entire news "event" is not news at all, but a publicity stunt. Too late, though. The hole must be filled to keep the ads apart.
But this is where the failing economics of the media comes into the story, because for the last decade or so newspapers have gradually been lowering the bar for sub-editors. At Fairfax, generations of the old grizzled, seen-it-all subs have gone - to be replaced by casuals and contractors who are told to do the minimum and shovel the copy through. These temps have no affiliation to the newspaper, are paid a pittance and know that the consequence of tampering with the star reporters' copy (and their egos) is not worth the aggravation. So the word goes out to keep your head down and just cut the story to length, put a headline on the top and run the spell check. Do your seven and a half hours and go home. More and more, newsrooms became like Blake's Dark Satanic Mills, with drones pushing out widgets at the lowest possible cost and bugger the quality.
This is why Fairfax now has decided that it may as well just contract out the sub-editing to an even more lowly paid workforce at Pagemasters. It's probably inevitable given the dire circumstances of the mainstream media. But to say that this equates to investing in "quality journalism" is just a crock. The best journalism often results when a hungry, never-say-never and ultra quizzical reporter is matched with a wordsmith of a sub-editor. You very rarely get all the skills in one person. Like a movie, it's a team effort - a news editor with great instincts, a section editor with great contacts, a reporter with enormous energy and chutzpah and a sub-editor who adds the gloss and the flair. Throw in the visual elements - graphics and photography and design - and that's how newspapers are made.
To be more correct, that's how newspapers WERE made. It's not economical to make them that way any more. And that's fine if the public wants to live with the consequences of that. (I'll give you a hint: Without proper sub-editors - particularly for the marque reporters who can't actually write - newspapers' output will resemble "Stars Without Makeup". You'll see all the bad lines).
My own view is the newspapers should have seen this coming more than a decade ago. Back in the late 1990s they were all setting up online versions of the print edition and furnishing tiny work spaces in the corners of their newsrooms where the emerging digital natives lived. But it never progressed beyond there. With ink in their fingernails, the old hands could not (or would not) imagine a digital-only future.
Some of us warned them. We said it would make more sense to go completely digital - after all the biggest costs are printing and distribution. That way the money could be invested in multi-media teams that developed digital apps built around specific sections of the old one-size-fits-all newspaper.
We've known this for years. But now, it's too late. And so, as the sun sets on newspapers, we say goodbye to our old friends, the
(PS: If you don't want to take my word for it, read the experiences of another old sub, former Melbourne Age night Jonathon Green, writingon The Drum - Subless Fairfax is a Fast-Sinking Ship.
Also see Who Cares About Sub-Editors by Mel Campbell on New Matilda)