29 April 2008

In praise of subs

The boffins at the University of Manchester have being doing some research into page architecture. Put in simple English, that means they have been analysing page layouts for newspapers. Despite the somewhat negative headline, it's actually a huge thumbs-up for the unsung heroes of the press - the hardworking sub-editors.

The subs' desk is basically where a paper or magazine is put together. All the copy for publication passes through here before the presses roll. The subs don't just clean up journalists' typos, grammar and punctuation. Oh no. The list of tasks is massive:

  • correcting typos, grammar and punctuation
  • fact-checking
  • spellchecking place names, foreign words and people
  • putting copy into house style
  • flagging up copy that might be defamatory or otherwise legally dubious
  • rewriting
  • cutting copy to fit the page (or, conversely, lengthening it if needs be)
  • writing headlines, picture captions and sells/standfirsts (the big paragraph under the title that persuades you to read the article)
  • laying out the pages
And all these tasks are usually done under enormous time pressure...

Page layout is something subs have been doing for years. I used to be a layout sub myself back in the late 80s and early 90s, firstly paper mock-ups then later on-screen in Quark Xpress. There's a certain skill to it, which can be picked up fairly quickly, but you'll never make a good layout sub if you can't do all the other bits of the job. True, the pages are first laid out in templates by the page designers, but the subs themselves will create the live article pages within the confines of the template. It's good to see that recognised.

The other reason that subs are unsung heroes is this - when a sub does their job well, it goes unnoticed. But you can bet the journalist with the byline will be the one to pick up the praise: "Loved your article on tractor mechanics in Albania, fascinating!" Unbeknown to the reader, the article is only fabulous because the sub-editor rewrote the crap copy filed by the hack, which was far too long, had numerous errors and was generally unreadable before being polished for publication. I've lost count of the number of times I've saved some hack's reputation. Naturally, my own copy is always damn near perfect when I file, because I've seen it from both sides. And the proof is the comments I get back thanking me for work that needed very little subbing.

The downside is when a sub fucks up. It happens. Like the time I subbed a 2,000-word feature and wrote all the captions for the pics then was told to cut 500 words as a half-page had been sold to an advertiser. I duly slashed the copy, failing to notice that I'd axed a critical comment I'd pulled out to use as a caption. Needless to say, the company featured in the article was furious, my boss saw red and I got an almighty bollocking, but (fortunately) not the sack. But we won't talk about the downsides...

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