18 August 2008

A luxury? Sub-editors revisited

Over the last few months, media commentators have been engaged in a debate over the future of sub-editors. Jeff Jarvis blogged today in the Guardian that subs are a luxury. But are they? I've posted before on what sub-editors do, so let's look again at what's going on...

A small number of UK newspapers have already dumped their subs completely, not just for online but also print editions too. Newspaper proprietors are largely only concerned with the bottom line so if they can get their product out there for less, they will. Subs do not just clean up typos and dodgy punctuation or cut copy to fit. They also need an excellent working knowledge of media law, which is ever-changing, in order to prevent all kinds of legal howlers that could see a paper being sued. Papers that think they can cut corners by axing subs could be leaving themselves wide open to all kinds of problems.

The downside is that journalists themselves are being asked to sub their own copy. Quite apart from the problems arising when you try to edit your own work, many journalists do not write great English (and rely on the subs desk to do rewrites) and most do not have the comprehensive understanding of media law that subs do, but have only a limited working knowledge of libel law. Beyond that, staff journalists for some years now have been working longer hours in expanded roles (but not for more money, let's not forget that). Now, suddenly, they are being asked to take on the sub-editing that would previously have been someone else's exclusive task.

Jarvis's comment today is the umpteenth run by the Guardian over the last 4 weeks or so. Press Gazette has also covered this thorny issue. I'd take issue with much of what Jarvis says, though. For one thing, blogging is most emphatically not journalism, although it may play a role within journalism and media law is equally applicable, and thus there will remain a need for subs who can edit out legal problems. Secondly, newspapers - at least in the UK - are unlikely to abandon print altogether in the next 10 or even 20 years (you can shoot me if that turns out to be wrong, but then you'd have to shoot a lot of other media commentators too). Thirdly, if a paper gets rid of its editor too, or even its section editors, who then decides on the stance of the paper, the angles it will cover news from, what areas of content it will carry? Who provide direction and guidance, not just to the readers but to the staff?

A freelance copy-editor colleague raised a question today about how Jarvis's vision might affect editors who take on web work. Personally, I don't think it is a major issue for copy-editors moving into web-editing. If they are sub-editing news sites, they should have a copy of McNae's on their desk - it's as essential as a dictionary or any other standard reference work in use by editors. If they are editing for corporates, it's unlikely such clients will choose to cut back on editing when their website and other corporate literature represent their public face and brand and need to maintain a high level of quality.

Is Jarvis right? Or is he misguided? Personally I think copy-editing or sub-editing is about much more than merely cutting copy to fit a CMS template and so I believe there will always be a place for a skilled and experienced editor who is capable of more than a simple tidy-up job.

What do you think?


Edited to add: Roy Greenslade has posted on this issue again this morning. Thanks, Roy.

8 comments:

Jeff Jarvis said...

You said: "blogging is most emphatically not journalism."

What an absurd, exclusionary, limiting statement. Blogging is just a publishing tool. To say what you have said is akin to arguing that cold type is not journalism. Blogging tools are used by the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post. So that's not journalism? Bloggers report, break and dog stories. That's not journalism?

Come now, I thought we were past this silly argument.

wordsmith_for_hire said...

Cough* I did explicitly state that blogging is a part of journalism. I'd agree that blogging is a tool. But come on, Jeff, are you seriously suggesting that all those millions of blogs floating around in cyberspace are journalism? I don't consider this blog journalism. I don't even consider my other 5 blogs to be journalism either. Well, one probably is, borderline hacking...

I'm not suggesting that bloggers don't break stories - where they do, clearly that is journalism of a sort, ie citizen journalism, and of course many journalists blog, but the reverse is not true. Not every blogger is a hack by any standard. The vast majority are private individuals posting their diaries in public. Journalism? Hardly.

Brett Debritz said...

I note with dismay your distinction between journalists and subs. Surely you mean reporters (or writers) and subs. We are all journalists - and if more journalists had reporting and subbing skills we might not be having this discussion. The future should not be about employers having to choose between reporters and subs, but in having reporters who can sub and subs who can report. You're right that it's problematic for reporters to sub their own copy, but in the online world all staff members can act as site monitors who identify and correct (or suggest corrections to) the mistakes of others. Throw a specialist check sub or two into the mix and, while it's far from ideal, it's a workable and cost-effective option for cash-strapped publishers. Of course, they would first have to invest in training or hiring the right people...

wordsmith_for_hire said...

Brett, thanks for your comment. I take it as read that subs count as journalists - the NUJ certainly makes no distinction, but for the purposes of a blog whose readers are not necessarily journalists, "journalist" is convenient shorthand for a writer (not necessarily a reporter, they could be a columnist of feature writer). Ask anyone not in the trade to define "journalist" and you can be sure they will not describe a sub-editor.

I absolutely agree that more reporters should have subbing skills. Certainly, in my days of subbing for various London-based magazines in the late 80s, my job would have been far easier and less stressful had the copy I subbed been written by hacks who had some knowledge of subbing.

I also agree that in a future world where the bottom line will increasingly drive staffing decisions, those who can write/report AND sub will be more likely to find work and stay in work.

I would also like to see more investment in training. I learned on the hoof but would certainly have benefited from something more structured. I suspect the need for proper training is even more important these days, with the advent of online and the extra issues raised by use of this environment.

ms_well.words said...

"Personally I think copy-editing or sub-editing is about much more than merely cutting copy to fit a CMS template and so I believe there will always be a place for a skilled and experienced editor who is capable of more than a simple tidy-up job."

Quite right!
But some subs ought to take care with their red pens - anyone who's edited Giles Coren's copy, for instance; or those who don't care much about science and instead delight in writing shock-and-awe headlines that don't do anyone any good (MMR springs to mind).

wordsmith_for_hire said...

A sub who doesn't take care with their red pen is probably in the wrong job. But I'd take issue about this in relation to Coren!

dappled grass said...

Of course, any writer can edit their own work. But will he or she do a job? Not every writer is capable of looking at his work with a critical eye. And that's why we will always need sub-editors.

I think fact-checking and copy-editing can be a tedious job, and I'm more inclined to think that the individual who excels as a sub-editor usually has a very different personality from the individual who works well as a writer.

Catherine

wordsmith_for_hire said...

I don't think it's about personality but about skill sets. I do excel as a sub-editor. I also excel as a writer. However, I'd much rather someone else subs my writing because another pair of eyes will always see things the writer missed.