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.