11 October 2008

Unsub: the aftermath of an edit-free zone

As newspapers continue their drive to slash costs and streamline processes, there has been a marked trend towards getting rid of sub-editors and making the journalists sub their own copy and upload it into the content management system.

A number of high-profile journalists and media commentators, such as Jeff Jarvis, have insisted this is the way to go and that editors will be given a new role as a "gentle coach".

So what really happens when sub-editors get made redundant and the hacks are left to their own devices? The Sunday Express found out recently to its cost that it was a false economy.

The memo leaked to Media Guardian sent by a senior staffer at the paper to the journalists there revealed what a disaster the decision to fire 80 sub-editors has been. And more are apparently to be laid off shortly!

I have to admit I practically wept with laughter when I read the memo yesterday. It more than backs up my assertion that subs do much more than cut copy to fit. The list of howlers, gaffes, basic spelling errors and potential legal problems arising from the daft decision to make the hacks edit their own work just proves that sub-editors are the oil that keeps the cogs running smoothly at a newspaper.

I don't have much time for the Express, but I find it depressing that any company would be prepared to publish anything so error-strewn, just to save a few quid, and trash its reputation into the bargain. If I were an Express reader, the poor quality of its copy would have me switching allegiance to another paper.

If anything, the experience at the Sunday Express should be sufficient to convince all newspapers that cutting back on sub-editors is a stupid idea. Sure, these are difficult times for the media, especially as we enter a recession and advertising revenue, which funds the press, is reduced.

I'll be interested to see whether the media commentators still think subs are an unnecessary luxury...


The Bureauista said...

This is such an interesting debate, and I'm really not sure where I stand on it. On the one hand, it's obviously a bad move to lay off all your sub editors, especially when it seems you paper is already riddled with clangers. On the other hand, if revenues are falling due to loss of advertising revenue and consumer belt-tightening, what are you to do? Laying off journalists means there's no content to sub, laying off support and sales staff means the paper won't run and advertising revenue falls even further, and when a paper riddled with errors attracts only one email from an outraged reader, the choice seems obvious.

But your point about readers deserting the Express because of poor standards is a good one, I think. As consumers we don't tend to complain about bad products if they only cost us 80p (or whatever the cover price is), we just buy something else. I suppose it's very difficult to quantify exactly what the exodus of readers is caused by, but falling standards is likely to be a big one.

For my part, I've been horrified by the tendency of academic publishers to start requiring their authors to proofread their own titles. However, there's still the copy-editor as a line of defence between the author and the readership, so in practice this means books are still proofread at least twice, even though not under ideal conditions. I'm just waiting for the days when copy-editors are no longer required. It can't be far away.

wordsmith_for_hire said...

@bureauista the economics of papers is a vicious circle. If ad revenues drop, pagination falls too and staff are laid of. The paper is less good so readers switch, which means advertisers spend less... It's a false economy - better to spend on quality and keep the readers, which retains advertisers.

My comment about deserting the Express is an example only. Certainly in my case I don't buy it anyway as I don't like its stance and I only look at it online if someone draws my attention to an article. More generally, I don't buy print editions of the papers I do like, unless I have been published in them that day. My usual habit is to read online. But certainly as a consumer, across the board, I don't tolerate poor service of any sort and will switch allegiance instantly if I feel let down. Newspaper readerships for print editions have been falling for a long time so the papers have to build new models to keep readers - the Guardian has managed this by pouring resources into the online edition, without sacrificing quality of content. In fact, some stuff is published only online, providing added value for those readers.

You make a good and important point about academic publishing. Academic books and journals are not money-spinners generally so it's understandable that the publishers are looking to save money by cutting back on editing. I do believe though that reduced quality will damage the credibility of the academics themselves - it's a truism that, eg, scientists do not write well but a well-edited scientist can get their theories and data out there in a format usable by the readership. If it's badly edited will it be understandable? Probably not. OTOH, commercial publishers are probably less likely to cut back as much on editing services as they claw the costs back in sales.

The Bureauista said...

I've been thinking about this a bit more and wondering to what extent falling standards of written English are just inevitable, due in part to the squeezing of profit margins across publishing, but also due to the sheer amount of content that is produced and consumed these days. I'm reading more than at any time in my life, and I wonder if I'm becoming steadily inured to lower standards. To some extent I try and avoid badly written and edited materials, but I'd still rather read something of low quality than not read anything at all. I wonder how much longer I can afford to be discerning for?

As a TEFL teacher its hard not to notice the role that the globalisation of English has had to play in this. The millions of people who speak English as a non-native language will mostly never become 'fluent'; they don't need to in order to communicate sufficiently well. But these English speakers are busy writing theses and articles in English, writing blogs and website content, even publishing books in English. And why shouldn't they? Debate and discussion has never been more global and egalitarian, and that is a wonderful thing. But as long as editorial input is too expensive, or viewed as unnecessary, we are all going to have to learn to accommodate a different standard, or more likely a whole host of different standards, of both written and spoken English. How long before there's an EU Directive requiring the BBC to allow Poles and Bulgarians to read the news?

neil said...

I'm sure that when I first read about this memo the report said it had been written *before* the Express got rid of its subs.

wordsmith_for_hire said...

If that's the case, that just makes the decision to fire most of the subs' desk even crazier!

Jonathan Hewett said...

The memo was about errors in the 10 August issue...
...so some time before the plan to cut subs (reported 1 Oct)...
...even if Media Guardian published the latter before the former.

Re academic journals, these have been *highly profitable* for commercial publishers such as Reed Elsevier:
The market for journals is largely price-inelastic (universities can't do without them) and publishers have been raising prices substantially.
Different in the case of non-profit journals (eg published by learned societies), for which the priority is usually disseminating research about/in their discipline(s).

wordsmith_for_hire said...

@jonathan Thanks for your comments. Neil already pointed out the order of events at the Express - as I said it just makes their decision to cut the subs' desk look even more stupid. If they couldn't get it right in August, it will be far worse once the subs' team is heavily reduced.

I'm interested in what you have to say about journals - I used to occasionally edit journal articles for authors when I worked abroad but haven't touched one for years so I happily admit to not being up to speed on current practices. Perhaps some of my journal-editing readers would like to comment further?