Why we need subs
From the other side of the pond, comes this rejoinder to Roy Greenslade's recent suggestion that most if not all sub-editors (copyeditors), should be ditched or, at least, outsourced.
(I don't take Greenslade quite as severely as some, since I don't necessarily hear him saying do away with all subs, but suggesting the job, while it can be trimmed in some cases, should be outsourced or centralized in others. And I can't totally disagree given current reality -- too many copydesks have been structured in the U.S. to become copy processors, not copy editors. At that level, yes, they probably can be centralized. That, of course, is a larger debate, which David Sullivan captured nicely in his recent comment on Greenslade's.)
But back to the matter at hand, which is Tim Luckhurst writing in Times Higher Education in response to Greenslade: Students armed with sub-editing tools are given skills for life. An excerpt:
Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror, does not fit easily into this category. However, in a recent speech he argued that most subs could be dispensed with. I hope he will not repeat that opinion to his journalism students at City University London. They might believe him and that would be appalling.
Nothing in a newspaper or on a website should be published without someone checking it for grammatical, factual or legal errors. Editors pretend that they read every syllable published, but I know from harsh experience that such Stakhanovite effort is not possible for every article on every page of every edition. The finest correspondents make mistakes. To err is human and, at least in this respect, journalists are members of the human race, despite what popular opinion contends.
Professor Greenslade went on to suggest that journalists are now so highly educated that they should sub their own stories. "I write my own blog every day," he said. "I produce copy that goes straight on screen - why can't anyone else do that?" His is an egregious prejudice in a leader committed to excellence in the professional education of journalists.
Excellent subs are not disposable relics of a bygone era. They are the keyhole surgeons of journalism; fast, precise and adept at ensuring that prevention averts the need for expensive or embarrassing cures. At best they write attention-grabbing headlines and turn convoluted codswallop into plain, comprehensible English.
A good sub should be treasured, rewarded and respected.
Crucially, subbing skills should be praised and taught at each and every university that makes any claim to educate journalists. Young people whose English has been corrupted by text speak and the retreat from grammar and language teaching in schools need it urgently. Even among my brilliant cohort of journalism undergraduates, there are a few who, despite impressive academic qualifications, make basic errors that must be expunged. Nothing teaches grammar better than lessons in sub-editing and if people who teach journalists will not uphold standards in the use of English, we cannot reasonably expect others to do it.
Why might good copy editing be needed? Here are
three four examples from my local paper of where it and the rest of the editing process broke down:
- A story just before the last election that told us local school boards were going to vote on nearly a "trillion" dollars in bond issues. (Make it nearly a billion.)
- A recent story on the governor's dismissal of several members of a state agency board. Nowhere in the story was there an attempt to reach the board members or the agency director (who also was attacked by the governor and subsequently resigned).
- A story in yesterday's paper about a new high school softball coach who was an assistant on the same team last year. It tells us who he worked under as coach last year, but never tells us what became of that other coach. It raises a question for the reader without answering it.
- There is this sentence in a story -- a sentence that because of a poor verb tense says exactly the opposite of what was intended: Not allowing officers to take their patrol cars home will save the department money on fuel, but will remove parked police cars from neighborhoods -- which Carter says helps residents feel more safe. ("Helps" as a singular properly refers back to a singular - remove or the removal. Use "help" as the plural and you refer back to the cars, which is what the writer intended. Had the sentence used the word "parking" somehow, then "helps" would be OK, but the grammar as it is now requires the reader to impute to the larger concept of parking the cars. Sure, you say, it will be understood. But, I would say, why not get it right and make sure it is understood?)
Ah ha, you say. But that those got through a copy desk is proof we can do without them because they aren't catching it anyhow. Well, if anything, I'd suggest is is more proof of how desks have been emasculated so that they no longer can do the job required. I'd also suggest turning the argument around: If the reporter wrote it that way and the assigning editor let it through, maybe they should be eliminated, too. Obviously, they weren't doing their jobs to start.