Friday, March 06, 2009

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?)
None of these is the "meddling" writers (and Greenslade, in essence) complain about. They get to the basics of journalism - getting it complete, fair and understandable.

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.

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At 3/6/09, 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. As a copy editor for my college newspaper, I have seen a countless amount of poorly-written articles submitted for publication. Our articles pass through five editors before they are published to make sure it is up to par with our expectations. If it comes in as a puff piece, we send it back to the reporter immediately. Everyone has a chance to fix their own article once after our first round of editing. As a copy editor in the process, I find it appalling that someone would even suggest copy editors are pointless. Granted, I am a pre-professional and haven't had the experience of someone in the field for several years, but even with what I've seen as a copy editor thus far, I find it extremely important and useful.

At 3/8/09, 6:03 AM, Anonymous FionaC said...

Hi Doug,
Is outsourcing and centralising of copy editing happening in the States as well?

Good post and I agree with much of what you're saying. I was also interested in the number of 'shoulds' in there. Yes, subs >should< be treasured, and I certainly remember a time, when you'd earn praise for being a decent sub. But resources are stretched so thinly now. Where there used to be a desk full of copy editors, now you'll often find one or two people putting out a monthly magazine. Obviously the level of checking is changing and errors are creeping in and I think that will increase with centralising and outsourcing. I'm hoping there will be a resurgent interest in specialised sub-editing at some future point when the errors from self-subbing start getting more serious.

The other thing that occurred to me is that these kind of posts are useful for those outside of traditional publishing to find out that there is an editorial layer of checking that takes place beyond the spellcheck button. Many people don't realise how much a sub-editor does - but as you say the skills set is a useful one for anyone publishing to the web and beyond.

And, to reiterate, it IS very hard to sub your own work. I always remember sending a music review with the headline 'Sweet folk all' to press - and getting villified by the news editor when the paper came out.

A skilled second pair of eyes is invaluable - and saves a red face.

At 3/8/09, 6:18 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Oh lord, yes, it's happening here.

I have to sub my monthly columns that I do for press associations and other publications, and I HATE it. I always want a second pair of eyes.

Copy editors made two tactical mistakes: First was assuming their jobs were indispensable without realizing they were processing, not creating.

The second was relying on the "quality" argument to get a fair hearing in the corporate suite. "Quality" is akin to a social good, unable to be priced - and in the case of most organizations, probably unwilling to be, too (the consequences of most quality transgressions are marginal and just a cost of doing business). The place subs/copy editors have to make their case is to the insurers. It is the insurers that force organizations to internalize risks and social costs. If the insurers feel the wholesale gutting of copy desks raises the risks intolerably, then things will change (or organizations will lose their coverage).

At 3/10/09, 5:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was on the panel with Roy Greenslade at the industry event at which he put his argument, and was the only person to argue against the current.

There are many flaws with Roy's view. One is that media managements are using his arguments to dress cost-cutting up as an improvement to quality. I argued that we are missing an opportunity to take full advantage of the technology now available in multimedia newsrooms by seeing it solely as a way of reducing staff. It's impossible for one person to be fully skilled in every discipline demanded by a multimedia newsroom.

The other flaw is that Roy doesn't really know what he's arguing for. He began by saying subs were "a layer that could be eliminated" and then shifted to say they can be "repurposed". But he doesn't really seem to know what it is that subs do. His last contribution was to say that subs cause bad copy because their existence perpetuates the practice of writers writing badly. I rather like your take on that one, Doug.

The more I see of this argument, the more I'm convinced there needs to be an industry body which promotes the values of production journalism in much the same way as design is promoted. The need seems to be as great either side of the pond.

At 3/10/09, 6:51 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Of course, I said three examples and then gave four - oh how I wish I had an editor!


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