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The Sub is dead. Long live the Sub?

For a back room role, the sub-editor has enjoyed a great deal of exposure of late – admittedly much of it focussing on its imminent demise. Yet Peter Sands still sees a need for a second pair of eyes, even if they might not be as numerous as before, or even situated in the same country as the rest of the publishing operation. Here, Peter takes an overview of the great subs debate.

Peter Sands

Posted on: 01 May 2009

I am a sub-editor. I have been for almost 30 years. Subbing runs through my veins. I bristle at unnecessary words, misplaced apostrophes and woolly language. Until today, I had never allowed words such as “facility” or “currently” into print. No intro ever began with "Police are investigating" or “The Government".

These days, I encourage young subs to use language that builds pictures: Don't say "brutally murdered", say "kicked to death".

Pathetic, drudges?

Among the many manuals I have on the craft of subbing is the book Going To Press by FL Stevens who wrote: “There is something pathetic about the sub-editor.” Another is by an unnamed writer in the Independent who declared: "As the great Samuel Johnston said of the compilers of dictionaries, the sub-editor is a harmless drudge.”

Recently, though, articles on the sub have been mainly about his imminent death, exile or centralisation.

Former Daily Mirror editor (and Brighton Evening Argus sub), Roy Greenslade caused a particular stir when he put the case for drastically reducing subs. "In some cases, a layer of the editorial process can be eliminated altogether," he argued. It certainly makes sense that the way we put our titles together, which has basically survived from the days of flongs and linotypes, should come under scrutiny. Why can’t writers be taught the editing disciplines of the sub? Why does production have to be in the same building as the newsroom? Why can’t the (essential) second pair of eyeballs come at the beginning?

Marc Astley, at the Exeter Express & Echo, is an editor who has tackled this. Inspired by the book, The Toyota Way, he has restructured the newsroom to get it ‘right first time’. Content co-ordinators mentor the reporters through each story. They give lengths, angles, ideas of contacts and work on the structure. They check the copy as it is being written and come up with headlines. When the copy reaches the layout desk, it should require no editing.

Outsourcing option

Other newspapers have not just sidelined the subs … but outsourced them. The Irish Independent and Evening Herald in Dublin were in the vanguard of this. In April 2007, two outsourcing companies were set up, one in Dublin and one in Castres, in the south of France. It was a project unashamedly driven by costs and the savings are said to be significant.

This cultural change, removing the subs from the newsroom altogether, has not been without pain.

But after a turbulent start, it now runs smoothly. The Dublin operation, with 45 subs, looks after the production of the Independent and the French operation, Presse Media 81, looks after all of the Evening Herald - including the news pages. The staff are mainly English and Irish, enjoying a different lifestyle, and many are from the old newsroom. Former deputy managing editor, Terry Kavanagh, who recently moved from the Independent to become chief executive at the Dublin company RE&D, accepts it has been difficult. "Outsourcing production is a big step, and it's certainly not a painless process, but there are real cost savings to be made and it's now a proven model. With newspapers facing a crisis, anything that companies can do to secure their futures has to be good for journalism."

Greenslade agrees. “It is sensible for publishers to consider whether to cut costs by having the task done by a centralised collective of skilled journalists elsewhere, be it in Australia or India. And it wouldn't surprise me if Britain's own Press Association, which already produces thousands upon thousands of ready-to-publish pages every week, were to take up that challenge here.”

Not just TV listings

The Press Association has indeed seen the demand grow and is now the world’s biggest provider of completed editorial pages.

It has been providing TV listings and other specialist pages for almost 20 years. Now it produces more than 9,000 pages for more than 220 titles every week. It is no longer about PA looking after the TV listings, racing, puzzles and world news. It produces entire newspapers and magazines – the content as well as finished pages.

Former Western Daily Press editor Terry Manners, the agency’s group publishing editor, says: “We have a team of designers and sub-editors, many of whom have national and regional newspaper or magazine backgrounds, designing and editing editorial pages for special publications such as Pick Me Up, Chat, Have A Break and Woman's Weekly, along with numerous regional, monthly magazines.”

Manners, a former Fleet Street journalist, is a convert to the concept. He says: “Ten years ago, outsourcing news, sport and feature production work was frowned upon. Journalists and some of the management were territorial in their beliefs that no one could do it as well as home-grown staff on their own editorial floor.”

“I once fell into this pack, believing no one could do it as well. But times move on and the advance of technology, along with a tidal wave of job movements, means that equipment and highly-trained former newspaper staff, are available to take over the tasks of designing and editing pages to suit the editor's wishes.”

The Press Association has 500 staff in Howden and in two centres in India dedicated to page production. Senior journalists have relocated to run the India operation and local staff undergo a rigorous training programme.

Tony Watson, who edited the Yorkshire Post for almost 15 years, is now managing director of the Press Association. He says: “As a former editor, I would not seek to suggest that outsourcing production is a better solution than having it performed in-house. However, if the cost pressures are such that management is forced to prioritise activities which distinguish a title in its market, then clearly the gathering of content will always come first.”

Growth of regional hubs

All of the big regional newspaper groups take Press Association pages but some have also created their own subbing units to serve several titles.

Editorial director of Trinity Mirror Regionals, Neil Benson, and his Midland editors asked themselves the key question: If we were setting up a newspaper from scratch, how would we structure it?

He says: “It was clear that multi-skilling would be essential and that the old linear process had to be replaced by something more streamlined.”

Trinity Mirror has centralised production regionally (one hub for the North West, two for the North East, one for the Midlands, and so on).

Benson says: “We have shortened the five-step editorial process to three and in the case of the North West, to two.”

“In Birmingham, the old workflow of 'reporter to newsdesk to designer to sub to revise' has become 'reporter to multimedia hub to page finishing.” In Liverpool, the multimedia hub does the page-finishing.

Benson says: “Key pages such as the front, back and spreads are still designed from scratch. But how many ways are there to design a page 27 with a quarter-page ad on it?”

In the North West, the production hub staff are not all based in one centre but spread across Liverpool, Huddersfield, Wales and Cheshire.

Benson adds: “The production process also incorporates new, online skills, such as tagging, search engine optimisation and headlining for the web. So the work of the sub has both moved 'upstream' in the editorial process and is no longer just about print.”

Seismic shift

He is in no doubt that this is the biggest change to the way newspapers are produced in his 35 years in the industry.

Again, it has not been without its pain and has cost jobs. “But we had no choice but to do that anyway, given the severity of the recession.”

There has been a similar process throughout Northcliffe where there are centralised subbing teams in Hull looking after the Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Lincoln daily titles and Nottingham where the Leicester Mercury and Derby Evening Telegraph are put together.

At Johnston Press, a team of 25 is based in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, looking after the production of the daily and 25 weeklies. They write headlines, layout pages but are not tasked with subbing or rewriting. David Rowell, group development editor, says: “The copy is good when it comes in. The editorial executives are no longer subbing in the traditional way but making sure copy is clean at the beginning.”

Rowell says it has freed the editors from their Macs and PCs and put them back into the communities. “Their job is to meet people, look after the tone of the paper and not be chained to a production process.”

All of this makes sense of course - not just to the bean-counters but to the grey cardigans themselves, even though it is painful to admit it. The main argument against appears to be a vague belief that centralisation must mean a dip in quality. It doesn’t follow of course. Why should production journalists be better than others simply on the grounds of proximity? It is an argument that irritates Terry Manners: “Critics who may pick on any small errors speak from the loose-leaf history book and would do well to remember mistakes made by them in their own publications.”

Honeymoon blues

The industry is slowly accepting that production journalists no longer need to be in the same room, the same building or even the same country as the writers. I produce magazines for Irish titles from my office in Sussex and with colleagues based in London, Howden, York and Darlington. When our golfing specialist took a honeymoon during the Ryder Cup, we set him up with a laptop and WiFi on a cruise liner … and nobody knew any different (except, perhaps, his bride). The next stage is home-working. There are many skilled journalists who might not be able to do an eight-hour shift in London, but who can create good quality, well-subbed pages to deadline from their front room.

Outsourcing, or offshoring, does not mean the death of the sub. Far from it. Those who spent their nights doing nothing but ruminating over syntax may have long gone. But professional and flexible subs who understand grammar, style, the readership of the publication, who can write quality headlines, produce top-notch pages and deliver hi-res PDFs are in demand. And the fact that they can work at home, in India, in the south of France or on a cruise liner may finally kill off the notion that the sub-editor is a harmless drudge.

About Peter Sands
(Details last updated: 25 April 2013)

Peter Sands is a newspaper consultant and designer. He has redesigned 85 titles, assisted publishers in changing their businesses and runs courses in all editorial disciplines. From 1989 to 1993 he was editor of the Northern Echo.

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