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Keeping subbing skills alive

In the ideal world, writes Peter Sands, every newspaper publisher would still employ sub-editors. How in the less-than-ideal world we live in, can newspaper publishers cut costs yet still preserve the all-important subbing function?

By Peter Sands

What now for the newspaper sub-editor? In 2009 I wrote an article for this magazine headlined The sub is dead, long live the sub.

It looked at the predicted demise of subbing - and the rise of 'production hubs' and outsourcing. The suggestion was that in five years, the traditional sub-editor would have followed the compositor and stone-hand to the great press hall in the sky. So, has it happened? Well … not quite. I am pleased to report some subbing departments continue to thrive. Subs are certainly still flexing their muscles at The Sun and the Daily Mail … the daily newspapers that sell more than any other.

Is this a coincidence or does a commitment to the quality of the words and headlines have a direct link to sales?

Since 2003, I have been training subs for the Mail. Every year, the paper has recruited trainees and given them intense tuition in the craft. I spend my time red-penning copy, going through style issues and teaching headline and caption writing. This year, there were five trainee subs who spent a month at the Press Association's Howden headquarters and are now off on regional placements before they return to Kensington next year.

Subbing in the regions

Elsewhere, though, subs are harder to find. This is particularly true in the regions where they are just about extinct.

Here is a snapshot:

In Johnston Press, there are no subs. There are three hubs, staffed by journalists with design skills, in Peterborough, Sheffield and Edinburgh, who work on the ‘show’ pages. They don't sub copy, they write headlines and place text.

The newsdesks send pictures, copy and suggestions for the front pages and some spreads. For the rest of the pages (around 80 percent), newsdesks and reporters select the shapes, write to fit, place pictures and write captions and headlines. A content editor checks the page.

In Newsquest, there are few subs. The production is being outsourced to Newport, home of the South Wales Argus where copy is put on a page, headlined, cut to fit and sent back to the centres for 'styling'. The hub is made up mainly of people with little newspaper experience. The 'show pages' are created in the newspaper offices where there are no 'subs' - just 'content editors'. It is work in progress. Not all of the centres have yet made the switch to the PCS Knowledge system, or moved to Newport. The big Scottish titles – the Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times - have yet to get on board.

Trinity Mirror has adopted Newsroom 3.1, a digital-led approach where everyone focuses on digital all day, every day. But within that, there are still dedicated print production teams, based in the same local newsrooms, who draw up and sub pages using a mix-of templates and freehand skills.

New technologies, reduced staffing levels, the need to release more time for the website have, of course, made it logical to review the age-old structure of producing newspapers. No argument there.

What I don't understand is why that change has, in some cases, been overly complicated.

For years, sub-editors were trained from the reporting pool. In my day as chief sub, every sub-editor was a former reporter, myself included. So if we can train reporters to be subs once their reporting days are done – is it really a step too far to train them while they are still in the field?

The Irish approach

That is what they have done at Independent News and Media, Ireland's biggest newspaper group. The Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Herald, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Sunday World and the weeklies have all gone through a radical change. It was arguably the most ambitious rollout of a write-to-fit system so far – three daily titles, a broadsheet and tabloid Sunday and thirteen regional newspapers.

As elsewhere, the project was triggered by a need to find savings. INM believed that, if costs had to be removed, they should come from production and not from creating and writing stories. People buy newspapers for their content and that needed to be protected.

The savings were significant - but nothing was taken out of content creation.

What was unique with the Dublin-based operation was that there were no redundancies. The papers were previously outsourced to an independent company, RE&D, and the savings were made by ending that contract.

By bringing the production process back in-house, more staff (some from RE&D) were taken on. I doubt there is another newspaper group in the world that has removed the sub-editing layer and taken on extra staff in the process.

The planning began a year ago. A project team of senior journalists, mostly with a production background, set up a detailed roadmap, told everyone how it would work and created a comprehensive training programme.

A central team was to draw up pages, ping shapes over to reporters who would write directly to a pre-drawn shape. A new Atex system using InDesign for page creation and InCopy and OneView for originating copy was introduced. Atex technicians and trouble-shooters were resident in the Talbot Street offices throughout.

As always, there was initial suspicion from staff. Journalists are usually fairly radical animals … but are always more conservative when it comes to their own working arrangements.

The key to it all was that everyone was thoroughly trained - production staff and writers - and there was on-the-job support from 'super users’ who walked the floor. There were helplines set up for people working remotely and training tools, including videos, were created.

The training programme

My job, for most of the spring and summer, was to train the writers to ‘get it right’ first time and to use InCopy and OneView. Every writer on the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent and the Herald spent four half days with me. Staff on the Belfast titles and the weeklies were trained by my colleague, Alan Geere.

We had a very intense and enjoyable few months. The training involved everything the journalists needed to do to ensure that, when they hit the send button, they did so with confidence. In short, we trained every writer to be a sub.

The training included:

* Language, grammar and punctuation

* The most common mistakes

* Writing tightly and crisply

* Pace

* Intros and story structure

* The style book in depth

* Typographical issues - spacing, indents, crossheads

* Headlines, standfirsts and captions

* The danger areas - the things to get your mouse twitching

* InCopy and OneView

* How to send copy

Other than the software and headline-writing, much of this was a refresher. As one experienced hack, with more than a hint of irritation, said: “So you’re going to teach me to write then?” But the truth is that reporters get into bad habits and make mistakes. Reporters also tend not to look at their work with a sub's eye. Erratic spacing, for example, was one of the most common errors. And many reporters didn't realise headline words couldn't be split over two decks.

The newsdesk also produced a list of the 70 most common mistakes in the papers … which led to 'interesting' discussions.

The real issue change, though, was for writers to acquire a mindset that says everything they do is 100 per cent accurate. They had to understand, and accept, that the safety net was thin. Journalists learning subbing skills is not rocket science but having a sub’s mentality is a different thing altogether.

INM is now close to the end of the project. It has been intense and thorough and has been implemented in less than a year.

One of the crucial areas, after the training has finished, is ongoing communication. News-editors have to talk to reporters at the beginning about the value of the story and templates have to be chosen to suit stories, not just at random.

So, has it been a success? The editors believe it has.

INM editor-in-chief Stephen Rae said: "Obviously many were doubtful at the outset but the actual rollout was even smoother than we expected. In training, many staff enjoyed the fact that they had both more control and more responsibility for their work."

"What we are immensely proud of is that we have implemented this on such a big scale in such a short space of time, without our readers even being aware of the change taking place. A lot of the success of this project is down to the willingness, hard work and talent of our staff."

"We have achieved our cost objectives and improved how we do things at the same time.”

Cut costs; retain quality

In my ideal world, the industry would still have sub-editors as they do at the Mail and Sun. Having highly skilled people, charged with making the words as readable as possible, casting a second pair of eyeballs on copy, make newspapers more attractive. But I understand that not every group has the deep pockets of News UK or DMGT. So streamlining production is, for most, inevitable.

The aim may be to cut costs … but the priority has to be to retain quality while creating a system that has a lighter touch, that isn’t cumbersome, technology-led or complicated. The INM system does this well. That is due, partly, to the fact it was introduced by those who have the papers’ interests at heart. The planning was also thorough and detailed. The kit is simple to use. Crucially, production has been kept in-house, so the editors and journalists retain control of their work. But mostly it works because, instead of getting rid of the sub-editor, INM has turned every journalist on its papers into a sub-editor. The sub-editor's name may have been killed off but, in Ireland at least, the craft of sub-editing is alive and kicking.