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Why the hubs will turn full circle

Hubs have been all the rage in the last couple of years, as regional publishers have sought efficiencies through centralising functions. Well, has it worked? Allan Prosser investigates.

By Allan Prosser

I once edited a daily paper in a seriously deprived, but highly spirited, region of Britain. Long before the “Big Society”, it had what used to be called community values.

This was in Margaret Thatcher’s post-industrial landscape. The staple employers in steel, shipbuilding, engineering, and coal were either dead, or about to be executed. The destiny of hundreds of thousands of our readers was uncertain. Just like now.

Nissan values

On our newspaper, we were desperate to promote any good news about the future. That came in the unlikely form of the Japanese car manufacturers Nissan, who built a car plant on a former airport.

Even more radically, they introduced new working precepts — a single union agreement (only readers of a certain age will remember proper unions), the concept of “kaizen” (continuous improvement), just in time production, and job rotation… which meant that each employee had to possess three distinctly different skill sets.

But what I recall most about Nissan was their practice of taking one model off the production line each day, marking up the faults (eg microscopic flake of paint missing from front nearside wheel arch) and placing it in their main factory entrance to be viewed by all visitors and workforce alike.

I suggested at our daily news conference, to general laughter, that this was an example we should follow with our own product to fix quality control in the minds of our staff. If it was good enough for hungry car workers, then it contained a lesson for journalists.

What has this to do with 21st century newspapers? Quite simply this… in the Gadarene rush to impose manufacturing process on their titles, publishers have destroyed value, thrown away knowledge, and vandalised their assets. In many cases they should be ashamed, not that shame is a common characteristic of the newspaper business. More importantly, very few managers who have overseen this damage would last a week in the real world of competitive industry.

The economic case for rationalising production has been overwhelming, which is why the big beasts of publishing — Newsquest, Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe, Archant, Johnston, Independent News and Media, among others — have embraced it enthusiastically since 2007. Sub-editors, news editors, chief subs, deputy editors, editors, they have all been grist to the mill.

That is the way with Mammon, and senior commentators and editors have been over eager to sign up:

“Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check.”

“We're now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don't need to have their work changed.”

“Subs are not there to clean up other people's messes. We expect all of our reporters, features writers, sports staff, to produce clean, accurate and grammatical copy that doesn't have errors in. That's a basic requirement, and not an unreasonable requirement.”

Words and music

Part of my youth was spent as a sub-editor, toiling away like Graham Greene, on a regional evening paper. Because of my eagerness, I was often given the copy from the paper’s star reporter, a man who would count it a bad week when he didn’t deliver three or four exclusives, at least two of which would be page one leads. His stories won national awards, were regularly followed up on regional TV and radio, and by competitors.

He couldn’t write for toffee. Word count, grammar and syntax were alien concepts. The intro was frequently in the fifth par. He wrote as he spoke, all Estuarine English. My job was to mine that seam for gold.

At the end of one particularly long week, emboldened by bitter ale, I taxed the editor, an ex-Fleet Street veteran and the best man I have ever worked for, and suggested I deserved a modest pay rise. He fixed me with a hideous stare and said: “His job is to provide the words, but your function is to provide the music. Now piss off.”

Under the cloned, one-size-fits-all, cross-platform, multi-media, tweet it, blog it, have-you-got-the-geo-tags-sorted, regime espoused by 2010 publishers, that star reporter would be unemployable. Writing directly to a template? Forget it. Put your own headline on? Send it to the web first? Disasters in the making. But, boy, could that guy get a story and provide distinctive content. What price that?

No edition of this magazine would be large enough to accommodate the account of howlers, inaccuracies and plain stupidities which have emerged through the centralisation of production and the so-called focus on efficiency through delayering the checks and balances which existed before the move to what has infamously been called “one touch publishing”.

Modern major generals

My personal favourite came from the Johnston’s executive who urged editors not to "continue with the old practice of reading every story", an instruction which really belongs in a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus.

Then there is the example of the sub-editor who changed a sports report of the famous Yorkshire football club Sheffield Wednesday so that it read Sheffield yesterday.

But for overall ribaldry you would be hard pushed to beat the advertisement feature in an Irish newspaper which extolled the virtues of the local community of Newcastle West to its readers. The only problem was that the copy described the attractions around a town of the same name… in New South Wales, Australia. Google can be a wonderful asset to the time-pressed journalist a couple of hundred miles away from his or her point of publication.

Tales from the front

I have spoken to several journalists who work, or have worked, with super production centres. It doesn’t really matter what you call them.

They can be a “common editorial production unit” (Archant, describing its plans to shuffle staff around East London to — take a deep breath — “introduce uniform standards; deliver efficiencies; have greater flexibility for covering illness and holiday periods, therefore reducing freelance costs; share relevant content easier; introduce more cross-title platforms and develop editorially-led commercial projects.")

Or they can be “hubs” — the nomenclature of choice during 2008/09; or “centres of excellence”, or “multi-media centres”.

One testimony proves the point, from a senior journalist: “A decade ago, I worked on a plan to bring newsgathering, writing and page design closer together. It didn’t break down demarcation – nothing was to be gained by turning talented reporters into clueless copy editors and struggling headline writers – but it did eliminate much of the confusion, angst and 11th hour page remaking that are inevitable when news gatherers and subs’ desks are working not only in separate rooms and time zones, but also culturally on different planets.

“Little did I know that I would end up editing a newspaper thrown together by a subbing ‘hub’.

“My problem – call me a control freak – was that I had little if any influence over what the pages looked like. Page design? Headlines? Copy fitting and cutting? Picture selection? Signing off pages? All of that was done miles away. None of it was my business – at least that was the position of the subs and the chief sub to whom they were answerable. I carried the blame as far as readers (and sometimes advertisers) were concerned, but had little responsibility.

“The chief sub and staff did, I’m sure, their best… their best to get not only my paper out on time but also the other half dozen or so titles (plus contract jobs) owned by the company. There were many corners cut, and it wasn’t long before I believed that most of them came off my paper, not least because it was the only broadsheet.

“These broadsheet pages”, I was told by the sub assigned to my paper for a day or so each week, “are really difficult to fill”.

This was such a gloomy account that I asked someone else, at the opposite end of the country for their experience. Their design and subbing has been outsourced for more than two years.

“The problem is”, he said, “that there are very few people left in here who know anything about design, so they can’t express their opinions properly on what they want from the outsourced operation. The paper is full of errors. Every day.”

It doesn’t have to be like this. If it was Nissan, they would have specified the job properly. Every worker would have been trained intensively. Style and quality guidelines would be embedded into the DNA of the system. Performance feedback would be constant.

Bristol Argyle

As I write, it has been announced that the six Northcliffe production hubs set up last year which embrace titles such as the Western Daily Press (Bristol) and the Western Morning News (Plymouth) — well, they’re only a couple of inches apart on the map of course — are to undergo another review.

Just the other day, I was listening to a fascinating debate between executives about who should be responsible for “curating” (for that is the modern phrase) a hyper-local website.

The task involved aggregating multiple sources of information, some provided by professional journalists, some delivered through user-generated content; the ability to update quickly; to make sound professional judgements consistent with the law, ethics and a general sense of publishing responsibility. Also required was local knowledge, commitment, and a disciplined approach to design.

“Do you know what that reminds me of?” I said. “An old-fashioned sub-editor.”

No one blushed.

Luckily, in this case, that ancient species hadn’t been carted off, like Boxer in Animal Farm, with their hooves flailing against the sides of the horse box and the haunting lament of “I must work harder” left hanging in the air.

And that’s just as well. Because when hubs have disappeared in a haze of cloud computing, publishers are going to find that they need those increasingly arcane skills. And close to home.