Oi, Dr Mumbo! Leave Australia’s deleted subs alone

Whatever happened to Australia's newspaper and magazine sub-editors? And do they now have a future? Mumbrella's Adam Thorn takes a look back at the once highly respected profession.

Essential English, by former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, is both an instruction manual and love letter to the art of subbing.

Now long since forgotten by journalists and those who teach them, it was regarded as the authority on news writing upon its first release in 1972. You can imagine seething chief subs hurling it across smoky newsrooms at reporters upon discovering, say, that “management” was referred to as “leadership team” or that somebody was “time poor” rather than “busy”.

Essential English, by Harold Evans, was first released in 1972 before being revised at the turn of the century. This is my battered old copy, which I first read 15 years ago

“Hemingway, I read once, wrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms sixteen times before he was satisfied,” he writes. “One does not wish to suggest he wasn’t trying, but sixteen shots at the first sentence is nothing. Any effort to get the beginning right in a newspaper story is worthwhile because the reader will stop there if the writer fails.”

And so over the course of 296 – surprisingly breezy – pages, you’ll witness Evans write and rewrite and rewrite some more as he hammers stories to perfection.

“Every word should be scrutinised,” he preaches, and you can almost hear him thump the table with every syllable. “If it is not a working word, adding sense to a sentence, it should be struck out.”

It’s all common-sense stuff: use plain English; ditch the business speak; consider what needs to be explained and what doesn’t; never use a long word when a short one will do; and remember, above all else, that journalists are entertainers as much as they are educators, and that copy should be exciting.

Yet, flick or click through the pages of the world’s best newspapers, magazines or websites today, and you’ll see these basic rules flouted on even the most important stories.

The irony is that the profession best known for “trimming the fat” – as Evans referred to it – has itself been deemed surplus to requirements by publishers, with endless rounds of redundancies now making the craft all but extinct. It’s a worldwide epidemic of which there is seemingly no cure, but the disease seems particularly contagious in Australia. Pacific magazines, News and Fairfax have all hit backspace on in-house subs, outsourcing them out of the newsroom.

How can they get away with it? Well, faster processors and better versions of InDesign (the layout software of choice for most printed publications) have made production more straightforward than ever. Instant messaging means subs can theoretically communicate with reporters from far away.

However, the biggest practical reason is the death of text boxes, of all things. Without the absolute requirement to cut words to fit online, it made their skills expendable. The problem is that it was the word limit that sharpened the mind – that taught writers to make rapid choices about what’s left in and what’s chucked out. Subs, wrote Evans, were once “the human sieves to the torrent of news”.

But it’s nonetheless a shame. Reporters, as ever, might well think that their stories are the reason people read, but most days that’s far from the truth. The wily old sub, having seen it all before, will often spot, with a fresh pair of eyes, the potential of promoting a line buried two-thirds down an article up the ranks, while the detached nature of copy desks meant they could trim or chop or splice with freedom.

Whatever the flavour of publication, their ability to cut through the bullshit and Get To The Bloody Point was the secret magic ingredient of good publications. Tabloids, in particular, sold millions because of their knack for explaining complex stories in an entertaining way, without sacrificing detail. That requires far more talent than those that sneer realise.

Perhaps the biggest change I’ve seen in my career is the opinion of others in the newsroom towards subs. When I started, they were at worst, hugely respected and at best, outright feared. They would usually have the authority to maraud up to writers and question what they’d written. Subs were seen as the eyes and ears of the editor, carrying out his or her commands while dishing out the bollockings when deadlines looked in danger of being missed.

Harold Evans still writes about his passion for straightforward English. His new book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, was released last year

Today, they’re largely treated as a joke. With so few still kicking around, the brave soldiers who remain are attempting to do the job of multiple people. Good subbing, perhaps more than any other art in journalism, takes time and manpower. You may be the best at your craft, but hand over a page to a colleague and they will doubtlessly spot a mistake or something that could be improved. It’s human nature.

And that’s why I felt bad when I read Dr Mumbo’s post this week: words go here, if the subs can be bothered. Of course, the doc is correct in that these mistakes are both horrific and hilarious, but it’s harsh on whoever was supposed to be casting an eye over those pages. It was almost certainly not a drop in standards, but that the poor sod was probably frantically doing a job that would once have been carried out by four or five people. He or she was set up to fail. I’ve felt the frustration of working crazy hours to produce a salvage job – resigning yourself to the idea that you made the best of an impossible situation.

Where, then, do subs go from here? The answer, I think, is that the traditional copy editor has been replaced by technology and cutbacks and that’s never going to change. As publications move further online and space isn’t at a premium, it becomes harder to justify a role that isn’t absolutely necessary. Their skills, therefore, must be taken on board by commissioning editors, while journalism courses must prepare young recruits for the reality that they now take on many production responsibilities.

But you only have to listen to the insufferable levels of wank jargon spouted by many in the media and marketing world to realise why what they do is still important.

“The fishmonger had a sign which said: FRESH FISH SOLD HERE,” writes Evans. “His friend persuaded him to rub out the word FRESH because, naturally, he wouldn’t expect to sell fish that wasn’t fresh; to rub out the word HERE, because, naturally, he’s selling it here; to rub out the word SOLD because, naturally, he isn’t giving it away.

“And finally to rub out the word FISH – because you can smell it a mile off.”


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