Why sub-editors matter

Although this requires the caveat that if I was in Greg Hywood’s shoes I might feel obliged to do precisely the same thing, the decision by Fairfax Media to outsource its copy subbing is a thoroughly depressing one.  

It’s easy to characterise a sub as a copy monkey (and indeed a tradition for reporters to wind them up by doing so) but the art of sub-editing is one of the magic, unseen ingredients of what make newspapers great.

In my years on papers, and later magazines, subs saved me looking liker a plum on many occasions.

Good subs have usually been a reporter first. Sometimes they know more than the reporter about the subject being covered.

At the very least they generally know more about the English language and how to structure a story. Many reporters have experienced that feeling when they reread their copy that it’s been magically improved somehow without quite beign able to put their finger on what it was.

Unfortunately the steps being taken by Fairfax remind me ofworking on a small weekly local paper in the UK a few years ago.

Our sub worked right there in the office. He lived on the patch. If we spelt a street name wrong, chances are, he’d notice.

He only worked on our paper. He understood our (downmarket) audience and the cheeky tone we were striving for. If a great story came in late, he happily stay late. On press day, we’d already be in the pub as he stayed late put the finishing touches. The next day he’d come in late, as there’d be no pages yet to sub for the next week’s edition.

This, it struck our bosses, was inefficient. So they got rid of him, and centralised all of our subbing with our sister papers, at one office in the next county.

A team of subs would chew through our paper’s pages on press day before moving on to the next paper.

It was a very efficient subbing factory.

But this team would know nothing about our patch. Mistakes got through, and mistakes crept in.

And mostly these distant subs were working on broadsheets. They couldn’t write a populist headline for our naughty tabloid to save their lives.

If something broke late, they’d laid out the page once, they didn’t know the team and felt no commitment to the individual title. So of course they weren’t interested in remaking the page.

A punter outside would have been unable to tell any of this. But of course, they’d be reading a slightly blander product than before.

And a blander product means less readers. Which in turn means less advertisers. Which of course means even more need to make further cuts.

I don’t think my paper is around any more.

That’s the problem with outsourced subbing. The business case makes sense on paper, but the real impact can;t be measured.

If I was sitting in Greg Hywood’s chair, looking at fading revenues, I might feel I had to do the same thing.

But that doesn’t stop it from being a crying shame.

Tim Burrowes


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