Pity the poor lonely journalist having to publish without the help of a grumpy sub-editor

Journalists have to get it right first time now they don't have sub-editors watching their backs.

Journalists have to get it right first time now they don’t have sub-editors watching their backs.

Here I sit in a darkened room with just a lamp to lift the gloom. I am a hostage to error fortune.

I’m living in fear, a deep fear of a possible spelling error or a stray apostrophe in this blog.

In a different time, many eyes viewed your copy before publication.

Not now. It’s a case of getting it right first time or be held up to ridicule by your peers.

The idea of getting it right first time is admirable. However, it removes the one element which cannot be resolved, human error.

There is an army of very well-respected journalists I have worked with who have made mistakes in copy, not terrible errors, but ones which would leave the endangered species of a sub-editor screaming in horror.

The mistakes don’t make them terrible journalists, just human.

I am also an unwilling culprit. More than once I have beaten myself up for making a mistake, lying awake for hours asking how I could have been so stupid?

Copy, or content as it seems to be called now, starts with the writer, nothing has changed here.

In another time it would then have been viewed and corrected by the stressed out news editor and then sent across the bridge to that world of craft we used to call the sub-editing department.

This was the part of the newsroom where your career was made or left in tatters.

The swearing, head shaking and name-calling could often be heard across editorial as the sub-editor ploughed into your copy.

There were some brave souls who would approach the sub-editors without an invitation, after being verbally abused by them, as their copy was pummelled into some kind of printable shape.

A gentle query of ‘is there a problem’ would be greeted with sneers and sardonic grins.

The humbling of the reporter would often continue in the depths of the smoking room. Here, at the Court of Sub-editors, the latest error by some young reporter would be discussed in a fog of smoke.

Sentence would be handed out as the roll-ups were extinguished in the ashtray.

The outcome often meant months of terror for the journalist who would make an extra effort to ensure copy was crisp and clean as a whistle in the wake of their mistake.

It was only then and after a few pints of ale at the local hostelry that a ceasefire was called and the sub-editors agreed that the writer wasn’t so bad after all.

The reality is that the sub-editors were (some still are) the goalkeepers of the newsroom, often the final critical eye before publication.

The sub-editors’ views on life were simple, if a journalist was unable to spell a street name correctly, then what other horrific errors lay in wait for the them?

It was a matter of trust. If a journalist’s copy was clean, the theory was that the likelihood of other errors was minimal.

Today’s journalists do not have the comfort of so many eyes viewing their copy.

They are told to get it right and then publish. The expectation on their shoulders is considerable. (By the way, I am only concentrating on errors, the fact that copy often doesn’t get the chance to be rewritten is another issue to be discussed some other time.)

However, the number of mistakes I see, particularly online, surely sends a shudder of despair through the ranks of my former sub-editing colleagues.

If there are errors, then trust slowly evaporates and disappointed readers turn their backs on the journalist and their publication.

Is there anything to protect the hacks? Re-employ more subs? That will never happen.

Without the comfort blanket of a sub, they are on their own, a lonely place to be. Hopefully, management will give them as much help as possible, but those in charge have to care as well.

What is a worry is a conversation between two top newspapers executives in which they openly mocked those who were suitably concerned that a national newspaper had forgotten to put an apostrophe on their front page headline.

With this kind of attitude, things aren’t going to improve.

By the way, if there are any mistakes in this blog, I apologise, but I couldn’t find a sub to check it for me…






3 thoughts on “Pity the poor lonely journalist having to publish without the help of a grumpy sub-editor

  1. Right on the money, Richard. And I couldn’t find any errors in your copy.

    As well as shouting at newsreaders who make verbal mistakes like “over” instead of “more than” – things that were drilled into me the hard and painful way by subs who were exactly as you describe them – I shake my head in pity when finding really rudimentary mistakes in “respectable” outlets like the nationals, the BBC…

    I have many memories of cringing in front of a sub as they brutally pointed out my errors, both factual and grammatical. Some of them really perfected the art of journo shaming. Mind you, us reporters also tried like mad to slip in phrases in that were strictly verboten – for example it was never allowed to refer to female residents of the Cambridgeshire village of Three Holes as “A Three Holes woman”…

    In times of old, it was only Private Eye that would gleefully reprint the worst clangers that did slip through. Now there are websites devoted to the topic.

    You are right in mourning the loss of the back bench. Although as a young reporter I used to feel sorry for the subs, thinking of them as being too old and jaded to go out and get a story, I learned to appreciate their help, respect their wisdom and tough love, and tried to stay out of their collection of the worst clangers. Like you said, over a few pints they might loosen up and share some of their favourites.

    I’m sure you will remember a certain Assistant Editor who wasn’t a sub per se, but a magician: If a sob story was ever missing that one killer quote that you’d tried and tried to get the “unfortunate victim” to say, but they’d stepped around it, then the Doc would make it up and stick it in anyway. What amazes me most is that nobody ever complained, at least if they did, it never reached me…

  2. For those of us that went through real journalism training, your words are true. However, with the advent of the Internet, there is a whole new breed of writers calling themselves ‘jounalist ‘ or ‘editor’ with not an ounce of editorial know-how. For those of us who would suffer a restless night over a missing apostrophe or misplaced comma, this new on-line genre care not a jot. I’m afraid there will be a lot more cringing as this behemoth publishing machine is impossible to tame to the editorial standards we hold dear.

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