Production hubs. Those words. They always bring me out in a sweat. After the accountants had finished picking over the bones of the then Northcliffe Newspapers in 2007, the meat slicer came out, it was time to cut jobs.
I’m not sure how, but I was tasked with not only implementing a unified editorial system across large parts of Northcliffe, but also help be an architect of the production hubs.
At the time, I argued that if jobs had to be lost, the best way was not to create large hubs, but to use the technology to improve and speed up production and keep the subs at the local centres.
Ultimately, I was right, as the hubs collapsed in bitter recriminations and production was returned to the local centres.
Now Trinity Mirror is set to create those beasts of the newsroom once more.
One of the main problems with Northcliffe was that they used an editorial system which was being developed as it was rolled out.
This meant that most centres used the system differently and often this meant poorly.
Many editors didn’t like an inferior deputy editor like me coming in to tell them how to work, so the battles were long and hard to get one system in across the group.
One of the main advantages was that we needed to have the ability to share content, this could only really be done if we had one system and a shared server.
Getting in the new software, however, was only one tip of the iceberg. The real battle started with which centres were going to have the subbing hub and which centre would have their content subbed in a darkened warehouse many miles away.
This was the true war of the worlds stuff for editors who quickly realised that having a production hub on their site gave them enormous power and influence, plus it gave job security to their own workforce.
In many ways, a lot of newspapers benefitted from the hub system. The reason is that subbing at some centres, I’m afraid to say, was not brilliant and they benefitted from being subbed at centres with more experienced staff.
But, there were many, many downsides. The errors due to lack of knowledge about an area were extraordinary.
If you sat in a hub in Hull or Nottingham your knowledge of Lincoln or Leicester was often not up to scratch and errors were made by hard-pressed sub-editors.
There was also a proliferation of headline boxes which went out with the standard ‘Headline 42pt in ere ereere’ or ‘Fill this J please ere ere’ and a lot worse.
There was also a massive amount of posturing from editors as pressure to churn out pages increased.
In the hub I looked after with some excellent, extremely hard-working colleagues, we chucked out 1,000 pages a week.
It got competitive, the fight for survival and which centre produced the most pages most efficiently, a ‘who had the biggest balls’ contest.
To say the least, it was gruelling, it was like working in a factory, just churning out page after page.
I was tasked to spend time working out how many pages one sub-editor could do a day.
Of course, if every page had a 20×7 ad on, you could do a lot. So an average figure of eight pages per day became the agreed task for every sub.
I was not happy with the figure, but there had to be a benchmark, ‘let’s weed out the lazy ones’ one of the most senior editorial gurus in Northcliffe growled at me down the phone.
‘Mmmmmmmmm…’ I said, with a hint of desperation.
A colleague of mine bravely agreed to sub and design eight blank news pages as a trial. This experienced sub and designer worked flat out without a proper break for 10 hours and managed to achieve the task.
He admitted to me that after just one day of that, he was on his knees, how he said would he feel after two or three days having to do this? ‘Knackered’, I said.
I believe he may still be on medication…
Yep, eight pages without ads every day would break most subs, no wonder errors rose dramatically. The other major issue was getting copy through quickly.
Traditionally, as all us hardened subs know, reporters have a knack of delivering copy as they put their coat on and head for the pub at their close of play.
In the hub, this wasn’t possible, content had to be sent with military precision, each page had a deadline and if you couldn’t fill it, the front page lead would be grabbed and whacked in as a 140-worder so Page 47 could be sent.
In a way, the hubs were a sprat to catch a mackerel. They allowed major reorganisation of production, code for making a lot of people redundant.
It forced editors, who had fought tooth and nail to keep staff, to rethink their strategy.
They simply agreed to take subbing back to their own centres with a massive reduction in the original staff who used to sub and design the newspaper.
It wasn’t a case of back to square one. Most news pages were templated, you could have taught a child to drag and drop a page.
The boxes on the pages were sent to reporters to fill, including the headlines. At the end of the day, a quick refresh and the page was full and ready to go…sort of.
The main issues were that despite some training, reporters struggled with headlines, particularly making them interesting.
Reporters, under huge pressure to fill a quota of boxes as well as feed online often filled a box which was 200-words when the reality was that the story was only worth a nib.
Anyway, Trinity Mirror does seem fixed on going down the hub route. It will probably mean large, actually, not too large (there aren’t that many left) offices with rows of subs.
It could also mean that some production people stay at their centre, but have to sub copy from across a large area.
Whatever the outcome this time, it was clear to me when Northcliffe brought in the hubs that subbing copy a distance away from the patch was far from ideal.
It also goes against my view of the industry. I think newspapers should be light on their feet, able to change at the drop of a hat, not being at the mercy of a vast subbing pools weighing down the rest of the business.
Also, it surely contradicts the philosophy that journalists should be multi-skilled and not tied to one particular part of the business?
An editorial floor should be a place where journalists can turn their hand to any job if a gap in what is required for the day’s business appears.
The silos in a newsroom should be confined to the spike.
The Telegraph has for more than 30 years been one of the better performing titles in the former Northcliffe Newspaper and Local World group.
It’s consistency of performance and great journalism has been in no small part to the editors, the late Pete Moore and the present editor, the excellent Michelle Lalor.
As for the Lincolnshire Echo, I had some of my happiest times at this fabulous paper under the editorship of Mike Sassi, now editor of the Notts Post.
It was a newspaper which truly championed the community with the editor being the heart and soul of this.
Local newspapers without an editor to represent the newspaper and be part of the community can only mean a disconnection between the newspaper and the city, town or village it represents.