Subbing blues

Gonzo Meets the Press #5 May 5, 2011

Outsourcing has become the way of the future for many newspapers. Fairfax is
the latest company with plans to place subediting in the hands of an external
group. But will it lift the quality of journalism? We all need subs we can lean
on.

As President Obama said: “The world will be a better place without Osama bin
Laden,” but will it be a better place without face-to-face
subeditors?
Fairfax has joined the worldwide movement by planning to put all
subs into one giant hub where they can trade puns and metaphors and correct
spellings and grammar all day, without ever seeing the people who write the copy
(now called content) and sometimes make mistakes – and need help.
Every
journo of my vintage has had their hard copy thrown back at them by a gruff old
sub, with words to the effect: “That’s crap, rewrite this and put some verbs in
it, and take out those extra adjectives. This is news. And by the way when you
mean ‘it is,” put an apostrophe in, and when it’s a possessive, like a dog
chasing its tail, take out the bloody apostrophe.” I’ve cleaned up the
language somewhat!
Subeditors, or copy editors as they are known in the US,
are wise men and women. I remember being sent out as a copy boy to get some
vegetable soup for one of the copy editors on the New York Daily News
in the late sixties. I came back with chicken soup, saying the local pub didn’t
have any vegies, just some minestrone stuff. He gave me an exasperated look, and
said: “Minestrone means many vegetables in Italian.” I hadn’t been overseas yet,
and he was a man of the world – a copy editor! He wasn’t exactly right, as it
means “big soup” in Italian, but it was a vegetable soup. And he taught me a
valuable lesson. If you don’t know what a word means, look it up or ask
somebody!
In my experience, subeditors can save the day, and often have. I
wish I had one on April 17, 1975 when I laid out a foreign page for The
Australian
(I was foreign editor then), and wrote the 72-point headline:
PEACE AT LAST, over a story about the Khmer Rouge marching into Cambodia’s
capital, Phnom Penh. It didn’t take me long to recognise that I had gone
overboard with that headline about the murderous Pol Pot and his genocidal band
of killers. A sub could have said: “Mate, go easy.”
The new Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood told The Australian of plans to outsource the
subbing to an AAP subsidiary, Pagemasters:  “We are absolutely transforming the
editorial production process inside the metro business and investing a portion
of those savings into writing and reporting to lift the quality of those
publications.” He also argued the savings would be $15 million a year.
I think Ben Hills, a long-time former Fairfax reporter, Walkley Award winner, and
author of Breaking News, a biography of the legendary editor of The
Age
, Graham Perkin, said it best: “How can you improve the quality of those
publications when you sack the quality controllers, and that’s what subs are –
quality controllers.”
Chris Warren, the Federal Secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (and oh for the good old days when it was just
the AJA – the Australian Journalists’ Association), told The Australian
hundreds of jobs could be lost, adding that a time when Fairfax is ‘looking to
invest in the future of quality journalism and the development of market-leading
cross platform news content, taking the specialised skills and expertise of
subeditors out of the newsroom is grossly misguided.”
Right on, Chris. I have nothing against Pagemasters, and by all accounts, they do a fairly good
job, but they need to be in the newsroom, where they can save a butt or kick
one, and then go down the pub and tell you where you went wrong – or right —
that’s something else that happened in days of old. These days it’s eat your
lunch at your desk and stare at your computer until it’s time to go home.
Shoeleather and on-the-job training would go a long way in lifting the quality
of newspapers.
In the era before spell check and computers, I remember a
dictionary on every desk, and a thesaurus, well-thumbed books, used by every
journalist who worked on the paper. Now in television newsrooms, it’s byo
reference works. You can find a dictionary, but most prefer looking up words on
their computer (I’ve done it occasionally as well).
Some of the best journalists I know have started out as subs, and then when a crisis occurred, or
a big story broke, the editor asked if they could write a quick background
piece. Will any of the subeditors at Pagemasters be asked to do this? The
managing editor of the AAP subsidiary, Peter Atkinson, told the ABC: “We have
worked very effectively working on those feature sections … and there haven’t
been any barriers posed by those issues of not being necessarily face to face
full time.” Yeah, and I really like talking to a computer when I have to pay a
bill, or even worse, query one.
The good news is that the MEAA said on Wednesday that Fairfax has agreed to work with senior subeditors to examine
possible alternatives to the outsourcing of their work, and that the company had
assured the alliance the matters announced on Tuesday were a proposal and that
no contracts had been signed with Pagemasters, despite an announcement by the
subsidiary that it would be taking on additional subediting for Fairfax.
You can rest assured the union, the company and the subsidiary will have more
comment on the “proposal.”
But one thing is certain, the quality of newspapers will improve when the writing gets better, and the backgrounders get
more frequent and relevant. And how do newspapers do that? Ask any sub,
they’ll tell you – hire more subeditors!
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press program. His
views are his own, they always have been.

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