How do I disagree with you, Roy? Let’s count the ways.
First:, let’s start with the cheap shot.
“I write my blog every day, I don’t need a sub to get in the way,” said the former Daily Mirror editor turned Guardian blogger. “I produce copy that goes straight on screen – why can’t anyone else do that?
You can eliminate a whole structure. “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”
Readers of his blog will know that there are often misspelled words, missing words and sentences that could do with a good pruning.
One could suggest that Roy’s instinct is for excessively wordy and tortorously punctuated sentences.
One could also suggest that a good sub, seeking brevity and clarity while maintaining meaning, could halve most of his columns with little effort and no loss of substance.
It’s an argument that brings up the old Giles Coren subs v reporters debate, in which the reporter, educated as s/he is in grammar and spelling, and completely and thoroughly conversant with the minutiae and nuances of their story, has chosen every single word carefully.
Their sentences are so deliberately, consciously, constructed that any attempt by a sub-editor to shorten or clarify will destroy the magical edifice of words that so perfectly encapsulates the story in question.
I’m prepared to concede – because I don’t know every journalist in the country – that there may be some out there whose work cannot be improved upon.
But in the real world? The reporter will type too fast; not know how to spell, have not been taught the difference between it’s and its (a journalist I know in her twenties says she was never taught punctuation at school, and finds it’s and its impossible to understand), misread their shorthand, leave out a crucial ‘not’, be oblivious to the difference between an active and passive sentence and so on.
And then there’s the reporters who just can’t write. Some of the best reporters – as in finders out of facts – I’ve worked with couldn’t write for toffee. Some can’t spell. Some get too involved with their complicated story and find it impossible to write a version that someone coming across it for the first time would understand.
There’s the thousands of trainees who don’t yet know how to write breaking news copy, running copy, how to construct court copy, whether you’ve got privilege on questions shouted from the public gallery at council meetings, why the style for a page three is different from a page five, or why we use ‘said’ in news copy and ‘says’ in features and never, ever, use sez (apply from your own style guide, the point is the same.)
A former editor used to tell our reporters not to worry about fine tuning their copy. She used to tell me, as news editor, not to bother with any rewriting when we were on deadline, because she knew the subs would do it faster and better than we could.
None of this is intended as a slur on reporters. But it makes me wonder if Roy has been inside a regional or local paper recently. Does he know how the system works? Does he really think that every reporter in the country is turning out perfect copy that doesn’t need an eye casting over it?
Then there’s the ‘reporters can write headlines’ argument.
Yes, they can write a series of words that will more or less do the job. But it’s not just on the Sun that headline writing is a skill.
Who’s going to teach those reporters about why it’s a good idea to have a verb in a headline? Do they have the necessary thesaurus in their heads for those times when they need a different word to make their headline fit? What about the literary/cultural knowledge that lets a good sub write a headline that references a writer or musician and gives the reader a new connection with the story?
The same editor used to give us instructions – I want a funny headline, do something clever with this. If she didn’t like it, we did it again until she did. On any news story, if it was boring, we did it again.
Can reporters do this? Will reporters do this?
Now, it’s true that not all subs write good headlines. Which brings me to point two;
“There are two kinds of sub-editors,” he said. “Sub-editors that work on local and regional newspapers, that work on a template – that can be outsourced elsewhere.
“There are subs working on serious quality newspapers [to templates] and that can be sent elsewhere.
“Then there are creative people who put together our popular, mass-market papers, such as The Sun. Those types of subs do creative work – but they are largely in a minority”.
I’m sure Roy, experienced whipper-upper of storms that he is, knew exactly what he was doing when he said this.
A whole tranche of journalists – journalists with years of experience, who remember hot metal and Wapping and wax – dismissed in two sentences.
I’ve don’t know of any local papers (yet) that use templates. A library full of shapes, maybe, for building the bare bones, but shapes that are flexible, to allow for designing around a big story, or a great picture.
So to write off every sub outside London (and every sub that doesn’t work for a tabloid) as non-creative, a purely mechanical beast that simply chops copy to fit a box it didn’t even design, is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing he’s ever said.
I’m going to stop now, because I’m rambling, and this post is already twice as long as it should be. But I do have more to say, about what we should be doing with our subs and why they do still matter, especially online. More follows….
(And sorry about the dodgy intro. A sub would have taken it out)