Tag Archives: subbing

Subs v Greenslade (part three)

So. Part three. Why subs aren’t useless.

Page design, for all that Roy says it’s templated and not creative, is a well-developed craft.
There are rules about minimum headline sizes to hold up a page, how many decks you need for a top single, best use of pictures and so on.
These are guidelines based on studies of how people read, watch works as eye catching design and what makes you turn the page without reading on.

Roy may think that online ‘page design is irrelevant, of course.’

Of course it’s irrelevant if you want your readers to miss half your content. Of course its irrelevant if you want your site to be grey and boring, or your text to look so dull your readers drift off halfway down the page.

Page design may indeed be irrelevant to most newspapers right now, hamstrung as they are by their templated cms and their lack of knowledge about eyetracking.

But should it be irrelevant? No, absolutely not.

Two examples (and I promise I’m not showing off here…)

First, online picture galleries.

Here’s the Newsquest official gallery.

And here’s the one we built last month.

Why? Well, the Newsquest version is small. It doesn’t show off the photographer’s work. You can’t really see what’s happening in the pictures. It doesn’t inspire, or make you smile, or make you think ‘I’m going to send this link to my friend.’ Were that paper to be running a picture supplement, it wouldn’t make you think “I’ll buy that, because I already know their pictures are great.’ It doesn’t give the photographers any reason to take anything other than a bog standard news shot. I could go on.

The point is, why should pictures online be relegated to 310 pixels?  Why does the fact that it’s a website mean we shouldn’t care about how it looks?

Second: Our Taste section. Here’s how it looks now

Here’s the version we’re working on for a relaunch

It’s not perfect. We’re stuck with only using basic html and none of us are wizards. But it makes a difference. It’s more appealing. You can see where things are. We’re selling the content.

So page design is absolutely relevant. And who better to deal with it than subs who already know the basic principles?

If I was an editor this is what I’d do.

Find and keep good copy subs. Train them in SEO for headlines and let them work out how to combine optimizing for Google with writing good headlines. They’re not incompatible. It just needs skill.

Find and keep good design subs. Teach them about eyetracking, train them in basic html and the vagaries of the cms so they can add links, create breaks in the copy, use pictures to their best advantage, use italics and bold and lists to make the stories LOOK good.

Teach them about Google maps and Yahoo pipes and Dipity and Flash so they can tell the story in a new way; the online version of fact files and breakout panels and graphics.

Give them input into how the site looks. Use their experience and flair, make them part of the process, keep them enthused about the future and hang-on to their knowledge.

So when a story breaks and you’re running constantly updating copy on the web you’ve got a sub who can make it accurate, make it clear, make it interesting, make it sing – in both the old sense, and the new SEO sense – and finally do it fast, like in the old days of deadlines. Exciting for them and for the reader. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

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Greenslade v subs (part two)

No sooner had I finished part one than Roy posted this.

There are two things here that I would like to address:

1> Subbing can be competently performed by people who have no especial link with a given paper.

I’d say adequately. Not competently. But here’s a thing. A good local paper stands for something. It has an identity.

And that identity will be one of our most valauble assets in bringing readers online and ensuring our survival.

Take away local subs, who care about and are proud of their pages, who know what the paper is and what its stance is on everything from how it reports suicides to in what context you can use the word interweb, and you take away part of that personality.

One of the things I’ve been trying hard to do at the Echo is build a sense of an online community. It’s one of the things the BBC radio brands do well – make you feel like they are a family and that you, by listening, are part of that family. That’s what we strive for.

So we have an avatar – the deck chair – that is more than just our masthead. We call the office Echo Towers, partly because I’m a bit of a geek, and partly because (I hope) it makes our Twitter followers feel like they’re getting the inside track.

We have a joke in paper about our TV columnist and her kitten heels. Our What’s On picture captions are legendary. Our sections have an identity and the people who sub them know what that id is and why it matters.

Our readers probably wouldn’t know the difference if that changed. But they’d know there WAS a difference.

Perhaps we should spend more time building newsrooms full of people that DO have a link to the paper.

Aside from the obvious advantages – obscure spellings of street names, knowledge of the history of stories and characters that can be invaluable – maybe there’s a more subtle, but more vital effect.

A paper readers can identify with. A product staff care about. Pride in your work. A sense of place. Readers notice when you spell place names or school names or surnames wrong. They know the backstory, and when you don’t they’ll happily point it out (while telling you how rubbish your paper is).

And who among us can claim that reader loyalty and brand identification won’t matter in the future? In the new age, newspapers will need to market themselves. Outsourcing or templating your subbing diminishes your brand. Slowly, maybe, and subtly, but it does. That’s why Roy’s wrong.

And point two?

This: “I am talking newsprint here, incidentally. It is noticeable that punning headlines work less well online and, of course, the page design is irrelevant.”

More follows in part three!

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Subs v Greenslade (part one)

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)

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Cllr Grower and sockpuppeting; we can see your email address, you know

Well I couldn’t go home today without writing something about this.

Views range from the absolutely-we-did-the-right-thing to the lazy-story-he’s-got-a-right-to-privacy.

What do I think? From a management of the community we’re building perspective, I’d like to have seen him privately warned tp cease and desist before we named and shamed him.

But from a news perspective, I think it’s a great story. I think he has attempted to deceive his electorate and if we’d been mid-election I’m fairly sure those comments could have seen us in breach of electoral regulations if we hadn’t named and shamed him once we knew.

But as Judith Townend from journalism.co.uk said to me today, where do we draw the line between silly and serious?

No harm has been done by the comments, so should we, as holders of private data and managers of a website where people are allowed, if not encouraged, to post under pseudonyms which currently range from Frying Leper to Lord Jesus, have told him to back off, register under his own name or stop bigging himself up? And what of the countless other commenters promoting their own agenda? Who’s allowed and who isn’t?

On reflection, I think I fall on the side of news here. He’s a public servant, paid by the tax payer. They deserve to know if he’s the kind of man who’ll post nice things about himself while trying his hardest to pretend he knows nothing about the story in question.  If he was a company, it would be illegal. Has it done us harm with our online readers? Maybe. But you can’t please all the people all the time.

But I will make a quick point about the age old issue of links.

Not a single one of the national stories (nor Iain Dale’s blog, which linked instead to the Indy) has a link to us, or any of the stories Cllr Grower commented on, or journalism.co.uk, who picked up the story first.

To be fair, the nats are all using PA copy. But why can’t PA include links in their feeds? And someone has made the choice to pull the PA story from the feed and highlight on those sites – it’s not hard to find the link to our story.  I know Alison Gow has complained about this before, and we’ll no doubt be more annoyed when we see how the print versions use it tomorrow. But if the link economy is part of our future model for news, then why not link to us? I am, courtesy of a Yahoo pipe, linking to them. How about they return the favour?

PS: the best part, in my view, was a complaint from Cllr Grower that people commenting on the story were pretending to be him. Not who they said they were. Oh the irony.

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A quick thought about story comments

Anyone who follows me on Twitter (or who’s read this post) will know that story comments and the negative atmosphere they can create has exercised me recently.

But here’s a quick thought. Maybe the ‘quick to criticise’ aspect isn’t so bad after all. Frustrating, yes, but also a challenge.

Take this, for example.  I like this story: How Bournemouth Christmas Tree raised the roof From Bournemouth Echo.  It’s quite funny. It’s seasonal.

But as one commenter points out, it also includes a pointless adjective (don’t ask me who subbed it, I don’t know) and there’s no mention at all in the copy of the firefighters in the picture, why they’re putting a smoke detector on the top of the tree or how dad-of-three Grieg persuaded them to take part.

Two things I think this illustrates: the web DOES need subs. Whatever you call them or however your system works, somebody has to have quality control, final checks, removal of lazy cliches.

Point two: We can’t get away with the kind of reporting my old tutor, the legendary John Foscolo, would have called slapdash (actually I don’t think I ever heard him say the word slapdash. Would definitely have been a D- though.) If we do half a job, people WILL pull us up, in public, and immediately. And that’s no bad thing.

Frustrating and annoying and embarassing, yes. But in the long term, maybe it’s good for quality?

When I was a news editor, under the equally legendary Anita Syvret, I made sure our copy was as good as I could make it before I showed it to her, because I knew what she’d say if I didn’t.

Perhaps our angry story commenters are the virtual equivalent of the angry editor or chief  sub. They won’t accept sloppy writing. And why should they?

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Style and the Express

Love this post from the Press Gazette. Some people will say these style points aren’t important and that none of this stuff matters as audiences get younger and news providers proliferate across the web. 

But I’d say these kind of standards (the quality control that sub-editors do because reporters don’t) are what make us different – a USP, if you like.

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Express picks fit-to-box layout in world without subs

So here are some details about how the Express is going to manage without subeditors.

It’s the old Northcliffe dream; reporters are sent a box, write their story to fit and craft a headline, remembering to include all the relevant copy commands. Job done.

But then there’s a team of ‘rewriters’ who’ll check the story and make any necessary changes, and the lawyers, who’ll make sure no-one can sue Dicky Desmond for any of his hard-earned cash.

No mention of what kind of journalists these ‘rewriters’ will be (or what they will do with overwritten copy that fills a box but could really do with 200 words trimming from it) but surely they’ll have to be subs? Subs in disguise, maybe, but subs none the less.

Which makes the whole exercise seem entirely pointless. Wordy, flabby, overwritten leads are more likely to make the paper. Reporters will have more to do. Half of what they’ve done will be redone anyway by the rewriters – or it won’t and the rewriters will do themselves out of a job.

I suppose we should be glad they are keeping rewriters (who are no doubt cheaper than subs and there will be less of them).

But there needs to be someone between the reporter and the reader.

Why?

I’ve been a reporter. I’ve been a news editor. Sub-editors changing ‘my’ copy annoyed me immensely. I knew what my story was and I was going to write it my way.

But as a trainee I learnt how to write for newspapers by studying how the subs edited my words; for clarity, for brevity, to pull the reader in.

As a news editor the fiery arguments I had with the chief sub made me look at my stories differently. Sometimes I came round to agreeing with him. Sometimes he agreed with me. But everything was debated. Is it worth its place? Have we got the right angle? Are we being fair?

As a reporter or news editor it’s easy to see a story one way. Your way. Deadlines, a fondness for a particular contact or angle, your own beliefs – they all play a part in how we construct our stories and it’s foolish to think they don’t.

As a sub it’s my job to reconsider those angles. I wasn’t always right when I sat on the other side of the fence and I’m not always right now. But it’s important to spark that debate.

As I’ve said before, we’re not just cut-to-fit monkeys.

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Subs are not cut-to-fit monkeys

In this column, Nick Clayton says:

For a start, websites don’t need subs, at least as they exist at the moment. The reason is simple. The key role of subs on newspapers is in getting words to fit a finite space whether that’s copy, headlines or captions.

Unlike a printed page, there is effectively no restriction on the size of a web page. If you want to run every word in the Bible in one place there’s nothing to stop you. In the interests of the reader there could be an editorial decision that no story should be longer than 700 words, but in terms of readability there’s little difference between say 500 words and 600 words. The missing hundred words won’t leave a space.

Even the most satisfying task of the sub, headline writing, is effectively rendered obsolete by the web. What are required online are labels that will be picked up by search engines, not clever plays on words.

He’s missing a fundamental point. Subs are NOT cut-to-fit monkeys. We rewrite. We pare back. We make better.

Copy is not cut just because it’s too long. It’s cut because the reporter has used ten words when two will do; repeated themselves, included quotes that mean nothing or phrases like this:

He said the ambulance took a long time to arrive. He said: “The ambulance took a long time to arrive.”

As for suggesting that web headlines don’t have to be interesting: he consigns us to a lifetime of unimaginative titles that consist of keywords, like this one from today’s Mirror: Army base ‘bully‘ film

And just two more examples:

The threat of rain did not dampen the spirit of a man who had unearthed a family link to the secret gardens recently discovered at the East Close Hotel.

That was the only mention of rain in the whole story.
And how about this?

BEAULIEU is still Beaulieuful according to Bank Holiday excitement seekers who surf the internet to find out where to go.

Internet search engine Ask.com rates the venue in the heart of the New Forest as number 21 in its top 25, according to the number of hits asking for information.

Top of the pops is Chester Zoo, closely followed by London Zoo and the Natural History Museum. The Tate Modern comes in ninth, Cornwall’s Eden Project at number 15, Legoland at 17 and the London Transport Museum at 18.

Leeds Castle is next, followed by Paignton Zoo and then Beaulieu, which has its abbey, house and gardens, but more specifically the National Motor Museum.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu said: “Beaulieu was one of the first visitor attractions to open in this country over 50 years ago and it’s gratifying to see that in this modern age of the internet it remains one of the country’s most popular and best loved visitor destinations.”

The motor museum has 250 exhibits ranging from bicycles to cars, through to commercial vehicles.

And Beaulieu doesn’t lag behind the times either: the veteran bus that carries visitors around the grounds has recently been converted to run on recycled chip oil from the Brabazon Cafeteria, ensuring it is environmentally Beaulieuful.

A good sub would reduce that to three pars.

Unlimited space does NOT mean we shouldn’t care about quality.  I don’t leave stories long in the paper because I need to fill the hole – I sub it for value and workfrom there. That doesn’t stop being true just because there’s no box to fill. Every word should earn its place.


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Reasons to be cheerful

It’s all doom and gloom at the moment, isn’t it? Recession, unemployment, crashing share prices leading to company takeovers (there but for the grace of new shares goes Johnston press).

So here are some blog posts that make me optimistic. There are some people out there who think we’ll make it through. More thinking like that, and less thinking like this, is what we need to become commercially successful enough to keep us in our jobs….

We’re rethinking advertising

We should care about how our money is made. Advertising needs innovation as much if not more than editorial if newsaper websites are to work. Thankfully Paul Bradshaw’s got some ideas

We’re admitting we can’t do things the way we always have

And isn’t that exciting? Mark Potts has a convincing explanation for why change is good

There are lots of people with ideas for new business models

I didn’t really get into journalism for the business angle. But it makes me happy to know there are people out there who have thought about how we make money – and how we can make enough of it to ‘save newspapers’

And we do still care about the quality of our product

No matter what people say, subbing IS important. It’s not something any reporter can do. And it’s not obselete, not matter what Desmond or Greenslade say. Don’t agree? Richard Burton might persuade you.

You may think his points aren’t relevant online. But just because you don’t have a physical space to cut your copy to doesn’t mean said copy won’t require pruning, or checking, or sharpening up, or even hacking back to three pars because that’s all its worth. Quality control is just as important online as it is in print.

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Headline of the Day

And people say anyone can sub…

Headline of my week, on a story about a beleagured hydrotherapy pool and a potential rescue package:

Spa wars: a new hope

Not exactly web-friendly, I realise. But still. Take that, Desmond.

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