Sunday, February 8, 2009...5:02 pm

Death of the sub-editor

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Recently a sub I know was made redundant by a trade magazine. The grand total of sub-editors it now employs is zero.

While we both found this shocking, he found it a lot more shocking than I did (and not just because it was his job that went belly up).

In fact, this a recurrent meme on the internet.

One report refers to the Telegraph outsourcing subbing to Australia.

Another notes the trend of asking junior staff with other jobs to do the subbing too.

So how can a respected trade publication of many years’ standing ditch its sub?

Several answers:

1] Subs used to just do subbing. ie they stroked copy all day – sometimes banging its head against a wall until it made sense. But then DTP happened and they all became typesetters and layout artists. This meant less time was spent actually, you know, sub-editing and more time doing interesting but different things, such as basic design.

Add in more technology and workflow changes and you get subs who spend most of their time working with digital images, page layout, making PDFs and talking to the repro house [while those still exist] and not really doing much with copy at all. They don’t have time, you see.

2] Now editors do it. When subs don’t have a clear function other folk, such as editors, forget why they’re there. So editors get more precious about copy, do all the micro-editing themselves and don’t let subs rewrite when they could and should.

3] No one learns grammar at school. Given the tendency for the publishing workforce to be young (they’re cheaper, for a start), fewer editors, and even sub-editors, have old-school sub-editing skills. They don’t really know proper grammar (and often spelling) and don’t appreciate its importance. (For those who are wondering, the ability to parse a sentence correctly is the cornerstone of civilisation). And because the reading public is assumed not to know or care, it isn’t seen as a problem.

4] The internet (obviously). The internet basically compounds all the reasons above. When you’re working online you have even more things to figure out, such as how the bloody CMS works and how to tag the story. And maybe these days you’ll be working out how to upload a podcast or video clip. And increasingly, journalists and editors get to upload stuff themselves, bypassing the subs’ desk entirely. Which gives them dangerous ideas like: maybe we don’t need these surly buggers cluttering up our offices and complaining about apostrophes any more.

More to come? Probably. Production journalism won’t die, but it will change more than you think possible…

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