Anne Taylor pays homage to that unsung hero of the newsroom: the chief sub, in a story first published in The Media magazine. In the days of cost-cutting and inexperienced of newsrooms, many believe that now, more than ever, the chief sub’s craft is a vital key to a newspaper’s ‘institutional knowledge’.
It’s been eight years since I last worked in a newsroom and, with the feverish pace of change, that’s a long time. Looking back on my career as a journalist, I remember that my favourite newsroom curmudgeons could always be found in the sub-editors’ room; that the people who knew more than it was decent to know were revise subs; and that, no matter how talented the editor, it was really the formidable chief sub who held the keys to the heart of the newspaper.
Back in the day, newsrooms were strictly hierarchical places: everyone knew their place and they had got there by working their way up from the trenches to the top table. Copy flowed in a particular way (towards deadline), everyone knew what was expected of them and we could count deadlines and editions on one hand.
But technology has changed newsrooms forever and there’s little argument that the producers and crafters of journalism have battled to evolve appropriately. We’ve all read (and sobbed over) the disappearing role of the sub-editor, but what has happened to the chief sub? Is there still room for such an arcane position in a modern news environment?
As part of a dramatic cost-cutting exercise, Independent Newspapers – the publishers of newspapers such as The Star, the Cape Times and the Daily News – ‘reorganised’ itself in March 2009 to roll 15 sub-editing departments into one, creating a national pool of 100 sub-editors. They’re not title-bound and work on copy across titles and across the country. Instead of 15 chief subs, there are now six in the entire group, all reporting to Dave Chambers, Independent Newspapers production editor in Cape Town.
These chief subs don’t necessarily work in the same city in which their newspaper is produced. A chief sub in Durban, for example, oversees a clutch of weekend titles – including his local Independent on Saturday and Sunday Tribune, as well as the Saturday Star and the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg.
“We think in terms of copy streams, not titles,” Chambers explains.
Instead of fierce chief sub-editors as lords of their fiefdoms, content editors and deputy chief sub-editors now hold individual titles’ ‘institutional knowledge’, as Chambers describes it.
It’s hard not to be cynical and sad about what’s happening to South Africa’s newspapers. But it’s not nearly as dramatic as what’s happening in the United Kingdom and the United States, where ‘templated layouts’ mean reporters write directly onto the page and subbing is outsourced to another continent.
So, with content floating about in an amorphous subs’ pool or outsourced to another continent, what is a chief sub to do?
“Certainly there is no culture to be nurtured or flair or style to be cultivated,” says Don Bayley, a former chief sub and managing editor. “It’s entirely impossible when people are randomly working on different titles. People no longer care about the panache of their newspaper.”
Dawn of a new age
Bayley says the Internet and media organisations’ preoccupation with the bottom line are the main contributors to this state of affairs. “But,” he insists, “it is not so bad really. The saving grace of capitalism is that it’s Darwinian. The fit survive, the muddlers die – eventually – and what we’re seeing at the moment is one of those grand paradigm shifts in media. To cling to the old models, such as autocratic chief subs and the like, is to be conservative. A new model will arise.”
So, what will that new model be? News organisations have proved to be notoriously slow in responding to new challenges, and have been positively myopic in the face of new reader demand. Decades after the rise of the Internet and the arrival of the continuous news cycle, journalism is still unsure what its next step should be.
Ever since the first computers arrived on the desks of sub-editors, companies have valued technology’s labour-saving (read cost-cutting) potential over skill, craft and general wordsmithery. Ironically, it was these technologies that made compositors and linotype operators redundant overnight. And sub-editors are probably headed for a similar fate as technology hurtles towards solutions newspapers have not yet thought of, let alone demanded or anticipated.
In South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, decisions are being made to prioritise online editions of newspapers. This often means that workflow, duties and responsibilities have to converge to match the software. And we all know function should never follow form.
As a sub-editor friend of mine at an Australian newspaper explains: “Until recently, this place ran like clockwork and the paper even went off early quite often. The only problematic part of the whole operation was the website, with its very bad operating system. So instead of just fixing the online operation, they’ve turned the entire paper on its head, with dire consequences.”
The implementation of a new publishing system has caused mayhem: “The only chief subs left are on the newspaper’s main body and they are basically reduced to troubleshooting, drawing up rosters and trying to make sure pages get away on time. Matters of style and the finer points of subbing are pretty much left up to the revise subs who, ironically, are just subs who change queues when the subs queue is empty. Because we’re all pooled now, the chief subs don’t even know who half their subs are,” adds my Australian friend.
Chief subs are also hobbled by having to rely on shrinking teams of subs who are poorly trained, inexperienced and just not up to the job. Many senior staffers have been targeted in retrenchment exercises or sidelined by technology.
“We’re constantly fighting against technology,” says Robyn Leary, the acting assistant editor at the Cape Argus, “with deadlines becoming increasingly difficult to meet.”
However, as easy as it is to confuse the platform (newspapers) with the product (journalism), perhaps I’m confusing a job title (chief sub) with a job that needs to be done. Whether on a broadsheet page, a tabloid sheet or the home page of a news website, there has to be someone deciding how a story should be played, what the headline should say and chasing down the deadline.
And who better to do that than the chief sub? As Leary says: “Chief subbing is what you make of it. You can still be the editorial guardian of the newspaper.”
I have always maintained there is no-one who understands copy flow better than a chief sub. With their uncanny sense of what needs to be done at any given time, they’ve traditionally acted as a bridge between the news desk and the subs’ room. But, perhaps the new role of a chief sub should be to negotiate the way towards a new model. Who needs to be a dictator when you can be a digital diplomat?
Anne Taylor is a recovering newspaper sub-editor and former editor of a national online news operation. She still reads newspapers.