When the belts are tightened in the print media, the first to be let go are often those who are most valuable. Haley Abrahams gives 10 reasons why sub-editors are so important in newsrooms.
As media houses are forced by economics to grow leaner, meaner and tighter, the impact on staff is becoming greater. Profit margins narrow and operations (and staff) are downscaled. And when it comes to facing the chop, the first to go are generally the ‘backroom boys’ whose work makes the difference between just another rag and a balanced, eloquent read. They are the newspaper sub-editors, magazine copy editors and those all-round linguistic sharpshooters, the proofreaders.
Gone are the glory days of journalism when articles were thoughtfully checked, challenged and shaped on to the page by a team of talented subs. Nowadays, this job – when it exists – means high workload volumes and the stress of fewer people doing more work. Faced with a demand for both speed and accuracy, at some point something is going to blow. Then there’s the advent of centralised subs, who often are unfamiliar with the article’s subject matter or the tone of the publication. This one-size-fits-all approach by management is driven by the bottom line, resulting in the loss of the wordsmith’s craft.
This is not a uniquely South African problem. Media houses the world over are feeling the financial crunch. Print media are in a constant face-off with the immediacy of electronic communications, driven by our fast-food, instant gratification culture. This is bolstered by a flood of low-grade online copy generated by word farms (a growing number of websites that mix and match low-quality articles produced by amateurs in order to generate traffic). Then, there is the advent of citizen journalism and blogging, which have their place, but certainly not at the expense of experienced journalists and photographers.
Tight margins also often mean losing valuable experience and intellectual capital in favour of (lower paid) green journos, who perhaps don’t get the chance to learn the ropes before being set loose in the field. Then, you have reporters putting words straight on the page and hitting ‘submit’ without a sub ever seeing what has been written.
And amid this linguistic apocalypse, the subs, copy editors and proofers – those old-school bastions of grammar, fact-checking and obscure knowledge – are quietly being banished.
But they’re fighting back. So here are 10 fine reasons why subs and proofers are worth far more than their salaries.
Badly shaped articles do not inspire confidence. Jumbled facts, convoluted sentences and holes that leave readers confused rather than enlightened don’t reflect badly on the writer, but on the publication. Good writing is the foundation of credibility, and tight subbing adds the lustre of integrity.
A thorough working-over by copy editors and proofreaders ensures clear, sparkling copy. It’s one of those intangible elements that’s invisible when you get it right – but it screams to readers when it’s missing. A well-written article riddled with typos does not come across as having much weight.
Journos are fact ferrets and good at sniffing out angles. They’re not necessarily quite as adept at checking facts. Sharp subs know when to challenge journos and when to double-check – and have a prickly instinct for libellous copy. Sometimes, it simply takes a fresh pair of eyes to spot discrepancies.
A publication’s tone is specific. One of the tools in the sub’s smithy is the ability to set the tone and conform to house style without losing the voice of the writer. Style is often not overt; it’s the nuances, the shades, the subtlety of flow that makes the difference between good and great copy (or resuscitates terrible copy and makes it readable). Proofreaders – with their eye for detail and knack for nit-picking – are also excellent at enforcing house style, picking up both language and design inconsistencies.
Some publishers are of the misguided belief that anyone who can string together a sentence can sub, and anyone who can read can proof. So let’s get this straight: people have aptitudes. As an engineer would not try to be a sales rep, so too should an accountant or PR person not be assigned subbing or proofing responsibilities. Subbing and proofreading are not admin jobs: they are specialised – and distinct, and separate – skills, polished by years of experience. (That said, aptitude is not enough – if subs and proofers take their profession seriously and want respect, they should invest in themselves through regular training and upskilling. But that’s an entirely different tirade.)
Beyond being grammarians, subs are the conduit between journalists and readers. They make news accessible; they balance the publication to meet readers’ expectations. They have an instinct for what works and what fails, and bear a responsibility to both reader and writer to package words and stances accordingly.
Subs and copy editors – often unconsciously – play a mentoring or training role. They show journos the value of fact-checking, they teach grammar by example, and they are the custodians of language and social culture. More inexperienced journalists can learn much about writing from a good sub’s cuts and tweaks.
Spellcheck is not an electronic proofreader
It’s never a bad idea to run a spellcheck – but don’t rely on it. Yes, it sounds obvious but people don’t take heed. It takes live eyes (and sharp ones at that) to check grammar, context and punctuation, and to catch the gremlins that sneak into the final proof.
Keeping it cool
Subs are the great levellers, maintaining perspective and ensuring balance while adding flair and energy to copy.
English is a living, constantly evolving language. But grammar and a broad, well-cultivated vocabulary is becoming less important to younger generations; they get the point across in whatever abbreviated lexicon takes their fancy. Subs and proofers are the guardians of language – absorbing the shifts but preserving the fundamentals. Sticklers? Sure. Archaic? Never.
So, in these belt-tightening times, what is the real cost of subs, copy editors and proofreaders? It’s not about whether you can afford them. The pivotal question is: can you afford not to have them?
Haley Abrahams is a freelance copy editor and proofreader.
IMAGE: Open Government Licence v1.0
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