In the latest of his blogposts on business advice for Russian newspaper proprietors, Roy Greenslade’s Subeditors: another attempt to explain why they are becoming redundant mines an already rich vein.
I won’t yet waste your time with a list of the tasks faced daily by a modern sub-editor apart from saying that Roy’s piddling description of a sub’s duties should explain why he writes a column (for now, at least) rather than attempts to render them readable.
Roy’s commenters mount a spirited and comprehensive defence of their profession, but most miss some important points, including the reason behind the distinction between sub-editors and reporters.
It comes down to division of labour — reporters are better at reporting. They are, by and large, supposed to be specialists — the very notion of a beat is that you walk it daily and know crime, arts, science, whatever, better than anyone else in the building.
Like a beat copper removed from the street to meet centrally-imposed efficiency targets by doing paperwork, the beat reporter tasked with subbing their own copy cannot do their core job — finding and writing stories — as effectively or efficiently.
Sub-editors, by contrast, are generalists — I describe it to my in-laws as having to know a little bit about everything and not a lot about anything — in broad areas such as business, sport, even foreign news. Sub-editors are faster at producing the stories — checking, refining and polishing of text, adding value with pictures, adding hierarchy with page position, headlines and cross-references. Now re-read that sentence and see if you can find anything that can be dispensed with online.
The greatest value of subbing comes from knowing how to make a story fit — not just in a hole on a page but in time and in space. How does this story relate to all the others around it? How does it link to all the stories we have carried this week? How is it connected to all the stories we have ever carried on randy peacocks and petrol pumps?
In an online economy that depends upon links, you need the people who have been performing these tasks — this curation — for years. These are not new tricks and old dogs should not be excluded.
Which brings us to the second important point lost in a mere job description. Through the process of fitting — in every sense — of stories and images, the best sub-editors become the collective and genetic memories of their papers. Their filtering of information and images on behalf of their readers becomes second nature and they pass that passion and skill to those that follow them.
As the quantity of that information grows, we dismiss at our peril the value brought to online journalism by that discrimination and that institutional expertise.
As for Mr Greenslade, if the Evening Standard is looking for savings, why not drop his column, keep a sub and have them link to his Guardian blog? Isn’t that the web way to do it?