Can two dozen subs reverse the rot?
By Trina McLellan
September 18, 2019
Downsizing has done few favours for Australia’s newsrooms. In fact, it has been a wicked joke that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While it might satisfy bean-counters and profit-seekers, downsizing has sacrificed critical production skills, done irreparable harm to the quality of the end product, proven the law of diminishing returns when it comes to audience respect and severely damaged democracy.
For instance, where once a newspaper reporter’s story would be previewed firstly by the chief-of-staff then a copy taster before the chief sub-editor would assign it to an up-table or down-table sub-editor, depending on where in the paper the piece was to run.
The sub-editor would ensure the copy was well-written, accurate, legally sound and complied with house style before fitting it into a prescribed space and sending the subbed copy, its headline/s, any images and their captions to a typesetter (and perhaps even a photoengraver).
Then a compositor would lay out the page and a stone sub would do a visual check before sending the page to a proof reader, whose job it was to ensure the final copy really had zero spelling, grammar or layout errors and that the publisher’s house style had indeed been followed.
After the publication was printed, sub-editors would comb over every single page, from top to bottom, looking for missing elements, corrections or improvements to be made ahead of the next edition.
Feedback was fast and typically blunt. But everyone took away acute lessons, including an understanding that, along with deadlines, accuracy was imperative, and that the audience’s respect was contingent on the product being clean, clear and objective.
And, with military precision, news production would work like a well-oiled machine, with all the parts meshing in unison as the news of the day rolled off the presses, edition after edition.
Everyone was kept honest back then because readers, subscribers, parents, teachers – and especially editors – would complain, loudly, about the slightest mistake, factual error or misspelling. However, journalists were, in the main, justifiably proud of what they produced.
Fast forward to today when frazzled reporters file news copy that may not have another human being look over it before it is published online.
Even copy that’s destined for a newspaper might only be skimmed by a harried back-bencher who is looking after half a newspaper – or more – on their own.
Highly competent print sub-editors – who nearly a decade ago started cross-training as online news producers, only to then be culled as their print production roles were outsourced to cut-price sweat shops – are now as rare as hen’s teeth.
Outsourced page production sees distant, even offshore, “sub hubs” churning out spreads at a pace that defies the achievement of even passable quality.
Essential skills have been lost, mistakes are far too common, style is now secondary, local knowledge is frequently absent, content is no longer king, quality is considered unaffordable, and readers have abandoned once-great mastheads at frightening rates.
Combined with the shrinkage in available reporters, downsizing has changed the complexion of news – whether it be delivered online or in print – in other ways.
Where once headstrong editors would have to defend their editorial decisions to a phalanx of highly experienced peers, today they face a mere handful of exhausted colleagues desperately hanging on to their jobs by a thread.
This week’s news that Fairfax, at least, is stepping back from outsourcing production of most of its news pages is a step in the right direction. But injecting 24 sub-editors across two major metropolitan mastheads would appear far from enough to arrest the downward slide.
Trina McLellan is a former senior metro newspaper sub-editor who has transitioned into radio program production and an occasional tertiary journalism teacher. She shares skills, highlights bloopers and mentors early career journalists.