Monday, August 15, 2011

Why subs, or copy editors, are the lifeblood of a news organisation

Few readers, perhaps, know of the existence of subs, who play a crucial role in newspaper production. It is the sub-editor, now also known as the copy editor (an American term), who has read every word of every news report on the pages he or she has worked on. It is the sub who has, more or less, decided what the pages should look like. It is the sub who has, more or less, chosen the pictures on the page and written all the headlines, standfirsts, and captions. So when there are typos and other errors on the page it is probably because the sub has fallen asleep on the job and there is no second line of defence.

No second line of defence unlike in the olden days when there were teams of proofreaders to go through every galley proof and every page to catch the slip-ups.

I began my career in the olden days June 1981, to be exact as a trainee sub with Mid Day in Mumbai. I loved what I did then at the News Desk, and I continued to love what I did (and doing what I loved) for the next 20 years and more before turning to teaching (my life now is not only full but fulfilling).

Not many young people want to be subs now, though. That is one reason why good subs are rare.

And because they are rare, good subs are worth their weight in gold, which is why I tell all my journalism students to think seriously about desk jobs because newspapers all over the country are in dire need of subs...
  • who have traditional subbing skills
  • are excellent at spelling and grammar
  • are good at rewrites and converting to house style
  • are capable of coming up with great headlines, standfirsts, and captions
  • are generally computer-literate but experts at layout using QuarkXpress (or equivalent page-making software), with management skills and the expertise to oversee the entire production process from raw copy to final pages.
Those are the basic skills of a good sub. But that's not all you need to be a good sub. Let Merrill Perlman, former director of Copy Desks at The New York Times, explain in detail what copy editors do. In a "Talk to the Times" column, she was asked this question by a reader, Bill Fischer:

Does your job and that of the other desk copy editors entail substantive editing and rewrite or is it mostly a matter of cleaning up style, grammar, etc.?

Here is Perlman's illuminating response:

Thanks for walking into our trap, Bill, and allowing me to explain what our copy editors do.

Copy editors are the final gatekeepers before an article reaches you, the reader. To start with, they want to be sure that the spelling and grammar are correct, following our stylebook, of course. But they also want to be sure that they, and thus you the reader, aren't left with a sense that they've come into the middle of a movie, or that they don't understand how something works, or that they're wondering what comes next or what this development means for them, er, you.

They have great instincts for sniffing out suspicious or incorrect facts or things that just don't make sense in context.

They are also our final line of protection against libel, unfairness and imbalance in an article. If they stumble over anything, they're going to work with the writer or the assigning editor (we call them backfield editors) to make adjustments so you don't stumble. That often involves intensive substantive work on an article.

In addition, copy editors write the headlines, captions and other display elements for the articles, edit the article for the space available to it (that usually means trims, for the printed paper) and read the proofs of the printed pages in case something slipped by.

All of this, I might add, is done under crushing deadlines. For breaking news, a copy editor may have less than an hour to read 1,000 words and do everything the article needs. (It can be even less!) We like to get longer articles farther ahead of time, when we can spend a few hours or even a day to be sure it's perfect, but our goal is to get the information TO you, not keep it FROM you, so speed is of the essence.

We've got more than 150 copy editors here — in fact, it's the largest newsroom department — on 14 different copy desks, just about one desk for every section of the news report.

Now you know why subs, or copy editors, are the lifeblood of a newspaper.

(That last paragraph about the NYT's 150 copy editors may draw gasps of disbelief from subs at Indian newspapers, which are known not to employ more than a handful of subs in each shift.)

Merrill Perlman addresses many other important issues related to the operations of the News Desk. Read the Q&A in its entirety here. Study especially the questions and responses given in the two items headlined "Those Pesky Possessives" and "The Comma Before the And". Learning can be so much fun when the teacher has such a great sense of humour.
  • Check the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and facts. Then the sub-editor's real work starts, says Andy Bodle on The Guardian's "Mind Your Language" blog. Read his engaging and entertaining post here: "Isn't there a computer program for that?"


  1. Commitscion PRIYANKA SALIGRAM (Class of 2009), who is a copy editor with Kuwait Times in Kuwait City sent me this response:

    150 copy editors at NYT??? Talk about it being an ocean out there. I agree with what she has to say. I follow your "Go through the copy three times" rule but end up reading it more to get it perfectly right - but this is only when it's local material. On the other hand, the stories that come from AP, AFP and Reuters are always perfect with nothing to change. We just tweak it in tune with the house-style, change the headlines, balance them and then they're good to go. Copy-editors may be the "last line of defence" in other organisations but we have proof-readers here who are supposed to do that job. Ultimately I have understood only one thing: All the responsibility rests on the editor's shoulders.

  2. Wow! The 150 copy editors amazes me as well! But then again, the size and stature of the NYT demands nothing less I guess. As for the importance of sub-editors - let's just say that without them, a lot more writers would look like fools and a lot less would look like writers. :)

  3. After a certain level, I think the sub's news-reading and news-sifting skills have to be impeccable too. We, at The Statesman, have to, sometimes, pick stories from the wires and slot them on the page accordingly. Although the lead, the 2nd lead, the under-block and the anchor are pre-decided, it is required of us to find stories to fill up other slots. Awareness, I believe is the most important factor. Because only then can we enjoy our "tedious" and sometimes boring job :-)

  4. Commitscion SHERRY MARY JACOB (Class of 2007), who is a senior sub with The Times of India in Bangalore, sent me her feedback via email:

    The point that Indian newspapers do not employ many subs is so true. The workload, of course, will increase with the rise in ads and pages. But I guess excitement levels also increase with the growing pressure in the newsroom.

    I have realised that a sub always plays the role of a surgeon. We attend to badly wounded copy, nurse it, and discharge it only once it’s completely healed (with facts, accuracy, and impeccable English). The unearthly work hours, stress levels, and being the self-effacing gang that works behind the scene perhaps makes a sub’s job ‘unsexy’. But the responsibility of bringing a sparkle to the copy is what gives me the kick.

    The days when we have to stay back at the paper till 3 a.m. bringing out error-free special pages (Anna Hazare, Wikileaks, budget, blasts, election) is what keeps us ticking. The Babri Masjid judgment day was an eye-opener for me. We, as gatekeepers, took a call on what news should be held back and what's apt to be published. It's truly the world's best profession. After all, you get the news first before anyone else does!

    I can go on and on about this profession, Sir, but I think I will spare you. :)

  5. Commitscion SNEHA ABRAHAM (Class of 2011) responded from Dubai:

    First of all, wow. I've never been called the 'lifeblood' of anything! Makes my chest swell with pride, it does. :-)

    But, RP Sir is right. Subs do form an integral part of the news team and without them, well, let's just say you'd be struggling to read almost all of your daily newspaper's articles.

    I work as a freelance sub with MEED (Middle East Economic Digest) in Dubai along with Commitscion David George (Class of 2005). Working here has really opened my eyes to what a sub has to do and my respect levels for them have just shot way up.

    For example, David can sub a news page in under 20 minutes whereas I would struggle to finish a similar page in under an hour! Good subs are worth their weight in gold and without them a newspaper would be mired in libel and inaccuracies, to mention just a few problems.

    Besides, as Merrill Perlman says, we're paid to READ! That's a sweet deal for a bookworm like me. :-)

    Anyway, subbing is a profession meant for people who don't mind reading a lot, re-reading a lot more, and who can spot those errors on a page. In my stint as a YO co-editor, RP Sir made sure the editing team got that in our heads -- sometimes with a stern look and a ruler, too. :-)

    To those aspiring to be subs, good luck!

  6. Commitscion DAVID GEORGE (Class of 2005), who is a senior sub with MEED in Dubai, sent me his feedback via email:

    When I first started out as a journalist in 2005, I wanted to be a reporter and change the world. Just before writing my dissertation at Commits, I headed off to Chennai for my first job interview at Deccan Chronicle, then assembling its team to take on the mighty Hindu on its home turf. Renowned Indian journalist M.J. Akbar handled the interview. He barely gave me a chance to speak. The interview ended in less than five minutes and I still remember Akbar's golden words that ring true even today: "If you want to be reporter, you must first learn to write and for that you first need to be a good sub-editor."

    I was a bit dismayed then that I could not be a reporter, but six years on, I can do two things that most authors cannot do: write good copy and edit passionately too.

    It was in Dubai, especially at MEED, that I came to know the real worth of sub-editors. First, they are rated on the same rank as reporters and paid about the same. Only a few news organisations today do so. For most, sub-editors are a bunch of people who just fix captions, stand-firsts, headlines and make copy fit. Nothing more. Most of the time, subs have to tackle badly written copy and tear their hair out making sense of it.

    MEED follows a strict policy of grooming reporters. This means the sub-editor will not rewrite badly written copy. It will go back to the section editor or reporter to make amends. The sub will make his impressions on the copy and mark out parts that are not clear or badly written for the reporter/editor to rewrite. If the copy only requires a minor rewrite, then I do it. It is not my job to rewrite an entire story or feature. Essentially, if you want to be a writer, you must learn to write simple, precise and correct copy in proper English.

    The fundamental rule of news writing is to encapsulate the point of your story in your first sentence. You must therefore be concise and precise in your thoughts and language – most reporters mess this up. They want to say too many things and overload the first sentence with details. A good sub-editor can identify the headline concept in the story and express it as early in the sentence as possible.

    Another thing I tend to notice is reporters trying to fix a long sentence by sprinkling in some commas – more often than not they create an even worse mess by using commas incorrectly. A sentence that has run out of control usually needs the discipline of the full stop. And that is the sub-editor's duty.

    It is also a sub's job to ensure that every assertion in a story is substantiated or justified somewhere. Reporters have a habit of generalising.

    Again only a sub can deconstruct a piece by taking it apart step by step to find out what it is really saying. This may be different from what the author intends it to say. Intention and reality need to coincide! Once you have deconstructed a piece, you are in far better position to spot its gaps, inconsistencies, contradictions – and hence to put it back together again.

    On a final note, I hate it when a piece is littered with too many sentences starting with “but” and “however”. It is an early warning of a weak writer.

    Great subs are careful and passionate protectors of the written word. They are, in more ways than one, the final word.

    I totally agree with Merill Perlman's "The Comma Before the And". On my first job in Dubai, my British chief sub drilled it into my head: "A comma is never a substitute for 'and' ... NEVER."

  7. I don't know any young person who has taken up journalism aspiring to be a sub. We enter this this field dreaming of Page 1 bylines among other things. After reading this post and all the comments by the seniors, the role of a sub sounds much much more appealing.I know how readers look down upon some of the local papers subbed badly. Subbing can make or mar the image of a newspaper.

  8. The blog and the comments clearly outline one thing: a sub-editor has to be really good at his job. I read newspapers everyday and typos disgust me. Also subs have to be frighteningly well read to provide context and verify facts and figures (details of a particular news item do not tally from paper to paper). More often than not archaic words, clich├ęs and worn out metaphors find a place in our daily newspapers. Typographical errors and grammatical mistakes are unpardonable. I like the way the blog stresses on the importance of the sub's job and refers to a sub-editor as the 'gatekeeper'. How apt!


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