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?"