Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What it means to be a newspaper sub-1

Commits alumnus DEBMALYA DUTTA (Class of 2011), who is a sub-editor with The Statesman in Kolkata, offers personal insights into the duties and responsibilities of a newspaper sub: 

R: You [expletive deleted], what did you do to my baby yesterday? Do you know how much I had to work to bring it to shape? And you just deformed it at will!
S: But it just couldn't be helped. Do understand. There really wasn’t enough room to fit it all in.

R: I don’t give a damn about your room. I’m going to speak to the boss; I’ll make sure you lose this room of yours!
S: But… Well, wish you all the best.

S: Sir, the whole body won’t fit in the box!
E: Hack off the parts that are not useful, my son. Do I now have to teach you how to do the job? Give me a break….
S: Okay, I’ll make sure the task is carried out without a hue and cry.
E: That’s my boy! But do take care not to kill it.
S: Aye aye, Captain.
E: By the way, great job on R’s baby yesterday. Cheers!

No, this isn’t the script for another gore flick. Neither is the setting some gothic dungeon, and nor are these men spellers of doom (although they are quite capable of spelling doom. But that’s another story). The conversations were taking place in the editorial department of a newspaper. And the men? The Holy Trinity comprising the pugnacious reporter R, the dynamic editor E, and the durable sub S. Welcome to the life of a newspaper sub!

No doubt basics are boring, in which case subs must first change their middle name to “boring” (just kidding). Clearly, the basics spellings and grammar have to be spot-on. One doesn’t have to be a Formula 1 ace in the language, but one must make sure there aren’t too many pit-stops (as in mistakes). Over-confidence, trust me, is the bane of a deskman or -woman, and one must learn to fully use the three boons one always finds at one’s disposal: the good old dictionary, the new age internet, and the reassuring newsroom senior. No one is infallible but it’s heart-wrenching to see the newspaper apologising to the public because you made a mistake. All ye aspiring sub-editors, believe me, a rejoinder is the last thing you’d want to place on your page!

Although we can always consult Mr. Page and Mr. Brin, deadline pressures often do not allow us that luxury. Knowing your synonyms (some basic ones, at least) is a big help, especially when writing headlines and captions, because we subs are always battling against time and for space (thanks, respectively,  to the circulation and advertisement departments about whom we crib often, though we all know that without these worthies there would be no newspaper in the first place. After all, it is the ad revenue that brings in the money and it is the circulation people who send out the paper to readers).

Aspiring subs will want to know: Is there a sure-to-work mantra that will help you achieve the unachievable? Yes, there is… reading! Reading not only newspapers, but also books. My vote goes to non-fiction, though I must say I admire the immense talent involved in referring to a vampire or a werewolf by an unthinkable number of synonyms. Indeed, the dawn of literature is breaking, it seems. Anyway, even if you know a limited number of words, try to know their correct usage and never ever, I repeat, never ever use fancy figures of speech (you don’t want to end up looking like a moron because of a misused oxymoron).

Remember, the scythe is for communists. For us journalists, the weapon of choice (not of mass destruction) is always the scalpel. Or chisel, because I like to compare my job to that of a sculptor.

The reporters present you with just the frame (no offence intended, friends). It’s up to the sub to mould it into a desirable piece of sculpture by, where necessary, chiselling away the unwanted parts. The frame-maker might not be happy with the end result, but it is understood that the sub is the last watchdog; as such, it is the sub’s prerogative to tweak a story keeping many factors in mind: the readers, the newspaper’s image, the page deadlines.

Having said that, subs must curb the tendency to rewrite everything that comes their way. Sure, it may feel good to leave your signature on the copy, but, first, time is not on our side, and, second, a good sub’s work is, by definition, supposed to be invisible. So whenever you feel that urge to make things exceptionally better, just remember the words of wisdom offered to John Lennon by Mother Mary.

There might be times, though, when you are forced to resort to a lawnmower because even a scythe won’t help when you have to fit a 700-word story into a modified single column. On such occasions, quickly identify the news point. What will be relevant for your readers? Keep those portions intact. And the rest? Hail to thee, O Delete Button!

You have to know QuarkXpress inside out. Not only should you know the shortcuts, which will be of immense help, but you also have to be up-to-date on the different tricks and cheats of this ubiquitous software. Most of the work a sub does involves the computer; no matter where you stand on the issue of “this wretched life dominated by machines”, you have to absolutely dote on your computer.

Learning the correct and intelligent use of the internet is a must (keep in mind, though, that websites that come with the prefix “wiki” are not completely reliable). The internet can be a saviour at times, but it can also trap you in a web of no-return.

In addition to knowing Quark inside out, a sound knowledge of Photoshop will also come in handy. The designers will work on the layout but it is the sub who approves the final page design. Believe me, a sub who has drunk the cocktail of news sense, alertness, precision, and aesthetics is a rare expert of the highest quality. Newspaper editors are perennially on the lookout for such subs.

  • The much-famed Carl Bernstein once said, “The pressure to compete, the fear somebody else will make the splash first, creates a frenzied environment in which a blizzard of information is presented and serious questions may not be raised.” If you read between the lines, it becomes clear that the ability to work fast and with the utmost possible precision is much-sought-after. This ability comes with confidence, and confidence comes with practice.
  • In any creative field, hierarchies are more or less flat. There’s no wondering, “Am I the right person to say this?” If you spot a mistake on your senior’s part, you should point it out. If there’s scope for improvement, do make the suggestion. If you think a news item is worthy of mention, do recommend it.
  • Your primary responsibilities may be editing and rewriting, but make time for writing, too. In addition to earning you a byline, it’ll also help you improve your editing skills. Start a blog and write comment pieces on any topic under the sun. If you have a story idea, approach the news editor or the features editor for a discussion and if the articles you submit are good, they’ll be published. A sub who can write is like a pilot who can also work as a makeshift steward.
  • In the office, try to be cordial with everyone. Right from the boss to the attendant. Not for the pleasure of being altruistic, but for those extra cups of coffee, those instant inset stories that you so-desperately need to fill up some awkward space on your page, or for that helping hand on those dark days when your work is too much to handle alone. Diplomacy is the key in this business and there’s hardly any lock this key doesn’t open. Even the door of the grumpy deputy editor!
  • A questioning nature is very important if you want to be a good sub. Good subs know there is no such thing as a stupid question. They question everything. Subs know that if they have doubts, so will the reader.
  • “Attitude” be it deserved or undeserved is totally undesirable. You might have to hear words that aren’t enlisted in any dictionary and face situations which you never dreamt you’d be in. You might have to face a severe tongue-lashing for a not-so-severe mistake. But that’s the nature of this business and those are the professional hazards. To borrow a certain man’s words, you must “suck it up”!

I don’t know if I have been able to market the job of a sub well, but I have tried to ensure that my friends don’t remain ignorant of the role of the unavoidable alter-ego of the “world’s best profession”.

All said and done, to enjoy the work of a sub-editor one must possess one of the deadly sins in abundance: Pride. The pride that comes from making things better, being relied upon, and feeling at home in a madhouse.

I must also mention the huge advantage of possessing a Press card: a single flash of this card can help you in unthinkable ways. So, for all those who are romantic enough to have allowed the bug of journalism to lay eggs inside their cerebrum but are too realistic to find solace in pursuing Advani’s chariot or keeping a check on whom Kalmadi is drinking tea with, the news desk beckons.

To once again borrow the words of that certain man, a good sub is worth his or her weight in gold. And, to add my own, good subs are as endangered as the wild ass of Kutch (hope you understand why I chose this particular animal for the comparison). Nevertheless, supply of fresh blood is a necessity and all donors will be duly rewarded. Certainly in kind, if not in cash!

Also read:
  • Cartoons courtesy: CartoonBank, CartoonStock, and Hearst Newspapers

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