Subeditors are under attack from cost-cutting newspaper groups - and Roy Greenslade. So do they have a future?
An email has just arrived from my friend Andrea, one of the most reasonable people I know. It is headed: "Fume fume fume!" She has just read Roy Greenslade's blog attempting to explain why there is no need for subeditors in the brave new world.
Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, has become journalism's very own Terminator. In last week's blog for MediaGuardian.co.uk, he argued: "The current level of subbing numbers could be drastically reduced. In some cases, a layer of the editorial process can be eliminated altogether." While he accepts that subeditors on tabloids have a future, he appears to think subs on "broadsheets" may as well face the firing squad today.
The blog unleashed anger from subs, but also provoked a debate over the future of subeditors and, of course, journalism.
Andrea has been a subeditor on a broadsheet national for 19 years. She could have gone for other jobs in commissioning and editing, but subbing is her vocation. At times she wonders why she's so wedded to apostrophes and hyphens, literals and price checks, but she is. Occasionally she thinks it's an obsession (her face burns with anger when she tells me of an article by Ian McEwan on which his name was spelt wrong), but she knows why she cares - it's about respecting the reader. If we don't care about what is correct, how can the reader care or trust what we publish?
She's doing herself down when she talks only about apostrophes. She's also a great headline writer - ditto copy editor, cuts seamlessly, tells you when and why things don't make sense, is fantastic at layout, and can spot a libel suit in the making. In other words, she's a brilliant sub.
And she's not happy. As newspaper readership continues to decline, she says quality is more important than ever - those who want a paper want a good one. And she's pretty sure that quality is not best served by the renaissance hacks that Greenslade foresees will commission, write, edit and headline their own work, or subbing factories thousands of miles away staffed by people who have little idea about a newspaper's style or identity.
"Spellchecks may alert you to glaring errors but they won't tell you whether you've repeated a word in a standfirst or spelt a writer's name wrong or when something just doesn't make sense," she says.
"My ambition is to be the best sub I can. I love subbing! I don't see it as a stepping stone to a 'proper' job such as writing or commissioning or editing, I see it as a skill in its own right. And in my - biased - opinion, the very best subs are the people who share that view."
Helen, a freelance subeditor, was surprised by Greenslade's blog. "He was a sub himself, wasn't he? He doesn't seem to know what the role is these days." She doesn't think his argument makes sense. "Rather than streamlining subeditors in the internet age, what we actually need is more experienced subs because the process of getting stuff out is much faster and there is so much of it."
Is she worried about the future? "Not really. No one I know thinks it's realistic to get rid of subs. The whole thing would just fall apart without us."
Not everybody is so confident. John was a subeditor at the Express for decades and recently took redundancy. He saw the number of news subeditors shrink from 40 to about 10. "And we were supposed to be a subs' paper!" By the time he left, reporters were writing straight into the page. "I was reading a page proof and there was a blatant mistake. I said to a senior sub, 'What's that?' He just said, 'It's not my responsibility any more. Reporters write into their slot.' Things go in unchecked."
Little research has been done on the numbers of subs who have left journalism in recent years but David Ayrton, research and information assistant organiser for the NUJ, says: "There is little doubt the subeditor has been a target for cost-cutting."
Why are so many publishers determined to get rid of subeditors? "It's a virility contest among the bosses to see how far they can go. Like a reverse arms race," says John. Many of his friends are now retraining. "Lots of people are talking about flower-arranging, plumbing, anything other than this business because it's dead." Subbing, or newspapers in general? "Subbing. But they feel if this is the attitude of papers, then it won't be long till they are dead, too."
Stuart, a former subeditor who is now in an editing post, used to adore the job. But he decided to get out when layouts were handed to designers and editors started changing the headlines and rewriting the copy. He felt bored and patronised.
One of the fears among subeditors is that the death-of-the-sub blog will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A visit to a subs' desk at this paper reveals the collective outrage about Greenslade's position. "Agent provocateur!" shouts Steve. "Columnist!" sneers another, with a contempt of which Samuel Beckett would have been proud.
Perhaps the most conclusive argument for the sub's indispensability comes in the first response to Greenslade's blog: "Roy: I subbed the column you used to write for MediaGuardian enough times to realise just how much you need subeditors."
The Terminator - subbed and suited. Roy Greenslade responds
It did not seem the least bit controversial when I said it. Subeditors will be eliminated. They are already vanishing from some UK newspapers. London's free business paper, City AM, has dispensed with their services.
Publishers are toying with the outsourcing of subbing to faraway places. I see these as interim measures, however. As the digital revolution moves on, I expect to see more radical changes with a few subeditors "repurposed" to take on new roles.
But let me deal with the substantive objection to this brave new world. Subs see their craft as indispensable because too many writers produce work that is inaccurate, ungrammatical, misspelled and libellous. So their articles could not possibly be published without substantial corrections and, sometimes, wholesale rewriting. Quality would decline without subbing.
The truth is the existence of subs perpetuates the poor standard of copy provided by newspaper writers.
Contrast their performances with those of their opposite numbers in broadcasting. TV and radio correspondents routinely report direct to the public. Off air, they write their own scripts without any intervention from subs. If they can do that, why can't their newspaper equivalents? The answer, sadly, is that the current system encourages them not to bother. I want to see a rise in journalistic skills among writers that will obviate the need for subs.
Not that I expect subs who fear for their futures to agree with me. I understand some of them have issued a fatwa against me. So I guess I'll have to wear armour next time I visit a newspaper office. - Roy Greenslade