Category Archives: My life

RIP Sub-editing: Does email have a hyphen and does anyone care? – pt 3

Well, the end is nigh – both for this RIP Sub-editing series and for my sub-editing career. It is fond farewell time. In this final post, the technology changes again but this time it is taking no prisoners and I ask myself, ‘Do I miss my old job?’ For those on a catch-up, here is RIP subbing part one and RIP subbing part two.

It’s just a series of tubes
In 1995 I went into something called an internet café. It was on Cleveland St in London, and there were computers set up all around the windows. I ‘dialled up’ the internet though I had no idea what that actually meant. Little did I know then that the internet is just a series of tubes! 😉

Google didn’t exist but Hotmail did. Hello email!

Apart from being able to email chief subs with a CV, the nature of subbing changed little in the 1990s. The World Wide Web was over there, work was over here. But it was coming. And in the summer of 2000, my own work life went online.

The journalists are revolting
Personally I was quite keen to join the online revolution, thanks to Matthew Broderick (see why in part one). So I applied for online work.

After a brief spell as Commissioning Editor with Moonpig.com during the dot.com bubble, I realised my heart lay in producing editorial content not commercial greeting cards. (Though really I can’t understand why I’m not personally thanked in How They Started In Tough Times. I’m sure my two months there in May/June 2000 was crucial!)

My first online subbing job was at Freeserve women’s channel – then called icircle.com (now part of Orange). Only I was called a web producer not a sub. It was great. The Web was a modern-day leveller with web editors and producer seen as equally valuable. No more bitchy magazine or newspaper hierarchy.

The software was clunky, though. CHAS, Spectrum and other weirdly named content management systems became the bane of my work life. Work was all about ‘wanking the computer’ rather than mad editing skillz. The database set-up meant endless copying and pasting into little boxes – aka shelf-stacking. It really was dull, dull work.

But the ‘Publish’ button at the bottom was nothing less than astounding – no printing presses or repro houses, just one click and there it was up on site. Unfortunately, working a CMS was not only a bore but a health risk – and my RSI returned.

For fluff’s sake: the rise of client publishing
So I went back to less-frenetic, more refined print in 2002 (while also having fun with Facebook’s predecessors of Friendster and MySpace in my spare time). Print software was faster and more intuitive, and the work was more creative than web-style plain titles, metatag lists and easy-scan copy structure.

Even then, it was 100% employment as a freelance sub. But the best paid work started coming from client publishers through an explosion in contract publishing. Their rates beat even the biggest consumer glossies, so work changed again. Subbing now had to factor in client changes, and arguments arose over their bad grammar and vague, fluffy marketing blurbs.

In 2003/4, InDesign arrived on magazines, kicking QuarkXpress (mostly) into the software dustbin of history.

I got a website – and you don’t have one!
In 2005, web software was also getting smarter. So I got a website, created in DreamWeaver by a friend who was a graphic designer.

It seemed so slick, featuring a world map that readers could click on and interact with to see examples of my travel writing. It seemed to get me more work, too. No more emailed CV to post or download, I just sent a link and introductory paragraph to the chief sub over email. Why trawl through pages of a stiff CV when you can quickly scan a friendly online resumé?

Little did I know that static personal websites were going to be passé within just two years.

Ditch the website, get a blog!
It was around this time that I started getting more writing work. Subbing still made up the bulk of the work but no longer the whole of it. Over time, more creative was needed by the clients, which meant more writing. The subbing-writing balance shifted with the client’s needs.

Meanwhile, Web 2.0 was getting into full swing. In 2007 I wrote three personal blogs – all one-offs and with small, definite audiences in mind. But digital was hotting up as free blog platforms like Blogspot and WordPress broke down the tech barriers to set-up.

Pardon my personal digital explosion
And so, in the downtime of the magazine subs desk, I started blogging. The two blogs I started in 2008 were free WordPress templates, designed to reach a wider audience: there was this one for sub-editors and a travel dress codes blog at What To Wear Where.

I also started several Nings (themed social networks), just y’know because it was there and it was easy, and was asked to kick off  a wiki online style guide for sub-editors via a tweet from the head of Journalism.co.uk on Twitter.

I joined everything from Google Reader to Delicious bookmarks to Guardian Soulmates. I became a DJ on my own Blip.fm radio station. I uploaded photos to Flickr and went on real-life Flickr meets, blending the virtual world into the real one. I live-tweeted a Birmingham council event on Twitter – I couldn’t believe I was being paid to update the news in real time.

You mean you’ll pay me to Tweet?
All this online activity was leading somewhere. I’d work in print by day then go home and play online all night. So it was a relief when, in January 2009, I became a full-time web editor and could do the fun stuff from 9-5, rather than the other way round. I landed the job in that most modern Web 2.0 way: via a friend in a pub messaging a photo and a testimonial on his new iPhone to the head of digital’s iPhone at Seven Squared.

[Aside: I rarely get work the traditional way anymore, ie, through chief sub contacts and subbing colleagues. Mostly they come from Twitter connections and social networking or by meeting up at social media events.]

The big question: Do I miss subbing?
To be honest, although I love copy editing work, I love online content more. So I have to say no, I don’t really miss it. I do miss the subs desk and the people on it.

But sub-editing itself feels kind of one-dimensional now. A singular task of production whereas ‘whatever my new job title is’ involves creating content including text, audio, visual, writing, editing, social media marketing, SEO, brainstorming new ideas and experimenting with new tools.

In some ways I wanted to write down and pay homage to my many years as a non-techie print sub because they are now pretty much over and I feel nostalgia for them. In 2010 my subbing days feel a very long way away.

How easy is it to transfer skills to online?
Well, it’s an ongoing process, a learning curve and quite a career swerve. After years of knowing exactly what I’m doing, it’s kind of freeing to go back to basics, and be able to play and make mistakes and learn new stuff again.

It also feels good to be in a medium that is expanding rather than in print media, which is contracting. There is a positive vibe that is no longer there for me in print and the future seems more certain here as budgets move online. It is also busier than ever. And once again something of an RSI risk.

Tech is changing so fast, how to keep up?
Well, right now, I’m on a train pulling into New Orleans [note: or I was when I was writing this], on a railroad trip to SXSW Interactive festival – the world’s premier web conference – in Austin, Texas.

In the next week, I’ll undergo a five-day download of information and expertise from the world’s leading digital thinkers and practitioners. Next stop for me in keeping up my skills is moving towards content strategy as well as content creation. Curation also interests me. And video work. And possibly passing on this knowledge to others.

But enough already. At 2,500-plus words here, I’m sure no one’s even got this far so it’s time for me either to wind up or ask a sub-editor to cut the crap out of this behemoth. If anyone has any questions about how to make the jump to online, or anything about subbing itself, then feel free to get in contact.

Future posts will undoubtedly be shorter, less rambling, less punny, more SEO-friendly… in other words, normal online service will resume shortly.

R.I.P Sub-editing 1987-2008

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RIP Sub-editing: the rise of technology – pt 2

Continuing on from yesterday’s intro on a farewell to my former life in sub-editing, here’s a bit about who sub-editors are, what they do (did?) and how they do (did) them… with a particular look at the changing tools of the trade. But first a picture of my old kit, dredged out of the attic for your viewing pleasure.

typewriter typescale wheel proofmarks

A colon of sub-editors (or should that be a semi-colon?)
Most people don’t seem to know the copy editing role even exists beyond perhaps a cursory proofread. ‘What! You mean the press actually checks things?’ But I kid you not. Checking, revising, headling, captioning, styling and generally sorting out copy was my full-time job for around 20 years.

I’m assuming most of the people reading this blog are subs. But just in case, for those who don’t know what sub-editing or copy editing is, it essentially involves all those tasks that take place between the writer’s raw copy and the final publishing.

Most are corrections, amends or refinements of copy, some tasks involve fact-checking or legal queries. With online work there is the addition of SEO, metadata, hyperlinking, categorising, tagging and chunking copy.

Sub-editing is also called subbing in the UK and copy-editing in the US. Which makes for annoying SEO – in this blog anyway.

proofing marks

British Standard proofing marks - proofreading is sort of like sub-editing on galleys or page proofs. © Periodical Training Council training material

Dirigible submarines
For online work, I’m using the term ‘digi sub’, probably also because it crosses dirigible and submarine in my head. But mainly because it’s a faster, easier way to indicate a sub-editor with digital skills.

The trouble is, the universal language of job titles hasn’t caught up with technology. Maybe the job role doesn’t even exist anyway.

Traditional sub-editing (and proofreading, see pic left), for me anyway, has all but disappeared, shrunk into a task within a wider set of tasks, disappearing under the weight of new roles, new technologies and job titles like web editor, producer, content person, content strategist, email editor, SEO writer, etc.

It’s no wonder I have trouble answering the ‘what do you do’ question these days.

This next section makes me feel old
Since I started subbing in 1987, technology has advanced rapidly. I’ve gone from subbing on paper through the revolution of desk-top publishing and onto the Web. Feel free to skip the nostalgia trip… but the following were once the tools of my trade.

In 1986 I remember running around the many floors of the Elephant and Castle skyscraper that housed the London College of Printing (now Communication), trying to find a hugely heavy and ancient Imperial Corona 55 typewriter to produce an article to deadline on.

Val Clark, the fearsome feature-writing tutor, was a scary hack, famous for her slicked-back power ponytail and crimson lips. She wanted 200 words in 20 minutes – and she didn’t give a fig about providing you with the ‘technology’ to produce them. No excuses. No obstacles. If you failed, you missed the deadline and therefore were no journalist. Her best lesson was tenacity!

We learnt shorthand at 100 words a minute using a pen and reporter’s notebook.

I had a rubbish mini tape recorder that sped up progressively until my interviewees sounded like they were Pinky & Perky. I also had a Silver Reed typewriter (which I still have – see pic!) – my pride and joy – that cost £79.99 from WH Smith in 1987, and a wodge of carbon copy paper.

page scheme

Scheme of a layout from my Periodical Journalism training notes © Periodical Training Council.

Sub-editing and proofreading were carried out using red pen and printer’s proofing marks – brief hieroglyphic instructions that the printers used to amend copy. A typescale and photo wheel (aka ‘Reproduction computer’ – which always tickled me as it was essentially two bits of plastic stuck together) completed the kit if you were doing layout too, which I was. All of these can be seen along with my trusty (dusty) typewriter in the picture at the top of the post.

Oh look! A page! On the screen!
Around 1988, computers were creeping into the magazine and newspaper production process. You produced your own galleys of body copy. How exciting! Seeing actual print pasted onto the layout (the design was still done by pencil and typescale ruler).

PageMaker and QuarkXpress page layout software arrived around 1990 and, with them, design by mouse. No more casting off characters or guess work for the sub; a headline was now WYSIWYG and a little red X icon signalled overmatter to cut

As time and software moved on, those with Quark skills got the work, while PageMaker subs began to languish. I learnt the lesson – you had to keep up with technology.

Desktop publishing = copy fiddling = repetitive strain injury
Discovering kerning and tracking was a satisfying moment. How neat we could now make the copy look – without squeezing a line beyond ‘-3’, of course (whatever that meant).

All the tweaking and endless opportunities for correction, as well as the lack of knowledge about ergonomics and how to sit and compute for 8 hours, gave me the modern version of Scrivener’s Palsy: RSI, repetitive strain injury. I was 22 and unable to work for a year.

Still, it was a boom time for subs. Throughout the 90s, there seemed to be new mag and newspaper launches every other month. The software was further refined and delineated: subs needed Word and Quark; designers Quark, PhotoShop and Illustrator.

Next (bear with me, it’s an epic but I promise LOLcats): The internet arrives and changes everything.

LOLcat

LOLcats changes evryfing. © Kitty de Medici/Flickr

RIP Sub-editing 1987-2008 – pt 1

Everyone has an indulgent, epic blog post in them and this is mine: a look back and a farewell to my 21 years of sub-editing.

I started this blog when the print industry was starting to really fall apart 18 months ago. I wanted to put down some of the funny things that happen on the subs desk, some of the issues that we had to deal with.

Instead it quickly turned into a personal transit lounge for crossing over to digital work. How did this happen? This is that story…

matthew broderick

Image: © @tnarik/Flickr

Thankyou Matthew Broderick!

My love of computers can be traced back to a teenage crush on Matthew Broderick who nerded his way though both Thermo-Nuclear War in War Games and bunking off school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This led me into the school computer room in the 80s, internet cafés in the 90s, a job with Freeserve in 2000, Friendster in 2002, blogging in 2008, and web editing in 2009.

In between all of this, the one constant was my work as a sub-editor. Demand was high and more often than not I was booked for weeks or months ahead of time. They were golden days for The Freelance Sub.

Even through the recession of the early 90s, there was work – albeit in the unhealthy, correction-heavy world of TV listings.

You’ll always need correct spelling (maybe)
But things got seriously shaky during the recession of 2008/9 as the increasing impact of the internet on advertising revenues finally seemed to wake newspapers up to their crumbling revenue model. Entire sub-editing departments were sacked, outsourced or cut back (Telegraph, City AM to name but two) as print budgets dried up.

Meanwhile, the diligent fact-checking sub-editor was also facing a new Web-first world where correct spelling, fact-checking, pun headlines and copy-fitting were becoming increasingly redundant, post-moderated or deprioritised.

Still, I hung on to my safe, traditional sub-editing role for as long as I could. And in the downtime of the monthly magazine subs desk, I started a blog.

You would blog too if it happened to you
Little did I know that blogging was going to change everything.

For one thing, I started social networking with people beyond my Myspace/Facebook pool of friends and family. For another, I met my lovely partner Pete Ashton who was teaching me to blog at his weekly blog surgeries held in a Birmingham coffee shop.

My relationship with Web 2.0 was also taking off. The progression went something like this: a LinkedIn profile, a Twitter account, a Flickr account and a Tumblr. Then came the ‘IRL’ meet ups with my new virtual friends and signing up for Web unconferences.

It was a whole ’nother world, one that you only had access to if you were engaged with it. Socially and with half an eye on the future, it made sense and felt right. Online felt expansive while print now felt reductive.

Twitter became my personal recommendation engine. It pushed interesting and new ideas at me through links and blog posts. It was thanks to Twitter that I decided to send myself to South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, held in March each year. Nothing else had changed their life / career / outlook as much as going to SXSW.

Digital skills: I can haz them?
As my print work dried up, I started to get small jobs from my engagement with an online network that was just a few weeks old. One memorable job came from discovering a Twitter contact was in my local Coop. We tweeted. We met in the wine aisle. He offered me work writing on a new website. As you do.

Digital skills combined with old-school editorial experience were in demand. I landed a contract with a digital agency and soon found myself working on blogs, wikis, ezines and SEO features. It was liking starting all over again.

Suddenly sub-editing was something I had to outsource to other subs because I was too busy doing something called ‘web editing’ or ‘social media copywriting’ or whatever the task of the day was. Only there weren’t any digital subs out there so suddenly I found myself having to teach the little that I knew to print subs.

For a while now I’ve been giddy with how much my work life has shifted in just two years. The last 12 months in particular have involved a complete reinvention of my career. Am I even a journalist anymore? Mostly I would say no, although I still use the skills of the trade. Sub-editing still happens, but the skills have had to be revised and expanded, and the amount of time to sub has been slashed. At least the online medium is, by its instant-publish nature, more forgiving of a typo.

Next… part two: sub-editing and the rise of technology

Free mentoring offered on Ada Lovelace Day

Who was Ada? Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that it was never built. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.

In celebrating Ada Lovelace Day (March 24), bigging up women in tech, I look back at those I have met since I ‘went online’ as a journalist in 2000.

It’s a short list – unfortunately – but hopefully one that will grow in time. I could choose from Fiona Romeo, Head of Digital Media at the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory; Adrienne Wyper, deputy editor at AllAboutYou.com, Adrienne Grubb, web editor at Redwood Publishing, Joanna Geary, web development editor at The Times; and a couple of others – all journalists who have pioneered their way online in various ways.

But it’s Anita Bevan, now head of content for web and mobile at Orange UK, who I’d like to acknowledge as my first female role model of the internets. Anita gave me my first break as web producer for the women’s portal, iCircle.com, in 2000 and forgave me various freelance absences to invite me back as homepage editor for Freeserve.

I learned so much from that time that has served me well in shifting online for the second time, from sub-editor/writer to web editor. And having a female role model has definitely helped me develop the balls to ‘tech up’. In the meantime, Anita has managed to surf the changes from Freeserve, the UK’s largest portal at the time, to Wanadoo to Orange and the world of mobile content.

The funny thing is, I vaguely recognised her name when I went for that first iCircle interview. In the lift, she seemed even more familiar. I was sure I’d met her somewhere before. Well, she remembered me. Turns out, she had been my personal tutor at the London College of Printing.

So now we’ve been connected for, eek, 21 years. I hope it’s as nice for the Ada Lovelaces of the world to see their charges go forward as it is for us to benefit from their influence. In turn, perhaps we can pass on what we know and help other women make the transition that we have made or are making.

In that vein, I’m offering some one-to-one blog tutorials in my lunch hour to any women/girls/dragqueens, etc, who are thinking of setting up a blog or wondering how to get started online. I’m in the Waterloo area of London (mostly) or in Birmingham (occasionally). Tea/coffee optional. Email me at fionacullinan@hotmail.com to arrange.

Amplified08: UK’s network of networks?

Ach, it’s been a week already since Amplified08, which took place a short walk from the ghost town of print media, London’s Fleet Street, and I’m only just getting round to posting some feedback. But my pop music course taught me never to start with an apology so stuff it.

I attended #amp08 for two main reasons – partly to put a face to my Twitter contacts, who’ve helped me greatly since I started blogging four months ago, and partly because I don’t want to miss out on the social media trends that are happening now.

Brief aside for sub-editors wondering what all this has to do with copy editing – I did attend a discussion topic called ‘Mainstream media and citizen journalism’ aka #amp08#21. The good news is that the quality and accuracy of information is forecast to become more important. Readers will expect different levels of conversation – not just ‘Wild West opinion’ but also ‘moderated BBC content’ types, so trust and reputation will remain a brand indicator. The bad news is that, atm, this seems dependent on the brand being actually able to afford the staff.

But sub-editing wasn’t the point, or journalism, or any of the short topic sessions around which we all gathered, submitting, in some of the Barleyesque pods, to being live-streamed.

Get yourself connected
Amplified08 mainly offered an opportunity to get connected. Nesta invited the UK’s 40 most active social media networks to essentially hook up in the sexy new social media-style format of an ‘unconference’ – where the organisation and content is left to the attendees and a wiki to decide.

The big event in 2010
Feedback from #amp08 – to explain, hashtags are collected post-event to collect outcomes – will inform #amp09 leading, hopefully, to a super-connected conference in 2010, and fulfilling Nesta’s ‘modest ambition to make the UK the most connected place on the planet’. Because apparently 99.9% of us still don’t get ‘it’ – the new connectivity, that is. And I’d add that even the ones that kind of do get it are still boradcasting (Freudian slip typo there!) as a default because they’re just not used to readers and customers talking back.

I think, for all its faults, ultimately the medium of #amp08 was the message – how we are now coming together, organising ourselves without hierarchy, sharing ideas, making new contacts, learning through conversation rather than presentation, trying out the fun stuff such as table wikis, live Twittering on screen and ‘what I learned’ Tweets after each session.

How could Amplified do better?
More feedback to come but, for now, here’s my 3 ideas for #amp09:

  • more visible hashtags so I can catch up on all the sessions I wanted to see
  • more soundproofed conversation areas so I don’t have to bring my ear trumpet
  • more introductions and insights into the attendees and a meet-up slot – perhaps profiles of contacts up on site well beforehand and opportunities to arrange a meet. Maybe a little ning to go with the wiki? Cos I’m sure I was inches away from meeting my perfect compadre in a ‘million dollar homepage’ type scam, sorry, I mean ‘social enterprise’ start-up.

My first live tweet session…

…can be found at twitter.com/Chamberlains. Irrationally I feel like a proud parent – despite all the spilling arrors.

My Oscars-style task was to announce the nominees and the winners of Birmingham Council’s Chamberlain Awards in real time, running around the hall to grab a few winners’ quotes and adding in a wraparound of what it all looked/sounded/smelled/etc like – well as much as 140 characters of Twitter would allow. Twitpics (no defamation – that’s the app!) allowed winners’ photos to be posted instantly.

The pluses: friends and family at home were able to get the news first hand, the press got real-time quotes and news, I had great fun.

The cons: has there yet been a live-blogged event in B’ham (or anywhere else for that matter) where wifi hasn’t gone down? There were 80+ tweets in the end but could have been a lot more if it wasn’t taking 5 mins a time to upload a single update. At one point I was three awards behind and trying to take notes while tweeting. I thank the Buddha no one asked any questions but used it as a newswire only – I had to skip the dessert course as it was.