Tag Archives: editors

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

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Journalist, train thyself! Online needs you… desperately!

A few days ago I was asked by The Jobless Journalist about the merging of reporting and subbing in an online environment… and should s/he as a reporter (with some subbing experience) apply for sub-editing roles.

Well, the digital skills gap has been a source of frustration for me for a few months now so I’m afraid the subject rather got me going… it’s very much from a client publishing perspective rather than a multimedia newsroom but here’s the transcript.

And if you don’t want to read 1200 words on future-subbing, then the short version is nicely SEO’d into the header above.

Do you see the divide between reporter and sub lessening with online journalism, ie a reporter needs to be able to sub as content is uploaded directly online?

Firstly, good on you for blogging about this. Not only are you engaging a load of other journalists who are probably pretty damn worried about their trade and their future, but you are opening up many more potential job opportunities for yourself by engaging in the culture of online and learning the skills of digital publishing.

Oh and unless someone’s radically altering your post and headlines, you’re already both reporting and subbing, yes?

Right now, you’re working out for yourself what works in this environment copywise, headlinewise, structurewise. In blogging at least, reporting and subbing tend to be integrated (along with photography, IT skills and social media basics).

Which kind of answers your question on the divide between reporter and sub in online environments. Divide? What divide?

The divide is less about reporting versus subbing, imho, and more about are you engaged or not, are you digitally included or not.

By not engaging more in online environments, traditional journalists are not developing their digital writing or subbing skills, let alone all the other skills that go with publishing to the Web, like:

  • picture research under Creative Commons licences
  • image manipulation
  • linking skills
  • SEO knowledge
  • how to upload and promote content
  • and the big one: the ability to deal with readers talking back to you.

It is an ongoing frustration in my line of work – currently web editor/corporate blogger – that people say they want to work online but don’t have a blog, Twitter account, Tumblr or Posterous, and don’t use feeds, social bookmarking, alerts and other tools to help them be a journalist online.

It’s like trying to write a news story but only occasionally reading a newspaper. Just having a Facebook page isn’t enough, because your readers online will know more than you – and they’ll let you know it.

I came across a great quote to illustrate this in the Top 10 Lies Newspaper Execs are Telling Themselves:

Until you have a blog, a Twitter feed and a Facebook account and until you are reading most of your news online and commenting on what you read, until you are all over Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, iGoogle, Netvibes and the like, until you can actually explain to me how online CPM-based advertising works, until you can explain how SEO and SEM work, until you know what “pwnd” means, until you know the significance of the 3 Wolf Moon or 3 Cat Keyboard t-shirt, you don’t know what you don’t know.

You are competing with the very people who created the Internet.  Increasingly, you are competing with the generation who grew up online.   How can you possibly be so arrogant that you think you can compete in that world without becoming a part of it?

I’ve been actively looking to hire digital subs and SEO-trained writers in the last six months – but I’ve struggled to find people who are really digitally engaged. I sometimes wonder if it’s because journalists tend to rely on mammoth publishing organisations for training. They are not used to going out there and training themselves. (This is where freelances have an advantage – we are used to self-development because it’s a generous publisher who will pay for our training.)

This presents great opportunities for reporters and subs who are looking for online work because in online publishing there is no set path in… at least for the moment while universities get to grips with how to train up the journalists of the future and those who are traditional print journalists move from shock at their industry collapsing either to engaging with the new medium or perhaps, resentfully, having it foisted upon them on top of their usual work.

No one can prescribe you a way into a job in online journalism. No one is asking you to train as a reporter first and perhaps later, when you’ve learnt how to write in a certain style, then train as a sub. There is no discrete set of jobs in online publishing – unless you count the way the digital dept I work for is divided: web editor, developer, designer with a side order of subs who process print stuff easily but need to [find the time to] engage [in online culture] in order to ‘get’ online.

From what I’ve read (mostly on teh Online Journalism Blog – and, subs, you can stet that ‘teh’ – it’s an online thang), reporters in multimedia newsrooms are being asked to sub their own work; meanwhile subs are being made redundant. How reporters are supposed to sub to old-school standards, perhaps with minimal experience or training, and 24-hour newsroom deadline pressures, should be interesting! Would love to be a fly on the wall of the 21st century newsroom. But just on a practical level, I know I find it hard to sub my own work, and I know I’m not alone in that.

Then again, online environments are a different beast. It’s publish first, refine later. You may not be shot for a typo but you do need to know the pitfalls – particularly if you are working for a brand – and this is perfect sub-editor territory.

Does this herald the death of the sub or will there always be the need for a second pair of eyes?

Every bit of copy benefits from a second pair of eyes, imho. But the comments section can act as a rather more public second set of eyes, pointing out your typos and incorrect facts. In a way this is more transparent but it has its downsides.

Personally, I’d love a sub to come along and clean up my typos, SEO my copy for me, add metadata to my content, suggest a better mobile-phone-surfer-headline, keep me out of court then social bookmark my content in relevant places and ways. In practice, this rarely happens – mainly due to the current digital skills gap.

How does freelance subbing compare with a full-time subbing job. Which is easier to get into?
You’re asking the wrong person here as a dedicated freelancer. Freelance subbing is the same for me as full-time subbing except you occasionally have to put up with the ‘just a freelance’ mentality of some employers, and you have to work the British summer as it’s peak time to cover holidays. The pay off is you can (potentially) take months off at a time to travel, write your novel, start a blog… 😉

Easier to get into? Hard to say. The last year has been a difficult one for freelance subs definitely, although there seem to be a few green shoots of recovery around now. All I can say is, it takes balls and bluff to go straight into freelance subbing without having done a full-time stint somewhere first. And that budgets are moving online.

In which case, the ‘jobless journalist’, who’s done a year’s subbing already, and is now visibly blogging for all the world to see, is perfectly positioned for hire.

Good luck with the job search. I suspect and hope you won’t just be blogging for long.

LATE ADD: I left my job last week to go freelance as a blogger and do more social media and content strategy ‘stuff’.  Sooo…. my agency is looking for web editors – check out the job advert if you’re interested. And if you’re a freelance sub/writer with a blog, Twitter account and a general immersion in online, then it may be worth sticking in a CV or a link to your site, too.

Got your online sub-editing skills down yet?

Dotcom vs print mag – stats from some big US titles
The US’s most powerful fashion editors reviewed at forbes.com – plus how well each editor’s title is transitioning from print to the online format. Generally, ad sales down but web hits rising fast… time to update the old skills set if you haven’t already, methinks.