Tag Archives: moderation

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

Google wants more copy editors – not less!

Why? Because its Googlebots aren’t able to do the job of traditional editors and are, in fact, at the mercy of misinformation published direct to Web by news companies in the rush to inform.

Incorrect tagging and unchecked facts have led to major problems, as reported on the editorsweblog following the World Editors Forum.

Despite the ongoing deletion of subs/copy editors from newsrooms, it turns out that Google’s reps at the WEF reckon editors and fact-checking are more important than ever.

It’s a thought backed up by Pete Clifton, senior BBC News exec, who supports journalist gate-keepers (aka editors?) for processing its UGC:

It’s gone through all the filters that our journalism would have gone through. It’s quite labour intensive. We’ve another arm of our newsgathering operation – it can ultimately add to the richness of what we do, but we shouldn’t take it lightly.

Because taking it lightly would compromise the brand’s trustworthiness as well as making it potentially legal liable.

Can’t help thinking that although subs are seen as an editable expense at the moment, those who find money in the budget for them will win in the long run, because, y’know, you like to know where to go to get the facts. Or am I deluding myself?

‘I would not become a sub-editor now…

… The future for sub-editing is bleak,’ said Justin Williams, assistant editor of the Telegraph, at the NMK ‘What happens to newspapers?’ event. [Full story here.]

The reason? Because The Telegraph is trialling a post-moderated sub-editing system online in which reporters publish directly to the online edition and await moderation.

Whether moderation is by users via comments or subs direct into the story isn’t clear (to me anyway). But what is noted is that ‘[The future] will not be about the interminable multi-staged editing process’.

Williams notes instead a trend towards content generation (a theme visited in earlier posts as subs are shifted into multi-tasking).

But while newspapers have a brand and quality to protect, they are likely to suffer an amateurisation in the quality of their content through the publish-then-filter model. While this may be acceptable in a fast-paced news environment, which can be corrected over time in a rolling news story, the model could be dangerous for certain topics areas (eg, medical stories), but also for client magazines and websites with a brand to protect.

I don’t agree that the production process has to be ‘interminable’ but a second pair of eyes at least should be in place. Once it’s out there, wrong information goes to RSS almost immediately and an edit even a minute later won’t appear. As a writer I’d be very wary of sending in work without at least some kind of checks in place.

As for client-branded media, they may risk their good name and trusted reputation if they follow The Telegraph‘s lead.