Tag Archives: online journalism

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

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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.

‘What will you miss when newspapers are gone?’

Will you miss me, Seth Godin? You don’t seem to mention copy editors, concentrating as you have in your post on the loss of  ‘local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news’.

I am/was a sub-editor who is having to check less and less as life moves online and into endless opinion. My job has all but disappeared. The ‘invisible’ skill – to the readers anyway – of copy editing, checking and proofreading may be missed as reputations fall, libel and copyright court cases soar, stocks crash on the back of incorrect tagging and anal grammar pundits click away in annoyance.

While you’ve obviously done a spell-check on your column, I did have to laugh at:

I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government …

And I worry about the quality of ‘the the’ content, and where I will be able to find checked content. I’m not meaning to nitpick. It’s a small example, nothing to bother about. But it’s the trustworthiness, I will miss; the knowing that what I’m reading has been via the lawyers, a copy editor and/or a chief sub-editor.

We can all live with a  few spelling/grammar stuff -ups. But it’s kind of like airlines and maintenance. If the seatbacks don’t work and the carpets are worn, then you don’t care but you do worry about the engine. The trust has gone. 

So I think the ‘invisible’ sub-editor may finally become visible when newspapers are gone – and, even with the tabloid spin, it’s them who I’ll miss. And in case you think I’m feeling sorry for myself, I don’t think that’s it. My job’s already moved on. The sub-editing element has sunk to less than 20%. I’m just another opinionated media outlet now!

Style guide wiki now up for online copy editors

After calling for a universal style guide in a recent post, well, here it is:

Style guide for online sub-editors 

Thanks to journalism.co.uk for the set-up. It’s editable for your learning pleasure and is full of tips, links and explanations for print subs moving over to online. Would be great to hear the input and suggestions of subs and copy editors, or go to the wiki and add your tuppence worth there.

There’s loads of things I haven’t covered, or haven’t covered enough. Please help and make this work-in-progress a useful resource.

Is there a future for West Midlands media?

The quick answer is yes – but with 3 provisos (based on what was said tonight at the Birmingham Press Club’s Does The Regional Media Have a Future? in Birmingham):

  • that journalists don’t expect the same levels of payment

  • media organisations don’t expect the same level of revenue

  • the audience doesn’t expect the same level of quality 

Rather than take the traditional news inverted pyramid style, here’s my curated, bitesize, online-friendly 3x3x3 approach:

 

3 things that say West Midlands media is stuck in the past:

  • The first 45 minutes were devoted to free wine, beer and food (nice ‘n’ all but…)

  • The first 10 minutes were given over to a DVD compilation of Birmingham’s glorious print and TV past – featuring, bizarrely, images of New Faces, Pot Black and Basil Brush!

  • The panel was made up of seven white males over the age of 30 (I’m being kind)

3 things that show how West Midlands media is struggling with the present:

  • Ownership issues – both panellists (details of whom below) and PRs in the audience seemed stuck on news being filtered through traditional media outlets, whereas these are no longer the only option but among the many now bringing news to the marketplace.

  • The poor freshly qualified, tech-trained journalism student, whose skills are theoretically in demand as newspapers go multimedia, only to find there is no job for her in cost-cutting organisations.

  • Recent redundancies – the statistics across all media given out by the panel were appalling but the consensus is that the money isn’t there and is moving online.

And finally (in honour of Trevor McDonald, whose last night it is on ITV news – he’s obviously getting out just in time), 3 things to remind us of the future:

  • Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail, taking pics on his Nokia 96 for his blog/paper (I’d like to think he was live tweeting but didn’t see him text).

  • There were no pure bloggers represented in the audience – in the straw poll of around 70 attendees, most were from print media with only 2-3 online journalists (both with just ‘a foot in’) – showing perhaps that the conversation is taking place elsewhere.

  • Mike Owen, ex of BRMB Radio, talking for a Jamaican minute on how Marconi came to the market in the 1920s with the radio and said, ‘Come on you lot, give us something to put on it’. Media organistations obliged. Now the internet is here, there’s a new tool in town. What are they going to do?

For those ‘lucky’ journos still in a job, more pressure is falling on the dwindling number who are left doing all the work several times over in multiple formats. Like poor Tony Collins, education correspondent of the Mail, who was tasked with taking pix of the event on his staff Nokia.

 

As for me, judging by the questions, I might have to set up as a Twitter consultant! (@katchooo, if you’re ahem hip to the Twit!).

 

And for next year, let’s hope the debate concentrates more on the future and less on the past. I also hope that regional journalists get sussed by reading the likes of Clay Shirky, Seth Godin, Dan Gillmor or any number of other respected commentators on the digital revolution. Because after the printing press arrived there was 100 years of turmoil – so it’s going to be a rocky ride.

 

Notes to those who’ve read this far:

Transparency declaration: I’ve worked as a casual sub at Birmingham Post, Birmingham Mail and Sunday Mercury, and also still write travel pieces for them. 

 

The debate was open and hosted by the Birmingham Press Club, which wants to make the discussion an annual event. It was attended by 70-80 people: several from TV and radio, most from print journalism and PR, some from local or regional government, 4 media students and 2 freelance online journalists.

 

The panel was made up of host Peter Tomlinson, ex of Tiswas and who now heads up communications for Birmingham Children’s Hospital – ohmigod Wikipedia says:

He is the son of actor David Tomlinson, star of Bedknobs & Broomsticks and Mary Poppins.[2]

I so hope that is true – he was charming! 

 

Panellists were Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post; Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail; Laurie Upshon, news and operations director of Central TV (1990-2005); Mike Owen, former programme controller at BRMB; and Chris Morley, NUJ regional organiser. Also, Chas Watkins, head of local/regional programming for the BBC.

 

ends (old skool but I likes it)