Riaan Wolmarans
Riaan Wolmarans

A world without sub-editors

I have, stored away safely in my head, a list of people who should be dragged into the street and shot.

Don’t worry — I am not declaring war on women, Jews, lesbians, Russians, Republicans, rightwingers or communists. It’s simply a list of those around me who were seemingly born missing a significant quantity of brain matter, and who therefore constantly act in utter stupidity without any consideration towards the rest of humanity.

On this list, among many others, are:

  • men who urinate on toilet seats;
  • gym members who don’t wipe their sweat off the exercise equipment;
  • whoever keeps on making those annoying “Shrek and donkey” House of Paint radio ads;
  • whoever thought an animated meerkat on TV would be cute;
  • the so-called singer Shaggy;
  • drivers who don’t use their indicators; and
  • shoppers who shuffle along at 1km/h in crowded malls.

    This week, I read about another candidate for this list. British newspaper boss David Montgomery‘s Mecom company is on a shopping spree, buying up chunks of the European newspaper industry.

    It’s all very interesting, obviously. But what caught my attention was a speech by Montgomery in which he addressed the future of print journalism.

    He said: “Never before has a journalist been able to reach out to their audience without intervention. Reporters out in the field can call up a page on their laptop and put copy straight on to the page without intervention.” He added: “It means journalists can be freed from humdrum roles and the sub-editing culture can break down.”

    Using the example of TV journalists, who are not sub-edited for live reports, he said: “I see a situation where experienced journalists that can be trusted have no barrier to communication with their audience. Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check … Senior people will always monitor the content, a core group will create the product.”

    I venture that Montgomery has never sat next to a good sub-editor who was knocking a story into shape. In my time at the Mail & Guardian, I have had the opportunity to sub-edit copy by some of this country’s best and most experienced journalists, and I do believe that the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award should have a subtitle attached to it: “Sub-edited by …”

    Former M&G editor Howard Barrell once said the sub-editors were the most important people in the newsroom.

    Clearly the credit for the actual writing work, sniffing out the leads and doing the investigation goes to the journalist; however, there are very, very few journalists who write perfect copy. There is always something to fix: style, grammar, spelling … and only by “checking things you don’t really need to check” does a crafty sub-editor spot sometimes obscure errors that might otherwise appear in print (or online).

    Montgomery’s argument refers to blogging — publishing without intervention. The difference is that the “intervention” of sub-editing at a newspaper maintains quality and saves the newspaper from embarrassing apologies (or costly court cases). Also, it’s nigh impossible to spot all of one’s own writing errors; a fresh eye always pays (and a trained one even more so).

    “Senior people will always monitor the content,” he says. Of course they will, but I have known many senior editors whose grasp of grammar left much to the imagination. Perhaps Montgomery is one of those people who simply don’t see the difference between “its” and “it’s”.

    As for online journalism (the future of print journalism?), standards are, sadly, much lower than those in print newsrooms. More than ever, good sub-editors (a dying species, it seems, but that may be a blog for another day) are needed in under-resourced, fast-moving online newsrooms to dig for gold among reams of wire copy and news reports written by interns fresh out of journalism schools.

    I fear Montgomery, sans his sub-editors, faces a rather bleak future, chock-full of corrections boxes and letters from literate readers. In the meantime, he’s the newest addition to my list.

    Oh, and TV journalists may not be subbed, but sometimes the mangled English in e.tv and SABC news reports makes Robert Kirby spin in his grave, I’m sure.