A piece I wrote this week for Crikey
Crikey grumpy old man and sub Mick Vaughan writes:
Subeditors in the news? You betcha. Here’s the bottom line: subeditors rarely make mistakes, they sometimes miss other people’s and, generally when that happens, the sub is usually first in line for a kick in the arse -- rarely the reporter. The reason is, of course, that the sub has the responsibility of the last look at a story before the overall-clad brigade (or is it white, corporate dustcoats these days?) hits the button in the automated press room.
In the old days, proof readers used to be the next-to-last eyes before that profession (and, yes, it was a profession) was given short shrift and their job was absorbed into the subs' repertoire.
Subs' repertoire, you ask? Let’s get down to it. Newspaper subeditors (a desk of a chief, deputy, checksub/s and downtable bods) are variously the arbiters of good taste; they read, refine and edit copy often to make more/some sense, correct spelling, house style, punctuation and grammar, check facts, raise legal issues, design and lay out pages, hassle photographers to get pictures, crop the said pictures*, liaise with artists/designers, check with reporters to clarify facts, write precedes, breakout quotes, witty captions and often excellent headlines, read and correct proofs, mentor staff (especially juniors -- we used to call them cadets), hassle people to get things done within deadline (OK that's really the grumpy chief job), answer questions from people too lazy to get off their arse to check for themselves, grab a bite to eat at their desks, drink lots of really shit newspaper office coffee, (in the old days) smoke too much and enjoy a beer after the shift ... and love the whole damned thing. There was always a tangible sense of pride in all subs as they left the building after a shift, a copy of that day’s paper tucked under their arm.
That’s a huge, vital skill set that Fairfax, in one fell swoop, is planning to eliminate from its ranks, a move that will be counter-productive to the Fairfax dream of The Age again becoming a quality broadsheet. Pagemasters, the industry’s equivalent of the $2 Shop (OK, that's harsh), will be charged with the task of making it so and, with the word on the street indicating that the company has a pay ceiling for subs of 60 large, it is hardly a guaranteed, gilt-edged incentive for the ex-Age staffers. Imagine the many soon-to-become-former Fairfax subs getting by on maybe half of their usual salary.
There isn’t a reporter alive, at Fairfax, News Limited or even at the Barcoo Independent (if it’s still going), whose arse hasn’t been saved by a vigilant sub.
I have an ex-Fairfax mate (a lot actually, I’m one too -- I haven’t yet met one departed staff member who hasn’t kicked goals after departing the penny-pinching factory that is Fairfax: God knows I got screwed, but that’s another story) who spent four days rewriting, massaging and checking a huge yarn that went on to win a Walkley. With all the fanfare associated with such a prestigious win, the reporter took the money and ran (all right, he waddled) without so much as an acknowledgement of the sub’s by-then priceless work. Not so much as a beer or even a thank you.
But that’s the deal, really. Subs are backroom staff who, best three headlines at the Walkley or Quills aside, get three-fifths of five-eighths of f-ck all praise from anyone other than their editors. Journalism, sadly, these days is a personality-focused profession … it’s all about the byline and often larger-than-life accompanying dinkus picture.
The subs’ desk usually is like a happy workshop, one where ideas and banter are bounced around the table, jokes are cracked (usually good-natured and often at a colleague’s expense) and where the camaraderie leads to the great ideas that become reality and contribute to enhancing and maintaining the once-cherished integrity of the masthead.
One evening (as chief sub) and right on deadline, The Age sports editor asked me to change something I considered could wait. "Can we do it for the first edition?" he asked. "No," I replied, "we’re up against it. There are still pages to go. It’s not that important." "Really, I’d like to make the change," he insisted. "Mate," I said, "what part of f-ck off don’t you understand? We’ll do it for the second edition." We did. We laughed. Camaraderie at its finest.
I can recall in a previous life at The Sunday Age happy workshop (before Steve Harris changed it to the seventh day of The Age, something for which I'll never forgive him) when my best mate and I, due to finish at midnight on a Friday, sat until 2am (that’s four unpaid man hours -- and yes, we were having a beer … all right, three) to get one headline to say something that we thought was deserving of the story. We did it. I can’t remember what it said, but I know it was bloody good.
Not as good as the one I once wrote for a column piece about Martina Hingis falling off a horse in Melbourne during her time here for the Australian Open. Reckon it said something like: "Cunning Hingis licks her wounds". Still wonder why it never got a run. OK, not really.
That sort of commitment, even love, of the product doesn’t cut it in today’s newsroom.
Mic Looby, on The Drum, and Mel Campbell, on New Matilda, and former Fairfax subeditor Charles Maddison in Crikey on Thursday, each wrote excellent, straight-up summations of why the Fairfax folly is in fact folly. But I think the final word belongs to @SimonThomsen on Twitter on Thursday, who nailed the latest in a long list of Fairfax acts of stupidity: "What do you call a newspaper without subeditors? A blog."
*A Sunday Age sports editor of my acquaintance, unhappy with his requested photo, once put it to the chief photographer: "Did he actually get out of the car to take this … or was it a f-ckin' drive-by shooting?"
*Follow @mickthesub1 on Twitter
ME IN A NUTSHELL
- G’day, I’m Michael and I have two fantastic grown-up kids. I’m a jeans and singlet/T-shirt, cowboy boot, tattoos sort of fella, who knows a bit about this and sometimes a lot about that. I'll have a crack at most things, although having a relationship? ... well that ship has sailed. I'm past my use-by date anyway, so I'm gonna make it all about me and surviving life as I know it ... or make it.