Thursday, 8 November 2007

What have the subs ever done for us?

David Montgomery has opened a debate in the pages of Press Gazette by questioning the usefulness of subs.

Press Gazette quotes him saying: “Never before has a journalist been able to reach out to their audience without intervention.”

Funnily enough, I remember being told exactly the same thing when I joined the Independent prior to its launch in October 1986.

In the early days, The Independent had no subs – part from one or two that wily department heads slipped through the net.

The reason given for avoiding them was very similar to what Montgomery, who these days is chief executive of European newspaper giant Mecom, argues now. It was that technology had made them, and their craft, unnecessary.

Monty says: “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 was deputy features editor in The Independent’s early days, and when I suggested subs were really rather useful, I was told that they were no longer necessary because of full page make up on computers called GT68s.

The Independent, which pioneered this technology in the UK, hired a group of bods called GT68 operators – largely from the regional press– whose job it was to draw up the pages electronically. Then, each writer could file their copy directly into the file that had been set up for them, press a button and bingo, job done.

It was said there was absolutely no need to sub the copy of highly intelligent, educated, experienced Independent writers.

That held for a few months, with those of us who were employed to commission also having to do a huge amount of unacknowledged copy subbing.

I can pinpoint the moment when things changed in features, and we were allowed to hire our first sub. It was during party conference season. The leader writer, having toiled with the Tories at Brighton (or it may been Blackpool) then went off to cover Labour at Blackpool (or it may have been Brighton).

I can’t remember now, and he couldn’t remember then.

He got the town wrong, in his opening sentence. The chiefs were incandescent. How could such a competent journalist have made such a fundamental mistake?

Less judgemental was the senior executive who had read and approved the leader before publication.

So, slowly but surely, we were allowed to hire subs.

The thing is, when your brilliant writer or your thrusting executive cocks up, you need someone to carry the can – and subs are really good at doing that.

No comments: