Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In praise of sub-editors

Another gray damp day in Sydney. It's hard to break gray moods when the day is gray.

This short post is dedicated to Christian Knight, editor of the Armidale Express and to all the sub-editors around the world.

Just completed this week's newspaper column. Christian selected Seagulls from fish and chip wrap become part of the story as headline. I had to laugh. The whole point of a headline is to make the reader go to the first para, and I think that will do it.

There is, it seems to me, a real conflict between headers designed to encourage people to read once they have brought the paper and those designed for search engine usage. If someone were to come to my column after searching on seagulls or fish and chips they would be gravely disappointed!

I do admire the skills of sub-editors. Those skills have been crafted over generations in newsrooms across the world. Even today when their entire sub-craft is under threat of extinction, they continue to generate headlines that attract and interest.

I was thinking how best to describe the change that has taken place in the broader field of editing over the last twenty years.

Twenty years ago, editing focused on words. Today, so much editing focuses on appearance.

Twenty years ago, those concerned with proofing and editing addressed questions such as spelling, grammar, clarity and reader interest. A good sub-editor would try to capture a thought, a message, in just a few words. A good literary editor would agonise over suggested changes to a sentence that might best capture the writer's intent. A good proof reader would take pride in the avoidance of a single error.

Today we worry about visual appearance. The words are less important. Readers are no longer expected to be able to read, rather the document must look pretty. If it's not pretty, then readers won't read. If it's too long, readers won't read. If it's too complicated, readers won't read.

Today the time that was once spent on content is now spent on packaging. The result is documents and especially official documents that are, quite frankly, dreadful. They all have that dreadful pastel appearance full of photos that actually add nothing to the text. They take twice as long to say the same thing and then say it badly, They also take twice as long to read.

Think of all the consumables involved. Twice as much paper is involved, and then there is all the ink. Think of the extra printing time.

Of course, we all now live in a paperless world. The paperless office is here. None of this should matter. And yet, most of us actually do download and print important documents. Why? Because it's just easier.

I must sound crabby and I am. However, and for so long as they may continue to exist, I will praise sub-editors and all those concerned with editing in general. I admire their skills. Once they are gone, once we have fully retreated into the Orwellian world of packaged message pap, I will mourn and commemorate them.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jim

Now you absolutely have to read this, and provide some sort of yea or nay comment. (By which ye shall be judged!)


It is nothing to do with your post - but that has never stopped me before, so no change there.

The writer reminds me of an ex-smoker (how is that going for you? My genuine hope is that it is going well..) with his prefabricated fervour.

I clicked on the poll, and note voting is running roughly 90% against him. And the reality is, most of those he is disdainful of have probably retired to bed, or deck, or are putting the ducks away for the night, so yet to cast their vote.

I'll get back to the joys of sub editors sometime. The thing I really enjoy is their frontpage juxtaposition. "The World is Ending" right next to "Her Maj is spending next weekend at Balmoral". That sort of stuff.

But the best is the SMH financial section 'live update' - always guaranteed to be the precise opposite of the little graph next to it. "Shares will open lower"; graph - sharp rise. "Shares gained at lunchtime"; graph - steep decline.

They need a high frequency sub-editor. Or a drink on my deck as the sun sets.


Jim Belshaw said...

On the link, kvd, I suspect that you can guess my views! I may do a post.

Smoking is proving hard to give up given other pressures just at present, but thank you for asking.

And I will opt for that drink on your deck.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Again off-topic, but at least it's about press matters...


This article on the current media enquiry is interesting in itself, but it also makes mention of a particular organisation, as follows:

"Avaaz, an activist organisation that claims 250,000 Australian members, gave testimony at the Sydney hearings."

Looking at its website (link from article) if that isn't an almost-clone of Getup! I would find it hard to imagine a closer match - right down to the article's comment on its representative: "I expected Jacobin zealotry, but listened instead to a young, polite and well-spoken young man"

The thing which irrits is that again, this organisation makes no claim to charity status, reports it is pursuing its goals to the extent of roughly 85% of 'members donations' - but to me, that seems to leave a very nice earner sourced from well meaning members of the public.

Perhaps you should start one?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. Interesting piece.On Avaaz, I hadn't heard of it before, they predate Getup!, but do seem very similar. While the idea of doing that type of thing is tempting, my problem is that I don't want to go campaigning for cash!