Why today's reporters need to master the sub-editor's art
A recurrent theme among journalists these days is the perceived decline of the sub-editor. Subs, as they're known, are known for writing headlines and laying out pages. But one of their other critical tasks is to spot errors.
Not so long ago on regional and national newspapers, banks of eagle-eyed sub-editors would go through copy with a fine-tooth comb, checking for legals, errors and compliance with the house stylebook (the Belfast Telegraph, incidentally, has an online manual of its own).
In recent years, the role has become rather watered down, with reporters on many smaller publications in particular writing directly to the page and/or to the website with inadequate revision of their work.
My own view is that as journalists become increasingly multi-skilled, key subbing skills will become core reporter and news desk duties.
The reduced ranks of sub-editors themselves will acquire new skills, not least online editing, search engine optimisation and much more.
There should, however, always be a requirement for sub-editors to act as gatekeepers, even if their name changes to backbench journalist, online editor, social media editor etc.
There was, however, another key skill that the most diligent subs protected: writing standards. Alas, this one is under most pressure, not least due to the multiple informal entry routes into journalism - especially online - that do not provide formal training.
The best subs would proudly keep the paper free of rubbish. Chief amongst their targets were cliches, contradictions, purple prose and the heinous crime of 'burying' the best line of a story.
A former senior sub on the Daily Mail, Margaret Ashworth, has brilliantly caught the mood of the decline of sub-editing as it was traditionally practised.
She says "a lack of curiosity, coupled with the absence of guidance or training" has led to "a catastrophic drop in standards".But not content to merely whine from the sidelines, Ashworth has created a brilliant resource to help redress the balance. Called Style Matters - A Guide For Writers And Reporters In All Media, it is primarily aimed at reporters writing to page without the benefit of proper sub-editing support.
But is also neatly summarises some of the best practices of the craft in an entertaining way. You can find it at stylematters. margaretashworth.com.
It's a great read - an, ahem, no-holds-barred assault on crimes against the English language. Below are a few examples in Ashworth's own words.
"Boffin/toff/cad": Joke words which belong in the 1950s, as do many other antiquated words and phrases such as 'flushed with success' in any story to do with plumbing. Other shockers are red-faced for embarrassed; scratching their heads; case-hardened, as in 'even case-hardened detectives were shocked'; flame-haired; pooch/mutt/moggy.
"Fall pregnant": Absolutely not. This is a chavvy expression with connotations of 'fallen woman'. Become pregnant, find she is expecting, or conceive.
"High-class call girl": I don't think 'high-class' can be applied to any prostitute, but you may disagree.
"Tuned in": As in 'Millions tuned in to watch Britain's Got Talent'. Televisions do not need to be tuned these days.
"Peter Pan of pop" in reference to Sir Cliff Richard. This makes the hoariest cliche look fresh.
"Slap-up meal/washed down with": As in 'The Queen and her guests enjoyed a slap-up meal, washed down with the finest Chablis'.
"Icon": Among the most over-used words of the last 10 years or so. One favourite example was 'High street icon Tesco'. Give it a well-deserved rest.
"Broad daylight": What's the alternative? Narrow daylight?
"Live audience": Is there any other kind of audience? Rows of corpses?