Grey Cardigan

Nobodys’ prefect. That’s why we all need sub-editors

I AM a chief sub. I have also been all sorts of other journalistic things from weekly non-league football writer to daily regional editor, but if I had to select one job title to put on my tombstone, it would be that of Chief Sub-Editor.

This column/blog/what-have-you is named after a sub-editor I knew when I first started out in this great game. His name was Bernard, he was probably in his mid-50s, and he’d been a reluctant corporal in the Desert Rats. And he wore a grey cardigan.

Back in those days on the small regional daily I was working on, there was a reporters’ room on one side of the corridor and a subs’ room on the other. Copy would progress from the reporters’ typewriters, up the desk to the news editor, and once approved be conveyed across the corridor by a copy boy. (I say ‘copy boy’. Ours was in his late 60s.) Within the hallowed temple of the subs’ room, copy was checked, corrected, marked up with type instructions in blue pencil and then screwed into a small metal cylinder which was then fed into the Heath Robinson vacuum tube system which took it around the building and down below into the inky hands of the Linotype operators.

There was nothing that would strike abject terror into a young reporter’s heart more than to be summoned by the subs. This would mean that your story contained something so horribly wrong, something so gross, that the issue couldn’t be resolved without your personal attendance. Once in the room (after knocking and waiting) you would stand to attention at the head of the desk to be berated about your parentage, lack of local knowledge, educational standards, dress sense and taste in music. Believe me, you would never misspell that street name a second time.

It was only when I progressed to a being a sports sub that I was allowed into that room, and then when I became a news sub and was promoted to the very bottom of the subs’ table itself, that I realised that this feared collection of dusty curmudgeons was actually the beating heart of the newspaper. This is where the fun was; the arguing, the complaining, the plotting, the bitching, the gossip. And this is where the tone of the newspaper was set and from where the newspaper was run, the editor being a rather solitary figure who rarely emerged from his office where he spent the day counting squirrels in the tree outside his window.

Bernard was still in corporal mode, this time as deputy chief sub, and managed to hide his consummate professionalism behind a persona of perpetual gloom in which everyone in his world, from his minions to his masters, conspired against him. I bumped into him one morning standing outside the office in a torrential downpour, bare-headed, his trench coat sodden and his immaculately prepared cheese sandwiches wrapped in waxed bread paper under his arm.

Aren’t you coming in out of the rain?” I asked as I ducked into the doorway. Bernard tapped his watch. “Five to eight, boy, five to eight. My time, not theirs.”

There were two very different views on sub-editors knocking about last week. Writing on the Spectator website, Fraser Nelson described his magazine’s chief sub Peter Robins as a “genius” and argued that “having good sub editors – nay, great sub editors – is essential for any publication that takes good writing seriously”. He went further, claiming that many columnists prefer to stay in print publications rather than setting off by themselves into cyberspace because of their relationship with those essential collaborators.

Elsewhere, former regional editor Neil Fowler argued that the age of the sub-editor is over and that we must embrace a newsroom culture of “getting it right first time”. He wants a set of basic skills on which all student journalists would be tested before being given a job including spelling, grammar, writing to length, headline-writing and “getting the best out of dull stories”. They can then presumably write direct to web and then print.

Given the above, you won’t be surprised where my sympathies lie. I know where Neil is coming from, but he’s just chasing the impossible dream. Anyone reading some of the utter dross posted on newspaper websites directly by reporters knows this to be true. In a 10-minute trawl this afternoon I found typos, basic factual errors and headings that completely misrepresented the attached story.

So where are these Wunderkids going to come from? The truth is that nobody’s perfect. I am a good designer, a good headline writer, a half-decent columnist, a poor interviewer, a lousy reporter and I could never do the news editor’s job in a million years. I know this; the people who have employed me for 30 years have known this. The idea that we can suddenly produce a generation of multi-skilled journalists capable of excelling in all disciplines is just risible.

Incidentally, I am told the probably apocryphal story that Neil once annoyed a crusty old features sub so much that he was kicked in the bollocks in the middle of the newsroom. Perhaps that’s where his resentment of the Bernards of this world comes from.

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Grey Cardigan

Written by Grey Cardigan

The Grey Cardigan has been in newspapers since the days of hot metal and expense accounts. After a lengthy career as chief sub on several regional newspapers, plus a multitude of shifts on the nationals, he was appointed editor of the Evening Beast in 2009 before being ignominiously 'rationalised' last year. He is currently collecting gas in jam jars in case the Russians cut us off. @thegreycardigan

  • Roddy

    Your point proven … with a very, very clever (but easily missed) joke buried in it:

  • Neil Fowler


    As you appreciate, I know very well the newsroom of Bernard you refer to – where the subs in the afternoon used the fabled expression FIFO (Fill It and Fuck Off) as they crafted as quickly as possible the overnights with legendary PA advance fillers – before a new editor came in and made them sit there until 4.30pm. Presumably Bernard didn’t mind as it was ‘their’ time….

    I think you too will remember the other expression the subs used – MEGO – Mine Eyes Glaze Over – whenever an error was spotted in the paper.

    But I don’t resent subs – far from it – but it is a fact of life that their role has changed – which means that writers and reporters have to be better at their jobs.

    Sure copy should be sense checked and read through – but to ask writers to get more basic facts correct? What is wrong with that – especially after the kind of structured journalistic training that neither you nor I went through? And how can ‘nearly right’ be defended? Our acceptance of that is what is really risible.

    The fact that you can find so many elementary errors so quickly shows the real state we are in. Sad but true.

    And as for your last paragraph – don’t let the facts spoil a good story.

  • Paul

    As a sub on a national, I can’t wait till the very last one of us gets the sack.
    Why? For that’s precisely when the owners will finally realise our value.
    Only when the defamation lawyers rip the paper to shreds and fire more writs at the paper than a duff Royal Navy warship will the owners actively want to recruit subs and appreciate the talents of such journalists.
    I have to say I’m also fucking tired of hearing ‘writers’ telling us how much they appreciate our work. Not so much, though, that they’d ever share a prize cheque with us.
    Neil Fowler has a point about reporters getting it right first time. They should so do, in all fairness. However, too many can’t even get it right second, third or fourth time. Sample sentence from a reporter on a very large national: ‘The 9/11 attacks happened on September 23, 2011.’
    If you’re writing that kind of crap then you’re never get it right. Ever. But she can blog, tweet and smile so that’s all right…

  • Bluestringer

    I recall my first chief-sub telling me that reporters cannot really consider themselves to be anywhere near the finished article (as it were) until they had learned how to sub-edit copy.

    I also remember the thrum and throb as the clanky old press in the basement of our building started up, and the thrill/fear of knowing that it was now too late for anyone to alter a single line.

    But that was 30 years ago and the press long since dismantled and sold-off for scrap; the leaky-roofed, smelly old building now demolished.

    If I was a better writer I’d conjure up a sparkling metaphor for the decline of the UK newspaper publishing industry from that.

    But I’m not and I can’t.

    The shiny new world of callow junior reporters uploading an error-strewn horror to a newspaper’s website – from whence it will be “reversed published” into the printed paper itself after a perfunctory check and a random headline added by a remote “subbing hub” – is where we are now.

    It’s difficult to see this as progress, unless you’re a shareholder or a company director on a cost-cutting bonus promise.

    But Mark Twain knew what he was talking about when he said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

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