Subbing out the heart

I was sad to learn yesterday that Pacific Magazines is retrenching most of its sub-editors.

In an email addressed to staff obtained by Mumbrella, CEO Gereurd Roberts (who I remember as a young whippersnapper at NW … I’m constantly startled to see the word “CEO” in front of his name) said the company was considering having a customised subbing solution build by Pagemasters.

“Should the proposal proceed, a small team of copy directors/sub-editors will remain at Pacific, while some of our sub-editors may be employed by Pagemasters. We will keep you updated as these discussions progress,” he said.

The email also confirmed 11 other positions would also go. Mumbrella said the first set of redundancies involved staff advertising and digital, as well as the fashion picture desk.

My friends in the industry say the proposal IS proceeding, with sub-editors told their jobs no longer exist.

It’s a shocker that sub-editors are no longer valued in the media – over the years companies slowly stopped bothering to train them or fully appreciate the quality their skills brought to publications.

New Matilda noted back in 2011: “Journalists know perfectly well that sub-editors are the very engines of journalistic quality. They edit stories for clarity, style and news value, craft punchy and contextually rich headlines, write informative photo captions, catch factual, grammatical or typographical errors before they can embarrass or defame, and knit together house reporters’ work with wire stories to create more comprehensive and comprehensible news coverage.”

But, as the cost-cutting scissors continue to go snip, snip, snip in media, sub-editors are seen as collateral damage in the war against falling revenue.

I feel like such a fossil when I think about how far things have come – and how far they’ve fallen – during my media career.

Sub-editors were hallowed figures when I started out as a cadet journalist at the Newcastle Herald waaaaaaay back in the ’80s.

It’s freaky remembering those days – computers had only recently arrived on the news floor. We got a special “VDT” allowance to work with the dangerous new technology.

Those first computers were such clunkers! (See pic above.)

The technology to record interviews was only just coming onto the market, so we learned shorthand for our interviews (my intern looked at me blankly last week when I mentioned “shorthand” and wanted to know what on earth it was … but then she also looked confused when I said a sentence she’d written in a story was “gilding the lily”.)

We also got paid each week in cash – lining up at the pay office for $130 in an envelope.

Journalists were still allowed to chain smoke at their desks – a pall hung constantly in the air.

There was no Internet in those days. You just had a huge library out the back filled with manila folders with news clippings glued in them and others filled with photographs. I loved those media libraries – and the librarians who ran them. I was devastated when ACP Magazines retired its fabulous one.

Pocket-sized mobile phones blitzed the market around the time I hit Singapore as editor of CLEO. But I didn’t fancy the idea of people being able to contact me any time they liked, so I refused to get one. Ah, the irony, I now panic if I can’t find my phone. I haven’t had a landline for at least a decade.

A few years ago I startled the kids at Mamamia by talking about the Recession.

This is what I said about THAT in a blog post called “When I was a young whippersnapper”:

You realize just how young they are when you strike up a conversation about your evening plans, happen to mention you’re having a drink with someone you’ve known forever and somehow the phrase “we met during the Recession” exits your mouth. The young person giggles nervously and parrots “The Recession!” in a squeaky voice and you have the horrible realization they weren’t even born during the aforementioned financial crisis.

Later, you find yourself retelling the story to another young person, who requires an explanation of exactly what the Recession was. And you feel a bit like a tribal elder as you say “oh, they were dark times … interest rates went up to 17% … there were no jobs … I went nine months without a single interview … “

I should have stopped there, but I couldn’t help myself. I went on to confess that I don’t have a degree. I watched her eyes go a little wide at the notion that someone who is ostensibly their boss should be so lacking in formal qualifications. So I started babbling about how journalists didn’t get degrees back then because editors thought it “put funny ideas in your head”.

Really, they did.

Fast-forward to the Noughties, when I edited Woman’s Day. I had an editorial staff of around 35, I can’t imagine how low the number must be now. Among them were at least six sub-editors working flat chat all week to get the magazine out.

I’ve seen so many cost-cutting strategies come and go. And I understand the media needs to adapt to survive.

But I’ve always found the best magazines – and newspapers – are created by people who are devoted and passionate about the masthead they work on. Writers, sub-editors, picture editors, advertising staff … when you spread them across multiple titles they just focus on hitting targets and churning it out, the heart is gone.

I think buyers can sense that. And they begin to wonder why they are handing over their hard-earned cash for a product that’s losing its soul.

Now I feel sad all over again.

Song of the day: Cher “If I Could Turn Back Time”

12 thoughts on “Subbing out the heart

Add yours

  1. Terribly sad news. I can’t imagine working in a mag office without subs. Now there are more out-of-work journalists looking for work in an impossibly small market. And us oldies who remember working through the recession are becoming more redundant. Literally.

    I’m off to watch a baby play peek-a-boo with a dog.

  2. This is because accountants run everything, or merchant bankers. People who know the price of everything and the value of absolutely nothing, and who see people (other than themselves) as “human capital”. This is why the world sucks. Who’d have thought that journalists would be canaries in the coal-mine? Only no one is paying attention.

  3. I was always in awe of sub-editors and the headlines they came up with. Then a Melbourne newspaper did a story about the new training stables that I built for the Freedman Brothers at Caulfield Racecourse back in the day. The title was “The Best Little Horse-house in Melbourne”!!
    I can’t even begin to imagine the thought processes that went into THAT headline
    Kapow!! Respect! 😂👍

  4. It’s crazy and frightening when progress means loss of quality! All those processes that were perfected over years, just … dumped. It will be interesting to see how people find their quality news (and whether they will care to search for it!). Really, the 80s are not that long ago … things just travel so fast these days, makes it feel like they are 200 years gone. To think that I started out running copy through a waxing machine and pasting it up with scalpel in hand! Oh well, I am glad I got to see experts at work while they were still working. Thanks for your post, it brought back so many memories x

  5. Yeh I hear you. The computer age is of course unstoppable, and with the rising tide of emails and distance from real interaction comes a thinning of the humanity in stuff that counts. I am thinking of the avalanche of emails from teachers about homework and assignments and shit for my Grandie. It sort of passes the responsibility of due dates and quality work right onto the parents, and as a teacher for many decades, I reckon that’s more than a little sad. I liked that responsibility, I thought it was my job, I actually revelled in encouraging and inspiring the kids. Now it seems the teachers spend a lot of time putting their lesson plans on some site so parents can do the teaching at home. I cannot get to an ‘Oh Well’ about this.

    1. Please know it’s an ‘Oh Well’ with a very heavy heart. Only way I can stay sane, I find … by telling myself I was lucky to have lived it at all

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