Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Never write off the sub

Archant have lost the plot if they imagine for a moment that shedding 20 subs and replacing them with £18,OOO-a-year advertising designers at their Suffolk papers is anything but the most naïve false economy.

But of far greater worry is the way it once again opens the whole subs-are-a-thing-of-the-past debate.

Roy Greenslade immediately opened a can of worms on his blog by reaffirming a point he's made before - that they'll be the first victims of the digital revolution. Eddie Shah told me the same during the last publishing revolution - two months before back-to-back subbing shifts actually got Today on to the shelves.

Sorry, but I won’t budge on this: the reality is that subs are absolutely essential, both for print and for integrated newsrooms.

The contribution of print subs extends far beyond the fact-checking and grammar-policing in the job descriptions. Anyone who's tried to see off stone seven editions of a Sunday newspaper with three of their top table away, their splash sub sick and a group of casuals drafted in from some of the Mirror Group's more junior titles will know what I mean when I say they're the engine room. I have the scars to prove it.

The more interesting scenario is the digital one, particularly as technology marches us towards total integration.

This is one area growing more heavily dependent on subs, albeit working in a slightly different way and, I confess, probably in time under a different name. Nonetheless, the vision of a serious journalist writing serious copy straight to page is a fantasy.

You only have to look at some of the straight-to-web puffery that slips under the radar as online “content” to see what I mean.

Be that as it may; if anyone is thinking of doing away with the digital, integrated, sub, ask yourself the following:

Who will Photoshop those pictures, moderate those comments, embed those MP3 files, write two decks of 24pt across three cols - and a standfirst - and rejig the lot for SEO? Who will write a caption that knits together three pictures on page five, then 15 more for an online gallery, complete with links? Who will classify/categorise/tag each story and rewrite ten homepage headlines every hour to keep them fresh?

Sorry, I nearly forgot: turn 700 words of repetitive drivel (written at speed by someone under pressure to bash it out on the way to the podcast studio) into 300 that’ll grab a browsing reader a click away from a more succinct version – and keep him coming back and back as the story progresses in real time?

It won't be the writer. It won't be an "advertising designer", It may not even be the team effort that currently comprises the print sub and the ill-fated web producer; it'll be the sub of tomorrow using the technology of tomorrow.

That’s a long-winded way of saying what a good sub would summarise in two points:

1. We should be debating the changing role of the sub, not their demise.

2. The wheel shouldn't be reinvented by those who think its square.

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