Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lest we forget . . . what subbing is really about

Memo to all second year BA students taking the print pathway newspaper production module next semester (and anyone else remotely interested in what it takes to get a newspaper out).

You've hopefully been following the debate about the future of subs and some of you may wonder whether it's worth turning up to learn anything about what's being cited as a dying trade.

It is. The scare stories are b*****ks (use of stars will be debated under the style briefing). What follows is not a defence of a craft but a series of real scenarios that will demonstrate the sort of pressures you may face in later life: whether you are called a sub, a producer, a page designer, a copy editor, part of a pod, hub, desk or remote indesign operation..

Three escaped prisoners are spotted on the Isle of Wight, 30 minutes before first edition deadline. A space is cleared on the front for six pars.

You have three PA snaps and some online cuts of the original breakout. There’s more on its way though, so off you go.

Fifteen minutes and a PA snapfull later the BBC are saying two of the three have been arrested so you hedge your bets with the intro. Five minutes on, the newsdesk confirm it but they’re not sure which two.

The page is sent but it's to be slipped immediately. Meantime, a local stringer nails it: there are no arrests but two of the three have been spotted. He thinks police have them cornered. The story is still moving. The whereabouts of the third is unknown. You have a story, of sorts. But it’s ready to go.

PA then say the pair were spotted by an off-duty warden. The same warden blamed for their escape. So, you’ve got an intro.

Meanwhile, a ferry has been told it can't dock until all three are caught and the wires are full of highly quotable but conflicting witness reports.

Three minutes to deadline. Sub it straight to the page, word perfect as you can and three decks of 20pt.

The page goes again and you're off for the third edition. It's now the splash. Sid next to you is subbing the current splash into the turn on page two, the basement moves up to a single column top, opening a deep oblong to make way for some pictures and give it welly.

You check your inbox. The copytaster has sent you seven takes from PA, five agency, three direct from the newsdesk and two crisp quotes he added himself direct from Sky News. Sid has finished shoehorning his economy in crisis yarn into P2 only to be told it's now the page four lead. The turn is all yours. Can you fill?

Of course you can. You've got 45 minutes and about 2,000 words to boil into 500-odd. You've opened up a new file and you're cutting and pasting chunks of them from every source you have into some sort of order.

In your head, you're subbing from the third par down. Sky have just flashed up one arrest. It'll be a different intro by the time the edition goes but the rest will be word perfect. The picture desk come over with four images and some scribbled info for the captions. The chief sub (in no mood to repeat himself as he's got four pages to reshuffle) dumps a layout on your desk and tells you where they all go. You take in most of it.

Sid goes to the canteen to get you something cold for later and you get to work. There's a grey cardigan in the prodnose chair; he thinks you’re a tosser and he's chief subbing all next week. One widow, one solecism, on style gaffe and your subbing nibs Sunday to Friday.

Meanwhile, the newsdesk say they're doing a write-through. There's a young casual reporter from the Evening Examiner "pulling it all together".

His missive arrives on deadline. You glance at it for anything new and then spike. This began a sub’s story and it’ll end a sub's story.

More follows . . .

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