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The mysterious job of sub-editor

I’d like to tell you about some mysterious people who have a huge effect on us all, but about whom we know very little: sub-editors.

The sub-editor’s silent, unsung work has an impact on our lives because these anonymous people help us to keep up with the news on a daily basis. Their influence is immense, yet the public has only a vague idea of what they do.

Quite simply, they take writers’ words and turn them into the newspaper you buy in the shop. They are carpenters of the word, rather than wood.

Most of them go to work in the afternoon because if they went to the office in the morning there’d be nothing for them to do. At that time the reporters have written nothing. They start work late and they finish work late – sometimes as late as 2am.

You will never see the names of these shy creatures in print. But every day they save the professional careers of writers by correcting spelling mistakes, errors of fact and goodness knows what else. When an article is badly written they re-write it and they cut copy when it is too long.

Some sub-editors have a flair for design and turn out beautiful-looking pages. Some have an eye for presenting a photograph at its best. Some can write headlines that are pure genius – hard-hitting, quirky, or witty. They can turn bad copy into good copy and they can make a boring article “sing”.

Some of them are the unrecognised scholars of journalism, worrying over every comma, semi-colon and speech mark. Others have an encyclopaedic knowledge of an extraordinary range of topics, or know everything there is to know about one specialised area. Others are experts in the law of libel.

And many of these strange nocturnal people could be professors if they chose to be, but instead have decided to work in the adrenalin-pumped atmosphere of a newsroom. Academics in universities produce books about esoteric subjects which will be read by just a few people. The sub-editor produces vital work that will be read by hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions. And it’s probably more useful.

There is one more aspect of their mysterious work which makes their achievement truly remarkable: speed. They work like grease lightning. They stick to deadlines from the moment they sit down at their computer terminal. They drink endless cups of coffee to stay alert. Even a bottle of whisky is sometimes to be found at the back of a drawer in their desk. They have maybe eight minutes to edit an article which will be read by countless people. So they can’t afford to make a mistake.

I have to finish on a sad note: the sub-editor’s future is under threat. In this new technological world where most people get their news online, they are a threatened species. The three leading newspapers I used to work for - “The Guardian”, “The Independent” and “The Telegraph” – are all trying to do without them. Very few people under 30 buy newspapers these days. The care, creativity and accuracy that sub-editors brought to their craft are no longer thought to be necessary. And our news is poorer because of it. 

By Robert Nurden


unsung (adj.) - unrecognised or not famous for something you have done

anonymous (adj.) - without a name

copy (n.) - the journalists’ word for written work

flair (n.) - a special talent

quirky (adj.) - unusual or strange in an interesting way

witty (adj.) - clever in a funny way

libel (n.) - writing or printing things that aren’t true about someone so their reputation is damaged

esoteric (adj.) - understood by just a few specialists

grease lightning (idm.)  very fast

to prevail (v.) -  to win or be successful in the end

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