They are the journalists who make the newspaper readable, accurate and attractive. And it turns out that over the last century, the role of the sub-editor hasn’t strayed too far from this description.
I got my hands on a fascinating book, published in 1931, called Modern Journalism. Written by CF Carr (assistant manager of Southern Newspapers) and FE Stevens (editor of the Hampshire Advertiser), it provides a broad survey of the trade, with chapters on newspaper roles, freelance journalism, the law and the business side.
The chapter on sub-editors caught my eye. Describing the role of the sub-editor (excuse the male pronouns that follow), the authors write:
The truth is that he stands for a complete and highly efficient system of office organisation, the exponent, above all things, of the modern era of giving all the news in the most attractive form.
Subs, they add, are
a great and modest company of highly efficient technicians, of the very existence of whom, except as a group name, the public is ignorant.
My head is nodding.
And now for some words that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern sub-editor’s job advertisement:
The sub-editor needs an orderly mind, a sense of proportion, the capacity for merging rapidity with accuracy, the power of absorbing what is roughly termed general knowledge, the even more important gift of making use of it, the faculty of being able to work in an atmosphere of excitement without being affected by it. Given these qualities, plus a sense of the team spirit and the capacity for quick decision, a man may succeed in the sub-editor’s room.
A good sub-editor must be resourceful and alert with the gift (one that can be cultivated) of seeing the wood as well as the trees. He must be able to detect the tiny grain amongst the chaff, and he must do it quickly. He must, in particular, be ruthless about the chaff.
There have been, of course, dramatic changes in how we produce newspapers since the book was published.
[The sub-editor] must know the type faces; the name of each fount; its relation to the column width; he must acquire a general knowledge of practice at the stone in order that he may not impose time-wasting and pointless tasks upon others, just for the sake of being different. A sub-editor who realises that a stonehand is a human being from whom something may be learnt has found a way of saving seconds which, in the course of a week, amount to a lot of time.
Although we must still be mindful of the appropriate fonts and column widths, you don’t see many stonehands these days. But I think the authors would be pleased that their description of the sub-editor’s crucial role is still mostly accurate – which, as a sub, is something I aspire to be!
It has been said that the perfect sub-editor has not been born yet, and that good ones are rare. The latter part of the statement at least is true. The qualities needed are so various – at times they seem to be contradictory – that the man who has them all would seem to be wasted in a job which must always be anonymous…