Unsung heroes called sub-editors

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December 28th, 2009 J Jagannath

The modicum of awe that I inspire from strangers by saying I am a journalist dissipates into ether when I mention I am sub-editor. With their interest fast waning, people still manage to ask what exactly I do. “Oh not much, reporters file stories, I edit them, give headlines and make the pages” is my stock reply. I brush it off as a mundane job because it’s hard to describe it to the uninitiated.

How do you explain to people that a desk job is as enriching as the muck-raking done by the reporters? After all, looking at people’s reactions, a sub-editor is as much a journalist as Tintin was. Ironically, a sub-editor is the lowest common denominator. The reasons for such low awareness levels of my job is varied.

In popular culture, there have been books written ad nauseaum on the craft of reporting but next to nothing on copy editing. Only Tarun Tejpal’s “Alchemy of Desire” comes somewhere close to describing the agony of a sub-editor. Now, there’s not much hope too with obituaries of newspapers being a stock-in trade of many doomsayers and Facebook groups like ‘Save Sub-editors’ proliferating. I don’t even expect there to be any John Travolta straight out of Pulp Fiction to revive copy editing with a shot of adrenaline administered straight to the heart.

Most newspapers in this country, or world for that matter, are desk-driven. At the moment, I can recall only one Indian newspaper that is reporter driven. As a Times of India senior editor once told me,  intellectual churning happens at the desk. Little wonder then that at all the foreign newspapers most of the news stories have the byline of a sub-editor and at the end they would mention the reporter’s name. A practice unheard of in this part of the world.

And why not? After all, we people work graveyard shifts to pull out the paper, make packages, give a catchy headline by putting our intellectual toolkit under immense duress, social life goes for a toss and, as Garrison Keillor once put it, turn into alcoholics by the time we turn 50. This, apart from discounting the taunts, some valid ones notwithstanding, of reporters that we don’t have to run around for quotes. After so much toil, a copy editor’s job is deemed akin to working on Large Hadron Collider- something special but not of much interest for common man.

Small digression: Economist has realised this and made it an egalitarian newspaper, who are you to call it magazine if it thinks otherwise, where there are no bylines given. A touch injustice though with such brilliant writing getting published with no name attached.

If you come across any journalist who is faking fluency in every subject, then on most occasions that would be a sub-editor. We make Karl Marx’s following remark our professional dictum, “Anything human is not alien to me.” A reporter would be caught tongue-tied if asked anything beyond his or her ‘beat’. All this doesn’t mean that we are saintly. Yes, we bitch about the reporters’ writing that they can’t write to save their lives. Yes, we lament at the lack of legitimacy attached to our craft. Evelyn Waugh nailed it by mentioning in his seminal book, ‘Scoop’, that people don’t understand what toil goes behind the paper that they buy ‘for a penny’.

Next time when you read the newspaper, always remember what D H Lawrence said, “trust the novel, not the novelist”.





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19 Responses to “Unsung heroes called sub-editors”

  1. punter Says:

    Such a waste discussion over a glorified clerical job.

  2. Jagannath Says:

    @Prem Paul: Will take care to not be a jubilant name-dropper in future. Thank you :)

    @Shruti: I very well know the youngistan’s fatal obsession with broadcast journalism. However, let me pertain to nature of the beast called print media. I am not advocating an overhaul of the desk. I don’t think it’s possible in my lifetime but I hope the J-Schools at least treat copy editing on a par with reporting.

    @Sunder: I have been living with it for the last two years and will continue to do so. After all, status quo is part of our DNA.

  3. sunder iyer Says:

    try living with it…

  4. Shruti Says:

    @jagannath : If Indian media tries to use the name of reporters at the bottom of the story, there will not be anybody to report news. The sub editor will have to do all report the story, edit it and then make the pages. After TV became popular young crowd do not prefer print journalism. And among the few who like to join newspapers, those who can write and report decently are premium.

  5. Prem Paul Ninan Says:

    Ha ha ha, wow Jagannath, it really is a small world. :) Three points: 1. I do read foreign press/authors… a lot. 2. I’m not saying names shouldn’t be dropped, at all… But look at the last two paras… Karl Marx, Evelyn Waugh and D.H. Lawrence, all mentioned one after the other in quick succession, before you can even catch your breath… :) A little spacing out through the articles in a more subtle manner would have been more appropriate. All of the above-named foreign writers, and others beside, wouldn’t drop as many names themselves, nor so quickly… 3. I despise Dan Brown… :D

    your pal,
    Prem. :)

  6. Jagannath Says:

    @Prem Paul: Thanks a lot for the riposte. The very fact that you think that I don’t need to mention names AT ALL suggests that you don’t read foreign press and you keep Dan Brown’s drivel under your pillow. I insist that you get started with foreign writing on a regular basis. Barring the news-article, every feature story has various references. I very well know that you are not out there to tarnish the image of someone as insignificant as me. In fact, you are my IIJNM senior.

  7. Prem Paul Ninan Says:

    I’m so sorry if I offended you though. I meant no disrespect. It is really a well-written article… :)

  8. Prem Paul Ninan Says:

    Jagannath, I wasn’t referring to the nationality of the names you have dropped. The point I was making was this: you probably have read a lot, which is a good thing. But quoting people with every second or third sentence (an exaggeration, but you get my point) seems to indicate that you’re trying too hard to convince your reader that you’re well-read and, hence, intelligent. I do not say that you aren’t. But the problem with us Indian writers is that we like to throw names about here and there, use reader-unfriendly words (like arcane, for instance, which requires even “self-respecting journalists” to run to the dictionary sometimes) and thus show little of what our own opinion is. We don’t need to quote people all over the place to give ourselves credibility. Our own words should be convincing enough. That said, you do seem like a nice fellow and I have nothing against you personally… :) Just your brand of self-promotion…

  9. Jagannath Says:

    @Prem Paul: Name dropping? Tell me one name apart from Garrison Keillor that is arcane to any self-respecting journalist? The problem with us Indian journalists is that we never read anything that is published beyond Indian shores. Whatever crumbs of foreign pieces the newspapers publish, we devour them and think we have read everything. Thanks for your comment though.

  10. Prem Paul Ninan Says:

    Nice blog post. But too much name-dropping. I am a sub editor too, so I know what you’re talking about. But this shameless name-dropping gives us a bad name. It makes us look like a bunch of show-offs. With one fell sweep, you have debunked your whole article’s point of view that sub editors are a self-effacing lot of human beings.

  11. Jagannath Says:

    @ Archana: Indian newschannels are all about logistics (90% precisely) to be taken seriously. How can you talk to them with a straight face when half of them think of Barkha Dutt as their patron saint?

    @Smitha: He was indeed a wise man

    @Swapna: your second point pertains to the ‘analysis’ that is done in financial dailies. I am talking about basic copy editing, fact checking and proof reading. Will remember that McClane quote. Thanks for that and thanks for reading my writing.
    Wish you a very happy new year!

  12. Swapna Says:

    Hi Jagannath,

    1) The Economist & tough injustice? I beg to differ. I wish there were more like that. Of course, that is meaningful only in the company of the best (which is my view of the Economist) and not based on socialistic mediocrity.

    2) I hope you do not want a situation quite similar to that in scientific research where principal investigators to group heads (and every chamcha Tom Dick & Harry) are included as authors.

    3) People like me (outside media) might not really know or understand your role but as a professional we know that there must be “inside” people who cut and perfect a gem of news. Of course we might think like Adlai Stevenson “Newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.”

    Very well written. Don’t worry too much about being unsung or a hero.

    Reading your piece, I remembered John McClane in Die Hard 4 saying “You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. You get a little pat on the back, blah, blah, blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can’t remember your last name. Your kids don’t want to talk to you. You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, kid, nobody wants to be that guy.” :-) ))

    Wish you a very Happy New Year!

  13. smitha Says:

    hey…i work on the desk and know what you are talking about…I agree with all of it…..I had a senior who once told me…A reporter only needs to know about his/her beat, you need to know all about every beat and take the beatings too :-) )…ah such a wise man he was

  14. Archana Says:

    Hi, well written. Totally agree with you. Within the industry, i guess everyone knows and values sub-editors. However most ppl have no idea such a post exists cos for them the definition of a journalist is restricted to a glamorous tv reporter blabbering live outside the Oberoi in the face of “danger”!

  15. Jagannath Says:

    @Koshy: The media industry itself is full of illiterates, so how can the sub-editors be immune to this. I have seen people no less than chief sub-editors who can’t tell the difference between paperback and hardcover. I am talking of a bigger picture, that the desk doesn’t get its due.

  16. koshy Says:

    Contrary to what you would like your readers to believe, there are stray incidents of sub(par)-editors leaving an indelible impression (stain) on stories/analysis without the knowledge and consent of the author. Such ‘intellectual churning’ induces readers to see the author in poor light. Since the byline of the sub-editor as well as the ‘expert’ who gave the go-ahead signal for the print version do not appear, the burden of the blunder rests on the shoulders of the hapless author. He can at best expect a ‘lame’ apology from the ‘intellectual’ and corrigendum in the next issue.

  17. Kalyan Says:

    Totally agree with the author. As much as I hated it, I did some sub-editing in my early days in the job. Therefore I know exactly what you are saying.

    What Indian papers must consider seriously is the option of including the sub-editor’s name along with the author’s for byline credit. This not only gives the much needed recognition for the subs but also puts them in a spot that will make them a bit more responsible — in short accountability for touching the copy. The role of the sub-editor also needs to expand immensely. Cleaning copies is only the basic form. Double checking facts, co-specialising beats to support the reporter, thinking out of the box in presenting stories and most importantly not worrying about the sources’ sensitivities when telling the story. There are a billion ways a sub can make every story fly!

    That day my friend the heros in desk will be sung for the whole world to hear. Until then rest assured that there are still a few reporters who are eternally grateful to the subs for doing the dirty part of our work.

  18. Jagannath Says:

    @LN: Am not exactly bitching about my job. I love it. It’s just that the normal man is so indifferent to it. Understandably so, you might say. I beg to differ.

  19. L N Says:

    Never knew what your agony was or how much. What fun is there in the job if you cant bitch about it?


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