Unsung heroes called sub-editors

December 28th, 2009

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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Everyone should love a good recession

December 3rd, 2009

“I don’t understand business and I don’t even want to because my math is atrocious. I am into features. End of discussion,” said a female friend of mine, who is a writer at a leading fashion magazine. I found this, the way you perceive, statement or confession, scandalous. Here’s why.

I am sure there must be many more like my friend, who are blithely unaware of the recession that befell on everyone in the recent past. However, let me limit my rant to my friend as she is in the field of journalism and, more importantly, she’s a features writer.

In journalistic parlance features are the articles that are not essentially newsy, are discursive and more contemplative than the spot news. In the last 20 months the best features have been on the meltdown. Vanity Fair, arguably one of the best fashion magazines, had incisive reportage on AIG, Alan Stanford and Bernie Madoff’s fall to disgrace. Onion, the parody newspaper, known for its headlines replete with banana peel humour and cerebral content, had a story on how the pins industry is thriving in the wake of recession.

According to the story, due to the pink slips and various kind of foreclosure notices that have to be stuck up for viewing, pins were used left, right and centre. Isn’t this a feature story? At least the people who visited the newspaper’s site thought so and it was the top story for weeks. Consider this Financial Times story- every major financial institution that went belly up in the US had a Starbucks outlet, the US equivalent of India’s Cafe Coffee Day, around the corner. How is something as innocuous as a cafe be in cahoots with the men, whose glutton-like appetite for money was unprecedented? All the paper work for those insidious junk bonds called credit debt obligations was done sitting in the cafe’s plush settings. A simplistic story yes but a thought-provoking one too.

How can my friend be immune to the fact that this downturn made words like ‘toxic wife’, ’stimulus’, ‘deficit’ part of the urban patois? How can she repudiate the reality when the fashion designers had recession wear as the flavour of the season? Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are financial newspapers but they have the best fashion coverage among all the global newspapers.

Business journalism invariably involves a lot of math, which for the uninitiated might look discombobulated. That doesn’t preclude you from knowing the bare minimum. How else would you appreciate Matt Taibbi’s damning article on Goldman Sachs in a recent Rolling Stone issue, which is, well, a music magazine. Taibbi’s no-holds-barred article deconstructs the entire facade of the Wall Street giant in his inimitable fashion. He used swear words in the article in such a way that Martin Scorsese’s expletive-laced dialogues sound like sermon on the mount.

I am not asking my friend to wade through the alphabetical pool of CDO, TARP, AIG, NINJA and what not and come up trumps on the other side by understanding the nature of the beast that shaved at least $3 trillion money from banks and myriad financial organisations. All I am telling her is that when you are wedged between the Wall Street and Main Street, just make sure you don’t slip through the cracks.

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