Are the days of great headlines numbered asks Liz Cartwright, MD of Cartwright Communications

Remember these? 'FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER', 'IT’S PADDY PANTSDOWN', and 'SCUM BAG MILLIONAIRES'? Few can forget these headlines from The Sun.

Without a doubt, it’s brilliant front-page headlines like 'WHAM BAM! SAM CAM TO BE MAM!' and 'STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA' which sell newspapers.

Puns like this illustrate the huge importance of a headline to a newspaper’s design and its ethos. Before a story appears in a newspaper or magazine, it receives the sub editor treatment. Grammar is corrected, the story is given a headline and the article is put on a page – which, incidentally, has also been designed by the sub editor.

The sub editor is a mine of information. Regional subs have excellent local knowledge, are masters of facts and figures – and their minds contain an A to Z map of every road and cul-de-sac in the city or town they serve.

The reporter bows to the knowledge of the sub. Subs may be back-room workers, but they are also kings and queens of grammar, punctuation, design and copy trimming. They finely tune the words – often to a reporter’s chagrin – and ensure that the publication’s stories and pictures are looking tip-top before the newspaper is printed and sold. It’s a demanding job and needs lots of attention to detail.

Recently, I was invited to a get-together to mark the redundancies of 18 sub editors based at the Nottingham Evening Post. When the going got tougher for the newspaper industry, Northcliffe created a “sub hub“, drawing the talents of the regional sub editors to Nottingham. While it was a relief to a number of subs that they had a job – they knew the writing was on the wall. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist (in my first draft of this very article, I put rock scientist ... exactly the kind of little wrinkle that subs iron out) to work out there is a monumental crisis in the newspaper industry.

As an ex-regional journalist myself, it was a bittersweet evening. While it was good to see so many old friends I have known for the best part of 25 years, it was so incredibly sad to see these 18 talented, experienced people out of a job. I found myself asking: is the role of the sub editor now virtually extinct?

Like the reporter’s role, sub editing was always deemed a job for life. As an old subbing colleague said, he went into the profession knowing that a newspaper or magazine would always need a sub – and it was honourable profession to be in.

But everything’s changed. The newspaper industry is in dire straits. It’s obvious that you need advertising revenue to put out a newspaper. People rushed to get their news on line. The nationals suffered, but it’s the local paper which has seen the brunt of the massive changes. The industry, which was already on a downhill slide, was put in more jeopardy as the recession bit harder and advertising revenue dipped.

Once, the role of the sub was essential to the copy-producing process. Since then, publishers have dabbled with taking subs out of the mix. Increasingly, journalists are putting stories straight onto the page. The web has taken over as a source of news and you don’t need a team of subs to design a web page.

It’s sad that commentators suggest that there is less need for copy to pass through editorial production processes before it appears. There is even talk that subbing could be outsourced abroad.

Yes, there are financial facts. Hardly any of the national newspapers are making money – and it’s no better, perhaps worse, in the regions. We cannot stop the demise of newspapers no matter how much we blame publishers or look back with fondness to the glory days of cutting and pasting with real glue and scissors.

The removal of subs from regional newspapers is poignant and depressing, but perhaps inevitable. No-one would doubt that they are the experts of the newsroom. Without them, I fear the worst.

What we are creating now are journalists who are writers, photographers and subs. They are apparently able to do everything for themselves. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell, but I predict some libel actions for badly written stories with erroneous facts which haven’t been challenged.

What with outsourcing, inexperienced reporters getting their facts wrong … I would say that subs save money through their common sense (which let’s be honest, partly comes with age) and knowledge of the story's history. I remember a former colleague which cost a newspaper thousands of pounds for getting a long-running local litigation story slightly wrong. How could someone in another country spot that kind of thing?

Perhaps the solution is for subs to become reporters. Can it work? Perhaps this is the way forward. But try telling that to the 18 intelligent, talented people who were standing in the pub after losing their jobs. I’m not sure it’s appealing to them.

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