ROBERT DILLON: All hail the subs

SPORTING Declaration usually tries to toss up something remotely light-hearted or tongue-in-cheek on this page.

This week, for instance, I was going to explore the Newcastle Knights’ chances of winning their blockbuster clash with the Bye, and even though on recent form the Bye have shown nothing, and very rarely do, I still give them half a chance.

But today, sorry, I just ain’t got it in me.

Today I’m going to talk about subs.

Not the fresh reserves who warm the bench waiting impatiently for their coach’s call.

Not the amphibious vehicles.

Anyone who has ever worked in a newspaper will know that the word ‘‘sub’’ refers to subeditors, a few dozen of whom are facing redundancy at this paper.

‘‘What does a subeditor do?’’ is a question I am sometimes asked.

Well, the best way to explain it is perhaps to think about building a house.

Reporters and photographers provide the bricks and mortar.

But you need architects to draw up the plans, and at the end of each stage you need a Development Application approval from the council to ensure everything complies.

Subeditors are the architects and council inspectors of the newspaper industry.

They design the paper, choose the pictures, write the headlines and captions, either cut the stories to make them the right length, or add words so they fill the hole, and proof-read pages.

They are our ideas men (or women) and last line of defence.

My first experience of dealing with subs was as an 18-year-old cadet, about two days into my career. I’d written a small story about steam trains, from memory. One of the subs called me over.

I had referred to one of the trains as such-and-such a brand. The sub asked me why.

I explained that it was written on the photographer’s caption and details on the back of the picture.

Then followed a lecture.

You should never trust a photographer, he explained, because they have to write down names, details in a hurry and sometimes make mistakes.

He made me phone and check the train’s specifics.

At the time, it was a tad intimidating for a pimply kid just months out of school.

But it was a lesson I never forgot.

Over the decades I have learnt many lessons from subs.

Some with an arm around the shoulder at the pub. Some after a kick up the bum.

I learnt an equally valuable lesson about sloppy subbing as a teenager, when I read a story of mine in the paper that was full of typos, and realised that from then on, I had to take some responsibility for my own copy.

Eventually, after 15 years as a sports reporter and in need of a fresh challenge, I jumped the fence to the ‘‘dark side’’ and became a sub. I spent seven years subbing sport at the Herald and the Sun-Herald, learning a completely different side of the profession.

As a former colleague once noted: ‘‘A drab story, well subbed with a catchy headline, will lure the readers in. A good story, poorly subbed with a drab headline, will have the opposite effect.’’

There were so many tricks of the trade. Vertical pictures on one side of the page, horizontal pictures on the opposing page, with stories positioned so that readers follow from one to the next without even realising it.

What might surprise people is that many reporters are not actually accomplished writers.

All have different skill sets.

Some might possess great news sense but struggle to string together a sentence.

Others might produce poetic prose but bury the real news in the second-last paragraph.

A good sub will identify that and take the original product, tweak it, and turn it into gold.

And every time you read a match report from Wimbledon, or the French Open or some other far-flung location in a different time zone, you can rest assured there has been a sub waiting back late to give our readers the best and latest possible news.

Nobody, of course, is infallible. I can complain bitterly if I feel my copy has been changed, but not for the better. And I have seen the other side of the fence, where I have changed a reporter’s story, made a mistake that was printed, and had to incur their wrath.

But now, so many of these fine people and total professionals face uncertain futures as we enter the era of the bloody iPad. Who knows if there will even be newspapers in five years’ time? I mean, what happened to book shops? Can you believe it?

All I know is this has been the saddest week of my career.

My heart goes out to all my friends in this great paper. These champion quiet achievers.

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