Lucifer and his little devils take a load off the editor’s shoulders

In the beginning was the Word.

And the Word was spelt E-D-I-T-O-R.

Since the news sheets of the 17th century metamorphosed into the newspapers of the 19th and 20th centuries the editor, who might once have been reporter, typesetter and even printer all in one, grew to become the final arbiter regarding what appeared in the newspaper.

Throughout the 19th century the editor’s job was not exactly mind-stretching. Reports came in from far-of places, or just around a specific locality, and were typeset in 7pt (that is very small type) then run into the newspaper columns until the story ran out or the space ran out.

All this often appeared within the pages as the front page was given over to small advertisements: these would cover auctions; properties to let; public notices; share prices; even market prices for vegetables.

The first edition of the Manchester Guardian front page in 1821

Things changed in the 20th century when newspaper editors, and owners, realised that, rather than lengthy slabs of foreign news, or council reports, or other lengthy articles, the readers wanted more news items and stories and better direction to the content they wanted to read.

The editors could not handle alone the vast quantity of material that thus came in from reporters: the news reports; the crime reports; the foreign reports; the political reports.

This is why, in the early 20th century, a new role was created – a barrier between the reporters and the editor – if the editor was God then this new creation (the sub-editor) was Lucifer, or at least it seemed that way to the reporters.

Now, instead of copy going to the editor, it was the sub-editor (or on bigger newspapers the chief sub and his crew of devils) who decided which copy was fit to go through, which could be allowed through after some tidying up and which got spiked.

In fact the sub-editor was brought in to take a load off the editor’s shoulders and allowing him (not many women in the role at this point) to concentrate on the overall design of the newspaper and the most important stories.

The devilish reputation of the sub-editor came about when reporters felt their stories had been cut back too much; had been spiked; or had been rewritten to the extent that the reporter did not recognise the story as his or her own. Not that they dared speak out because after the EDITOR the sub’s word was law.

In fact rewriting a story was the last thing most subs wanted to do as it took greater time to do that than to just tidy up and check facts and grammar. If a sub rewrote a story then it was either the only way to save it (sign of a good sub) or the sub felt he or she could write a better version (not the sign of a good sub).

I was initiated into the dark arts of subbing in that glorious summer of 1973 when Tony Blandford, the editor, set me to work initially with the paper’s single sub one day a week to learn the ropes (although we had studied subbing on the NCTJ courses) and then gave me a general round-up page People in Close-up on a Wednesday, rather than the whole day I was allowed the afternoon for that, having to have cleared any stories on my notebook from the morning.

As most of my time was spent reporting at this stage I did not consider myself even a part-time sub at this stage. My love of editing and design was to come later, much later.

TO COME: what differentiates the sub from the reporter when it comes to words.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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