In response to the news that a large British regional newspaper owner is to replace its subeditors, Roy Greenslade writes on the Guardian blog that, much as he respects subs, he thinks "they will be the first journalistic victims of the digital revolution." Why? He goes on to write that "In the traditional newsprint environment, subs have three roles: subbing copy (a mixture of fact-checking, correcting grammar, cutting to length), writing headlines and designing pages. Yet there is no earthly reason why reporters cannot carry out the first task themselves. It is always good for copy to be passed before another pair of eyes before publication, but that need not involve the maintenance of a whole subs’ desk. Headline-writing is an art, supposedly. But, in truth, it can be learned. As for designing, that has never been a journalists-only job anyway. Lots of the men and women who lay out pages on national papers have had no journalistic experience at all. I think the savings Archant is planning to achieve are relatively minor [£170K] , given that it made profits of £30.5m last year. But is this really about money? Isn’t it about a future on screen, a future with many fewer journalists?"
There are inevitably some pithy comments to this post, including this good one: "If reporters could carry out their own spell checking, fact checking and libel checking, however, subs would have vanished long ago. But they can’t. Still, if Archant think an £18500-a-year ad designer will pick up libels in copy, and write headlines about Super Caley go Ballistic, good luck to them." Or this one: "Any writer needs somebody willing to say, "what do you mean by this?" Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant are all very well for a loved one but not something to snare a reader on the hop." Quite a few of the commenters liked the title of the Guardian article: "Subs? Do we really them any longer?" Wonder how that one got past the sub? 😉
One role of a sub is in selecting links — and I am not talking about those often unintentionally hilarious automatically generated links. (One of my colleagues told me his favourite auto-generated link was in a story about Lewis Hamilton’s chances of getting a seat in the 2007 McLaren F1 team — ‘seat’ was linked to Parker-Knoll.) Online reading of magazines (as opposed to blogs) suffers in comparison from the lack of instant ability for the reader to go to the article or report being discussed — I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had to find a site via Google, then get mired in some Internet distraction and lose the thread, or never return. Blogs, of course, don’t have subs, or any independent editing: unimpeded personal opinion being considered the main aim. So there’s one little niche for an online magazine sub.
Anyway, if you want to run a website without a sub or any human content expertise, and still get it right on your homepage, you can read this Economist article, "how to replace the editor with a computer". Let me know how you get on.