Centralised subbing – could it work?

January 22, 2009

With our industry struggling to survive death by a thousand cuts (actually, it’s probably much higher than that), centralised subbing is again rearing its head.

Johnson Press backed up it’s claims this week that it is a company which “bases itself on localness” by announcing plans to move subs of several weekly titles miles away from the communities they serve. It’s easy to get angry at the 49 jobs being axed, and to recycle the old “owners are killing journalism” arguments, but I have to say I can see some merits in centralised production.

The biggest mistake the owners are going to make is voluntary redundancies. To misquote The Wire, you can do more with less – but not if you lose your best poeple.

In my (limited) experience of voluntary redundancies, the first to leave are often those who will have no trouble finding new work – ie the most skilled. The owners should targetting the deadwood first.

I know several papers which have people on their payroll who have been moved sideways into made-up and pointless positions. I know of plenty downtable subs with a much lower skill-set than their colleagues, and harsh as it sounds, this is usually through laziness. Most of us have found time to learn new technology and pick up some digital skills – we should be valued more those who are happy doing things as they’ve always done them and can’t even do a basic cut-out.

Similarly there is less room for the reporter who just rewrites press releases or stories he’s been handed by newsdesk.There is plenty of unemployed, hungry talent out there and we no longer have to settle for journeymen.

But job cuts aside, perhaps the most useful thing centralised subbing can do is free up an editor’s time.

I believe a large bank of centralised subs working on various titles will need fewer bums on seats than before.

My biggest frustration as a downtable sub was the downtime, waiting for newsdesk and editors to get their arses into gear and make decisions/send us copy. You could argue that this was just poor organisation, but the fact is if there is always work to be getting on with, productivity will be much higher.

Obviously it’s important to make sure you still have enough staff as an overworked sub is prone to errors, but my point is that centralised subs are more productive.

Done properly (and we all know it wont be), there should be little need for an editor to get involved in production and more time to get involved in the news agenda. They could be free to guide reporters properly, set the tone and strategy of the paper, meet and greet the great and good. And of course time to check through each page properly and pick up any errors that the centralised sub without local knowledge may have made. But these are things which many editors are struggling to do as we are having to plough through pages as a priority.

 Speaking to a wise-old ex-colleague this week, he told me this is what an editor’s role used to be like.

I’ve only worked with one editor who had this old-fashioned approach (or more to the point had the time), and her paper was so much better for it. It was a fantastic product because she paid such close attention to the news content and got to know her audience. Of course there wasn’t enough people to do the rest of the work, so our quality of life suffered as we struggled to meet her very high standards.

Unfortunately I doubt I’ll be seeing any of my time being freed up anytime soon.

I know the “more with less” mantra won’t be thoroughly thought through. And I know I’ll be expected to keep churning out pages ahead of all my other duties.

Centralised subbing could work – but sadly it’s going to be more about improving profit margins than the news content.

And we’re off…

January 15, 2009

The Town Crier is dead. Long live the News and Crier.

After two days of pulling my hair out, slapping my forehead in frustration, tears from the ad-girls, a constant barrage of swearing, stupidily long hours and crap IT support (sounds a bit like a normal week to be fair), my relaunched paper finally hit the streets.

And I have to say I’m pretty pleased with it.

It’s bigger than my old rag with more news, more leisure, puzzles (well, a crossword) and even a weekend TV section (bit pointless really as it has no satellite).

I’ve got more resources too, or rather I have the novelty of some full-time reporters.

It was tough though, and due to the problems getting the archaic systems to work (my ‘new’ PC genuinely dates back to 2002), we didn’t manage to get started until Monday lunchtime. Pretty scary as the deadline was Tuesday night.

But we brave few (three of us) put in some long hours and managed to sub close to 40 pages, finishing at 9.30pm. Not too shoddy considering two of us didn’t know how to use the systems here and we had to manually type in all the new fonts as the style sheets don’t work.

And all that hard work clearly deserves some reader feedback. So imagine my delight when the first email I receive has the subject: “Boycoating your paper”. (Well it is a bit chilly at the moment).

To understand the nature of the complaint, the paper had a wrap to announce the relaunch, with the headline: “Have we got some great headline news for YOU!” (caps and exclamation mark were not my idea).

Below were PDFs of the final front pages of the former two newspapers – one with the M&S closure splash, the other about an armed robbery. A 40pt subdeck below explained that “we’ve combined your favourite local rags into one that’s even better”. Page 2 of the wrap details all the changes, complete with a lovely letter signed by me (I didn’t actually see ‘my’ words until the paper left the press).

Here’s a transcript of the letter:
On receiving a first copy of your News&Crier I was horrified to see the Headline reading:
Have we got some great headline news for YOU!  followed firstly by:  ‘M&S WILL AXE FOOD SHOP’   ‘Cinema terror as armed raider strikes’  and ‘Marina residents could lose homes’. 
It is an insult to all your readers at this very difficult time and not worthy of further reading for fear that the Editor may have overlooked something far more serious printed inside.
Good luck for the future!
Still, at least they signed off in a pleasant manner.

Christmas survival

January 2, 2009

This has to have been one of the quietest Christmas periods I’ve ever experienced news wise, probably not helped by the fact that for most of the past two weeks, the only people in the office have been myself and my deputy.

We just about survived the tricky festive season, despite having no run-up. Until Wednesday, December 17, we were under the impression that we wouldn’t be producing a Christmas or New Year edition. Then the powers that be changed their minds. Christmas is tricky enough without any features or follow-ups in the bag, but it was harder still as my freelancer had finished on December 19.

My part-time reporter has worked just three days since December 22, but somehow we still managed to do both papers, albeit not to the usual standards.

It was a smaller paper than normal, and I filled ten pages of news easily enough. The first three pages were proper hard news. Added to that were a couple of quickie features, a review of  the year and the rest was just re-worked press releases (with an extra quote or two) .

There was also the usual ents pages, a community round-up page – originally started as  a dumping ground for the most boring nibs, but actually proving very popular – and sport (reduced to three pages).  Not great, but it looks reasonable enough.

One of my rivals did an interesting Christmas edition, pretty much giving up on news for the week. They had a poster front page advertising pictures of local nativity plays. Pages 2, 3 and 4 were all police press releases about robberies – all of which had been in our paper and website the week before.

Then the next 19 pages were variations on the Jesus, Joseph and Mary theme as advertised on the front. And that was pretty much it.

I guess I’m a bit jealous that our own nativity coverage was poor due to the fact that we have only occaissional access to photographers. On the other hand, I was a bit annoyed that we’d worked really hard while they’d gotten away with a glorified picture supplement.

Still, their’s was more popular with our shared readers.

Anyway, next week sees the welcome return of a freelancer so we should be nearly back to the normal, or rather back to being understaffed as opposed to ridiculously understaffed.