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.