Now for some good news

April 15, 2009

At a rather frustrating distribution meeting last week, I was pleased to get some good news about how well my paper is doing commercially.

 

It is now the third most profitable free weekly paper in the group. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it’s a massive milestone.

 

It’s important to note that although my rag is a free paper, it’s still a proper newspaper with 30 pages of news, two pages of letters, six pages of ents and five pages of sport. Pretty much all of which is original, local content.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the more profitable frees is recycled content from the daily with virtually no overheads attached to it.

 

This post may sound rather self-congratulatory, but its point is to show how far my paper has come. And more importantly, how a little bit of leeway from the non-editorial bigwigs has helped the paper blossomed.

 

Those who know me will be aware that this is my first editorship. I’ve been in the chair for two years now, but six months ago I was terrified that my short career as the big man was about to come to an abrupt end.

 

The paper was losing money, pagination had plummeted and the editorial space was constantly being squeezed.

 

The paper in itself wasn’t too bad and it was the second biggest in a market of three free papers.

But more and more the obsession with margins and targets started pushing the importance of its editorial content way down the list of priorities.

 

The advertising ratio targets in particular became the bane of my life. 65% of all space had to be filled by ads. The target was set during a time when the paper had 20 full pages of property advertising. This had fallen to just four pages by the time I took over.

But the bean counters were adamant that these targets had to be met. Arguments that we could get a higher yield per ad with a better news product fell on deaf ears.

And as I was only allowed to bring the paper up or down by eight pages at a time, I was spending more time sitting with the advertising manager, calculater in hand, to try and meet these ridiculous goals than I was sorting out the editorial content of the paper.

The paper got steadily smaller and tighter, and while the we actually increased the number of ads, we were making much less per page than ever before.

 

I was also working without any full-time reporters as both my talented young hacks had moved on and weren’t replaced. We survived for six months with myself, my deputy, a two-day-a-week reporter and one freelancer a week. I was lucky to find exceptional freelancers at various stages (and only the one turkey), and the paper was surprisingly not actually that bad.

 

But with the industry making drastic cuts across the board, I could feel the axeman not just breathing but hyperventilating down my neck.

 

Worse, I had bought my first house just a few months before the credit crunch kicked in and my wife was expecting our first child.

 

So when I was called in during a week of annual leave to meet the MD, I was mentally rewriting my CV and praying for a not-too-souless PR job.

 

Instead I was shocked to be told that the paper had been sold to one of my rival papers – and a smaller paper at that.

Bizarrely, I was not best pleased with this at first. I had spent months trying to best these guys and they had become if not quite an Arsenal, then a West Ham to my beloved Spurs.

 

But my initial reaction was wrong, once the papers had merged, with myself and my deputy keeping our jobs, life and the paper got better. I now have two full time reporters again and I can also take county-wide copy from the daily title. For the first time in years, my paper is also covering court stories again.

 

The best thing about the merger was how much emphasis was put on the editorial side of the paper.

The thinking was to create a good quality, open newspaper, and then to try to make it work financially.

News was put before profit, even if it was just while the paper bedded in.

It was expected that it wouldn’t even make money to start with, but the profits would grow along with the paper’s reputation. In actual fact the paper made a small profit straight away.

 

The first edition looked superb (despite a few minor irritations), with twice as many pages as before and more open pages. More importantly the advertisers were prepared to pay proper rates for as their ads were not competing with five or six others on a page.

Our weekly revenues are now twice that of my old paper, and this is in the middle of a recession.

 

It’s not all been plain sailing and for the first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the longer commute and extended hours. But my week is now perfectly manageable, and more importantly I’m proud of what I’m doing again.

 

The paper is a long way from being perfect – another reporter would vastly improve things – but we’re holding the local authorities to account better; we’re getting good debates going in our letters page; feedback has been largely positive and I feel like an editor once more rather than a manager, a firefighter or a ‘news facilitor’.

 

So with all the doom and gloom about at the moment, I still have some faith papers can survive, but only if their editorial content is treated with respect.

The days of the 30 % profits margins have gone, and yes, that £180m profit is now just £120m.

But the fact is profits can still be had, and good profits at that.

 

 


Who neesd subs anyway?

February 13, 2009

Sub-editors are “a layer that can be eliminated”, according to former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.

http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43078&c=1

I’m going to ignore the comments at the bottom of the PG story which point out Roy’s own failings, and look at his arguments instead. And I haven’t found a copy of his speech, so I’m trusting the PG report.

First of all, Mr Greenslade suggests that journalists are now “highly educated” and can sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

I really don’t know where to start with this one, but I’m going to resist the urge to push my tongue into my bottom lip and make some incredibly un-PC duh noises.

Even though I am someone who can string a sentence together, I am always grateful for an extra pair of eyes. Afterall, even world renowned authors have their copy checked.

As a trainee hack, my writing was probably cleaner than most, but it would have been insane to let that naive 20-something write straight into the paper.

Actually, one of my district papers was that stupid. All my copy for the Smalltown Obscurer went straight on the page, maybe with a spell check if the sub could be arsed. And the hopeless editor certainly never read it.

To be fair it generally worked ok – but this was because it was my home-town where I knew practically everyone so took huge pride in my work.

Of course I made a few errors, but they were usually simple things which the sub or editor could have picked  up. I think it was incredibly unfair looking back that I had to carry the can alone.
But most trainee hacks go where the work is and don’t necessarily have the strong local knowledge.

Mr G also stated that “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”

That use of “of course” really winds me up.

The statement reminds me of the awful (but enjoyable) Judge Dread film (Stallone at his best) where these clones are created in a couple of hours, complete with all the combat skills of seasoned soldiers.

Does Mr G really believe that hacks come out of journalism college knowing everything they could possibly need to know?  Even though many believe they do, this is just nonsense “of course”.

Apart from law and shorthand, nearly all journalism is learnt on the job. Having a strong sub-editor who can talk a reporter through their mistakes and mock their ignorance is a vital part of creating a well-trained hack. Without the guidance of subs, particularly in a reporter’s formative years, the overall quality of reporting will fall incredibly quickly.

And I couldn’t let this point pass without looking at the “well-educated” reporters we have these days. At every paper I’ve worked, there have been one or two outstanding journalists, but these are always outnumbered (often heavily) by journymen, idlers, wastrels and charlatans.

I also know of a few reporters who can bring in some fantastic stories and have excellent interview techniques but can’t write very well. I’d much rather have a reporter like that and help them develop their writing than a handful of spoon-fed monkeys who write perfect prose.

Mr G argues that all of this isn’t ideal, but commercially it might be necessary.

Again, I just can’t agree with that. Poorly subbed writing can quickly damage a paper’s credibility. Readers will be less inclined to read a paper littered with spelling mistakes and errors, and a loss of readers means a loss of advertisers.

It may see saving on the wage bill in the short term, but it damages the product, and thus its commercial value in the long run.

Mr G also believes there are two types of sub-editors – those who work on local or natioanl rags to templates and the creative types who write Sun headline.

I have to wonder whether Mr G has stepped into a regional newspaper office in the past ten years.

Templated pages are used, but not all the time. Pretty much every page is created on the differing merits of the story, headline, pictures and other furniture.
While the front few pages of my paper always have the same shaped adverts, the pages certainly don’t follow the same rules every week and look very different.

Mr G then makes a point, perhaps contradicting his previous arguements, that it’s not that we don’t need subs, but rather we can hire someone for £1 an hour to do the same job in a developing nation.

The local knowledge is the strongest counter to that, but there are other arguments.

As an editor I imagine it would be very difficult to try and talk through what I want from a page over the phone. To do that when English isn’t the individuals first language would make it even tougher.

I can see a time when technology will improve and the role of the creative sub will be less  – say a programme which can put all the various aspects of a page together like a jigsaw and suggest several layout options – but we’re not there yet.

And I don’t believe there will ever be a time when copy does not need to be subbed, unless we’re happy to become a txt spk nayshun of dunderheads.


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.