Sub-hubs not all bad news

Edit: This situation has kicked on a fair bit since I wrote my Opinion piece (below). News Ltd backed off and decided to not move the subs desk from The Mercury in Hobart. The editor, Garry Bailey, ran a successful campaign to prevent his newspaper being subbed at a sub-hub in Melbourne. No problem with that. Whatever is best for the business. However, I am not taking down the Opinion piece because I stand by it, regardless of the outcome at The Mercury.

Below, Paul Wiggins makes on a comment about the social upheaval and effect on individuals at The Mercury. This, I totally understand. And in no way do I mean to make light of that. I’ve copped two redundancies in my time, so I understand why Paul would raise this. It is reasonable and right for him to do so – Thanks, Mark

Hundreds gathered at the Hobart Mercury in the last few days to protest a decision by News Ltd to move the subs’ desk of the newspaper to Melbourne.

No one likes to see anyone lose their job, especially in circumstances where it is not their fault.

But the protestors, plus a few politicians, believe the quality of their city paper will diminish when the sub-editing goes to the mainland.

Local federal MP Andrew Wilkie even suggested the Mercury would lose its editorial independence.

Both complaints display an ignorance of the editorial process that, actually, we as an industry should not be proud of. In an era where consumers want transparency from their favourite products and services, we fail that test miserably.

However, we know how to run newspapers.

The idea that local stories need local subs is misguided.

Historically, newspapers take good subs wherever they can be found, regardless of whether they know the spelling of the local mayor’s name (because – for some inexplicable reason – the reporter does not).

I recall back in the 80s how The Australian imported a crew of Kiwis because local talent was thin on the ground.

When I worked on The Sun and the Daily Mail in the UK, both newspapers were full of Aussie subs.

We used to joke that The Sun’s chief sub had his phone number written on the wall of the arrival lounge at Heathrow because every day he’d get a caller who said: “ah, g’day mate, I’m from X, I’ve just arrived and I was wondering whether you had any shifts going”.

(One muppet once came in with his suitcase. But that’s another story!)

The first story I subbed on The Times was about the sex habits of Scottish sheep, written by the Edinburgh-based correspondent.

Admittedly, it’s 535km from Edinburgh to London, which is more as local than Melbourne to Hobart (609km) but no one on The Times seemed to think such distance a tyranny.

When on the Foreign Desk at the Daily Mail in the early 90s, the big story was a coup in Russia. Nothing ever happened on that story until about 10pm Moscow time. So Reuters used to have its copy edited by the day-shift in Hong Kong before it went on the wire.

If you had a question, or a request, you rang Hongkers, not the Ruskies. That worked fine.

More locally, the Singapore Straits Times has been subbed in Australia.

APN in New Zealand has a very successful hub at the Bay of Plenty.

During the Christchurch earthquake, if it wasn’t for the sub-hub concept, none of the newspapers would have come out.

Closer to home, the Courier-Mail pitched in for the Cairns Post when Cyclone Yasi crashed over the beach. And the Northern Territory News is subbed in Adelaide, and it’s still bizarre.

For a lot of local newspapers it is really hard to find experienced sub-editors.

This local-is-best argument just doesn’t stack up. I get the emotion in Hobart, but not the logic, the fear for accuracy or the threat to editorial autonomy.

Editor Garry Bailey will remain in charge because the IT systems allow him to see everything at every stage.

A key figure in the sub-hub movement at News Ltd is Campbell Reid, the Editorial Services Director.

He says the sub-hub concept will improve the quality – the art, even – of sub-editing.

Done properly, it is an art. Sub-editors can bring a newspaper – especially tabloids – to life.

The sub-hub’s true test is not its efficiency but its creativity in delighting and igniting the passion of readers.

Do that and you sell newspapers, regardless of where the headline was written.

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