Technology leaps forward, but where are the mentors

There was the time a sub-editor stopped in the middle of the newsroom floor, looked a young cadet in the eye and pointed to the end of his shoe a theatrical move as to where it might be headed.

The confrontation, for a curator of the language, was understandable as the naïve cadet had failed to toe a grammatical line. Instead he had attempted to tow it.

Indeed a line had been crossed. Today it would have been the HR line, but despite the sub-editor’s lack of diplomacy – or because of it – the message got across.

They’re a grumpy lot, those subs. But as most young journalists – particularly after a run-in – will attest, they know a lot too. Some were once editors; others never wanted the responsibility. Experience, however, still abounds, although it is now a different world.

As newsroom logistics change, outsourcing of sub-editing tasks creates an inevitable tyranny of distance between sub-editors and reporters. Workloads in central-subbing pool environments often puts personal contact with reporters back of mind, and the need for speed in a digital world leaves little time for interaction.

Modern-day subs are checking copy written to fit the assigned length of a pre-drawn or templated newshole; most are subbing online content with a brief to get it right, yet with a SEO-driven imperative to be first to publish.

Others are shadow subbing, a technique recently introduced to identify and correct mistakes in live content. In other words, reporters push copy into a live environment. Subs then make corrections as they see fit.

Such rapid-fire subbing techniques have perilous flaws – arguably, priorities pinpoint factual error above grammatical wrongdoing. Current-day readers not only appreciate that our craft is adapting to a changing pace of news delivery, but they are insisting we alter our ways to suit an appetite for news as it happens, inclusive of immediate analysis. As a consequence, most are far more forgiving of a split infinitive than they would be on a printed news page.

Each newly-created subbing environment poses unique challenges in the quest to “get it right”. A common consequence is that, ever-increasingly, the sub-editor is isolated from the training process.

Some might say the sub is in demise. In the least, there is an evolution of the position description. One-on-one, sit-down, over-the- shoulder tours through a story conducted by subs now rarely happen. Feedback – whether written or otherwise – about why changes were made to a story is infrequent. And time is increasingly scarce for young reporters to reflect upon and analyse alterations to their work.

Sure, there are training programs. It does, however, seem that the role of educator is becoming a diluted resource, if not forgotten in some instances.

An alleged decline in journalism standards is a dry argument given that technology is helping streamline the news gathering and research process; smaller newsrooms mean only the best young talent is entering the profession, and competition to break meaningful stories is fiercer than ever.

Digital and print audiences pose similar demands – they want quality, need speed and diversity, and appreciate immediate analysis. These pressures should lay an organic platform for a constant rise in newsroom quality.

In this process, editors and news directors have the greatest of intent when it comes to training new journalists. However, they have their own set of expectations, responsibilities and pressures which mean those knocking out the latest press release churn aren’t as high on the priority list as desirability would have it.

Graphic designers are playing a more pressing role in the generation of news content. Photographers and videographers are being asked to whip up a quick bit of prose to accompany their work, and “production” is becoming a pseudo-definition for “multi-skilling”. Who, in all this jostling for perfection, assumes a training function?

Role definitions are blurred. New roles are being created. As this happens, we are at risk of losing sight of the need for a day-to-day trainer – not the pre-built slideshow, rather the ongoing role of mentor, a person who can provide advice as each news scenario arises.

While most newsroom change is a godsend in a business where reader needs have long been overshadowed by editorial arrogance, it would be a shame to see the extinction of gruff advice from the chain-smoking hack who has been a few times around the block.

Let’s hope someone reminds the grumpy old sub that their years of experience are a valuable commodity; that faster communication hasn’t eliminated a hunger for education, and that however agile or different newsroom dynamics might become, someone must assume the role of real-world educator.

Simon Holt is managing editor of the Brisbane Times.

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