I have to tread very carefully round this subject. Very carefully.

But as we all know the news the other week that Archant (Suffolk) were pondering the possibility of replacing 20-odd sub-editors in Ipswich with advertising designers prompted a furious debate in media circles.

It prompted an interested debate in one or two domestic circles, too, given that my Mrs is still a part-time sub with Archant (Norfolk).

But it is interesting; the role of a sub – particularly in a purely digital context. Cos we don’t have one; I guess you’d say we ‘self-sub’ – that as me, Mark and Nick sit at our various kitchen tables across East Anglia, we try and deliver as clean a piece of copy as we can; literal and libel free, whenever possible.

But, being human, the odd mistake still slips in under the radar. It hoppens.

And here’s the interesting bit; where the sand is shifting beneath a sub’s feet. Because if I spot a literal, I go back into the CMS, click the edit button, make the correction and re-publish. And no-one need be any the wiser.

If your audience comes and goes as they please – as opposed to coming and going as and when newspapers demand – then you put a story up at 11.35am, re-read it when it’s up at, say, 11.48am, spot a literal and change it, then it might only have been read and spotted by, say, 20-odd in your daily 4,000-readership. For the rest, as and when they ‘get a mo’, it’s clean…

Now there are aspects to all this that make football-writing a little different; if we were running, say, mycourtwriter.com then I suspect we’d put a few more safeguards in place. That said, I suspect the onus will ever more be on the reporter to know their legals – that’s where the responsibility will start and, all too often, end in a world of nigh-on instant publishing.

We’ve had one big legal in our two years; but that again was instructive. Long story the moral of which was never, ever trust a football agent. But the point was we held our hands up, whacked a correction up on the site within two hours, deleted the offending story and moved on. Quickly.

The wronged party was pleasantly surprised how swiftly and professionally the matter had been dealt with; he saw the correction on the site; a day later and it was gone.

Because there’s another interesting point – how long do these issues linger on the web as opposed to print? If newspapers are only ever tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, what does that make a web-story? If it disappears off into our archive 36-hours after it’s been published – or, indeed, is deleted or corrected – then, for me, web stories are far more ephemeral than any newspaper story…

Clearly – at the right/wrong moment in time in front of the right/wrong pair of eyes – they can be just as damaging and can develop a whole, viral life of their own as they sweep across the web-waves via message-board after message-board.

But they don’t quite have this same, tablet of stone, there for time immemorial quality that a newspaper story has. And with that comes the heightened need for a sub – on newsprint you’ve got one chance to get it right; there’s no going back. On the web, you can always go back. That creates a very different mind-set. Very different.

But what was equally interesting in the debate that raged was the emphasis everyone placed on the whole check, check, check argument. For me, it under-played the other great duty of state under-taken by the sub-editor. To cut, cut, cut.

Not with a butcher’s cleaver; more with a surgeon’s scalpel. Or, at least, that was the theory. When time and management allowed.

That was the sub’s great craft; that yes, a reporter-stroke-news desk would push copy through that was roughly to length, but it was the sub that got it to the line; got it to measure up. A tweak here, a little line out there. They got it to fit.

That’s how I learned – as the ‘sports department’ on the Gazette & Herald, the weekly Sunday football round-up filled the outside leg, 25cms depth under a four-deck, 30-point headline.

Can’t remember the word-count now, but say it was 500. Trouble was the old boy that contributed the Devizes & District Sunday League wrote for Britain.

A 1,200-word tome that was a nightmare to crack down to length; for the change page, his oppo from the Chippenham & District Sunday league wrote 250 words on the back of a fag packet, but still expected to see his four-deck, 30-point headline and 500 words of polished copy – just like they get in Devizes….

The web changes everything.

We still write to length. Somewhere in the region of 900-1,000 words. Twice a day.

That way we can split two, chunky 500-word reads over two pages; double our page impression numbers; have eight ad slots as opposed to four.

No-one’s being short-changed – 500 words is still more often that not longer than most evening newspaper back-page leads. Certainly the ones that I wrote for 13-odd years.

But the web doesn’t need copy to fit to the line; nor do you have to look for nasty ‘widows’.

It flows. And if you’re dealing with a passionate niche like football and you know that your readers will lap up every last spit, dot and comma, why cut?

And if you’re looking towards an advertising-metric that might be drifting to one that’s ever more time-based – how ‘sticky’ is your copy? – why cut? Keep the eye-balls there; don’t leave any quotes on the cutting room floor.

And if you haven’t got a 4×16 garden centre ad in the bottom left corner and 5×24 action pic in the top right, why cut?

And if you’re not cutting, not tweaking, not getting copy to fit to the line; if you’re self-checking and self-correcting, dipping in and out of your own CMS as and when you spot the od literal, then the role of the sub simply becomes, well, just kind of part of what we do; it’s not anything special anymore; it’s just another strand to our new, digital DNA.

As, I suspect, will be the ability to make-up an ad; to be our own DIY ad department running alongside our back-bench come kitchen table.

Advertisements