Opinion: Sub-editors can make or break your story

Find out why Kate Nicholas refers to sub-editors as 'the backroom heroes - or villains - of journalism'

Sub-editors are idiosyncratic creatures. As the backroom heroes - or villains - of journalism, the best of the breed combine the meticulousness of an auditor - combing over every last comma - with the wit and creative flair required to write headlines such as: ‘We're only here for De Beer' (on the attempted robbery of a diamond from the ­Millennium Dome) and ‘Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious' (after Inverness ­Caledonian ­Thistle beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup).

Add to this their editing remit - it is the sub who removes the hard-won reference to a brand or sponsor, or a spokesperson's quote from a PR-generated story, or who subtly - and sometimes radically - alters the tone of a story with a headline or picture caption in a bid to sex-up the content.

Only last week, for example, the Daily Mail's front-page photo ­caption: ‘My life as a sex slave: Natascha's own ­story' was a teaser for an inside story in which Natascha Kampusch - the girl held for eight years by her abductor in Vienna - said she would not be ­revealing intimate details about her ­experience.

And I bet there was a sharp intake of breath at the FA regarding the recent, graphic Sunday Times headline: ‘Footballers use babies for "repair kits".' This turned out to be a relatively tame ­story about Premiership footballers storing stem cells from their ­newborn children for possible future therapeutic use in their ­children - and, potentially, to treat their own ­injuries.

Admittedly, on the nationals, page-lead headlines are frequently written by committee, with everyone ­pitching in - the editor and night editor included. Nevertheless, most of these folk will have first learned their editing craft on the subs' desk. Most sub-editors are painfully aware of how few people outside the rarefied world of journalism ­appreciate just how much they shape the copy that we read.

Journalists are actively encouraged to provide as much information as possible. While in the US, where formats are more flexible, the story might simply be resized, UK formats are more rigid, and subs often find themselves working to reduce 2,000-word files to a 200-word on-page ­story, against heart-attack-inducing deadlines.

Not that they mind. Some would even no doubt prefer it if the journalist didn't even pretend to try and write the story, but simply stood at their shoulder with the facts, while the sub crafts the copy before slapping the ­journalist's byline on the page.

Which brings me to the question: why is it that you never see a sub-editor having an expense-account lunch with a PR executive at The Ivy?
kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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