If you could stomach any more news since Osama bin Laden married Pippa Middleton last week, you might have noticed some thrashing around at Fairfax. Long story short (something subeditors do well), the publishers of some of the country’s less trashy papers want to sack all their subeditorial staff, and outsource the work to a company called Pagemasters, run by Australian Associated Press.
If you know about this and are annoyed, write to the editor. If you don’t, I’ll explain. Subeditors are the people who actually put together the newspaper after journalists have filed the stories that editors have requested. Contrary to what their title suggests, they’re not junior players. They’re often journalists with more experience than the ones filing the stories, who’ve come to the subbing role after paying their dues in the field. It’s the subs who make sure the work is clear and readable, hunt out potentially damaging errors, confirm facts and dates, and structure articles so they actually fit on the page. They check the balance of the work, figure out key messages, and write the headlines. Those with layout skills work out what articles fit where, and what images will accompany them. They are the people who turn a whole bunch of disparate content into a single, cohesive unit that you can then use to make hilarious hats.
They are also, apparently, completely expendable. Fairfax boss Greg Hywood has said he’ll do away with all subeditors to save $15 million a year. He then tried to claim they would reinvest that money in new journalists. Except the reinvestment is worth $3 million a year. So unless a subbie mis-corrected Greg’s figures, they don’t quite add up.
Bear in mind this is in a company whose annual turnover last year was $600 million, and who paid out $6.8 million in executive bonuses.
Job protection aside, the reason this is a concern comes down to the quality of our cultural institutions and the protection of cultural capital. Already writers and editors are being squeezed out of work (or at least out of pay) in a web-heavy environment where immediacy and volume are rated far more highly than intrinsic quality. The democratisation of publishing is a win for diversity, but a loss for calibre. For all the bitching about literary gatekeepers, at least they kept the available standard high.
Newspapers have seen a noticeable decline in grammatical and structural standards in the last ten to fifteen years, as the bulk of content has ballooned and the workrate has intensified. Sloppy sentences and mixed metaphors are standard, along with the constant and excruciatingly lazy use of aphorisms without any reflection on the actual genesis of the phrase. Just read my fellow sportswriters stumbling through incompetent variations of people getting big raps, getting a wrap, taking the rap, being rapt, or getting rapped over the knuckles.
In this context, it’s important to remain vigilant about maintaining clarity of expression. It’s not about being an elitist twat. It’s about making the language the most effective possible means of communication.
Outsourcing will result in an even more substantial and sudden drop in standards. It’s an inherent part of outsourcing’s principle. If Pagemasters can provide a subediting service at such a substantially reduced cost, it means one of two things. Either their service is more cursory (thus lowering standards), or they’re paying their staff like McDonald’s trainees (thus lowering standards). Cutting corners on the fundamentals is no path to success. When it comes to staff, you get what you pay for.
Happy people are productive. They work well when they feel their efforts are appreciated and duly rewarded. When I was at uni and working in the service industry, there was little incentive to work at anything above an acceptable level. Management never noticed or cared when we went the extra mile, so with most colleagues, that tendency quickly dropped off. They met the standard required to avoid attention, and nothing more. Decent pay is another part of telling employees that their work is important and respected.
A fair number of The Age subs have already applied for work with Pagemasters. They have to. They have families and homes and mortgages, and can’t afford to be out of a job. Principle remains the luxury of the domestically indigent. But imagine the results of this? Imagine sacking a huge chunk of your workforce, then sending them across to work for another company, where they will do the exact same work, even to the point of doing work for you, but for half the wage. Sure, it sounds like any middle-manager’s wet dream. But try to imagine the state of mind this will engender in those staff? A tad resentful, perhaps? A bit angry? A tendency to lie awake at night pondering the spelling of ‘ammonium nitrate’?
Pagemasters already have a poor reputation regarding the quality of their work, and to date haven’t been responsible for publications in the league of the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age. Add resentful staff to that picture. Then add the difficulties of having sub-editors in a separate location to the rest of the paper’s staff.
Currently, everyone is housed in the same building. The intense nightly period of finalising the next day’s paper is made simple by communicating in person. Corrections and adjustments require walking down the hall. People can look at the same document side by side. When huge breaking news stories happen close to deadline – like when the World Trade Centre came down in a torrent of dust and rock ten years ago – this process goes into overdrive. Different editions of the newspaper are put together as more news comes in. The process is intensely collaborative, and subeditors are key.
Now try to imagine doing that sort of work remotely, over phone and email, with documents needing to be continually sent back and forth between offices. That transfer alone allows so much opportunity for errors to creep in. So you have ex-Fairfax employees, trying to do the same work under more deadline pressure, with a more convoluted correction process, for less pay. Do you really think they’re going to match their earlier standard? Do you really think they’re going to give a flying fuck about matching that standard? For a company who officially told them they were over-valued and surplus to requirements?
Ultimately, Hywood’s brilliant economic rationalist initiative is an anti-economy, like saving money by never getting your car serviced, or never buying toothbrushes. All well and good until the transmission drops out halfway between Shepparton and Canberra, or you book in for three consecutive root canals.
Only in this case (if you’ll allow a trite analogy), the decay is in our general standard of literacy and literary output, and the damage doesn’t have an easy surgical fix. These kind of standards have to be built up over time, not drilled and plugged into place in a two-hour session.
If you’d like to stick up for those standards, and for the subeditors who are soon to find themselves out of work, write to The Age and tell them so. You don’t have to send more than a line. But if they get a torrent of responses, they might just reconsider such a myopic approach. Do it. At the end of the day, you might just be grasping the last straw that stops the baby from being thrown up the wall without a paddle. That’ll really separate the wheat from the goats.