Friday, January 29, 2010

Unsung heroes called sub-editors

The modicum of awe that I inspire from strangers by saying I am a journalist dissipates into ether when I mention I am sub-editor. With their interest fast waning, people still manage to ask what exactly I do. “Oh not much, reporters file stories, I edit them, give headlines and make the pages” is my stock reply. I brush it off as a mundane job because it’s hard to describe it to the uninitiated.

How do you explain to people that a desk job is as enriching as the muck-raking done by the reporters? After all, looking at people’s reactions, a sub-editor is as much a journalist as Tintin was. Ironically, a sub-editor is the lowest common denominator. The reasons for such low awareness levels of my job is varied.

In popular culture, there have been books written ad nauseaum on the craft of reporting but next to nothing on copy editing. Only Tarun Tejpal’s “Alchemy of Desire” comes somewhere close to describing the agony of a sub-editor. Now, there’s not much hope too with obituaries of newspapers being a stock-in trade of many doomsayers and Facebook groups like ‘Save Sub-editors’ proliferating. I don’t even expect there to be any John Travolta straight out of Pulp Fiction to revive copy editing with a shot of adrenaline administered straight to the heart.

Most newspapers in this country, or world for that matter, are desk-driven. At the moment, I can recall only one Indian newspaper that is reporter driven. As a Times of India senior editor once told me, intellectual churning happens at the desk. Little wonder then that at all the foreign newspapers most of the news stories have the byline of a sub-editor and at the end they would mention the reporter’s name. A practice unheard of in this part of the world.

And why not? After all, we people work graveyard shifts to pull out the paper, make packages, give a catchy headline by putting our intellectual toolkit under immense duress, social life goes for a toss and, as Garrison Keillor once put it, turn into alcoholics by the time we turn 50. This, apart from discounting the taunts, some valid ones notwithstanding, of reporters that we don’t have to run around for quotes. After so much toil, a copy editor’s job is deemed akin to working on Large Hadron Collider- something special but not of much interest for common man.

Small digression: Economist has realised this and made it an egalitarian newspaper, who are you to call it magazine if it thinks otherwise, where there are no bylines given. A touch injustice though with such brilliant writing getting published with no name attached.

If you come across any journalist who is faking fluency in every subject, then on most occasions that would be a sub-editor. We make Karl Marx’s following remark our professional dictum, “Anything human is not alien to me.” A reporter would be caught tongue-tied if asked anything beyond his or her ‘beat’. All this doesn’t mean that we are saintly. Yes, we bitch about the reporters’ writing that they can’t write to save their lives. Yes, we lament at the lack of legitimacy attached to our craft. Evelyn Waugh nailed it by mentioning in his seminal book, ‘Scoop’, that people don’t understand what toil goes behind the paper that they buy ‘for a penny’.

Next time when you read the newspaper, always remember what D H Lawrence said, “trust the novel, not the novelist”.


At 5:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lovely man. I liked sub-editing too, although I wouldn't lie that I did that better than reporting which was because of the reason that you could hang out more on the streets than the office and I hated my Hyderabad office.


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