Image for The Chronicle (41): Life and death at the typeface

The journalist, Bill Hoskins, didn’t need a trial at all to prove he had the sub-editing skills required by the newspaper. He was a sub-editor, a journalist, from the old school. After giving him a brief rundown on the computer system, Bentley went off to the mess room to make himself and Hoskins a cup of coffee.

When he returned Hoskins appeared a little disconsolate and pained. Bentley thought he might have had a little difficulty learning a new system totally different to ones he had been used to in the past but his hurt went deeper than that. It was not about an old dog learning new tricks. It was about the trade that Hoskins had practised for 40-odd years, a combination, compilation and accumulation of skills that Hoskins now complained were becoming largely redundant, like the skills of the newspaper printer, the lino-type operator and compositor had been cast aside a generation previously.

A young female reporter of the new generation of journalist had stopped at Hoskins’ desk and introduced herself.

``And what do you do here?’‘` she inquired, noting that she had not seen the grey-bearded, denim clad Hoskins, looking a little like a retired hippy, in the office before.

``Oh, I’m a sub-editor,’’ Hoskins had replied. ``Just in for a spell. And what do you do for the newspaper?’‘

``I’m a journalist,’’ replied the young reporter, a writer of fashion and teenage news, who was in her early twenties.

``We’re all journalists,’’ Hoskins said, adding that he had been a reporter for a number of years before becoming a sub-editor.

``Oh, so you were a journalist once.’‘

As Hoskins recounted the brief conversation to Bentley, he shook his head. The conversation with the young journalist had confirmed for Hoskins what had been a long-held suspicion:  sub-editors and their craft were rapidly being marginalised, they were being shifted out of journalism into what could be termed production.

Over in Mahoney’s pub after their shift, Bentley and Hoskins lamented the demise of the sub-editor and, more tragically, the demise of the very thing that gave the sub-editor life, the newspaper. The sub-editor, as Bentley put it, was like an endangered animal in a threatened environment. And as the beer flowed in Mahoney’s, metaphors for rainforests, coral reefs and a wetland about to be drained became more and more irresistible.

``We’re dinosaurs,’’ said Hoskins, ``Things are evolving around us, without us, and not for the good.’‘

``No we’re like some honeycreeper in Hawaii, or something, that is vanishing with its rainforest home,’’ said Bentley, now into his third pint of Coopers Sparkling Ale. ``And there’s this male bird, the last of its breed, and it’s calling, and there’s no one to answer it. You’re writing headlines, Bill. Quirky, funny, punny, telling the story in a handful of words, accurately. You’re handywork is like a clarion call to what’s great in newspaper journalism, and there’s no one to hear the call.’‘

``What the fuck are you talking about,’’ said Hoskins finally, irritably. Bentley had gone off on a tangent that Hoskins could not follow.

``I mean,’’ continued Bentley. ``What I’m trying to say, is there are some of us, from the old school who would read a headline, and see it was a great headline, read a story and see it had been edited without a flaw, it flowed and you didn’t have to stop, like you with me, and say: `What the fuck is this reporter talking about.’‘

Hoskins got the message.

``Ask a reporter today what a sub-editor does. They will say proof-reader. No, they won’t even say that, they’ve got spell checks. They say we just write headlines, and say even they could do that,’’ said Hoskins, complaining that managements today were too often prepared to employ sub-editors with little or no journalistic experience, or people with only a handful of years as a reporter. They were people who did not understand the nuance of expression, could not spot hidden loose writing with all its dangers, and legal pitfalls. They also did not understand the principle of simultaneously maintaining a publication’s style and preserving the reporter’s unique touch.

The headline also had to say what the report said and be totally objective,  It was important to distinguish between ``said’’ and ``claimed’‘.

Bentley then mentioned how standards of grammar had slipped, or were being ignored deliberately if good grammar was deemed to be obstructing a snappy headline or introduction to a story. On some tabloid newspapers attributions and quotes in headlines were frowned on because they were said to make the punchy typeface and alignment of the headline look ugly. Bentley recounted a sub-editor being castigated for inserting a semi-colon in a long-winded, tangled quotation. The sub-editor had been told by the chief sub-editor that the colon and semi-colon were for ``literary gents’‘, and the same went for the comma as opposed to the dash around a clause.

The headline, though, remained the pinnacle of the sub-editors’ achievement. It was with the headline that the sub-editor set out his or her stall of wares. Bentley, in the bar of Mahoney’s, recited some of the best headlines he had ever seen. One, written by a colleague when Bentley worked in Fleet Street 40 years previously, had been on a story about insurance companies making their motor vehicle policies more easy to read. ``Fully comprehensible’’ read the headline. A more recent Australian one, about a marriage at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant, read: ``I only have fries for you.’‘

``Headlines. They’re like street poetry,’’ said Bentley, his enthusiasm fuelled by drink. He then told of a dead former colleague, the most talented sub-editor he had ever known, who had his best headlines read as part of the eulogy at his funeral.

``Ancient craft,’’ Hoskins responded. His term ``ancient”  was not that far off the mark, the art and craft of sub-editing went back to the advent of the modern newspaper more than 200 years previously. The sub-editor belonged to a newspaper like no other publishing vehicle, or news outlet like radio, television and now the internet. The newspaper and sub-editor were symbiotic. .

Hoskins blamed economic rationalist managements - and a new breed of editor who wanted to put the function of the more senior, specialist sub-editors, like those who concentrated on newspaper layout instead of editing words into fewer hands.  Gone were the days when newspapers had top table and down table sub-editors. Top table subs sat closer to the chief sub-editor, positioned at the top of a long narrow desk, and tended to be given the main stories. The down table subs, often young and inexperienced, picked up the dross.

The chief sub-editor designed the newspaper and, in consultation with the editor, placed stories within it depending on their merit, their news value. The chief sub-editor often delegated page design to other sub-editors specialised in this field but on the bigger newspapers, especially the mass-selling tabloids, there were further categories of specialist sub-editors.

These were the trusted wordsmiths who would be given stories that required a light touch, stories that relied on the power of words instead of news value. These reports were often a story within a story, they could not be cut from the bottom as with most news reports (at least how reporters were trained to write them). Such stories often required a punch-line along the lines of the headline, possibly bringing the story full circle. Often reporters did not have the skills to write in this style and their stories were totally rewritten in-house with the sub-editor using the original story, mining it, purely for the facts contained there.

The reporters might get the credit, and carry with them the romantic image of the journalist, the news-getter involved in all sorts of drama and adventure, but the sub-editors’ world was not without its intrigue and mystery, and they did not merely feed on the endeavours of the reporting staff. Sub-editors, in fact, were a complex breed. There were career sub-editors who wanted nothing more than the security and mateship of the sub-editors’ desk, and its arcane work. But there were also subs, as they were still colloquially called, who looked beyond the confines of the sub-editors’ section of the newspaper, once the sub-editors’  room before the dawn of open plan offices. These might be reporters taking a time out from writing news, possibly to hone their writing skills, or wordsmiths who eventually hoped for a future outside newspapers. It was not unusual to find novelists among the sub-editing team, often crime writers. The newspaper provided a guaranteed income from words before the best-seller, if it ever came.

Many famous novelists had made a living among the headlines, Graham Greene among them. Greene, who had worked for The Times in the 1930s, had written in his autobiography of pleasant nights spent at Printing House Square just off Fleet Street, writing headlines while listening for the plop of ash falling into the grate of the coal fire in the sub-editors’ office.

The demise in recent times of the sub-editor had been mirrored by the demise of the newspapers they served, said Bentley.

``What came first,’’ he would often say sitting at his sub-editor’s desk at the Chronicle at night, ``the end of the sub-editor or the end of the newspaper. It’s the chicken and the egg situation conundrum.’‘

Hoskins said that when he started as a young reporter the average age of the sub-editors on his newspaper was in the mid-50s. Cadet journalists at the time might be confident that one day they would be good enough to be a political editor or foreign correspondent, feature writer, or even an editor, but none were sure they would ever be skilled enough to earn a permanent seat on the sub-editors’ desk. All that had changed, and Hoskins wondered if any young cadet entering the industry now ever dreamed of joining the sub-editors’ team.

Bentley and Hoskins had entered newspaper journalism after the advent of television. In the 1960s the obituary of newspapers was being written because of the medium’s impact on advertising but newspapers had survived, especially provincial ones. They had found niche advertising markets, like the classified advertisement. Into the 21st century the newspapers had a new foe, the internet, and this had cut into advertising exploited by newspapers, especially classifieds.

But more, said Bentley, could have been done by governments in the past to shore up the newspapers’ place in society.

The great hope for the future of newspapers had come, ironically, with electronic editing which had enabled newspaper owners to replace the bulk of the workforce, the printers. Newspapers were no longer labour intensive.

But with the cost of producing newspapers cut, instead of a proliferation of newspapers, as journalists had hoped, had came a concentration of power under fewer owners. Newspapers were bought and closed, or forced out of business, creating one-newspaper towns and cities where once there had been several daily publications.

Bentley’s first newspaper had been part of a small locally-owned printing business based in the Surrey country town of Guildford comprising three weekly publications.  It was now part of a chain that included weekly, regional daily and national newspapers. Whereas Guildford and its satellite town of Woking were once served by two newspapers each, now there was one in each town.

``It’s no use blaming the internet for taking readers and advertising. The start of the problem goes back to television and steps then could have been taken to save newspapers,’’ said Bentley before going to the bar for another pint of Coopers Sparkling. ``The television warning signs were not heeded. The politicians betrayed the newspaper industry by not creating safeguards where its diversity could have been protected.’‘

As Bentley saw it, newspapers held a unique place in the democratic process, more so than radio and television.

With the extensive column inches newspapers could devote to issues and political positions, readers had a chance to give them a proper assessment. And they could respond through the letters’ page, a forum whose power could not be replicated in any other form of media, including the internet. It was the same with news: newspapers could give both sides of the story at length. There were no quick sound bites. With newspapers it was harder for politicians, or even companies and institutions, to shape news subjectively. In the modern world of the political spin-doctor, newspapers provided an antidote.

Despite the birth of the internet, and the citizen journalist and the blogger, Bentley still believed non-electronic journalism, of type printed on newsprint, still had a place.

The alarming spate of closures of newspapers in the United States had prompted suggestions of alternative sources of funding for existing, quality newspapers that were not totally derived from advertising and cover price, like subscriptions and endowments. Bentley felt this missed the point, and he returned to a subject with which he had long bored the other sub-editors on the Chronicle.

Hoskins had not heard his argument before, and was a willing listener.

Bentley believed there should be incentives for people to invest in newspapers, even if these incentives cut across the philosophy of economic rationalism in which the market ruled.

``Newspapers are not part of the normal market, of supply and demand, of big companies swallowing up smaller ones, of MBAs and all that shit,” said Bentley. His passion for newspapers was in full flight, but it was he who was talking and not the drink.

``Newspapers are not a business like a brewery or a bakery, a biscuit factory. An Anzac biscuit might have an historic association, be mired in Australian folklore, but it’s not about democracy. An Anzac biscuit doesn’t give a voice to a community, does not speak up when politicians are letting people down, an Anzac biscuit does not cut a hospital waiting queue.

``Newspaper proprieters should be given incentives, like tax breaks, on account of their unique role in society. With incentives you could have more than one newspaper, of the right and left, and the centre for that matter, and the green fringe. You can have newspapers owned by local people and those owned by big corporations, perhaps filling different niche markets, like broadsheet and tabloid news.”

Bentley and Hoskins had fallen silent, looking into their pint glasses. They had noticed and ignored one of the young reporters who frequently looked for conversation in the pub. He had been leaning against the bar looking in their direction and now he made his way towards them, pulling up a chair at their table. The reporter was considered of the new school, sharp suit, university degree in communications. He had taken over the Chronicle’s website and was destined to go far.

Bentley had always felt a little guilty about, if not avoiding the reporter, keeping contact with him in the bar to a minimum. Bentley and the sub-editors considered the bar a place to discuss newspaper journalism and circulation, what they termed hack talk and gossip, and not website hits.

``Did I hear someone mention Anzac biscuits?’’ said the reporter, trying to find a way into the conversation. ``I’m very partial to them myself.’‘

Bentley looked stunned, as though he had been slapped in the face.

``Why don’t you just fuck off,’’ Bentley shouted, the pin-striped reporter scurrying away, back to the bar.

Bentley was silent again. He was in deep thought. Was it too late to save newspapers, had their demise gone too far? Certainly you couldn’t resurrect the ones that had gone, taking all that history, a chronicle of the daily life of a community, with them. There was much to be said about continuity but perhaps newspapers started from scratch without a history might build a history and continuity of their own.  With the newspapers remaining, there was still a chance of survival, the infrastructure, the presses and the journalists were still in place.

Bentley was thinking to himself it needed the government to act at last, to put a rescue package in place, to encourage local ownership, new money.

``The fucking accountants will get in the way,’’ he said at last, and Hoskins wondered what he was talking about again, before piecing together the parts of the statement that Bentley had framed in silence.

``Fuckers will pour themselves a cup of tea, munch on an Anzac biscuit and say `This is not a business plan. How about the market?’‘’

Hoskins had been trained over four decades to come up with a headline for every situation, to sum up complexity, tragedy, anguish and passion in just a few words.

``Sub-editors fight for survival,’’ said Hoskins.

``Subs can’t be sunk,’’ said Bentley, and he and Hoskins giggled like schoolboys.

* This piece draws some of its inspiration from “A few loose words,” by Bob Hawkins, which appeared in the Walkley magazine.

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CRAGGY would be the way to describe him. Gnarled even. The old, retired sub-editor had come into the Chronicle looking for work to supplement his pension. An immigrant from Britain in the 1960s, the 68-year-old had an impeccable record both in his home country and in Australia.

In the United Kingdom he had started his career on an evening newspaper in a city on the Wales-England border. In Australia he had worked on The Age in Melbourne. Don Bentley had offered to demonstrate to the retired journalist the computer editing system used by the Chronicle after the old hack had been invited into the newspaper for a trial period.