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« Heroes of the hour | Main | To sub or not to sub? »



Karl, great to have your views on this. Agree that training is very important. So is managing the way we work so we can focus on growing our online business. While we have print publications we will need to figure out the best ways to develop them as the way our audience consumes media changes. The media is changing so rapidly - powered by technology - and I think the onus is on all of us who work in it to stay abreast of developments

JD (The Engine Room)

I can definitely relate to this post – it describes very clearly the direction my job is going in. Now all I need is EPiServer.

But there's one thing that you haven't mentioned. On the print publications, production staff (especially the subs) are the custodians of the house style - they communicate with writers about word choice, tone, copy length, copy presentation and so on. They may not unilaterally decide the style, but they certainly enforce it.

Similarly, web production staff have an important role in communicating to writers best practice when it comes to writing news for the web, blogging, creating landing pages and so on.

By that I mean, helping writers to answer questions such as: How is writing for the web different to print? Why are links important? What sort of links are best? What sort of tone should I strike with my blog? How often should I blog? How long should my posts be? Why does the formatting on my Movable Type post look strange? What size and resolution of image should I supply for my landing page? What is the point of a landing page anyway? Why do we need writer profile pages? How does this taxonomy thing work?


Hi Karl, thanks for the interesting article. Hopefully the 'willingness to relearn their craft' is embedded across production desks across RBI. I'm just wondering what the 'cherished roles and practices' are that we might have to give up, not being the sentimental sort!

Fiona Cullinan

As a sub who's gone over to the 'other side', I think it's interesting to see who's doing the copy editing now, and also the switcheroo of roles and the different backgrounds of people who end up being responsible for quality assurance of copy. Subbing tasks are often picked up by IT, design and also client approval processes, or by reporters.

So where are the digi subs?

I'm not sure that transitioning subs will have to get so techy as you suggest in many cases. But I think it would be wise for them to pick up some basic online software know-how and maybe resurrect their writing skills - because I can't see the tasks being so discrete as they have been in print.

Now back to my online writing, subbing, image editing, uploading, socmed'ing, etc etc etc

Amanda Afiya

On my website the online production editor role (or content editor as we like to call it) is currently frozen.

On the magazine, we have two production people who are willing to help out online but don't have the time to do so. Sending them on a training course at the moment wouldn't help because they don't currently have the capacity to take on the uploading and archiving of our stories on the web.

So we post as a team or get freelancers in to help us do this, which is a huge drain on my contribs budget.

I know other journals and web teams are operating a peer-publishing system, but my preference would be to involve our subs in the process because they are best skilled to perform that role. I believe that peer publishing will eventually land RBI in hot water because something will slip through the net which should have been subbed out.

How we reduce the production desk's workload so that they can incorporate the web into their day I don't know, but I'll be over the moon - and under budget - when it happens.

Tony Pettengell

A pen is a tool.
A typewriter is a tool.
A computer is a tool.
Software is a tool.

Mediaeval craftsmen failed to grasp (literally) the importance of keeping up to speed with new technology, as a consequence here in Blighty we went through a bit of a dark period buildings-wise.

Journalists will suffer the same fate if they fail to adapt to new working methods. So it's essential to get up to speed with the new tools.

A pen can be a useful tool for getting grit out of the bottom of a shoe. Aut a stick would work equally well.

However, writing with a stick requires sand or some similar medium and is less portable and useful than a pen and paper when it comes to getting your thoughts across - I think the Nasca Lines is Peru demonstrate this quite well (they clearly had a very big stick).

Clearly, choosing the right tools and systems and using them to their best effect is essential - EAS being a fine example of a useless pile of junk being introduced without input from enough of those who would ultimately end up using it.

But let us not forget: we are all trained journalists and all that is being asked is that we use ever-more elaborate quills to get across the information - whether that's online or in print. Doing layout online should be regarded no differently to doing layout on paper, so, of course, everyone should be trained to use the appropriate software. As for podcasting and video - they simply present a golden opportunity to gain broadcasting skills previously only available to the very lucky few or those who attended Eton, Oxford or Cambridge (ie, the BBC).

There will be teething troubles as uninformed editors/managers seek to cut costs by cutting the wrong things, ie, as mentioned above, getting IT people to sub copy. It is our job to ensure they don't do that.

Any journalist who has a problem with the changing ways of world media should probably consider a career change and start making a new Book of Kells or take up embroidery (there's got to be a market out there for a 21st century Bayeux Tapestry).

David Shepherd

I would say SEO comes into the picture too - using optimised keywords and ensuring they are used correctly in headlines and so on, for example. Writers should be doing this at origination stage, true. But this can be checked, improved and made consistent by the subs desk.


I know that at least one RBI publication has had dedicated web production staff for around a decade. Are there some publications where this hasn't occurred yet? I'm stunned.

Amanda Afiya

We had one - for three years - but when they were promoted to community editor, we lost the production role.

Bronagh Miskelly

The Karl's vision and the debate above is much more constructive than Roy Greenslade's contribution which amounts to "we don't need subs"
The issue of high quality, usuable packing of content is not going to go away - what is need is the range of skills to do this in new and more ways.

John Snuggs

Karl, I'm amazed that people are still discussing the changing role of production staff and talking about "the multimedia future".

It's not the future, it's this year and last, so far as I'm concerned. My first job on Farmers Weekly was web production editor - and that was 12 (yes, twelve) years ago.

Any sub who thinks he or she can get away without becoming involved in web work should be looking over his or her shoulder.

On many RBI titles, the print magazine has become very much the minor part of the operation in the past couple of years as ad revenues (especially recruitment) and copy sales have nosedived.

Farmers Weekly hasn't (yet) seen its print income drop off - but if it does, we're ready.
We have five subs, two artists and a picture editor producing 4000-odd pages and 6000-odd web stories a year.

Eighteen months ago, we had a dedicated online sub and web production took up about 30% of our time, most of that work being done by the online sub. Now, all five subs work both in print and online, and web production accounts for more than 50% of our work.

We've had to learn a lot of new techniques, change our mindset to treat all copy as web-first (or to be more accurate, "web at about the same time") and arrive at a way of doing all this without working all the hours there are. We've just about managed it.

But the job of the sub has remained the same - that is, to present copy and pictures to the reader in an attractive package, checked and where necessary enhanced for sense, legality, clarity, writing style, spelling and grammar, and above all, to make sure it gets read.

As Tony said, the web's just a tool, like a pen, a typewriter or a hand coated in ochre to record the tribe's hunt on the cave wall. The medium doesn't change the facts of the story told.

Martin Cloake

Karl, It's been a long time since we spoke :-) Very good, thought-provoking and useful piece this. I've referenced it on as part of the latest Greenslade-inspired furore. The last few days have convinced me we need something more solid to promote production values in a new media age - a sort of Design Council for subs. Drop me a line if you're interested.


Good to hear from you after so long Martin. I certainly agree that there is still an important role for the production desk. And if you step back from the detail, I think that the essence of the role is still fundamentally the same - to check/polish individual pieces of content and combine them to create complete packages for users. I think that you're right to focus on values, rather than specific production desk activities - the former often remain unchanged in a web world but the latter are almost always different.


Responding (belatedly) to some of the comments above:

JD - I agree completely. In my experience our web production people are typically the members of our editorial teams with the best understanding of how to deliver powerful online content, so they should (and do) play an important part in helping other members of the team to get up to speed.

Adam - By "cherished roles and practices" that may have to go, I mean both things that production desks do (such as subbing all copy) and the ways that they are organised. It is already common for copy to go online without (or before) being subbed - for example, all of our blogs work that way. We have to accept that there are many circumstances in web journalism where introducing a subbing stage into the process destroys the dynamic of the interaction between the journalist and the audience, and hence results in a reduction in quality. And I think that the traditional arguments for keeping individual magazine production desks separate - i.e. that subs that specialise in a narrow topic can do a better job - may be reversed for web production desks, when there is perhaps more value in specialising by skill (e.g. Flash design) than by subject matter for many of the new web production roles.

Fiona, Amanda - yes, I think it is going to be tough in many cases for print subs to develop some of the more technical web skills, both because these skills are often very different from their current skillset and because they often don't have the time to learn them, or to practice them sufficiently when they do learn them. I think that both publishers and production teams share the responsibility for ensuring that, where production staff have the capacity to master the new skills, that they have the space to learn and apply them.

David - thanks for mentioning SEO. I agree that this is an important part of the web production desk role.

Martin Cloake

Karlos - Any chance of me coming in to see how your system operates? I'd do it with my LCC tutor's hat on. I'm trying to see as many set-ups as I can in order to hone and develop the production convergence course I am teaching at the LCC. Drop me a line on [email protected]

Terry Collmann

"We have to accept that there are many circumstances in web journalism where introducing a subbing stage into the process destroys the dynamic of the interaction between the journalist and the audience, and hence results in a reduction in quality."

Meaningless cobblers, When did checking anything result in a reduction in quality?

"it is going to be tough in many cases for print subs to develop some of the more technical web skills, both because these skills are often very different from their current skillset and because they often don't have the time to learn them, or to practice them sufficiently when they do learn them."

More cobblers. Subs learnt new skills when computerised newspaper production came in 20 to 25 years ago, and they are happily learning new skills now.


In general, I agree with Terry Collman. Checking doesn't mean changing for the sake of it. A good sub knows how to tidy copy up without losing the writer's voice or flattening a piece.

Also, I've been a sub for about 25 years- since the paper and pencil, casting off headlines days - and I seem to be taking on new skills every six months or so, so the skills argument doesn't hold up either.

I know blogs are supposed to be 'write as you speak', but I don't think it particularly enhances our reputation in the market when writers publish blog entries that include things like "I think we should of " meaning "should have" (which I have seen).

I work on an integrated team (has been since I joined it in Dec 04) where we deal with three monthlies, a weekly news led mag and the associated website - which now dominates. We have been publishing web-first for about a year, and the only difference between the skills used across the range of products is that (at the moment) we can't do layouts on the web. But it is a dynamic medium and I have no doubt that will change as the technology becomes more user friendly.

In addition to traditional subbing tasks we add value by checking and adding links; checking the searchability of key terms; making sure SEO best practice is observed, blogs and related links established; sourcing, sizing and uploading pictures; and driving the rest of the team to support the web-first approach.

Do we feel at all underemployed? No siree. Undervalued? Hmmmm.


Terry & SueP - see my following post for a response to your comments.


Me and Giles are in agreement on this matter.

Graeme O

I agree with most of what you say Karl, but unfortunately most companies seem to see web migration as an excuse to get rid of production staff. And HTML, CSS and javascript is more about being a computer programmer than a journalist. Considering the advances made by DTP in the 90s, the tools for producing web pages are still in the stone age. So let's stop pointing at the subs as if they have two heads and start giving them the tools to do the job, and the training.

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