29 August 2014

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Dyson at Large: Why good subs are worth keeping

The Darlington & Stockton Times is the embodiment of a newspaper which means something to local people.

Why? Because it’s crammed full of exhaustive local news, dozens of local names and faces, and countless sections of useful local information in what I think was six-point type.

In the D&S Times (how it’s known locally) on 14 March, there were at least 400 reports on 64 news, features and sports pages in an 88-page paper – an impressive editorial ratio and story count in anyone’s book.

And each page was crafted with punchy and active headlines, detailed captions, carefully-levelled columns, panels and sections, and accurately-spelt place names.

In fact, it was almost as if there was a motivated team of, er, traditional sub-editors working on the title… but more on that later.

Here’s the headline clarity: ‘New plans for homes site but business area dropped’, page one; ‘Arrests after illegal hunting raids’, page two; ‘Quartet of couples at church share long marriage secrets’, page six; ‘Joy as national parks saved from ghost village threat’, page nine; and ‘Legal bill in row over horse reaches £150,000’, page 11.

Here’s more: ‘Residents speak out in favour of £2m hall plans’, page 13; ‘Caring Katrina sets out to ease heartache of stillbirth’, page 17; ‘Private companies set to run military bases like Catterick’, page 18; ‘Jacqui Cheer: The day I knew I had to join police’, page 19; ‘Lorry driver in deaths crash back on road in two years’, page 24; and ‘Jail for burglars who posed as golfers to raid clubhouses’, page 31.

Main news aside, the detailed six-point sections included: ‘Information service’ on page two – traffic, schools, health and weather; ‘Bridge notes’, page 11; ‘YFC reports’ (Young Farmers’ Clubs), page 26; ‘Market prices’, page 28; ‘Prices at the auction marts’, page 30; and ‘Weekend events’ listings, pages 35 and 36.

Deeper in the paper, from pages 57 to 60, was the ‘Town & Village’ section, with reports from the likes of Bilsdale, Chop Gate, Faceby, Seamer, Thorpe Thewles, Butterknowle, Heighington and Whorlton.

Other unusually spelt and sounding locations in the paper included Eaglescliffe, Guisborough, Barnard Castle, Osmotherley, Knaresborough, Brough, Grewelthorpe, Chester-le-Street, Middleton-in-Teesdale and Kirbymoorside.

Having once lived in North Yorkshire for three years (I used to dream of being the Great Fryup Dale correspondent), I was able to check the headlines, sub-headings, captions, listings and main copy throughout the D&S Times to see how many mistakes were made with these weird and wonderful place names.

And I can report that I was unable to spot one incorrectly spelt, nor could I find a single grammatical blooper, nor any missing captions – indeed, the majority of captions were three lines or longer, naming each and every person pictured, often with ages.

Put simply, the D&S Times has one hell of a subbing operation, perhaps no surprise given that all subs are (currently) based up north, their work scrutinised by editor Malcolm Warne, in the chair for 22 years, retaining a firm grip on the paper’s appearance, style and precision from his base in Darlington.

The care and attention that’s paid to every column and caption goes some way to explaining the paper’s circulation performance, with sales down just 4.9pc to a weekly average of 20,072 in 2013 – remarkably steady given that the cover price was £1, up from 75p in 2012.

The D&S Times has already coped with production change in recent times, with down-table subbing now carried out in Bradford, West Yorkshire – not local, but still regional and definitely up north.

But as a Newsquest paper,  it’s now one of those due to be sent 220-plus more miles down the road to be subbed at Newport, South Wales – although I understand this project has now been delayed, with a latest transfer date of 7 May.

Before it’s ready, this far-flung hub will need substantial investment in quality sub-editors who care about northern people and northern detail, and robust systems that allow editors easy access to pages; because this newspaper’s readers and advertisers will immediately notice any slip in story count, accuracy or spelling.

Yes, I’m afraid I’m using that recently-maligned word ‘sub-editors’ again, and it’s because I believe finely-tuned newspapers like the D&S Times still need a few of them.

17 Comments

  1. Observer

    Right first time, Steve….. Remember the mantra?

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  2. Lister

    On March 27 Peter Barron, Malcolm Warne’s fellow editor in Darlington, tweeted a HTFP story for his subjects to read. It was headlined “Subs are not coming back says former daily editor” and was a rather flawed argument for getting rid of sub-editors and dumbing down the regional press.
    For the sake of impartiality, accuracy, clarity, the record, and the wellbeing of the industry he should tweet this story too. But we know he won’t because all those values – right down to decency, personal respect and basic courtesy – have gone out of the window in Darlington in a desperate race to see who can cling longest to the scuttled ship.

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  3. speckledhen

    Does this include the recent headline ‘Fly-fishing course gives youngsters a taste a sport’ spotted in Friday March, 28? Or ‘Cuts mean smoking help postcode lottery’ in the same edition?

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  4. Bandwagoner

    Can I just offer my sincere thanks to Mr Steve ‘voice of the people’ Dyson for taking the time to point out what size the Darlington & Stockton Times is written in.

    As an upstanding member of the community I find this kind of information is vital in deciding whether or not a publication is of a high quality or not.

    One can only hope that the Dyson will use his powers as a ‘blogger at large’ to ensure that this genre defining tome does not fall in to the hands of the ‘sub hub of horrors’.

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  5. ted wilson, dublin

    ‘recently maligned’. Last par. No hyphen. Sorry.

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  6. Bluestringer

    Expecting subs to be meticulous with copy and headlines is an anachronism.
    Now it seems they speed-read the first par, throw the text into a template and slap a few random words into the headline box which, with luck, may bear some relevance to the story.
    Judging from comments on Steve’s recent Little Hub of Horrors blog, it seemed the subs began spluttering and clutching their throats like Lady Bracknell when he suggested they were being less than diligent in their work, blaming it on editors several hundred miles away for “failing to check” if they’d cocked it all up or not.

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  7. Anon

    If subbing is done in Bradford already, what’s the difference with Wales? It’s not as if folk living 75 miles away in Bradford are going to know anything about the areas served by the DST. Doesn’t your rave review of the DST just underline that what Newsquest is doing is working, and working well?

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  8. Steve Dyson

    Thanks for all the comments – a good subject to discuss.

    Re. Anon’s thoughts, my over-riding view is the importance of retaining quality sub-editors, wherever they happen to be.

    I have a view on the practicalities of a hub 270-miles away, especially having reviewed titles currently subbed there (Htfp 5 March). But, if it’s going to happen, then I’d urge the need for the same qualities, care and attention displayed in the regional Bradford hub to be adopted by Newport.

    Quality includes local knowledge, and while this is easier for subs based in Yorkshire it is harder for those in Wales without the investment of time, resources and training (site visits, even).

    Any good sub-editors would expect no less.

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  9. beenthere

    When Peter Barron, editor of the Northern Echo, was awarded an MBE earlier this year he said: “I hope this honour highlights the vital community work carried out by local newspapers nationwide. It has been a privilege to work in the regional press for 34 years and I’ve been lucky to work with a brilliant team on a paper with great campaigning traditions.”
    Fine words. Why have we heard nothing from this usually vocal champion of regional journalism about the proposal to shift the subbing of his paper to Newport in Wales? Has he any comment about his ‘brilliant team’ being broken up in this way?

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  10. meh

    You’ve spelt Kirkbymoorside wrong Steve.

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  11. Anon

    Steve, you’re suggesting that the subs in Newport are second rate? Is that correct?

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  12. Steve Dyson

    Guilty! And hence the need for good sub-editors… For the avoidance of doubt, Kirkbymoorside was spelt correctly in the D&S Times.

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  13. Steve Dyson

    Anon: no, I haven’t got the access to judge the quality of individuals. But based on my review of papers currently subbed at Newport, the hub wasn’t equipped with the necessary resources to produce quality products such as the D&S Times. Any expanding hub needs the investment of resources – in terms of time, qualified staff and training – to succeed.

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  14. John Furbisher, Brussels

    Ted Wilson – I’m with Steve, I reckon: “recently-maligned” is used here as a compound adjective, qualifying “word”. So it should have a hyphen to tie the two parts. Now…where did I leave my life?

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  15. Grumbler

    Re the subbing hub any editor worth his salt would oppose such a move and attempt to defend the journalists who see fit to protest against it. Instead, particularly with his public pronouncements, Peter Barron has done just the opposite – siding with management and hanging out to dry loyal staff. While Malcolm Warne has been less vociferous, he too knows which side his bread is buttered on in respect of the subbing plans. This is while remaining editor of the once independent D&S after it merged with The Northern Echo in all but name. A sad situation all round.

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  16. Aphid, Shropshire

    John Furbisher: why would you need to tie the two parts when ‘recently’ can’t possibly be linked to anything other than ‘maligned’? There’s good cause to hyphenate compound adjectives in phrases such as ‘I saw a man-eating alligator’, but where there is no ambiguity there’s no need at all. I spent too many years removing hyphens from copy supplied by reporters who had once been told that any word ending ‘-ly’ would need a hyphen after it.

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  17. Ted hagan, france

    John Furbisher: Guardian style book (don’t laugh)
    Do not use hyphens after adverbs ending in -ly, eg a hotly disputed penalty, a constantly evolving newspaper, genetically modified food, etc,

    Sorry, I rreallt need to find a life at the moment, but the article is about subbing, after all.

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