Hull editor: 'Sub-editors not there to clean others' mess'

Sub-editors exist to “refine and polish” copy and should not be a safety net for sloppy reporters, Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan has told Press Gazette.

This week, Northcliffe announced it was cutting 50 jobs by centralising sub-editing into regional “centres of excellence”.

In the East Midlands, the Leicester Mercury, Nottingham Evening Post, and Derby Telegraph will be subbed in Nottingham.

In Humberside and Lincolnshire, the Hull Daily Mail, Grimsby Telegraph, Scunthorpe Telegraph, and Lincolnshire Echo will be subbed in Hull.

Meehan, editor of the Hull Daily Mail and regional editorial director of Northcliffe North East, told Press Gazette his papers would not suffer in quality.

When asked if, for example, a former Scunthorpe Telegraph sub would not notice a misspelt councillor’s name in the Hull Daily Mail, Meehan said: “The story should never get to any sub-editor with a councillor’s name misspelt.

“We expect all of our reporters, features writers, sports staff, to produce clean, accurate and grammatical copy that doesn’t have errors in. That’s a basic requirement, and not an unreasonable requirement.

“Subs are not there to clean up other people’s messes. They are there to refine copy, to polish, and produce papers with imagination and impact.”

When asked if this put him in Roy Greenslade’s camp – the former Daily Mirror editor argued earlier this month that most subbing could be removed, or, at best, outsourced – Meehan said: “I’m not sure I am.”

He added: “I agree the role of sub-editors is changing, as the role of every journalist is changing.

“The job of the sub-editor is very different now. In the newsroom outside my office, the job is very different to what it was a year ago.

“I don’t go for saying subs are no longer required. There’s a job to refine, polish and produce designs for packages and pages that engage and stimulate the reader in newspapers and online.”

Inevitable changes

Northcliffe, the regional arm of the Daily Mail and General Trust, saw profits fall by £25m to £68m last year. That is expected to fall further in 2009, and Meehan admitted the cuts were prompted by the slump in advertising revenues – but added changes were “inevitable” at some point.

“What I will say is this hasn’t been imposed upon me, it hasn’t been imposed on editors,” he said.

“We all recognise our business is changing fast, the conditions we operate in are changing enormously, and the pressures are growing all the time.

“I understand the concern about potential job losses. It’s certainly a big upheaval, but we simply have to meet the challenges facing our business.

“That’s in the interests of the company and all the people we employ now, and in the future.

“This is about the short, medium, and long-term. We cannot ignore the current situation, and we cannot ignore the fact it’s had a significant negative impact on our profitability, and that’s a situation we haven”t experienced before.

“We have to recognise this is something likely to continue for some considerable period. In the long term, we have to ensure we have a sustainable cost base in order to continue to provide an excellent community service.

“I happen to think that changing [the process] was inevitable at some point anyway. It has become more necessary as things get worse.”

Quality will not suffer

Last year, the Hull Daily Mail won newspaper of the year the Press Gazette Regional Press Awards, while the Grimsby Telegraph is the Newspaper Society’s community newspaper of the year.

Meehan insists that quality will not change, despite the reduction in journalists.

“We have got to put this in context,” he said. “We continue to have far more people on the ground than any other media organisation, including the BBC, which is uniquely immune to commercial pressures other organisations face.

“We have told staff this may result in 20 positions being lost – that’s just 10 per cent, so if this goes forward, the potential job losses are of that scale.

“There is absolutely no loss of local focus as a result of what is being proposed. Producing compelling local content and, and retaining that local focus of our newspapers and websites, is hugely important for Northcliffe.

“We believe passionately in being at the heart of all things local, and nothing we propose contradicts that.

“We are proud of our products – great, market-leading titles that are among the best in the industry.

“What will change is the process behind the scenes. For the readers and advertisers, the quality and relevance will not change at all.

“Also, we have got to remember there will be people that worked specifically for their local titles, and will be familiar with it. We’re not bussing in a bunch of strangers.”

Although sub-editors will be pooled in the “centres of excellence”, each title will have a dedicated “senior designer”.

“We absolutely do not want to produce identikit newspapers,” said Meehan. “Effectively, this regional production unit will become a service provider, and we expect that service to be excellent.

“We’re also ensuring that editors are retaining control over the content and direction of the titles, as they do now.

“They don’t have to worry about the production end of the operation – they will be able to get even more focused on local content.”

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