Career Spotlight: Sub Editors, Clearing The News Clutter

By June Ramli

When someone talks about working for a news organisation, they immediately think of journalists.
But there is another unsung role called the sub-editors, who work hand in hand with the newsroom team.
A sub-editor is someone who works alongside a journalist and an editor that helps in tightening copies or checking in on any errors that the latter might have missed, which sometimes may or may not be detrimental to the company.
But due to the many cuts posed upon the media businesses throughout the world, many English-speaking countries such as Australia have culled them out from their businesses as part of their budget cuts while some companies don’t have such positions available on their payrolls.
This move can sometimes work against the quality of the news output.
A case in point would be a 2018 incident committed by a former Daily Mail journalist whereby the reporter had accidentally uploaded her own musings on the website, which cost her her job. 
Such a mistake could have been easily prevented if a sub-editor had been employed by the company. 
This is why sub-editors should be considered as a pertinent part of any publishing business and not receive the cull every time there is a budget cut.
In countries such as Malaysia, where English is widely spoken but still considered as a second language, the need for sub-editors is still very much alive and kicking as they are still regarded as an integral part of any publishing business.
Sub-editor Sharifah Arfah Syed Mestaddin, who has worked with the Malaysia National News Agency (Bernama) for nearly three years, couldn’t agree more.
“Yes, you definitely need that fresh pair of eyes to have one last look at the story before it is sent out,” she told the dailystraits.com in a recent interview. 
“There might be one misplaced word or an awkwardly written sentence that a sub-editor can spot which might cause substantial damage even if the gaffe is retracted later on,” she said.
Citing an example, Sharifah said: “The other day I was clearing a copy on MH370, I noticed that instead of the word “rogue” pilot, the writer had used the word “rouge” instead. I was drinking my coffee and nearly choked on it.”
Arfah who has been a journalist for 14 years prior, said the transition from journalism to sub-editing wasn’t much of a challenge for her.
“My skills were tested before I was given the job. They asked me to translate a copy from BM (Bahasa Malaysia) to English and I was required to spot some mistakes in a text as well,” she said.
In Malaysia, she said sub-editors were mostly required to have a stint in journalism before being given the role.
“Because when you are a journalist, there is a line of enquiry that would determine the flow of your stories, such as the 4Ws (who, what, where, when) and 1H (how).
“That is the basic, and if the reporters write and focus on that (basic) then everything (the copy) would be fine.”
Explaining her role further, Sharifah said: “We will then take the copy and make it more readable for the reader. Make sure the paragraphs are correct, the punctuations are in the right places, and the grammar is correct and it is written in accordance with the house style.” 
“Even flash alerts, the one-liners used to announce breaking news, get the last look from a sub-editor before it is sent out.
“It is very easy to miss that one little word that can make all the difference,” she said.
She added these checks and balances had to be done despite the news agency placing a great emphasis on speed.
“I work at the international desk and I clear about 15 stories a day with a 300-word story taking me about half an hour to do,” said the mother of two. 
“I may take time to rewrite the headlines as a lot of people tend to read the headlines these days before clicking on the story. It has to be catchy enough to make people want to read.”
Sharifah knows what to expect in terms of her daily workload as it is communicated well to her beforehand through desk meetings which had now been temporarily pivoted to Whatapps group messages due to the COVID-19 work-from-home policies. 
Sharifah also said her job involves a lot of sitting down and computer-based work. 
“One of the challenges of this job is that this is a desk oriented job and there are health problems associated with sitting down too much.
“That is why sometimes I take short breaks to stand up, do some light stretching and go for a small walk.”  
Another thing that sub-editors tend to suffer from is ‘information overload’ from reading and clearing a large number of copies.
Thus, they are prone to ‘switching off’ once they clocked off from work. 
“I watch Netflix and I interact with my kids and talk about their day and all things non-adult-like, and nothing about the world or current news or what politicians are up to.”
To contact this reporter, email editor@dailystraits.com

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