The wires are down at Gospel Oak; no trains. Getting into work’s been an effort all week. Been busy too: big rush for deadline last night on news. What I need is a large coffee and an easy Friday morning on the biz section: my favourite day of the week. A couple of comment pieces followed by a wander through the street-food market for lunch. Nothing too difficult.
Lot of emails from the economics columnist this morning. And here’s another one. What does he want?
Have just filed parts of column in reverse order.
It should be said at once that this sort of communication from the economics columnist is vanishingly rare. He is one of the most august and respected of the Tribune’s writers, but he doesn’t act like it. He could file late, dictate his own headlines and dig his heels in over every cut, but he never has, as long as I’ve known him.* He remembers names. He invites his subs out for drinks. And he always files on time.
But not this week: this week was looking a little star-crossed from the moment this email arrived on Thursday:
Please forgive me! I wrote my column this morning and gave it to the Fax people, who failed to send until four hours later, by which time Janet had gone down with flu. I am now off to [senior central banker’s] farewell.
Will type it all out again on my Ipad at crack of dawn, before a lecture I am giving at Queen Mary at 11 am, and see you all later.
Apologies for late copy.
From which it may be deduced: he’s very well-connected; he has a busy and energetic schedule; although past retirement age, he has developed an unlikely but burgeoning aptitude for tablet computing; however – to explain – his preferred method of filing is still to bash his column out on an old manual typewriter, with deletions and additions, and fax it to his secretarial service, where Janet types up a fair electronic copy and emails it in.
Talking of which, what’s this further down in the inbox? It’s from Janet: she’s struggled off her sickbed.
HiSo sorry about today, but I’ve managed to do first two pages attached
This column’s not just being filed once; it’s being filed twice, remotely and simultaneously – once in reverse order, once in the more traditional fashion. Or at least, not twice in full, but by a method rather like the digging of the Channel Tunnel: start at both ends and hope to meet in the middle. That’s why the economics columnist is filing in reverse. Yikes.
Sub-editing has changed almost beyond recognition since the advent of desktop publishing; so much so that someone like me – a converted book editor with a firm grasp of InDesign – can fit right in. It didn’t used to be like that: when type was set in metal line by line and the printers were in the basement, the skills were quite different. As David Sullivan recounts in That’s The Press, Baby:
“In those long-gone days, on-deadline stories might go to the composing room in takes as they were written. There was no way a 25-inch breaking story could be set in type by one operator, then proofread and corrected in the composing room, if the entire story went down at once, and still make deadline. You would send it down take by take. … When the paper came off the presses, copy editors checked it to make sure that the right headline was on the story (errors here more often than you might think), that an entire take hadn’t been left out or the story failed to end.”
I’ve always wondered what those days must have been like, when subbing was as much about managing a process as it was about checking facts. There might not be a vacuum-tube system at my desk or a press-room messenger waving galleys, but this is as close as I’m ever going to get to finding out. I’ve got an inbox full of takes, some sketchy indications about start and finish and an empty space at the bottom of the page. There might be duplicate material, muddles over ordering or two missing paragraphs in the middle; it’s up to me to notice. This is journalism as light industry, copy-editing as administration. Let’s go.
InCopy finishes booting up and I look in the subs’ queue. There appears to be something that looks like the economics column – the full 900 words – already waiting.
I look over at the chief sub. He looks over at me laconically. “I’ve already done it.”
Looks like there’ll be time for a flatbread from the food trucks after all.
* When you’re a new casual sub, you’re almost invisible: writers who would rather not be approaching the desk at all will sometimes come over, see no veteran face they recognise, look at you appraisingly, and turn away without a word. Others will queue for the attention of a busy chief sub on press night even though all the newbies are free and ready to help.
On the second or third week in our new offices, the economics columnist came over with some corrections during a particularly busy night and, rather than queue, courteously inquired: “Who shall I see about this?”. The chief sub pointed me out and said: “Talk to Ed.” He turned to pick out the face, having never seen me before. “Ed! Hello! Right! Just a couple of things. But what did you think of it? Did you think it worked?” And, immediately, we were two conspiratorial veterans at work in the hubbub of the newsroom: him in this fourth decade at the Tribune, me in my fourth month.