It’s a Hollywood movie about journalists, and it’s got everything you’d hope for: caffeinated news editors, sweaty reporters, babble, hubbub, clattering keys. But also, in the background, is a different, less familiar, sound: the voice of The Only Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film**.
In this scene from The Paper, directed by Ron Howard, it’s gone 6pm on a busy news day at the slightly hapless New York Sun. Metro editor Henry (Michael Keaton) is still chasing down a hot story about a double murder in Brooklyn as a possible new splash. But over in the corner, Lou the layout sub (Geoffrey Owens) is worried about what’s currently on page one: a legally tricky headline about the driver of a crashed subway train.
LOU: Henry, do you really want to run ‘SMASHED’ as the wood on the subway?
HENRY: (distracted) Errrrr … whatever fits. (Moving away to the reporters’ desks) I don’t care.
LOU: (calling after him) The thing is, it implies that he was drunk while he was driving a train. He could have got drunk afterwards.
ANNA: (walking past LOU’s desk) You’re accurate and ethical, and I want you out of this building.
(The camera follows HENRY as he is swept away by reporters clamouring for his attention, leaving LOU staring at the headline. Then a bright idea presents itself)
LOU: (calling faintly across the room) Hey Hen, I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark, what do you think?
(HENRY, intently watching a TV report on the murders, doesn’t reply)
LOU: (walking over) Henry: I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark. What do you think?
HENRY: (still distracted) Not gonna matter.
(JANET, HENRY’s secretary, comes over.)
HENRY: Did McDougall call in?
HENRY: No message at all from McDougall?
JANET: I have no motive for lying, Henry.
LOU: (persisting heroically) I tell you what, Henry, I’ll make a proof of ‘SMASHED?” with a question mark and I’ll show it to you.
HENRY (barely listening): I’m going down to composing, I’ll check it out there.
(A few minutes later, in the composing room)
LOU: What do you think?
HENRY: I hate it.
Now that – that – is the sub-editing experience. Hollywood, as we’ve observed before, understands the emotional journeys of other kinds of journalists well: reporters’ doggedness rewarded, editors’ courage vindicated, whistleblowers’ satisfaction when the truth comes out. The Paper doesn’t get subbing entirely right: there seems to be only two copy editors in a large building heaving with reporters, PAs and management, whereas in any real newsroom production staff are likely to form the largest discrete group. But the idea of agonising over a headline that gets heedlessly swept off the page two hours later aches with verisimilitude. And no other film has ever managed to capture the signature sub-editorial emotion quite so well – that nervous realisation that you’re the only person, in an office of 200 people, who’s noticed something’s wrong.
** UPDATE: As reader Sluggh rightly points out in the comments, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, although she spends nearly all her time in the film as an undercover reporter, is actually a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that The Paper is the only time sub-editing is portrayed on screen. Unless someone knows different?