The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

23 Jan

Image: 20th Century Fox

The copy chief hands him the file with the typed copy in it, and the man sitting at the desk takes out his pen. The newsroom is dark, the clock is ticking, and the most important and sensitive story he will ever edit has arrived – like all important and sensitive stories – right on deadline. He looks up at his manager, the two men alone in the office at an epochal moment for journalism and America. “You’ve got half an hour,” says his manager gruffly.

For years, only one copy editor had ever appeared as a character in a feature film: Lou the front-page sub in Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy The Paper.* But now there are two, because in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, the focus is almost as much on newspaper production as it is on newspaper editing and reporting.

The story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers – the leaked documents that destroyed the credibility of the war in Vietnam – is a subject worthy of what my boss at the Tribune refers to as “late-period Spielberg”: those recent films of his that tell huge American stories magisterially, at a medium pace and with limpid period detail. The ethical struggle between the first amendment and the security state is an eternal theme, taken up in several movies. But for someone like me who started their career in the Quark XPress era, it’s the recreation of a 1970s newsroom that’s really mesmerising.

There are enormous ties, and early colour TVs, and people in the background flicking through galleys with a familiar look of rising concern on their faces (is there a page missing here, or is this actually what was filed?). There are linotype machines filmed in fascinating close-up, real slugs coming out and being loaded into formes, famous headlines shown reversed in metal. There is also – and this is the thing I most regret never having seen – a pneumatic-tube messenger system for sending copy to the composing room in metal cylinders.

And there is also a copy editor. Only one, again, as in The Paper (although, to be fair, he and the copy chief had probably stayed behind specially). And he barely speaks, except to ask for a messenger tube. But you can tell he’s a copy editor, because the first thing he does, with the presses trembling, his proprietor under pressure and the reputations of four presidents hanging in the balance, is calmly cross out the first sentence of the story.

Then as now, sometimes the most important cut is the one you make in the first paragraph.  I like to think it said something like “Bombings and deception and McNamara, oh my!”. But it was probably something more like: “It’s official …”.


* To be absolutely accurate, as readers have pointed out previously, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed is also, notionally, a copy editor: but as she (a) appears to have an office to herself and (b) gets sent out on a whim to off-diary feature assignments, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a columnist.


6 Responses to “The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film”

  1. Picky January 24, 2018 at 10:11 am #

    My goodness … yes, Lamson tubes (sorry to sidestep the theme of your piece, but the mention kicked off the memories). Feeding the things was done so many times a day that the physical action became quite unconscious, and I could do it without thinking now: hold the canister by the lid end, a flick of the wrist opens the seal on the tube, the canister is sucked out of the hand, there’s that familiar rattle like a distant Tube train as it hurtles off down the system. A few minutes later, the rattle, a clack as the seal opens, and a thump as the empty canister returns from the Composing Room copydesk. Excuse me while I weep a little for my lost youth.

    • edlatham January 24, 2018 at 11:11 am #

      Aha! I had always wondered whether the vacuum was permanent, or whether you loaded the canister and pressed a button. Another lost newsroom sound, along with typewriters and rumbling presses. It’s all very quiet these days

  2. Michael Devine March 21, 2018 at 4:56 pm #

    Having played the Copy Chief in The Post, I particularly enjoyed this piece. Great work!

    • edlatham March 21, 2018 at 5:20 pm #

      Thank you very much – the film, and particularly that scene, has been a big hit with the copy desk at my paper!


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