Media Types: Hero in the image of Dr Johnson: The sub-editor

THE sub-editor (Spikus vulgaris) is a retiring beast inhabiting the jungle of journalism, writes Robert Richardson. On morning papers, he - the female of the species was not discovered until the Sixties, so the masculine pronoun will suffice - spends his life in the twilight zone, arriving anonymously in the afternoon, ruminating over spelling and syntax as the day dies, and padding softly into the night when all is finished.

For him there are no picture bylines, no glamour of a regular column, no politicians seeking his ear or agents lunching him at Le Gavroche, no encounters with the rich and famous, no lucrative appearances on television chat shows. His gifts are unsung, his merits undervalued, his contribution scorned, his . . . (That's enough poncy phrases. Get on with it - Ed.)

Subs are the people who make sure there is always exactly enough material to fill each day's paper and that it bears some resemblance to sense. Their creative input comes principally in the form of headlines, and any gathering of the tribe eventually lapses into nostalgic recall of classics. One example of this high art must represent all the rest.

Many years ago, the Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson arrived in Southampton on a Monday, after crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary; at her dockside press conference, she complained that it had been an awful voyage and she had been violently seasick. A forgotten sub headlined the story 'Sick transit Gloria, Monday'. That, children, is true genius.

From the reporters' (or writers', as some preciously insist on being called) point of view, the sub is either friend or a tacky form of life that they are faintly surprised to discover has mastered the art of walking upright; it is a relationship now symbiotic, now hostile.

There are writers who consider their prose only slightly below God's on a good day and visibly bristle at the heresy of removing a comma; queries regarding style/ accuracy/ clarity/ sense/ grammar/ are akin to suggesting that their daughters sell their bodies nightly behind King's Cross station.

Others grasp the fact that if the sub does not understand their copy, there is a possibility the reader may not either; that an adjective should not be used as an adverb; that there really is a law of libel; that 58-line paragraphs written all as one sentence take on a certain tedious quality fairly quickly.

One common curse of the sub's life is the writer who inserts some alleged fact, adding the memo 'Subs please check'. By the time his copy reaches the subs, all known sources of checking are unavailable and the writer is in a wine bar without a telephone, surrounded by beautiful women inexplicably impressed by a 12-point byline. Back at the darkened office, the sub vainly consults the library, pores over reference books, and finally tosses a coin in despair. If the published fact is correct, the writer takes the credit; if wrong, it was the sub's fault.

But all this, of course, concerns the Good Sub. There is also the kind of sub who would brutally chop the final couplet off a Milton sonnet or cut the Ten Commandments down to six because they wouldn't fit the space; the kind who can take any well written piece and cold-bloodedly butcher it; who uses 'gilding the lily' in a headline and all the saints since Peter could not persuade him it's a misquotation.

Know him by his markings - shabby sports jacket and pullover, dirty fingernails, overweight, bored, impregnated with the faint odour of a four-ale bar, obsessed with the times of trains that take him home - and avoid him.

As the great Samuel Johnson said dismissively of the compilers of dictionaries, the sub-editor is a harmless drudge.

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