Monday, August 21, 2006

The unsung sub-editors in print media

( This piece appeared in July 2002, and relates to the print media in New Delhi during the Sixties. Most newspaper readers may not be familiar with the species called 'sub-editors'. They put in shape raw copy written by correspondents. Sub-editors process the story submitted by a correspondent, and give headlines to what appears on the printed page. Reporters/correspondents corner all the glory; get invited to booze parties, the press tours. Behind every correspondent's byline in newspapers, there is usually an unsung sub-editor. )

Every office has its sacred cow. Ours at the Times of India (TOI) came in the guise of a Special Correspondent (with capital 'S' and 'C,' in grudging recognition of his sacred cow status). He was an unmitigated pain in the butt for us on the TOI news service desk. This piece, however, is not just about an 'SC' (who was, in fact, a brahmin in the office hierarchy); it is more about that downtrodden backroom species in a newspaper office, called sub-editor.

Inspiration for this piece came from a paragraph in which writer Brendan Gill sums up his spell as an editor on The New Yorker magazine. In his book, Here at The New Yorker, Gill wrote, and I quote: "For a time, I served as an editor as well as a writer, but the experiment proved uncongenial to my vanity. We had writers so inept that one had to rewrite them almost word for word, and when, at a cocktail or dinner party, I would hear a writer praised for a profile that was, in fact, almost entirely my handiwork, I would grind my teeth with ill-conceived rage."

Gill can be said to have spoken for the universal brotherhood of sub-editors in the print media. Speaking for myself, I have occasionally had an odd reporter thanking me for, what Gill calls "the usual tidying up of grammatical loose ends." But, as a class, reporters are not given to acknowledging the value-addition done to their work by rewrite persons. If anything, reporters are quick to blame the editorial desk for "butchering" their copy.

During my early days with TOI as sub-editor on the news service desk in New Delhi, we had a Lucknow-based special correspondent, who enjoyed a sacred-cow status with the editor. We shall call him Shastri. He had a know-all air about him and, what's worse, he believed that sub-editors were part of the editorial furniture in a newspaper office.

Shastri had a penchant for Victorian flourish in his writing. Which was okay in a Sunday magazine piece. But news reports on something as mundane as question hour proceedings in the legislative assembly or the CPI state council meeting called for straight-forward journalese, to describe who hit out at what and when pandemonium prevailed in the house. But then Shastri had in him the genes of Shakespeare, who probably was born Seshappaiyer in a Telugu Brahmin family before the literary world reinvented him.

Ignorant of Shastri's special status, in my early days with TOI news desk, I took liberty with his copy, cutting out the literary foreplay from a news story on zero hour hungama at the UP assembly. Shastri was not amused. Besides, he was a pal of my chief at the news service desk. The next morning our shift in-charge, K T R Menon, gave me a piece of helpful advice - "We don't edit Shastri's copy; we just mark paragraphs and bung it in." Menon, an accomplished rewrite man, knew better than investing his professional skills on Shastri's work. The TOI editor, Girilal Jain, used to ask 'KTR' to "run through" editorials and his edit-page articles before they were sent down for printing. Such has been his professional reputation that Menon, after retirement from New Delhi TOI news desk, was recalled by the management to help launch a daily in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Girilal, like most editors, had his favorites. Reporters generally had free access to the editor, particularly those with extensive contacts in political and bureaucratic circles. And Girilal, like all editors, believed that his editorials and political punditry made waves. Political correspondents and those who covered the PMO gave the editor feedback, filling him in on the impact his writings made in South Block. And the correspondents contrived an impact-report, even if Girilal's editorial words of wisdom went unread on any given day by those at the government decision-making level.

We had a Pandey, Special Correspondent, whose proficiency in palm-reading rather than his professional merit opened the editor's door for him and put him on the fast track. But the snag with being such "special asset" reporter was that his sacred cow status did not survive Girilal Jain. When Arun Shourie took over as executive editor, Pandey, who had everything going for him till then, suddenly found himself as lost as a stray cow squatting on a Daryagunj road divider during rush hour. Shourie didn't care for Pandey's proficiency in astrology. Which was too bad, because Pandey could have read into his stars and warned Arun Shourie that he wouldn't last more than six months in The Times of India. (As it turned out Shhourie didn't last for more than six months on The Times.)

Some reporters might be lousy writers, but they knew how to keep their bosses in good humor. We had an Assam correspondent who made regular shipments of quality tea and honey to the news editor. That he made money running a benami taxi service went unreported. There was this Bhopal correspondent of another national daily who got a car allotted on CM's discretionary quota (during the permit raj) and was running it as a taxi. This was brought to the CM's notice. During one of his visits to New Delhi, the CM, when he had occasion to meet the newspaper owner, asked him in all innocence, "But don't you pay your reporters well?" When the press baron wanted to know why the CM seemed concerned about salary levels at his newspaper, the latter remarked, "Well, your man in Bhopal presumably runs a taxi to make both ends meet." The correspondent was promptly transferred out of Bhopal. So much for taxi-operators who doubled as newspaper correspondents.

In contrast to the stepmotherly treatment meted out to sub-editors in Indian newspapers, a deskman on a British daily was a valued person. Reporters found it worthwhile cultivating him rather than complain against desk. At The Northern Echo, a British daily published from Darlington, UK, I did a stint as sub-editor in the mid-Sixties. Those days in Britain one was not considered for a desk job until one had put in at least five years as a reporter. Newspapers in Britain faced a perennial shortage of capable deskmen. At the Echo they thought well of sub-editors from India, "Do you know Sunny Rao?" the chief sub asked me on my first day at work. "He was a damn good sub." Sunny Rao had worked on the TOI desk in Bombay. He had left the Echo before I joined them. I realised that as an Indian I had a reputation to maintain. On the Echo editorial desk I took the slot that was vacated by another Indian and former Indian Express sub, Subash Chopra, who moved over to The Times, London.

The editor rarely, if ever, questioned a sub-editor's action. The music critic of the Echo once took up with my editor Don Evans the treatment his music review had received at the editorial desk. I happened to have reworded the first paragraph of the music concert review. A couple of days after the publication of the review, Don sent word that he wished to meet me at his office. After the pleasantries Don politely broached the subject, saying that our music critic was unhappy about the handling of his copy by the editorial desk. I told Don that I was constrained to rewrite the first paragraph in the interest of clarity - "When I could not understand the jargon the critic had used, I didn't expect our readers would."

I'll end this piece with the last word on sacred cow Shastri. Some days after I had been advised not to touch his copy, the editorial desk noticed a glaring literal error in a story (I believe it was about the Kumbhmela at Allahabad) and, we, the lowly sub-editors, conspired to let Shastri's article pass through the editorial desk untouched. The reporter's reference to a public place came to be printed as 'pubic' place. The report carried Shastri's byline, and thus, our sacred cow got nailed in print. We didn't hear Shastri cribbing against sub-editors.


TS Satyan said...

Many thanks for a brilliant piece.
TS Satyan

Bapu Satyanarayana said...

I am extremely grateful for drawing my attention to your brilliant piece of insider's view about the unsung 'sub-editors' and the facade of erudition that the editors build around themselves It was stimulating to go through it and it reminds me of my own innocense or may be my incredulity while I was in Tazania when my boss asked me write an article which I promptly did only to find returned to me with his name as the author of the article for publication. I said before it is finally published my name shgould be included as I did the donkey's work. However, he insisted that only his name would be indicated. I persisted and finally he agreed with bad grace. But I know better now. Is not the same case in all trasactions except of course involving shady deals when the boss wants somebody to take the rap.

BKH said...

Nice article, Mr Krishnan. I just so happens that I read another blog on a similar topic at Freakanomics just a short while ago.