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Why the editorial is the unsung hero of any newspaper

A tad autobiographical, this account encapsulates my experiences at a news organisation. Why wait until 50 or 60 to compose one? Hell, who knows, this could even be its blueprint! So, here goes my first stab at chronicling myself...

I was prepared for all kinds of weird questions for my first job interview as a journalist four years ago, for the post of a sub-editor, but I never anticipated this one that caught me off guard.

Noting that I preferred to work in the editorial than the reporting section, a HR representative at the organization asked in almost an air of dismissal, implying that the editorial is something redundant, “After all, we have Microsoft Word, in built with grammar and spell check capabilities, so why must I hire you?”

I stared at him blankly for a moment as a smile grew on his face, perhaps out of exult at having stumped me. I trotted a familiar refrain, which I am sure he would have encountered countless times, “Because I am passionate about writing and journalism, and I believe that the Fourth Estate can turn around the dynamics of the nation unlike any other establishment.” The interviewer closed his eyes even before I could finish responding.

The grin grew into a smirk and then a sarcastic smile. He asked no further questions. Call it providence, call it divine intervention or the good mood he was in at the time, I got my first break in journalism.

Hardly a week into my new job, I realised just how important the editorial is to a newspaper. The deputy resident editor – the person manning the regional editions – had spotted an error in a page prior to it going in for print. He stormed out of his cabin lambasting the entire desk (or the editorial as it is also known) for carelessness and goading us to proof-read all of the pages once again.

The error in question wasn’t grammatical in nature; no spell-check would have detected it, but it was egregious. The sentence he was referring to read “The minister said that public funds are God’s funds…”

Nothing wrong, except that “public” had the letter ‘l’ missing. Had the error passed undetected, our paper would have been one big laughing stock.

I wish I had summoned the guts to get back to my recruiter to prove a point or two.

For countless people, the media, especially print, is synonymous with reporters shooting difficult queries to politicians and officials in public, writing incendiary articles and exposing scandals, and importantly, bylines – the names of reporters that appear at the top of news articles. Few people, apart from, say those associated with the industry, are aware of another branch that is as vital to the functioning of a newspaper – the editorial (and I am not referring to those long pieces of opinion that appear in the centre pages of the paper).

Another common misconception is that the post of sub-editor is ranked just below that of the all-powerful and encompassing editor. In reality, the sub-editor is where someone starts off in the hierarchy of the editorial, the bottom of the food chain. So, when someone persons bombard me with statements that are variants of: “Oh, so you have become a sub-editor in such a short while. That’s impressive.” My stock reply would be, “But you have wasted no time in becoming a fossil”.

Spotting serious errors alone does not fit the job description of a sub-editor. The challenging – and sometimes unkind – job of preparing the layout of a newspage in coordination with designers and the news editor
is their principal job, preceded by the arduous task of editing (and/ or rewriting) news reports handed in by reporters. Not a difficult task, one may say, except that in some cases, sense needs to be made out of, and injected, into the news story.

It is no secret that advertisments are the largest source of revenue for news publications. Reader subscription charges would not even make up a miniscule portion charge of their running costs. 
Which means, if there is clash between an advertisement and a clutch of news stories for space on a news page, the ad goes in; the stories can either wait or get truncated. Advertisments can be a boon or bane for a sub-editor. Boon, for there is less space to work on; bane, as their arrival tends to be dynamic and sometimes last-minute. Which means that the same story that was majestically occupying a seven-eight column space needs to be rewritten without loss of meaning or quotes from important public personalities (either way, the prospect of facing a cross reporter the next day looms large) and squeezed into an obscure single column.

Mostly, editorial staff can heave their sighs of relief only after they are unable to accommodate further ads, which can be at the time the page has gone to print.
The converse can also happen. A sub-editor has to cope with dry days as well, a euphemism for days when fewer reports and advertisements get generated – a double whammy of sorts. A nightmare for any sub-editor, this is also when the (news) elements come into play. After all, journalists are no longer living in the era of the 1971 national emergency, when a few publications, most notably The Indian Express (undivided), chose to harshly criticise the government by publishing a blank page -- sacrilegious in any news organisation in today's context. So, an otherwise ordinary report that may have gotten dumped in a corner on a regular day gets suddenly embellished with a photograph of the persons concerned, a quote hanger, a blurb, a graphic and what-not (after all, the reporter needs some cheery days too).

This can also explain why an unstated animosity (although the term sounds rather harsh) exists between the reporting and editorial sections. Complaints and banter get traded between the two frequently, on topics ranging from headline or editing errors to poor grammar and structural composition of the copies handed in.

However, it was only when I became a reporter did I get a taste of my “medicine”. Reports were cropped, stories were rewritten, some were played-up, some played down. The sense of disappointment, and probably guilt too, was difficult to deny, but looking back, the stint has been nothing short of fulfilling.

To the uninitiated, these are pointers to the flurry of activity that would have gone inside a newsroom, before the paper lands next day on your doorstep.

True, the reporter gets the praise for that expose or the wonderfully-sourced article – they deserve it – but now you know that the editorial is the unsung hero of any newspaper.

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