The role of the sub-editor is a pivotal one in print journalism. Subs shape copy, make it fit the page, watch over it and, not uncommonly, save reporters and writers from themselves. The subs' bench at a newspaper has traditionally been where the paper's institutional knowledge rests.
But as papers face a future in which they need to handle more text on smaller budgets -- chiefly because classified advertising revenue, long the unglamorous engine of newspaper publishing, is draining away to the internet -- that tradition is disappearing.
In 2006, APN announced it was outsourcing some of the subbing work on its publications -- which include the New Zealand Herald, The Listener and seven regional papers -- to a company called Pagemasters, which now runs a "centralised subediting operation" in Auckland, employing about 60 staff to produce more than 1000 pages a week.
If there is an APN journalist who likes this setup, I've yet to meet him or her. The loss of experienced sub-editors in the name of efficiency tends to have the perverse effect of adding to the workload of the staff left in the newsroom, who may need to rewrite the headlines that come back and watch for errors introduced offsite. Some work -- listings in particular -- even goes to Pagemasters in Australia, where the lack of local knowledge is exacerbated.
But even though some of the APN work was subsequently brought back in-house, the trend seems inexorable. Pagemasters' 44% owner, Fairfax, has "insourced" much of the work for its New Zealand publications to centralised "subbing hubs". In Australia, most features pages in the Fairfax broadsheets The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald have been handled by Pagemasters in Brisbane since 2008.
But now the ink has hit the fan. Sixty six editorial production jobs at the Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury and seven associated community papers are to go because their work in being outsourced -- to New Zealand.
The Media Entertainent and Arts Alliance, the union covering Australian journalists, has already staged a 36-hour snap strike by journalists and has now won an extension to try and sell an insourcing plan, keeping the jobs within Australia, to Fairfax management.
As John Drinnan pointed out on Friday, this may yet reach the point where the interests of the MEAA and the EPMU, which represents journalists here, come into direct conflict. The EPMU may decide that new jobs are new jobs. The Australian union, after all, didn't have much to say when Pagemasters work went across the Tasman in the other direction.
I've just done a satellite interview with MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren, which will feature in this week's Media7. I'll also be joined by Robin Martin, the head of journalism at the Western Institute of Technology in New Plymouth -- where, incidentally, Fairfax runs a subbing hub.
Update: We've just also confirmed Rick Neville, COO and Editor-in-Chief, APN NZ Regional Newspapers and acting Head of Content at APN.
I'd be very interested in hearing, in confidence, from anyone who works or has worked at either Pagemasters or in a Fairfax hub. They're the people making the sausages, but we never hear from them. Just click the envelope icon at the bottom of this post to email me.
The second half of this week's show covers a very different topic -- superheroes and the people who dreamed them up.
The global success of The Avengers has sharpened the debate around the rights of the people who created the characters. The creators of Superman, for example, were barely out of school when they sold the rights to their character for $130 to DC in 1938. In a remarkable court case, the heirs of one of those creators have just won some rights to the character from DC's owner, Time Warner -- albeit with a few caveats and unknowns. The estate of Jack Kirby, who jointly created nearly all the Marvel characters in The Avengers, continues to derive no benefit from the business being done with those characters.
The case of Watchmen, the monumental graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is slightly different. As this very useful story on Salon explains:
It's true that back in the ’80s, DC tried to get Moore and Gibbons on board for a sequel. That didn't pan out, though, and in the ensuing decades, Moore's relationship with DC has soured, to put it mildly. Among (many) other things, Moore became increasingly angry with the company over the handling of the rights to Watchmen itself. In the original contract, DC had written a provision stating that the comic and the characters would revert to Moore and Gibbons once the series went out of print. Moore had assumed that, as with all comics in those pre-“graphic novel” days, this would happen within a few years. Instead, of course, Watchmen was a massive hit—so massive that the trade paperback collection of Watchmen has been in constant publication, and probably always will be.
Among the comics creators who have decided they will not work for DC any more are London-based New Zealand Roger Langridge.
I'll be talking to New Zealand comics blogger Adrian Kinnaird about the comic creators' rebellion. And Jose Barbosa has been working on an accompanying video track that may make your eyeballs pop out.
If you'd like to join us for the Media7 recording tomorrow (Wednesday) evening, we'll need you to present yourself at the Victoria St entrance of TVNZ some time between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me an email to let me know you're coming.