Press sub-editors, or subs, check the written text of newspapers, magazines or websites before it is published. They are responsible for ensuring the correct grammar, spelling, house style and tone of the published work.

Subs make sure that the copy is factually correct and that it suits the target market. They also lay out the story on the page, write headings and may be involved with overall page design.

Like other journalism roles, sub-editing is demanding and requires constant attention to detail within a fast-paced working environment.

Responsibilities

To be a good sub, you must be an all-rounder: you need to know media law, have a keen eye for detail and be able to put a story together with speed and style.

Depending on the nature of employment and the extent to which production and layout work falls within the sub-editor's remit, tasks typically involve the following:

  • editing copy, written by reporters or features writers, to remove spelling mistakes and grammatical errors;
  • rewriting material so that it flows or reads better and adheres to the house style of a particular publication;
  • ensuring that a story fits a particular word count by cutting or expanding material as necessary;
  • writing headlines that capture the essence of the story or are clever or amusing;
  • writing standfirsts or 'sells' (brief introductions, which sum up the story underneath the headline);
  • liaising with reporters, journalists and editors;
  • checking facts and stories to ensure they are accurate, adhere to copyright laws, are not libellous or go against the publication's policy;
  • cropping photos and deciding where to use them for best effect and writing picture captions;
  • proofreading complete pages produced by other sub-editors using the main basic proofing symbols;
  • working to a page plan to ensure that the right stories appear in the correct place on each page;
  • laying out pages and, depending on the nature of the role, playing a part in page design;
  • manipulating on-screen copy using appropriate desktop publishing software, such as Quark Express, InDesign and Photoshop;
  • keeping up to date with sector issues, e.g. by reading related publications;
  • adapting all these skills for a publication's website.

Salary

  • Journalists do not enter the profession for money. The popularity of this type of work means starting salaries for sub-editors can be low, ranging from £15,000 to £23,000. Large regional or national papers tend to pay more than smaller local papers or magazines.
  • Salaries for experienced or more senior sub-editors can range from £25,000 to £40,000+, again depending on the publication concerned.
  • A production editor or chief sub-editor for a national newspaper could earn £60,000.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Sub-editors need to be flexible; working late to meet deadlines is a necessary part of the job. Working for national dailies may involve unsocial hours and some early or late shifts, with hours varying according to workload. Depending on whether you are working for a daily, weekly or monthly title, work cycles build up to a frenetic peak just before the paper is due to go to print.

What to expect

  • The work is desk-based, but can include visits to meetings, launches and other events.
  • On smaller publications there is a fair degree of flexibility and variety of work, as there are fewer people to cover the full range of responsibilities. Narrower, more specialised roles such as features sub-editor or news sub-editor are likely at a larger paper or magazine. However, many sub-editors find that work activities are quite fluid and there are opportunities to become involved in writing, design and production.
  • The work environment can be competitive and stressful, with high levels of pressure as deadlines approach. Despite this, job satisfaction is often high because results of your work are readily visible.
  • Freelance work is an option for sub-editors with some experience. This can offer increased flexibility, broader experience and the chance to earn a higher salary.
  • Sub-editing can offer a route into other areas of journalism and publishing, though it is more often something people move into after gaining experience as a reporter.
  • Travel within a working day is occasional. Overseas work or travel is uncommon.

Qualifications

A degree is not a formal requirement, but it can be difficult to get into the profession without a relevant degree, postgraduate course or a vocational qualification.

Graduates from a range of backgrounds can gain entry on to training courses, but relevant degree subjects include:

  • English;
  • journalism;
  • media studies.

Many degree and postgraduate pre-entry courses are accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), so it is worth checking the status of any course you are considering when making your application.

Your degree subject may be relevant depending on the type of publication you work on, such as a science or engineering journal, an economic or financial affairs title, etc.

Entry with a HND only is possible, but the reality is that the competitive nature of the industry means graduates and postgraduates are in a far stronger position than those with an HND or other equivalent qualification.

NCTJ runs the only training course in the UK specifically designed for sub-editors. This is the Full-time Certificate in Sub-Editing at Brighton Journalist Works, in Brighton.

Students will usually need a minimum of two A-levels and most have degrees, but the course also attracts gap-year students or mature applicants without formal qualifications.

There are several accredited newspaper courses that offer an additional certificate in sub-editing.

Brighton Journalist Works also run more general journalism courses, which have an element of sub-editing training within them.

Search for postgraduate courses in journalism.

Skills

For many jobs, and certainly to be considered by any of the relevant recruitment agencies, competency with QuarkXPress or InDesign is essential. Having basic Photoshop skills is also an advantage.

As with all roles in journalism, competition is fierce. Selection procedures for courses and for jobs as sub-editors often involve copy-subbing exercises, so it is useful to practise this skill by summarising reports, cutting lengthy articles or simply trying to rewrite something in a more communicative way.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is essential. Get work experience wherever and whenever you can, either through a placement or volunteer work. Try local papers or join the team at the student newspaper or website. The boom in internet publications offers another way to get your work published and develop a portfolio.

This is an area of work where maturity is often appreciated. Commonly, people move into sub-editing roles having first gained experience as a reporter.

Employers

Typical employers include regional, national and international newspaper and magazine publishing groups, and agencies such as the Press Association.

Some smaller independent publications, such as special interest magazines or newspapers, may also employ sub-editors, though entry to these may be even more competitive.

For details of publications and their owners, see media.info.

The newspaper industry is witnessing a decline in its printed material and there is uncertainty about the long-term future of the sub-editor role. Reporters are increasingly being encouraged to publish directly to websites and subbing activities are now frequently outsourced to production hubs, or absorbed - to some degree - within other journalist roles.

However, internet publishing and its associated advertising revenue is helping to offset this to some extent. As a result, the industry is evolving and those entering the journalistic profession are finding themselves having to adapt to the changes.

Many local newspapers continue to recruit locally, even when they have been taken over by a larger group, so it is worth writing directly to editors speculatively. Being prepared to work freelance or on short contracts will increase your chances of finding work.

Recruitment agencies in the sector generally find it easy to place experienced and competent sub-editors.

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Professional development

Sub-editors will often have either completed a course accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) before they enter journalism, or they will study for an approved course while they are working.

It is possible to gain entry to this role without prior training, though previous experience in a relevant setting is a must. Many of the large newspaper groups run in-house training programmes.

The NCTJ lists a range of approved courses, all of which cover the basics of journalism, including the law and the practical skills of journalism such as sub-editing.

Proficiency in sub-editing is gained on the job. Starting with the basics, such as editing out typing errors and spelling mistakes and adjusting word counts, and then moving on to writing headlines and learning to lay out a story on the page.

Newspaper groups may send their sub-editors on a range of in-company or external training courses. These are offered by the NCTJ and other relevant professional bodies.

Opportunities for advanced IT training may also help sub-editors update their skills and keep up with industry developments.

Career prospects

The most junior post for a sub-editor is that of copy sub, which is simply dealing with the written text. Being given greater responsibility for page design and layout is the next step up.

The sub-editing role provides an excellent opportunity to gain an insight into all aspects of journalism, with exposure to writing, design and production skills.

Sub-editors with experience often get the opportunity to write features, especially if they have been working on a specific section, such as sport, the arts, business or finance. This is valuable experience for anyone aiming towards a career in writing. Sub-editors could also move into a full-time design and production role.

In some instances the role of the sub-editor is changing. A few newspapers have decided to eliminate this layer of the editorial process as a cost-cutting exercise and instead reporters are expected to write their copy directly onto the page, sub it themselves and write their own headlines.

There are also changes with where sub-editing is carried out, with a greater degree of flexibility being offered in many cases. Sometimes it is outsourced to freelancers living miles from the rest of the publication, even abroad, or it may be carried out by employed staff working from different locations, outside of the main office.

The print industry is in a state of flux, and journalism for the web is a growth area. Here, the sub-editor's ease with technical issues and good writing ability are a useful combination.

Magazines and small newspapers have less clear-cut definitions between journalists, sub-editors and production editors, so a move to a smaller publication can be very useful to develop a real breadth of experience.

Many of the larger newspaper groups own titles all over the country and one way to gain promotion is to apply for more senior posts within your own newspaper group.

Like other journalists, sub-editors can find employment as press officers for companies or working with public relations (PR) agencies, writing the kind of copy that is likely to be accepted by other media.

A willingness to relocate and work for different companies can help to advance your development and broaden your career prospects. The ability to maintain industry contacts and respond quickly to new opportunities is very useful.