To be a good sub-editor you'll need an excellent eye for detail, the ability to liaise with journalists and other editors and the creativity to write compelling headlines
As a press sub-editor, or sub, you'll check the written text of newspapers, magazines or websites before they're published. You'll look at grammar, spelling, tone and style to make sure it's all correct, and will need to check facts and make sure the content suits its target audience.
You'll also lay out the story on the page, write headings and captions, and may be involved with overall page design.
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.
Like other journalism roles, sub-editing is demanding and requires constant attention to detail in a fast-paced working environment.
Your tasks will depend on the nature of your role and the extent to which production and layout work falls within your remit. Typically you will need to:
- edit copy, written by reporters or features writers, to remove spelling mistakes and grammatical errors
- rewrite material so that it flows or reads better and adheres to the house style of a particular publication
- ensure that a story fits a particular word count by cutting or expanding material as necessary
- write headlines that capture the essence of the story or are clever or amusing, depending on the style of the publication
- write standfirsts or 'sells' (brief introductions, which sum up the story underneath the headline)
- liaise with reporters, journalists and editors
- check facts and stories to ensure they're accurate, adhere to copyright laws, are not libellous or go against the publication's policy
- crop photos and decide where to use them for best effect and write picture captions
- proofread complete pages produced by other sub-editors typically using the main basic proofing symbols
- work to a page plan to ensure that the right stories appear in the correct place on each page
- lay out pages and, depending on the nature of the role, play a part in page design
- manipulate on-screen copy using appropriate desktop publishing software, such as QuarkXPress, InDesign and Photoshop
- keep up to date with sector issues, e.g. by reading related publications
- adapt all these skills for a publication's website.
- Starting salaries for sub-editors can range quite widely from £15,000 to £23,000. Large regional or national papers tend to pay more than smaller local papers or magazines and salaries will be higher in London.
- Salaries for experienced or more senior sub-editors range from £25,000 to £45,000+, again depending on the publication you work for. You may be able to negotiate your salary depending on your experience.
- A production editor or chief sub-editor for a national newspaper can earn £60,000.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll need to be flexible - working late to meet deadlines is a necessary part of a sub-editor's job. Working for national dailies may involve unsocial hours and some early or late shifts, with hours varying according to workload.
The intensity of your workload and hours required can depend on the publication and whether it's a daily, weekly or monthly title.
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 pressure as deadlines approach. Despite this, job satisfaction is often high because the 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's 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.
- The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) administers the Journalism Diversity Fund. This awards bursaries to people from ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds who need help with funding NCTJ training courses
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.
Relevant degrees that will be helpful include:
- media studies.
Many degree and postgraduate pre-entry courses are accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), so it's worth checking the status of any course you're considering when making your application.
In some instances, it may also be helpful to have a degree/qualification that relates to the subject of the publication, for example for science or engineering journals or economic or financial affairs titles to show you understand the subject matter.
Entry with an 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.
Professional qualifications are available. There are several accredited newspaper courses that offer an additional certificate in sub-editing and the NCTJ runs an essentials of sub-editing course as well as training in proofreading and grammar. Many journalism colleges will offer a course in sub-editing too.
You'll need to show:
- excellent written skills and high levels of proofreading and editing
- accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation
- strong attention to detail
- good organisational and communication skills
- the ability to work under pressure to tight deadlines
- competency with QuarkXPress or InDesign and basic Photoshop skills
- determination, flexibility and resilience
- problem-solving and time management skills
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's useful to practise this skill by summarising reports, cutting lengthy articles or simply trying to rewrite something in a more communicative way.
Pre-entry experience is essential. Try to build a portfolio of anything you work on to show examples of what you're capable of. Work experience is often offered by local, regional and national magazines and newspapers and can range from one or two weeks to longer vacation placements. It is not always advertised so you will need to send speculative applications to the titles you're interested in.
You could also join your student newspaper or website or look for local organisations or charities that may need help with sub-editing in their publications.
Work experience is very competitive so you may need to persevere and try several publications before you succeed. Keep trying and aim to show your commitment and determination to the role.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
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's 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've 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.
Look for job vacancies at:
Two leading recruitment agencies specialising in creative roles are:
Sub-editors have often completed a course accredited by the 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 accredited courses which lead to the Diploma in Journalism. These typically 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. You'll start with the basics, such as editing out typing errors and spelling mistakes and adjusting word counts, before moving on to writing headlines and learning to lay out a story on the page.
Newspaper and magazine 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 you to update your skills and keep up with industry developments.
In some jobs you’ll start out in a copy sub role where you only deal with the written text. Following that, you may be given greater responsibility for page design and layout.
When you have built up some experience, you may get the opportunity to write features, especially if you’ve been working on a specific section, such as sport, the arts, business or finance. It’s also possible for you to move into a full-time design and production role.
Journalism for the web is a growth area and a good technical ability along with strong writing skills can set you up well to move into this field.
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 help you 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, as a sub-editor you can become a press officer for various companies or work within public relation (PR) agencies, writing the kind of copy that's 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.