As the age of the content producer dawns, Jon Wilks reflects on the untimely death of the sub-editor
'Content' - you may have come across the word. It's this year's 'social', so brands and agencies the world over are falling over themselves to throw together content departments that can keep up with demand. And make no mistake: the demand is great. The received wisdom seems to be that if you're not producing content 24/7, you might as well give up and go home - an unfortunate perception that is doing far more bad than good. Somewhere along the line, the old 'quality not quantity' adage has been brushed aside.
It may seem like an odd thing to say, but it's a very unfortunate time to be a company producing bad content. Readers and consumers are more media savvy than they've ever been, and they tend to spot, share and ridicule poorly produced work before the creators have even had time to react to it themselves. So it seems to me a bizarre state of affairs that, in a world where our readers have become our hypercritical sub-editors, people who are trained and experienced in spotting and correcting editorial mistakes find themselves on the breadline.
If the sub-editor is not quite extinct, it's certainly on the endangered species list, and, as they did with the mountain gorilla and the leatherback turtle, it's time someone sounded the warning. There are some publishing houses, especially those with their roots in traditional media, that continue to employ sub-editors, but there are others that wouldn't know a sub-editor if it bit them. For the benefit of the latter camp, we're talking about professional people who know their effects from their affects, and who can spot a badly aligned image or clumsy caption a mile off - essential, you might think, to any team that works with words and pictures. And yet, in the modern editorial team, where content is produced at an insatiable rate, the front line of quality control is often deemed an expensive luxury.
The problem seems to take root in the following manner. An agency or brand decides that it needs to 'become a publishing house' (as the current buzz-phrase has it), and subsequently turns to the bright young (cheaper) members of the team who 'understand' the new publishing platforms. Of course, understanding how a platform operates and being able to produce decent content for it is not one and the same thing - but that's not going to stop the newly minted, untrained content producer from going about their murky business, then moving on to another company and taking their ill-conceived practices with them.
That's not to say that everyone new to an editorial role is inherently talentless, but by having your new wunderkind work with experienced editorial staff, the content they produce will receive some much-needed spit and polish, and they'll learn the ability to self-edit - perhaps the most valuable skill a modern content creator could learn. An experienced sub-editor (or page editor, as they're increasingly known) would be an invaluable asset to any new content team, mentoring budding creators, ensuring that brand embarrassment is kept to a minimum, and protecting the rest of us from the shower of sludge that is surely heading our way.
My advice to any company involved in the content land grab would be to find themselves an experienced sub, and do it quickly - before they all retrain and their indispensable talents are lost to us forever.
Jon Wilks works with the editorial team at London's Arena Media. He is the former editor of Time Out Tokyo and Time Out Abu Dhabi.