To be a news subeditor is to mark and remake others’ work. Subs assure the quality and accuracy of news stories. They fashion the copy filed by journalists into clear-cut prose and pictures that grab a reader’s attention, while protecting publications from lawsuits and disrepute. The subeditor is there to help the mass reader, the reader who doesn’t trust a publication. Reporters and editors, however, make up the face of a publication. The work is under their name, but its subtext is the subeditor’s.

I came to be a subeditor at a weekly financial trade magazine, because I was nearly broke after finishing a graduate program and needed to quickly find a job to make rent. I had worked in book publishing, but I didn’t want to shepherd manuscripts for grumpy mathematicians anymore. I had never heard the term “subeditor” before I came to the UK, but it seemed similar at first to the copyeditors I knew back in the US.

Rather than follow a rigid list of rules, subeditors use judgment and meticulous attention to decide when and how to follow convention. Cleaning copy, however, is a thankless task.1 But why? I’m fascinated with how little books or magazines are understood as resulting from systems of material production. Tiny letters in ink or light somehow obscure all of that.

I conducted this worker’s inquiry to show that, despite the glamor of the written word, copy is not abstract. It is a material subject to conditions of labor exploitation like other commodities. Workers produce copy. Copy is woven and tailored. It is cut into shape, flowed into a layout, kicked down or run up in paragraphs. Quotes are pulled and caps are dropped, with neat lines of copy hugging their contours. This vocabulary remains from lead or paste-up composition, which made these metaphors much more literal. But the symbols writers manipulate are still material, even if they are stored digitally.

In starting this project, I was wary of the dangers in early workers’ inquiry, where researchers made undue generalizations about working conditions in the name of a better argument.2 To that end, I interviewed several current and former subeditors who are colleagues or friends to ask about their experience of the role as well. I want to thank all of them for taking the time to talk with me about this article. Too many textual workers, particularly as news and publishing become professionalised with degree programs and certificates, do not view themselves as workers. By discussing my invisible production work at a financial magazine, I hope to overthrow that idea.

Sitting with the subs

The subeditors where I worked were a small group. There were five of us when I started, and six later on. Almost all of us had university degrees, but most of us hadn’t worked as reporters before, which is unusual for subs. Having reporting experience gives subs familiarity with the newsroom, but it also gives them credibility. One of my interviewees stressed that trust was the main resource of a sub. If you point out people’s errors regularly, they’ll bristle unless they trust your judgment and know you mean well. The quick turnover of subs also stood out when I first interviewed for the job. All but one of the subeditors had worked at the company for less than two years. When I joined, half of us had been there for less than a year.

In addition to an interview, subeditors have to take an editing test. Our hiring manager said an aced test was worth more than listed experience. We were selected for our skill with language, not our interest in the subject matter. Financial news companies benefit from newsworkers not understanding the underlying mechanisms of those services too well. I was also asked, pointedly, if I ever wanted to become a writer; it was made clear to me that I should not expect writing opportunities from the role (how wrong they were).

Half of us were not UK citizens, so our position was somewhat precarious and depended on Brexit negotiations and visa status. In comparison, the magazine editorial staff I worked with were almost all English. As a foreigner, I often didn’t have the background knowledge necessary to check journalists’ writing. Almost all of the editorial and subediting staff were native English speakers. In publication hiring, an unfair bias is often given to native speakers. Being able to judge dialects of English and code switch for different publications was key to our work, as was being able to refer to each other’s judgment.

The subeditors were nomadic within the company. They once were part of editorial, with the reporters and editors; they shared a manager with the designers when I joined; and they answered to the head of advertorial content when I left. We were divided into pairs responsible for a single magazine, both the print issue and its website, and senior subeditors would divvy up extra editing work. This work sharing and isolation from other teams made the subs a close-knit group. We had each others’ backs.

A pressing week

Our press week, the basic unit of time for us, began as soon as the last press day of the previous issue had ended and that issue’s last pages had gone to the printers. The production department would figure out with sales how many ads we had that week. If sales couldn’t sell enough spots, we wouldn’t have an issue. Sales also had priority for where ads were placed, including pairings. They would place ads that needed to be on the same page or spread as an article with a certain topic, like “investment” or “real assets”. Suddenly the editors would have to fulfil the pairing by finding an article that discussed “real assets”.

Working around pages reserved for ads, we and the assigning editors would come up with a flatplan—a list of what articles would appear on what pages, with what word counts. The subeditors and editors would juggle reporters’ assignments, current events, and the columns and sections of the magazine, until we had a preliminary placement. This placement also let production divide the magazine into three press days: the middle portion of the magazine went first, then several pairs of pages (spreads) outside of that, and finally the pages at the very beginning and end of the magazine, which usually contained the most newsy stories.

Between when we had a flatplan and when pages first went to the printer, we usually had one or maybe two days. As reporters filed copy, an editor would edit and pass it to us, the subeditors. We would divide those articles among ourselves, although we would both read each article if we could. As we read a story, we corrected grammatical and spelling errors and edited for brevity and to avoid repetition. We also factchecked data and names and looked for any glaring structural problems with the piece (like if it sounded too much like a promotional article, one of the more common problems we found). Finally, we would write a headline and standfirst and source pictures to make the most appealing, informative layout.

Once a page was subbed, we layed the text out in Adobe InDesign using templates. We would typeset the article so the headline, standfirst and subheadings were all in the correct font and make typographical tweaks so the article fit the allotted space. A layed out page would be printed or, after the pandemic, made into a PDF and sent to an editor for checking. Any changes they suggested we would key into the InDesign file. The designer would make a final PDF for us to proofread and then they would send the page to the printers. Once all the day’s pages were done, so were we. On a busy press day, we would complete more than ten pages. On a slow day, less than four. The last task of a press week would be to generate an online version of each article, which an editor would put on our site.

What I described above is the ideal. If the interview for a news page didn’t come in, breaking news happened that day or if the editors had forgotten something that needed to go into the week’s magazine (which happened often), we scrambled to find something, anything, to go on the blank pages.

When I started, the editors wrote their edits without standard proofreading marks and would ask us to extensively rework headlines, standfirsts and pictures. Even though we did not report to them, the editors’ closer connection to the company’s executives meant they could claim to be held responsible if we didn’t make a change. Copy hardens into place. The closer to print it is, the less you can or should change it. As subeditors, we had to stet (veto) changes likely to introduce errors or that were unnecessary. We couldn’t always. These discussions were often negotiations—how to fit something into too small a space or keep it consistent with the pages that went yesterday.

For the site, the speed of online publishing sometimes left us out of the loop as journalists raced to break news. Stories would go up with typos or inconsistencies, and we would have to fix them after the fact. At one point, I altered a headline to remove an excessive detail about the suicide of a fund manager. I received a barrage of emails from editors and reporters complaining that I had made that change, because the new headline divided their reader analytics. In the interest of “analysing engagement”, I was to “consult with editorial” before doing my job.

It was expected that we stay as late as necessary until pages went to press, although we would try to come in late the next day to compensate, when we could. This happened on most press days. I can’t emphasise enough how stressful and disorienting they usually were. I would finish some days and realize that I’d needed to go to the bathroom for hours but felt like I hadn’t the time to spare.

The news company and its structure

While the company I worked within bills itself as a source of news and “insights” for financial workers, it relies on advertising and data brokering (as many media companies do). The main legal company is registered as a periodicals publisher and “Other information service activities not elsewhere classified”. The company is partially owned by its executive officers, Thomson Reuters, the newswire service, as well as a hedge fund research group and an offshore fund manager.

Most of the executives helped found the company, which resulted in both a relatively horizontal structure and one prone to sudden changes depending on those executives’ convictions and whims.3 It also meant the company was pockmarked with nepotism. If there was a young person in a position of authority, we would try to figure out if they were the child or cousin of an executive or someone in government. It was usually a good guess.

All the magazines were free to subscribe—they were paid for by ad spots and advertorials (articles written by advertisers, disguised to look like articles written by our journalists). Each of the five to ten ads in our weekly magazine would make somewhere between £1,000 and £2,500, and a “cover wrap” would make over £10,000. From public disclosure documents, I learned that each of the company’s 22 administrators earned, on average, £168,900 in 2018 in salary alone: the highest salary among those was £571,200. The company made a profit of £4,921,500 that year. In 2019 to 2020, my yearly salary was £26,000.

While the job listing described a trade news publisher, the company had other ways to make money. Its data collection service would collect data on how registered users read and clicked through our sites, which would then be repackaged and sold as a “precision” tool for advertisers to address our readers, or subsets of our readers by occupation, stories read, areas of interest, etc.

The company also ran conferences that “delegates” from financial companies would attend, where they would be fed and entertained. In exchange, they would attend “master classes” where companies who had paid for the conference would give an hour-long spiel advertising their offering. The money made from these events exceeded all those generated by publishing advertising; they made up over half the company’s revenue.

When my application was accepted, the contract had some eyebrow-raising clauses. One indefinitely waived the Working Time Regulations act of 1998, which gives workers the right to work no more than 48 hours a week. I was able to remove it, but most of my coworkers waived that right when they were hired. There were also clauses forbidding or restricting freelance work. I knew coworkers who freelanced or pushed the boundaries of those contracts. Still, the company could enforce compliance as and when it wanted.

With the Covid-19 outbreak, the company followed UK guidance to a tee, so we stayed working in the office as long as was allowed. Several employees became sick shortly after the office closed, suggesting they had been infectious at the workplace. We started receiving a weekly email from the CEO about the company’s state to reassure people. Meanwhile, most events employees were furloughed.

People were confused and fatigued all the time as we switched to working from home. Videocall and chat software also introduced ways to keep track of workers. Our magazine editor instituted a daily videocall at 9:00 am sharp so they could catch up with all the journalists. These would often run almost an hour long. Advertisers dropped their ad spots, so we started to run less frequent print issues. This changed how we published articles—they are now often online-first and then reprinted (mostly unchanged) in a magazine two weeks later. The chief executive suspended his pay, but not for any of the rest of management. All pay raises were frozen for the year.

History of the subeditor

Here I want to briefly describe the history of the subeditor to explain how we wrote the most-read parts of the magazine—headlines and standfirsts—but were also often overwritten. As UK news periodicals developed in the 19th century, the distinction between printers, writers, and editors began to grow. While printers and reporters were more traditionally working class, editors often came from the middle class. The editor is, in essence, a manager of writers. The subeditor (and copyeditor in the US) arose as an assistant to managing editors or night editors.

Every day newspapers received reams of submissions from news wires and correspondents for the next edition of the paper. The subeditor sorted through that material, cut whatever wasn’t worth printing, and baptised it with a snappy headline. They determined what was worthy of printing and at what length. Because writers then were often were paid by the word, the subeditors’ remit, of cutting and cajoling copy to fit a layout, gave them authority.4

Over time, the news industry grew and industrialised. The capitalist management of serial publication changed writers from the producers of a physical object (the book or newspaper) to that of the “commodity text”, which is both alienating to its writer and marketable.5 Newsworkers also unionised slower than printers and compositors, so they had less opportunity to dictate the division of labor. Copyeditors and subeditors developed into a separate group, the copy desk, and being detached from editorial management reduced the status of copyeditors. Copyeditors and subeditors were transformed from a class of managers to one of laborers.6 To this day, editorial hierarchy gives status to those furthest from production (assigning editors) over those closest to print production (subeditors or production editors).7

The 1986 Wapping dispute at Rupert Murdoch’s News International papers was an example of this hierarchy playing out in the UK. The workers who made the lead-type compositions then were type compositors or “comps”. They were organised by the National Graphic Association and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades unions. With each news page, a “stone sub” would go to the comps. They would work together on layouts over metal tables—printers’ stones—with a sub on one side, a comp on the other. The subs weren’t allowed to touch any of the lead.8

In Wapping, Rupert Murdoch secretly built up staff for phototypesetting, a new production process that would bypass the comps. When they went on strike, he fired all of them.9 News management deskilled production work, which allowed them to place workers with less experience and ability to bargain for themselves. Some of the ideas for this inquiry came to me when I realized that a coworker had, in essence, scabbed against the printers’ unions early in his career.

Now news organisations are cutting copyeditors and subeditors from their newsrooms, as well as public editors and ombudsmen—all part of a system of editorial self-regulation. In academic publishing, copy editors have already mostly been outsourced.10 Even though subeditors are considered journalists and can get membership in the National Union of Journalists (as I did), their roles are more at risk of being outsourced or replaced.

Resistance and working identity

There are many resistance tactics that office workers share, but there are two particularly open to subeditors: wasted time and lack of oversight. For the first, the uncertainty of how a press week will play out actually opens up free time for subeditors. If there’s no copy to edit or layout, there’s little the company can ask you to do. And because we are often on call for copy to arrive means that we can’t be too immersed in some random project. This and the fact that subediting work is often shift-based mean subeditors can often work on personal projects, freelance, or just do other things during company hours, reclaiming some of that time. This opportunity became more pronounced during the pandemic.11

This time could indicate the subeditor as belonging to the class of what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, makework jobs society could do without.12 I think, however, editorial work has always had an uneven cadence. My hours were fairly regular, but an oral history example from 1974 shows how that unevenness gives power to a proofreader:

I never know when I’ll be working, and it almost doesn’t seem like working. … One of the older guys was telling me how amazing he found it that I would sit there oblivious to the boss and read a paper. That’s something he would never do. It ran against his ethic. I think there’s too much of an attitude that work has to be shitty. … We do the job and we do it fine. But [the boss] doesn’t know why.13

The second element of a subeditor’s ability to organise their own labor lies in the unsupervised responsibility they have for copy. There are checks by editors, yes, but only the subeditor sees the pages just before the designer sends them to the printer. If an editor’s changes were too long or contradicted the purpose of an article, we could simply omit the changes as if we had missed the instruction. As a last resort, we could also argue for a story to be “spiked” and replaced.

Copy is also hard to appraise at a glance, a beneficial material quality for the subeditor. Usually, when you start a copyediting job, another editor will check your work for several weeks, but that oversight can’t continue forever. You have to be trusted. Short of obvious mistakes like typos, it’s hard to see what has been changed about copy that might alter meaning. This provides an opening for subeditors who want to subtly change the meaning of copy to their own ends, or to cut corners without scrutiny. While reading this article, one of my coworkers pointed out that the opacity of copy also made it easy to undervalue our work—no one else could ‘see’ it.

If you view media as a form of encoded communication interpreted by its viewer, the subeditor has the opportunity to write subtexts for readers to find.14 The official, licensed position of the writing still belongs to the reporters and the editors, but the subeditor can put “oppositional” alterations into the copy. For a glowing interview about a CEO who temporarily suspended his pay as a PR move, I made sure an infographic on the page listed his personal net worth of several million pounds. In cases when fund managers expressed a gender essentialist view of women (that they’re inherently better at performing emotional labor than men), we’d cut that copy or reword it.

Another organising benefit we had was the consistent conversation among subs at different publications. We could check with each other to see if what we were being asked to do seemed reasonable. An editor once asked me to spend an afternoon filling an Excel sheet with financial data so he could use it to write stories. The subs told me this wasn’t something in our job description. These group chats also provided a venue to save clips of bad writing that had been published without us or to discuss our group response to style decisions (like whether we should define certain acronyms).15 We would screenshot instances of financial workers describing the global pandemic or the climate crisis as an investor “opportunity”—we wanted to tally how far they would go to co-opt issues for their own benefit.

Beyond these low-level tactics, however, there was not much opportunity, particularly because of our context in financial publishing. Our access to the professional identity that comes from journalism’s view of itself as the “fourth estate”, a check on state power and a bastion of democracy, was limited. Financial journalism historically developed as a form of boosterism for capitalism and self-help for its readers. It is more like a fan press, like much of games journalism, that supports an industry and depends on it. It advertises and suggests solutions through financial tools, most of which involve further capital investment or charges for financial workers.16

As an example, our journalists and editors wanted to encourage “financial education”. Since our audience were financial advisers, however, these suggestions were self-interested. Our readers would go to schools to teach children how to be “responsible” with their finances, which was defined as placing their credit into investments. In this way, people who don’t have access to complicated financial constructs are made to appear to lack education. It sets the conditions for another extraction, rather than revealing why those people are not able (or don’t need) to find financial advice. It also gave our readers a sense of purpose, as if they contributed to society (even if the majority of their clients are wealthy). Our pages provided legitimacy and meaning for financial workers by, for example, documenting their philanthropy as if they were challenging societal problems, rather than passing on scraps that fell from the table of wealth inequality.

We were also limited by our separation from editors and reporters. The reporting journalists were defined by their skills like interviewing and shorthand and their role as a conduit for managements’ decisions. The subs had a different skillset and identity. We weren’t even part of editorial anymore, as subs have been historically.

The executives would only speak to the editors, who would then dictate to us. By having control over that information source, editors could selectively share or hide information. By placing priority with sales and dictating what topics journalists should dedicate their time to, management that owned stakes in the company removed the editorial independence that is the basis for most news sources’ credibility.

I also think there was less ego in our work than the editors and reporters. They wrote pieces with bylines, but they also had to blur their professional and personal identity at work—they were expected to use social media accounts under their name to collect information and spread stories. Their visibility gave them influence with readers and social media followers. They received benefits and social influence others didn’t: a finance company shipped all of them beer and vodka so they could have a videocall drink session with the company’s employees.

The subs’ names were not attached to articles, and we did not represent the company publicly. We didn’t care or buy into flattering interviews or the company’s desire to market itself in our pages. (We would cut our own magazine’s name from copy whenever we got the chance.) This sometimes lead to disputes over what to cut or keep, but because we usually learned about these things last, we had little leverage.

By breaking us off from editorial, the company management proved that a professional identity is not enough to unite workers. The profession, as a construct, promises many things a union does, like control of working conditions, colleagues, and standards of work and safety. The profession, as opposed to the trade or occupation, is a bourgeois organising tool, as evidenced by its popularity with doctors and lawyers. Journalists also professionalised in the 20th century as it became popular for the middle class and journalism graduate programs proliferated.17 As they did so, the editor adopted more and more managerial qualities. For me, I more often received support from production and design workers. Where I worked, the subeditor is at the periphery of the journalistic profession.


After spending so long perfecting others’ opinions, it has felt good to have this chance to express my own. I undertook this inquiry out of frustration with the lack of research into media production. The representation media grants is like a spotlight—it can illuminate others, but it also makes those who wield it hard to see. So many work so hard and only a few are applauded for that work. The work of the others is made invisible. There are many roles I couldn’t address here because they labored beyond my view: the printers and the delivery drivers, the photographers and developers.

Subeditors, copyeditors, factcheckers and proofreaders are a cornerstone in newsrooms’ assurance that they inform, rather than distort, but newrooms are removing those roles everywhere. Trust is required for a subeditor’s work, and the company I worked within went to immense lengths to undermine that trust. One of my interviewees told me that the isolated sub is particularly vulnerable in the newsroom: “You have to be able to speak up. If you’re silent, you disappear.”

Subeditors share a group identity, but production editors are caught between professionalised editors and designers, as well as other print production workers. I would hope that each would see the common cause they share with each other. When media producers organise, they can make news in new forms that doesn’t fuel consumption or pad the pockets of capital.

  1. “Copy” refers to the words writers prepare for print. The invisibility of the work needed to bring copy to print can be found at the beginning of the history of the book. Grafton, Anthony. 2020. “The Correctors.” Lapham’s Quarterly, June 10, 2020. 

  2. “[T]he rewriting of the facts is rationalized by the assumption of a homogeneous and universal experience. … An inquiry into the world of the working class threatens to degenerate into a kind of travel diary; close, meticulous, militant investigation tends to be replaced with entertaining stories about the mystery, exoticism, and strangeness of an unknown world.” Haider, Asad, and Salar Mohandesi. 2013. “Workers’ Inquiry: A Genealogy.” Viewpoint Magazine, September 27, 2013. 

  3. For more on how managers’ personalities change how employees perceive ethics at work, see Jackall, Robert. 2010. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. You can find an overview by the author at 

  4. Many thanks to Andrew Hobbs both for his A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900 and for pointing me to MacDonagh, Michael. “In the Subeditor’s Room.” 1897. The Nineteenth Century and after: A Monthly Review, December, 999–1008. 

  5. “[F]iction writers entered their pages as hand-loom weavers entered a factory, knowing that within that space the publisher had a wide choice of methods with which to capitalize ‘the goodwill of the novel’.” Feltes, Norman N. 1989. Modes of Production of Victorian Novels. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 

  6. “The copy editor’s transition reflected newsroom management’s ability to define and redefine a job’s tasks, skills, status, and authority in the absence of sustained worker resistance. The resulting structure of newswork has endured into the twentieth century, as has the grim status of copyediting.” Solomon, William S. 1995. “The Site of Newsroom Labor: The Division of Editorial Practices.” In Newsworkers: Toward a History of the Rank and File, edited by Hanno Hardt and Bonnie Brennen, 110–134. University of Minnesota Press. 

  7. For an example of this tension, see this interviewee quote from Vandendaele, Astrid. 2018. “‘Trust Me, I’m a Sub-Editor’: ‘Production Values’ at Work in Newspaper Sub-Editing.” Journalism Practice 12 (3): 268–89. “‘Production’ … I don’t like the word very much because it sounds very technical, it sounds like somebody in overalls with a spanner, although we are metaphorically using spanners with copy. Actually it’s everything that has to be done to get it from when the reporter has finished writing, everything that has to be done to get those words to the reader.” 

  8. Banging Out: Fleet Street Remembered, “Putting it to Bed”. London: digital:works, 2014. For documentation of the switch from hot lead to phototypesetting in the US, see David Loeb Weiss’s wonderful 1980 Farewell, Etaion Shrdlu. 

  9. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) supported the compositors, but as one interviewee explained to me, phototypsetting would give journalists less work for more pay. Only eight of the journalists at The Sun offices voted against moving to Wapping. Banging Out: Fleet Street Remembered, “Wapping”. London: digital:works, 2014. 

  10. In a previous position I held as an academic editor, our research publications in mathematics were given a round of peer review and then read by outsourced copyeditors with no training in mathematics. This kind of behavior adds weight to the concerns the open access movement has raised for commercial academic publishers—what do they add to the work? For an example of the arguments made by newsrooms to outsource subs, see Byrne, Ciar. 2002. “Is This the View for Future Subs?,” November 4, 2002. 

  11. Cannon noted a similar quality in type compositor’s work: ‘The length of time that a job takes is difficult to measure precisely: the considerable number of non-mechanized processes in composing makes it difficult to construct precise output norms: therefore the compositor can decide, within limits, whether he needs to ‘pull out’ or if he is able to slacken his pace of work.’ The comps also provide a cautionary example for “production” journalists now. Cannon, Isidore Cyril. 2011. The Compositor in London: The Rise and Fall of a Labour Aristocracy. 1st ed. London: St Bride Library. See also Cannon, Isidore Cyril. 2012. “The Compositor in London: The Rise and Fall of a Labour Aristocracy.” History Workshop. July 20, 2012. 

  12. Graeber, David. 2013. “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant.” Strike, August 2013. 

  13. Terkel, Studs. 1974. Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books. 

  14. Hall, Stuart. 1973. “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.” Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies Selected Working Papers. 

  15. Our work chats were on Google Hangouts, with our company provided emails. After the pandemic lockdown, the chat rooms became the preferred manner of communication among groups that worked together often. Emails were saved for less familiar coworkers or messages that needed to be saved, instead of buried in a chat log. The increased volume of messages, formal and informal, made it harder to keep track of who said what when, since the chat rooms had less search functionality than our emails. There was such a proliferation of chat rooms among different combinations of the magazine staff, that it was hard to tell if you had messaged the correct group. 

  16. Butterick, Keith. 2015. Complacency and Collusion: A Critical Introduction to Business and Financial Journalism. London: Pluto Press. 

  17. Greenslade, Roy. 2009. “How Journalism Became a Middle Class Profession for University Graduates.” The Guardian, July 21, 2009. 


Sam Dee

Sam works as a subeditor.