Enda O’Doherty writes: The printer Robert Estienne (1460 or 1470-1520), whose shop was on the rue de l’école de Droit in Paris, was a man who believed in taking pains. According to the distinguished scholar of early modern publishing Anthony Grafton, Estienne, who was printer-bookseller to the University of Paris, employed ten “correctors” and is said to have hung up the proofs of editions of his Greek texts outside his shop, offering a reward to anyone who could find an error.
Book publishing in the first century of mechanical printing could be a profitable business, but also a tricky one. Returns on investment were slow, and if you published a book which failed to excite the market you might be waiting almost forever to recoup your outlay. The entrepreneurs most likely to survive were those who combined technical acumen with a talent for hiring the right staff, a nose for the market and a flair for publicity. Estienne’s wheeze with the Greek proofs would seem to suggest that he was not deficient in the latter quality. Finding fault with other people’s work of course appeals to the smart alec in all of us, particularly if these others are experts, or as many now prefer to put it, “so-called experts”. And of course it is easier to point out one or two surviving mistakes in a corrected text than to make a clean sweep of the thirty or forty – say – that might have been there originally.
But what kind of men – and they were pretty much all men – were the original correctors of the press? Grafton (in his 2020 book Inky Fingers) gives some context:
One of the most striking facts about correctors was, and is, depressing: for all the utility of what they did, they usually found themselves the objects less of gratitude than of anger, pity, or derision. As early as 1534, when Zuichemus described Froben’s shop [the printer Johann Froben of Basel, who published Erasmus], he mentioned the chief corrector there, Sigismund Gelenius, only to say how much he regretted seeing him employed in this capacity. Gelenius, he explained, was “an extraordinarily learned man, and worthy of far better things”.
Johann Conrad Zeltner, who published in Leipzig in 1716 a study (in Latin) of the practices and way of life of learned correctors (learned in several languages that is, and notably in Latin, Greek, Hebrew etc), recognised that their status posed a problem. “Sadly,” Grafton writes, “many of the correctors whose lives he passed in review were evidently condemned by poverty or temperament to spend their lives bent over proofs, grumbling about the incompetence of some more prominent author or editor.”
Five centuries after Robert Estienne showily hung his corrected texts outside his Paris shop the job of corrector still exists – just about – as a branch of both the newspaper and book publishing trades. Whenever I was asked, before my retirement a few years ago, the question “And what do you do?” my normal reply was “I’m a journalist.” To this there was inevitably a supplementary question: “And who do you write for?” The answer to this one, “Well I don’t really write at all – or not very often”, tended to elicit a look somewhere between the puzzled and the suspicious. If this person does not write why is he calling himself a journalist? Is he trying to put one over on me? Or is he a fantasist of some kind?
Yet there have traditionally been two trades in journalism, working side by side, usually in something less than mutual amity and esteem. Brian Inglis, later to be editor of The Spectator, gave an account in his memoir Downstart of the situation in The Irish Times, where he worked as a young man in the late 1930s. The journalistic corps, he noted, was divided by management into “the reporters” and “the gentlemen”. Reporters were meant to be beefy chaps who could put a foot in a door and were accustomed to ferreting out information and finding answers (no need to tell us how you found out). The gentlemen, on the other hand, were chaps (pretty much always chaps) who were supposed to know things, essential things like what the younger sons of a duke or a marquess were called or the difference between a captain and a group captain (important in references to Princess Margaret’s then squeeze, Peter Townsend). In this way solecisms and howlers might be avoided and the blood pressure of the elderly residents of Sandymount and Kingstown kept stable. The gentlemen were also of course supposed to know a few other things, like the difference between a comma, a semi-colon, a colon and a full stop. And that a sentence should never begin with “and”.
When I fell into the trade in the late 1980s the term “gentlemen” had fallen into disuse. We were sub-editors, or just “subs”, and we were no longer all male (nor were the reporters). It was less important in the Irish Press than it might have been at the Times to know how to refer to the sons of a marquess but it was important to keep an eye out in Press Association agency copy for designations such as “Londonderry” or “Ulster” and prevent them sneaking into the paper. Knowing how to spell “Éamon de Valera” properly also helped. The correctors of the late twentieth century were not of course required to be as learned as those who worked for the Renaissance book trade, when much of what was published was in Latin and some in Greek. They were, however, expected to have some grasp of politics and recent history and perhaps also enough scrappy knowledge of languages to be able to spot if a word drawn from Irish or French might be misspelt. But the most important requirement, apart from a modicum of literacy, was common sense. One would often be handed a “story” of two typewritten pages which had to be not only corrected but reduced, often considerably reduced, to the space that had been allocated to it in the newspaper – perhaps five inches of single column text. What was the essence of the story? Was it to be found in the first three paragraphs, which could simply be retained and the rest discarded? Often not. The sub-editor was the person interposed between the reporter and the reader, and his or her task was to make the story not merely correct and comprehensible but even, if possible, interesting. Given that the skills of reporters varied widely (as of course did those of subs) the wise chief sub-editor would tend to give the copy of the most careless reporters to the most painstaking of subs – a poor reward for virtue perhaps but pay and conditions were otherwise acceptable while the job was also distinguished by a certain camaraderie.
But why was it necessary in newspapers to have everything done twice, as it were? Well in fact in the 1980s things were done three times. The reporter typed out the story, the sub marked up the sheets of paper by pen with the necessary cuts and corrections and wrote the headline and this was then dispatched to be typeset by a third person (a member, incidentally, of a different trade union). Finally the sub (or a different sub) would supervise the make-up of the page as the columns of print and headlines were cut and pasted into the correct position before the whole was photographed.
In the competitive Renaissance book market, publishers often tried to give their new editions (of texts widely studied in schools and universities for example) a commercial boost by emphasising that they had been newly corrected and were free of the errors that had disfigured previous versions. Such claims were fairly standard practice and there is little reason to believe they were always true. As the Italian book historian Lodovica Braida has pointed out, in many cases correctors were regarded by publishing entrepreneurs as being a lot less essential to book production than the compositors, who assembled the type, and the operators of the press. Indeed they could be seen as a cause of unnecessary delay and avoidable expense, particularly, one imagines, if they tended to hold up production over errors that the business-oriented publisher regarded as trivial. The charge of pedantry applied to editors and correctors made its appearance early and has had a long life.
The changes which occurred in the newspaper business in the closing decades of the twentieth century – leading to the eclipse of the power of the print unions – are fairly well-known. The names Eddie Shah and Rupert Murdoch are associated with the conflict in Britain. In Ireland change was more negotiated and gradual, but here too it resulted in the disappearance of hundreds of printers’ jobs as sub-editors were retrained to become not just correctors (and rewriters) but also typesetters, with consequent savings in the production process.
But could even more be saved? This question became urgent in the second decade of the present century as newspapers saw their advertising revenue evaporating (gone to Google) while simultaneously the readership for serious journalism (or if you prefer “mainstream media”) declined. Could they survive at all? The pundits were unsure. The easiest way (and perhaps sometimes the only way) for a business to ensure survival in difficult times is to cut costs. Were sub-editors really necessary to the production process at all? In a newspaper like The Irish Times, in addition to the large number of reporters, there could be up to twenty subs on the staff in news alone (sport and features being separate departments), their job to correct, shorten where required, write headlines and captions on reporters’ work and make up pages. But surely the reporters could do this themselves, with great savings all round? The answer, somewhat surprisingly, must be no, since no major newspaper management that I know of has actually abolished sub-editors and entrusted reporters with committing their copy to print in its final form. What they did do was in some cases to outsource the editing requirement to newly formed companies where unions were unheard of and pay rates derisory. And where they did not do that they hired younger staff on inferior pay and conditions to the older and simultaneously increased work pressure, introducing the hitherto unheard concept of “metrics”. It was not uncommon in these years (2010 and after) to hear – modern managements being such suckers for cant phrases – that one must learn to “do more with less”. But of course one does not do more with less; one does less with less.
Anthony Grafton writes of the characteristic “temperament” of the Renaissance corrector, which may have rendered him unfit for other work – teaching in a college or university, for example. He also refers to his poverty, and propensity to grumble over his work. Correctors (sub-editors) in a national newspaper were not usually, by the twentieth century, afflicted by poverty, mostly due to the admirable efforts over time of their union (the NUJ). The grumbling and the crotchety temperament discerned in the sixteenth century did, however, seem in many cases to survive into the twenty-first, as did the routine disparagement of the corrector’s contribution by members of that branch of journalism who got their names in the paper. A sub-editor, one Irish Press columnist famously explained for the benefit of his readers, is “a man who changes other men’s words and goes home in the dark”. “Moaning subs” (more frequently “moaning fucking subs”) was a phrase one often heard – both from reporters and management. One senior reporter stated rather provocatively that he had never seen his work improved by a sub-editor. On the subs’ desk this remark was greeted with howls of derision. It is also perhaps fair to say that sometimes those subs who had the highest opinion of themselves and were most inclined to stand on their dignity were neither the most skilled nor the most productive.
I had an early indication of things to come when, some time in the mid-2000s (in The Irish Times), I was, like all my colleagues, interviewed by a work study expert: ten years earlier the union would not have allowed such a person into the building. Having been asked to explain the nature of my job I gave a fairly detailed account of what was involved in putting together a coherent news version of complex events in a far-off theatre of war where the paper had no reporters in the field. Having outlined the fairly lengthy processes of blending of news agency sources, stitching it all together and checking the smoothness of the narrative that preceded releasing the story to the reader I perhaps unwisely added “I’m not sure how many people would actually be aware of all this work”, to which the expert immediately responded: “Yes, that’s the point, isn’t it?”
What we have here I think is a fundamental difference of opinion about work: on the one hand a belief that a task should be carried out to the highest possible standard simply because that is what we do; on the other a belief that no cost (and time is of course a cost) can be justified unless its benefits are clearly financially measurable. This is not to write off the management perspective. No business can be allowed to lose money indefinitely and remedial action sometimes cannot be postponed. It is (at least to me) a good thing that the institution – any newspaper or news service ‑ is preserved and with it as many jobs as possible. And it may well be that the only way for newspapers in trouble to safeguard their existence has been to cut costs. Perhaps the managements should be congratulated. But one shouldn’t pretend that there are not (non-financial) costs in terms of loss of quality ‑ and credibility. I remember, some time in the early 2010s, a management figure expressing how pleased he was with the performance (that is “metrics”) of a newish member of staff: “She just flies through the copy,” he said. Some of her old guard colleagues, however, were of the firm view that she just flew over it. If you try to put through twice the amount of material with half the staff it is entirely predictable what you will get – quite a lot of incoherence in the final product. Would you be less inclined to trust a news source that told you of a speech made by the Italian politician Marco Salvini than one that said it had been made by Matteo Salvini? Or one that told you that the Progressive Democrats party was launched by Mary Harney over one that said it was Des O’Malley? Or one in which various sentences seem to repeat throughout the story at random. Does this kind of thing actually matter? If it does, newspapers need to employ people who know things (and enough of them) and perhaps people whose historical memory goes back longer than a few years. If it doesn’t, well … anything goes.
Authors in the sixteenth century were not slow to complain bitterly of the violence that the carelessness of printers and the incompetence of correctors had done to their sacred work, even if the correctors were not always sure that the texts they were processing were all that wonderful to start with. Theodor Poelman, one of the very successful sixteenth century Antwerp printer Christophe Plantin’s most valuable correctors, who it seems had to supplement his income by also working as a cloth fuller (finisher), felt impelled to write to a poet Plantin had agreed to publish: “[T]here are some passages that I have marked in the margins, which I cannot understand; I would be grateful if you could explain them to me.”
There is of course a glass half-full/glass half-empty dimension to this matter of mistakes. I tend to notice errors in a published book: and the more prestigious the publisher the more they seem to stick out. But on the whole, they are remarkably few – in fact none that I have been able to spot in Anthony Grafton’s 380 pages. In newspapers they are of course more common, but if a book’s production process typically extends over several months a daily newspaper is put together in a few hours, during which time perhaps 100,000 words, from scores of different sources, have to be brought together, assessed, processed and presented to the reader, all pretty much in the space between four in the afternoon and eleven in the evening. Somewhat clapping themselves on the back perhaps, newspaper folk have on occasion suggested that their product might justifiably be called The Daily Miracle. A somewhat flawed miracle perhaps these days, but still a remarkable collective achievement and one I hope we will continue to be able to enjoy.
Illustration: The Antwerp printer-publisher Christophe Plantin, whose motto was Labore et Constantia (by labour and application). Anthony Grafton’s Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe is published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. A long extract from it can be read at https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/correctors. Lodovica Braida’s excellent short survey of early modern publishing is Stampa e cultura in Europa (Editori Laterza).
Correction: This post in its original form suggested that you might do well to be less trustful of a news source that told you that a certain speech had been made by the far-right Italian politician Marco Salvini than one that told you it had been made by Mateo Salvini. Regrettably it should have told you to prefer a report which referred to Matteo Salvini. I am grateful to a former colleague and friend (not former friend), now a senior editor in The Irish Times, for bringing this error to my attention.