Why sub-editors rule in content

old typewriter Write it

Acquire a reputation for inaccuracy and you risk damaging your brand for good, writes Sophy Buckley. The fact is that great content relies on the kind of newsroom rigour that only highly-experienced journalists can provide.

The internet can make a publisher out of anyone; whether what’s published grabs people’s attention is another matter. Sure, readers gravitate to stuff that interests them, but they will drift away if they derive no added value or – worse – the material they read is boring or just plain wrong.

The Financial Times, acquired last year by Japanese media giant Nikkei for a whopping $1.3bn (that’s 23 times the paper’s 2013 profits of £55m), is a multi award-winning business newspaper read by the world’s great and the good searching for the latest news and insight to give them an edge. Founded in 1888 as the self-styled ‘friend to the honest financier and the respectable broker’, today its reputation (and value) is staked on getting it right – not some of the time but all of the time. It’s about credibility and authority.

For the FT, successful publishing is not just a matter of putting out interesting stuff; that stuff has got to be accurate, timely and relevant. Decisions about content are very finely judged. It’s about quality, which runs through everything, from the copy to the headlines, the picture captions to the graphics, the videos to the cartoons and, of course, the layout. Its production is a daily miracle – starting from scratch and creating 70-odd pages within eight short hours.

Limelight

It’s achieved thanks to flexible planning and adherence to a strict timetable. First news lists must be available to writers by 10am; morning conference is at 11am; pictures, cartoons, graphics and stories are commissioned immediately after; another news conference follows lunch to catch up on developing stories and those from the Americas. The first copy is filed by 3pm; the front-page splash by 7pm.

While the reporter is in the limelight by virtue of the byline, photographers, sub editors, commissioning editors, page editors, feature editors, news editors, picture editors, designers and statisticians – some papers even have fact checkers whose only job is to ensure errors haven’t crept in – all play a vital supporting role, helping the reporters and the paper look good. The whole machine is like a swan gliding apparently without effort up river while below the waterline he’s paddling like mad.

The same is true of films and documentaries – anyone who’s sat through the long list of credits at the end knows that it takes a host of angels to make the stars appear at their most scintillating. It’s about setting a scene, creating an impression, building a following, selling more product.

But there’s a big difference between film and fact-based output. Film is about entertainment and while it is embarrassing when things go wrong, it’s not market critical. Rather, it’s often seen as part of the cult and there are numerous websites devoted to bloopers in continuity or historical fact. These gleefully highlight how a gas canister can be seen attached to a chariot in a battle scene in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or how the eponymous hero of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained sports sunglasses throughout a film set in 1858 even though they weren’t imported into the US until 1929.

Captions

Picture captions also get it wrong. Morgan Freeman is mistaken for Nelson Mandela, while Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy seems to stand in for Chris Foy, a football referee. In the world of politics, where fact is often stranger than fiction, Meryl Streep has been mistaken for Baroness Thatcher.

But when bloopers creep into factual reporting it’s far more serious. While these errors can provoke merriment, they may also cause harm – not only to those written about, but also to the reputation of those responsible for the product. They undermine the authority and credibility of the piece containing the mistake or misjudgment, but also the rest of the publication’s output. The same is true of any company thinking of using content marketing to help them get their message out there. Accuracy brings credibility; credibility brings readership.

A survey in the US last year found that accuracy was placed higher than any other general principle of trust when it comes to media organisations. Transparency came next. So anyone considering using content marketing needs to keep these two front of mind. Content marketing is not PR in the sense that you cannot simply massage your message to fit. No, it’s about being a publisher. And to be a publisher you need to act like a publisher – which means developing a strategy that extends further than using one of your employees who likes writing to create some blogs.

A company using content marketing is putting its own reputation on the line and should bring to the production of the copy all the attention to detail that it gives to its own brand. It needs the same disciplines and skills found in a newsroom. That is hard to do in-house, although some manage it. More likely, it means using an agency. But not all agencies have been created equal.

Newsrooms

The best agencies act like newsrooms. At FirstWord, we employ reporters formerly with the best newspapers; metaphorically speaking, they’ve clocked up the 10,000 hours to make them virtuoso performers. They instinctively know how to create a valuable resource of information that helps the client expand its reach, gain authority, build its thought leadership, in order to raise its profile. It becomes a virtuous circle. As one FirstWord client said: “Great content drives web traffic, which raises our profile, which drives traffic, which raises our profile.”

This can only be achieved with the support found in the great newsrooms – the reporters, the subs, the statisticians, the commissioners and the editors. It takes the whole team to create good copy and it takes good copy to grab and retain reader attention.

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