Sub-Editor: Who They Are and What They Do [2022]

In the latest from our ‘Essential Guide to The Newsroom’ series, we look at the role of the sub-editor.

Your public relations campaign has a greater chance of success if you know what the sub-editor does.


It will mean you create media stories that are ready to be published, without too much extra work in the newsroom.

And much of that work – when your story is being prepared for publication – is carried out by the sub-editor.

They fine-tune the story that has been presented to them by the reporters and add the all-important attention-grabbing headline.

If you have an idea of what a sub-editor is looking for you can reverse engineer your public relations campaign to ensure it has all the essential ingredients – facts, figures and CRUCIALLY a strong news hook.

This is why it is so important to know how to write a press release – it’s the start of your interaction with the sub-editor, even though you will very likely never speak with them directly.

This is our essential guide to the role of the sub-editor (and no, they are not the same as the news editor).

What Is a Sub-editor?


The sub-editor has a keen eye for detail. They will spot a typo from afar and can rewrite poorly composed copy at breakneck speed.

Their command of language will be impressive.

The good sub-editor will have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the written language. They make the reporters look great by contributing positive enhancements to their copy.

They will also be endowed with an array of general knowledge. This is very useful when dealing with a wide range of content.

There are two types of sub-editors; copy subs and design subs. An individual can be both, depending on the size and style of editorial operation.

A sub-editor in a newspaper or magazine editorial office, may be expected to:

  1. Design a page from scratch
  2. Knock copy into shape
  3. Write headlines, sub heads, captions, pull-out quotes
  4. Place pictures on the page and ensure they are cropped and captioned appropriately
  5. Create slogans, key messages for campaigns
  6. Check copy for meaning, tone and sense
  7. Identify legal issues
  8. Ensure the page is production-ready, correctly formatted and ready for print

A good sub-editor is worth their weight in gold.

What Does a Sub-Editor Do?

A sub-editor is expected to ensure consistency of content and style.

They will be the guardians of the newsroom ‘style guide’.

This is their ‘bible’ and specific to their title.

They will add and amend the guide as our language transforms. They will know the correct style for titles, be familiar with all abbreviations and be an expert speller. Every good sub has a dictionary on their desk.

The sub-editor adds magic to the copy

The sub will take raw copy and, depending on the strength and time the news desk has, they are likely to rewrite it. They will most certainly improve on a poor intro.

It is likely the sub will work with the reporter to do this. Reporters can learn a lot by sitting next to a good sub.

The sub-editor is required to review copy like a reader. They review it assuming they have no prior knowledge of the subject.

The copy must make sense and flow in an easy-to-read manner. They question everything.

The sub-editor will double-check every name in the story and fact check every piece of information.

They will also have a sound media legal knowledge ready to capture any libellous language.

Once the sub is satisfied that the copy is good for publication, they must write an attention grabbing headline and check for images.

Brilliant headline writers are treasures.

sub-editor writes headline

The headline draws the reader to the story. A badly written headline can turn people away from a story or even give the reader the wrong impression.

A poor headline can result in many more complaints than any story ever written by a reporter.

Often a sub-editor will work alongside a reporter to get the right headline. It can be a collaborative exercise.

Subs will often share their struggles to get a clever headline with the team and this becomes a collective creative!

If the sub is designing an entire print page, they will ensure that any necessary advertisements are placed.

They must check the adverts sit comfortably alongside the content. It can be disastrous having an insurance advert next to a tragic fire story, for example!

Or this…

Sub editor fail

The Sub-Editor and Page Layout

The sub-editor ensures that all fonts styles and sizes are correct. They must ensure the picture is of good quality and check the source.

Once the copy, the picture, the headline and any subheads, captions and bylines are placed, the page will need proofing.

The proofing is usually carried out by another sub, so the work is shared.

A new pair of eyes sees the copy before publication. A page will usually get proofed four or five times before reaching print.

Subbing for online is very different. The copy proofing happens at an earlier stage.

The sub-editor is expected to do all the above checks on the system, write the headline and usually post the copy online themselves.

Any amends can be made after publication but must be carefully monitored according to the editorial guidelines.

But whether it is for online or print, the general rules are the same. The sub checks for accuracy, tone, style, libels and liaises with the reporter to fulfil this.

An excellent sub can enhance any piece of copy and make pages look inviting to the reader.

Whether it is in a traditional newsroom, a start-up producing catalogues, or a public relations agency creating high-end pitches, having a good sub-editor to make copy and pages shine is invaluable.

How Do You Become a Sub-Editor?

Many copy sub-editors have worked as reporters. They seek a sub-editors’ job because they want more control over content, quality and can have a direct impact on how stories get published.

The sub-editing role is primarily deskbound. This means that whilst the reporters, news editors and editors may spend a lot of time out, the sub is beavering away at the desk.

If you like being out and meeting people, the sub’s job is not for you.

Some subs will have completed a specific subbing training course and have skipped the reporting stage.

They may simply have a love of language and design but not aspire to interview people.

Design subs have a natural flair for the visual page.

They will have a clear vision about the way a page should look.

They’ll seek out the visuals and graphics to make their design ideas possible. Design subs are intrinsic to the way pages look and feel.

The design sub may have a background in graphics, art or photography.

In larger newsrooms the copy subs and design subs are different beasts. They have their own unique skill sets and their talents are used accordingly.

What Type Of Skills Does a Sub-Editor Have?

The copy sub has a gift for language whilst the design sub has a gift for the layout and everything visual. The sub with a talent for both is a gem.

The sub must be driven by deadline and understand how long a particular task will take, to meet specific and rolling deadlines. They must track their work and ensure realistic deadlines are set.

The sub is responsible for producing safe, fair, balance copy that is accurate and checked, when necessary, by the lawyers.

The sub will flag any issues early in the production process. These issues may be lack of a picture, uncertainty over a place name or simply demand more fact-checking.

It is usually the sub’s job to update the style guide and inform the team about any design issues.

A sub will often work closely with the graphic design artist or a photographer to help develop a page. Strong images are key to the way a story is told.

PR stunt example

What’s The Difference Between a Sub Editor And A Reporter?

The reporter has spent time researching a story. The sub-editor will take that story, check it and headline it.

The sub-editor watches the reporters’ back. Any silly mistakes made by the reporter should get picked up by the sub and any serious errors will avoid disaster for the entire publication.

A reporter will often want a particular sub to take their story and prep it for publication.

This is because the reporter knows a good sub will write a cracking headline. He/she will create a page that draws the readers’ eye.

Result: the story gets more views.

So there you have it – the complete guide to the sub-editor.

And if you’re ready to take your PR work to the next level grab our PR Starter Kit.

Our must-have kit has every template, script, strategy and guide you’ll ever need to do PR – all in one place.

Good luck!

About Alistair Clay

Alistair is a former national journalist with 20 years’ experience working in the media and PR. He is the founder of UK healthcare agency Arc Seven Communications and a registered member of the PRCA.