We arrive at the door wearing crumpled shirts and armed with paper cups of take-away coffee. There used to be a free coffee machine here but that went out with the cutbacks, as did the plants at reception and claiming expenses for taxis home. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we no longer complain about the security guards and swipe card system complicating our journey to the newsroom. Nous sommes Charlie, we like to think, although sub-editors and satirists are hardly the same thing. None of us comments on the fact that some of us carry the paper cups with shaky hands. Stephen Lynch, who was off yesterday, sits down at his desk, then gets back up, his face red. ‘This isn’t my chair,’ he says, ‘who’s after swapping my chair?’ Stephen’s chair is one of the ergonomically designed ones that the company no longer has the budget to buy and is therefore highly covetable. As he marches through the open- plan office, lifting jackets from the backs of chairs to check for the Tippex marking he had put on his, the rest of us type in our passwords and wait for the machines to boot up. ‘Fifty-three years old and having a hissy fit about a chair,’ Brian Murphy says, as if it’s something unusual, which it’s not.
We log into our screens when most people are getting to the end of their day’s work, and we log out when they’re already tucked up in bed. Under the fluorescent lighting, we recap the statistics from the night before. 4am, no 5am, the last person left the lock-in, nobody can be certain. A sensible four pints, an honest eight pints, could have been twelve pints for the 5am stragglers. Our drinking rate is high, our divorce rate’s through the roof. Stories start to fill up our inboxes, looking to be reshaped, untangled, cleaned up and cut back, in need of headlines, subheads and captions. We rewrite them using words we never use in common parlance: lag for inmate, tot for baby, boffin for scientist, probe for investigation. We replace man with lad because that big fat m takes up too much headline space, the nice slender l is so much less unwieldy. We create our own abbreviations: prez for president, ambo for ambulance. We put an asterisk in the word tit next to a picture of a pair of barely covered t*ts. Was it for this we got our Masters degrees? There’s a squeal of horror from behind Myra Duggan’s screen. ‘That’s disgusting,’ she says, ‘sickos!’ We gather around her desk to see the photo of a tortured dog attached to an ISPCA story she is subbing. Myra, one of the few women among us, zooms in on the image of the red setter, scrawny and with red welts where a glossy coat should be, something oozing out of his eye. We wince and recoil and say things like ‘Animals!’ and ‘That’s a disgrace!’ and ‘The poor pup.’
Stephen Lynch comes back from the other end of the newsroom followed by a girl we don’t recognise, an intern on the features desk we later learn, who wheels his chair ahead of her and looks close to tears. It’s almost a rite of passage, when a new person starts, to be at the end of a Stephen Lynch tirade, but then new people don’t start here anymore. The revolving door only lets people out now, not in. When Stephen goes out for his first cigarette of the day, Joe McCormack says ‘It’s only a matter of time before that guy goes postal.’ ‘He could go all Michael Douglas in *Falling Down *any day now,’ Finbarr O’Leary, the chief sub, says. We laugh, maybe a little too loudly. Everyone knows Stephen has a rifle collection on display at home; we don’t know how we know this as none of us has been in his house, but we know it all the same. Rifles and cocaine habits are rarely a good combination. It’s another slow news day, silly season seems to have spilled from August into September. We’re bored and entertain ourselves by seeing how far we can push things. A headline on a picture of Gisele Bundchen modelling underwear—Gis in her pants—gets vetoed but one about a GAA player taking his fiancée up the aisle slips through. Some of us secretly work on our novels or screenplays as we wait for the reporters to file copy, others write short stories set, for example, in the newsroom of a tabloid newspaper during the dying days of print journalism.
A phone rings. There’s a flurry of activity from the news desk, a bank of computers facing each other, five a side, mirroring our own desk. A school bus has crashed bringing a group of teenage girls home from their convent secondary. The editor strides out of his office. ‘Any dead?’ ‘We don’t know yet.’ ‘We’ll splash it if there are.’ Finally, something has happened. A reporter and a photographer are dispatched to the scene, another reporter sent to the school. If anyone is dead, they’ll call to the family’s front door looking for a line, any line, even if it’s just ‘the family were too distraught to comment’. We stay at our desks and carry on with our work. We don’t dirty our hands with doorstepping and death knocks, wouldn’t know how to hack a phone. We simply edit the stories that come from the death knocks, which is not the same thing at all. On the bus to work, we might have read the Guardian, or maybe some Dostoyevsky, but we leave our liberal views and literary notions at the office door. Crime and punishment is one of our big themes but our subject matter is reality TV, gangland murders and love-rat footballers. We brand anyone who has ever kicked a ball a ‘footie ace’, while a woman in a bikini on a beach is always ‘showing her ex what he’s missing’. Ill people are ‘brave’ and dead people are almost always ‘tragic’. Drug use must be associated with shame or remorse, ‘my cocaine hell’. Extra-marital affairs are the ultimate crime. Alliteration is good, as in ‘pint-sized popstar Ronan Keating’, rhyming is better, as in ‘pop flop’, puns are the best, see ‘How do you solve a problem like Korea?’ We don’t pun on death but we joke about it a lot. Sure if you don’t laugh, you’ll… well, it’s not that we’d cry, we’re men, most of us, but you have to laugh. How else would we get a paper out night after night?
Stephen Lynch bashes his phone receiver onto the desk three times, he has been trying to get in touch with a reporter who has spelt a murder accused’s surname two different ways but the reporter is not answering his phone. An email comes through from HR, subject line: Attention all staff. There’s a collective intake of breath before we click on the link. The last round of redundancies was almost six months ago, the axe is sure to fall again soon. And when Mark Daly left last month to start an entry-level public relations job—jumping from the sinking ship as he said—he wasn’t replaced. Mark Daly leaving was an anomaly. While the rest of us might complain about the increasing workload and lowering standards, none of us leaves by choice, where would we go? Our skills are no longer transferable; it’s no coincidence that the word thesaurus sounds like a type of dinosaur. The email is about the HR manager’s yogurts going missing from the fridge. ‘We seem to have dodged the bullet for another day,’ Stephen Lynch says, his choice of terminology further confirming our suspicions that he’s a gun nut. But there’s always the possibility of a P45. Fact-checking is no longer valued in our post-Trump post-truth society. No one cares about syntax or apostrophes anymore and clever headlines don’t work as well online. We live in fear of the march of the worldwide web, terrorised by terms such as click bait and data analytics. Stephen Lynch’s friend at a newspaper across town told him they’ve got rid of their sub-editors altogether and have reporters filing copy directly on to the page. Reporters who don’t know the difference between lose and loose, who don’t know when to use it’s or its, who end sentences with prepositions. We’re an endangered species, at risk of extinction, waiting for the wheels to come off the bus. It doesn’t bother Joe McCormack who is just serving* *out his time until a pay-off allows him move to the south of France and write that novel he’s always going on about… or about which he’s always going on… sometimes it’s difficult not to finish on a preposition. Joe likes to tell us about the days of editing by hand, literally cutting out words with a knife, the days of four-day weeks and four pints at lunchtime, smoking at the desk and a bottle of whiskey in the drawer. Don’t get him started on how there was no such thing as Google. He is paid twice as much as the rest of us for half the work, although he claims his three ex-wives have left him flat broke. He’ll be in for a nice package when he gets out of here—as long as he doesn’t go the way of the old chief sub who never missed a day’s work in forty-five years, then dropped dead a week after retirement.
Several people have gathered around Brian Murphy’s desk and are watching something on his screen. Their sounds and comments suggest it’s a football video—wait for it… this is it… ooooh… straight through… I can’t look… show us the replay. But when we join the growing cluster around Brian’s workstation, we see it’s a video of a man being beheaded by ISIS terrorists, it comes clean off and rolls across the yellow sandstone of what looks like a town square, the decapitated kneeling body stays upright for another few seconds. The Yogurtgate email is followed by one from a sports reporter looking for sponsorship for running the Dublin marathon next month. He took up running last year after a heart scare made him swap chips for chip times and now he talks about nothing else. We kept a roster of visitors alongside our work rosters while he was in the hospital, we’re at our best in a crisis. Joe McCormack is the first to donate to his refugees fundraising page, he puts himself down for twenty euro, making it impossible for the rest of us to give less without looking tight. Easy for him, we think, with his mortgage paid off and no childcare costs. It’s for a good cause, we know, but surely a tenner would have been fine.
A phone rings. A young girl has died in the bus crash. Tragic teen we’ll call her and use her first name, innocent victims get first names. Fifteen years old. Pretty. We know she’s pretty because someone has already trawled her Facebook profile for photos. And it’s always so much more tragic when they’re pretty. If Lisa Dwyer was here she’d point out that we wouldn’t use an equivalent adjective if it was a boy who had died, we wouldn’t call him a tragic hunk, but Lisa’s off today. There are occasionally small victories for feminism, vetoing the use of the word funbags for breasts, for example, by arguing that they’re not fun for everyone, or quietly changing Miriam O’Callaghan’s description from ‘yummy mummy’ to ‘Prime Time presenter’—not that Miriam would probably care. But these small battles will not win the war. Last week Lisa changed Amal Clooney’s description from George Clooney’s wife to human rights lawyer but when she returned to the page later she found it had been revised to human rights hottie. The page plans on our screens start to fill up like a giant puzzle. A full page is devoted to another paedophile on trial. Evil paedo. Sick perv. Vile sex beast. Monster. Paedo priest works well for alliteration. We’ll keep the details out though, people don’t want to read about anal rape while they’re eating their cornflakes. There’s an unwritten, unspoken rule that Finbarr O’Leary never has to sub one of those stories, the same way it’s understood that Lisa Dwyer doesn’t do baby stories after her stillborn last year.
A hospital in Syria has been bombed, forty-seven dead, including eleven children. Three paragraphs in a corner of page 16. A right-hand page is given over to a soap ‘star’ who has been caught cheating on his catalogue-model partner—a bit of showbiz to lighten things up. Sex sells but we never call it plain old sex, it’s romping, nooky, between-the-sheets action. Soon she’ll be on *I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here *eating live insects in the jungle, wearing a bikini, showing him what he’s missing. A boat carrying 200-plus migrants has sunk in the Aegean Sea, thirty-seven still missing, presumed dead. It’s the third one this week so will hardly make it in unless the photos are any good. Madonna has had a nip slip on stage at an awards show, that will definitely make it in. Some nut thinks he’s seen Madeleine McCann in Venezuela, might make a page lead. A man has jumped forty feet into the canal basin from a ledge near Boland’s Mill as some sort of ‘performance art’ stunt. The copy for this story has been swiped from an art website. It reads: ‘Acclaimed painter James Maguire has transcended his chosen medium and made a daring statement about the impermanence of art and the superficial nature of the art world. Maguire, whose abstract expressionist painting on a wall near Boland’s Mill caused a stir both on and offline yesterday, painted over the work early today with a caricature of himself and the word “fraud” before jumping from a forty- foot ledge into the canal basin below.’ They wait until seventy words in to tell us the good part? There’s another 567 words of this to be boiled down into three short paragraphs but our readers don’t care much for abstract expressionism. Something like this will do:
A GRAFFITI artist has cheated death after plunging 40ft into a canal basin in a brazen publicity stunt.
Potty painter James Maguire, 27, carried out the wacky dive at Boland’s Mill in Dublin yesterday.
An onlooker said: ‘Watching it was terrifying, it would nearly give you an art attack.’
Onlookers are good like that, they always have the perfect quote for the story, great for the puns. We bounce around a few headline ideas, it’s a short space to allow room for the picture: Graf lad’s daft leap—too long, doesn’t fit. Graf gaffe—too short. Pick-up artist—just not good enough. Nice spray for a swim— won’t fit even with squeezing the font size down way beyond the rules. ‘What a head the ball anyway,’ Stephen Lynch says. ‘Total chancer,’ Joe McCormack adds. ‘Off the wall,’ Brian Murphy says. Off the wall—that’ll do, it fits. We eat our take-away dinners from plastic containers at our desks. Myra Duggan complains about the smell of chips while she eats her Marks & Spencer’s superfood salad. In between consuming fast food and subbing stories, we discuss the latest Scandi-noir detective series and bet on the horses. We know a bit about everything and can talk about anything—World War Two history or teutonic thrash metal—as long as it doesn’t involve our personal lives. ‘There’s a nice sunset out there,’ Myra says, even though the blinds on the windows are down. ‘Lots of people are posting pictures of it on Twitter.’
Brian Murphy jumps out of his seat and shouts ‘Yes!’, spilling chips all over his
keyboard and knocking over the pile of old newspapers cluttering his desk. We look up at the TV screens that surround us, Messi has gone 3-1 up for Barcelona. ‘That’s it, good man!’ Brian says. Myra Duggan rolls her eyes and tells Brian to take it easy, that Messi can’t hear him. Everyone knows Brian and Myra are sleeping together. They haven’t told us, in fact they pretend not to like each other and never leave the office together, but we know. We can’t remember how we know, but we know—even if Myra’s husband doesn’t. We always know. As deadline approaches, we sit forward more, hunch closer to our screens, type faster on our keyboards, manspread less. We x out of the book writing and the betting browsers. The reporters have gone home and the phones have stopped ringing, the clickety click-click of the keyboards is punctuated only by the odd expletive. By 10.30pm, it’s almost all in the bag with half an hour to go, a rare early finish is on the cards, creamy pints are within reach.
A phone rings. There’s been a shooting in west Dublin, a gangland thing.
The victim is critical in hospital, fighting for his life as we say. ‘Could they not have the decency to shoot each other earlier in the day?’ Finbarr O’Leary says; it’s a tired old joke. The victim is low down the scale, probably not worth a splash. There’s a hierarchy: crime lords and drugs bosses at the top, gangsters and mobsters below, henchmen, hoods and thugs at the bottom. We’ll refer to him by his surname, criminals don’t get honorifics and only the big guns get nicknames: The Monk, The Penguin, The Dapper Don. They have to earn those* * badges of honour. We breathe a sigh of relief when we’re told we’re sticking with the pretty dead girl for page one. We finish our jobs, put the paper to bed, read and reread the front page. Girl, 15, dies in horror school bus smash. No need for clever wordplay in a situation like this. Tributes from her Facebook page fill out the copy. ‘U were taken too soon, I never thought I’d loose you, rip my angel xxx.’ They’ve gone big on the photo of the teenager, looks like a selfie taken on a night out, she’s wearing a bodycon dress and too much eyeliner and looks older than her fifteen years. Above the story are Messi’s hat-trick and Madonna’s nipple, and another blurb flagging up the horoscopes special. ‘That’s it, we’re all in.’ We don’t wait to be told twice, start to put on our coats.
Then the phone rings again. Joe McCormack answers it, and shouts ‘What do you mean she’s not dead?’ A pause, then ‘Shit.’ We’re already taking our coats back off when he hangs up and announces, ‘That was the stringer, she’s on life support still.’ Finbarr O’Leary says, ‘For fuck’s sake. Call the senders and tell them to hold the front page. We’ll splash the shooting instead. Move it up to page 5 inside, move the bus crash back.’ We turn our computers back on. Joe grumbles about a missed bus (fine for you, we think, you can afford the taxi) and Stephen Lynch mutters under his breath about last orders. Myra Duggan says, ‘Well, that’s good, that she survived, that girl, only fifteen years old, imagine,’ and we agree, chastened. And Brian Murphy says, ‘Good thing we caught it, heads would roll tomorrow if we killed off a teenager.’ We agree again, more vocally this time. We get the job done quickly, we could do these gangland shooting stories in our sleep. We play it up a bit, push him further up the ranks for the front page in 90-point upper-case bold. Blasted in broad daylight: Gang boss fights for life after shooting. The kids will look up to him now. Broad daylight is a slight exaggeration too but there is still a stretch in the evenings. ‘I need a pint after all that,’ Finbarr O’Leary says. He won’t be short of company. The alternative is sitting up alone binge-watching Netflix or lying awake in the dark as our partners sleep—those of us who still have partners that is—as we wait for the adrenaline to wear off. So we drink and we smoke and we drink some more. Because how else would we sleep at night?