Newpapers and me: A breakup story

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I loved newspapers, but our relationship couldn’t last forever.

In some ways, the breakup was devastating. We were so compatible, for so long!

It’s easy to say that, years later, through a nostalgic lens that makes everything look so rosy it puts Instagram to shame. The #nofilter version is infinitely more complicated, the graph of highs and lows spiking and plummeting thanks to declining traditional readership, and an industry unwilling and ill-prepared to handle the explosion of web-based content until it was too late to monetize it.

But man, before that, times were good.

I didn’t consider myself a capital-J journalist. That word was reserved for the more dogged, intrepid types — cops-beat writers who always had one ear tuned to the constant chatter of the police scanner, or the investigative reporters sifting through paperwork in the effort to ferret out improprieties. I, meanwhile, never filled out a single FOIA request during my 20-year career.

I came in to newspapers sideways: Most staffers started as reporters, sometimes even as J-school interns. I found a 5:30-to-9:30 p.m. edit assistant job my freshman year in college, so at 18 I was writing obits, punching in sports agate, even persuading the graphic designer to let me “cut color.” Early on my supervisor told me, “There’s no such thing as ‘not my job’ here,” and that sentiment served me well because I wanted to learn everything. By the time I left, five years later with degree in English lit and Spanish, I was working 40-hour weeks, doing the standard duties but also selecting wire articles, editing text and designing pages.

That’s right: designing pages. I’m award-winningly good at design, which was easy to overlook as I climbed a more text-heavy career ladder.

My co-workers at the Tribune recognized how well I bridged the art and edit worlds, though; when I became a style writer I earned pretty unparalleled influence in how my articles and photo shoots were edited and designed—mostly because they recognized the both-sides-of-the-brain GreenFashioneffort that was required to produce each concept. I made sure everything was taken care of — models, hair/makeup, clothing, location — so the photographers could be free to focus only on what was in front of their lens. In exchange, I earned the ability to help edit the photos, to ensure they fit the mood of the story I was about to turn around and write. I consulted with the page designers about how the packages would look. At one point I went all the way to the publisher so the great photo at right could occupy the entire section front, a visual play that’s relatively unheard of. I even propped the goddamn apple in Ryan’s hand for the photo above. It was the best of both worlds — helping to create eye-catching visuals, and also being free to crafting stories that rewarded my love of stringing together a phrase or two. (Or a few hundred, if left unfettered.)

Being a reporter also meant that every day brought the opportunity to learn about something or someone different — one morning I’d be interviewing a woman who had received a stem cell transplant; the next, sitting down with Christian Louboutin during his personal appearance Neiman Marcus; meanwhile, I’d be plugging away on that month’s segment in a yearlong series about the risks of obesity. (It won the state press award for health writing that year, I think mostly because my editrix, Amanda Kingsbury, had pushed me to plan a year’s worth of components so well.)

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(So many section redesigns over a single year!)

But as newspaper readership kept decreasing, so did the available staffing. I became the section editor but kept writing “for fun,” but the fun of the job kept ebbing away, too. By mid-2008 I realized that the features staff was half the size it had been just a year before, and the amount of pleasure I took from my job had dropped even more precariously.

I’m glad to say I jumped, and wasn’t pushed, out of the Tribune; later that year, dozens of newsroom staffers weren’t so lucky and were laid off, and by the time the Great Purge was over, the newsroom staff of 140 had dropped to only 14. Every day for a while, I counted my blessings that I was still employed in a field I enjoyed.

Not that there weren’t a few rough patches. I was used to riding herd over employees, not clients, so I had to learn a completely new way to react when deadlines were blown. (“Seriously? You’ve had forever to work on that. How could that not be done yet?” is off the table, for example.)

Over the past five years I’ve figured out a way to fire on all cylinders — my official job focuses solely on editing, freelance work allows me to write and personal projects — on canvas, paper and screen — keep my artistic side happy.

Am I better off than I was at a newspaper? Financially, yes. Creatively, it depends when I’m doing the comparison. During the early years — when we were doing road trips to Tucson ballparks to research a spring break-themed cover story one week, and I was writing a chart about “things that are older than Cher” another — the Tribune wins handily.

But in the later years, when I was at a desk job trying to cajole (or outright squeeze) one more story out of every reporter, every week, and had no time to blog or write myself, the same place comes up short. I’m grateful that I had the ride I did; in many ways I feel like it was the perfect time to have that job.

WHAT SAM WORE: 10/8/13
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The shirt: Cotton button-down, from the J. Crew outlet at Anthem.
The shorts: Boot-cut khakis, from Banana Republic.
The shoes: Tumble loafers by J. Shoes, ordered online.
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