A Difficult Goodbye

About three weeks ago, I designed a newspaper sports front page [intlink id=”5833″ type=”post”]for the first time in six years[/intlink] as I served as an emergency fill-in on the sports desk at my old newspaper, The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C. Four days later, I found out that that would also be the last time I get to design a sports front at The Herald-Sun. The newspaper, following the lead of the News & Observer and a number of other papers across the country, is laying off its desk staff and moving all design and copy editing functions to Owensboro, Ky., site of a sister paper in the Paxton Media Group chain, which has owned The Herald-Sun since 2005. The last night for the desk staff is tomorrow.

The move toward consolidation of desk functions for multiple papers into a central hub is a trend across the entire newspaper industry. There are (a few) good and (many) bad things about it, and perhaps this move at The Herald-Sun was inevitable. The desk staff at The Herald-Sun — and the entire staff in general — has steadily dwindled to far below the size it was at when I worked there full-time as a sports designer and copy editor in the mid-2000s. The sports desk alone has shrunk from four full-timers and a couple part-timers at the peak of my time there to just one full-timer before this latest development, and that reduced staff was laying out the Sanford Herald’s paper in addition to their own.

I’m no grizzled newsroom veteran, and I don’t pretend to have ever lived in a golden age of journalism. The industry was already starting to fall into flux when I got out of school, even if we didn’t quite realize the magnitude of the changes that were coming. Also, I’ve now spent enough time away from the business and absorbed enough outsider perspectives to be able to step back and see the myriad of things we could’ve done better and the many ways in which journalism in this new age could be better than it had been before. However, it feels surreal that just five-and-a-half years after I left my full-time job there, the entire design and copy desk at the paper will be gone. The Herald-Sun sports desk is a place that has played a big role in my life and career (sometimes probably bigger than is healthy), and upon hearing the news of its imminent demise, I couldn’t help but reflect on my time there and the impact it had on me.

Getting Into the Game

I began working in The Herald-Sun sports department as a correspondent soon after graduating from high school in Durham in 1997. My high school journalism teacher heard the paper was looking for help covering prep sports and passed it along to me since I had been sports editor of the high school paper. So I sent an e-mail — from my AOL address, on a dial-up connection — expressing my interest. Neil Amato, then the preps editor at the paper, had to tell me during our first phone call to stop calling him Mr. Amato. “I only got out of college four years ago,” he said. My first story — an eight-inch lead to a roundup in which I totally focused on the wrong angle — is still framed and hanging on the wall of my old bedroom in my parents’ house.

Within a year or so I started working part-time on the sports desk, too, putting together the page in the sports section with all the boxscores and statistics. Throughout my four years at UNC, I spent many a Friday night covering prep games and following that up with a desk shift on Saturday nights. In retrospect, I probably should’ve done a little more partying on those nights like normal college students do. But at the time, it was a sacrifice I made gladly. Even then, it wasn’t easy for journalism graduates to land jobs after college, so I figured every ounce of experience — especially in a professional newsroom — would help.

It was terrific experience, too. I did a little bit of everything: covering games on every level of competition, laying out pages, taking prep calls, driving a bunch of sports editors down to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park one summer when they held their annual meeting in Durham, placating a mentally challenged stutterer named Gary who called (and is still calling) every night asking for brackets for every conceivable and inconceivable tournament and would not hang up until he was satisfied that you were going to physically deliver said brackets to his house right away. I sat in a press box at East Chapel Hill High and gazed in amazement at the half-inch-thick layer of dead flies on the desk; shivered so hard in the chilly wind sweeping across the football field at Hillside High that I spilled half of the cup of hot chocolate I was holding; wilted in the heat on a track in Raleigh waiting to interview Marion Jones, only to have her make a quick exit without talking to reporters; nearly flipped my car off a particularly curvy on-ramp rushing back to the office from a game at Orange High; spent half a season having the same despondent postgame interview with the coach of a football team that went 0-11 and found a new heartbreaking way to lose each week; and watched a kid from Azerbaijan who had the use of only one arm do cross-over dribbles like you won’t believe.

The experiences from my first two-plus years at the paper helped me realize that while I enjoyed writing and sports, I wasn’t really suited to being a beat writer. I was a bit too shy, never feeling entirely comfortable about “bothering” people with my questions even though I did it when I had to. And I found out that I’d get bored quickly if I had to cover the same team or subject night in and night out, especially with game stories, which too often had a formulaic nature to them. At the same time, though, I also discovered a previously unrealized passion for design, in part from my experience putting together sports pages. I liked the idea of taking all the different raw material — stories, pictures, headlines, statistics, captions, graphics — and building something from them that, when done well, can be greater than the sum of its parts. That realization — and the shift in career path it effected — had an impact on my life that reverberates even to this day.

In 2001, the spring before my senior year, a design and copy-editing position opened up on the sports desk in a rather bizarre manner. The guy who had that job walked out of the newsroom one night without telling anyone that he wasn’t coming back. Oh, and it just happened to be the night that the Duke men’s basketball team was playing for the national championship, which, for a newspaper covering Durham, was akin to a presidential election in magnitude. After a couple hours of consternation on the sports desk while we tried to call that guy, wondering all the while if he was lying unconscious in a pool of blood somewhere (he wasn’t), we proceeded to bang out not only the regular sports section, but a special championship section as well. Soon thereafter, the sports editor offered me the position, which I wanted but was unsure about taking because I still had one more full semester of classes left. The paper was good enough to accommodate me, letting me work four nights a week — with benefits — during the fall semester before switching to a full-time schedule in the spring, by which time I only had a couple classes left to take. So while most of my journalism school classmates were fretting over what to do after graduation, I was already half a year into a permanent gig.

I learned a ton in the next three years. While The Herald-Sun has never been renowned for its design, I did have the benefit of editors who took a more or less laissez-faire approach toward design and the tutelage of a fellow sports designer who never hesitated to try something new. That combination created an environment where we felt free to try just about anything and everything, employing a kaleidoscope of cutouts, gradients, funky fonts, drop shadows, outer glows, and motion blurs along the way. We were both figuring it out as we went, and looking back on it, a lot of the stuff we did in those days were hideous, but we also stumbled into some good-looking stuff every now and then. The same kind of thinking that drove us to abuse artsy fonts also inspired us to design a pretty slick football special section cover featuring the starchild from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Learning my craft in an environment that allowed such experimentation bred in me a mentality to not simply accept conventional notions of what a newspaper should look like. Headline-photo-story was always the fallback, the last option, and even though in my later years in the business I learned that sometimes that could be the best option, I never lost the zeal for looking to improve upon that builder-grade format.

Being a small to mid-sized paper (about 50,000 circulation in the early 2000s), we didn’t have the most resources or the biggest staff, yet even that aspect had a positive influence on me. To this day, I’d never accept not having the latest and greatest equipment as an excuse for not producing good work. The first work “laptop” on which I filed a story had a black and white “screen” that showed about five lines of text at a time. I was running a self-provided copy of Photoshop for half of my time at the paper. The pagination system the paper was still using when I first started in 1997 dared to ask the question, “What is this WYSIWYG of which you speak?” And I still remember the shocked look on the faces of my colleagues at an ad agency years later when I told them that I was laying out pages on Quark 3.something as recently as 2003. These limitations, however annoying, made me more inventive and more proactive in taking the initiative to find a solution. They were hurdles to be overcome, walked around, or tunneled under, not excuses to take the path of least resistance. And even though we often yearned for more time, in the end, I found that when we busted our ass, we generally were able to put together some nice work, especially for non-deadline stuff, even if it meant staying a couple hours longer. Moreover, being on a smaller staff meant we all had to do a little bit of everything, and from that grew my versatility, which I still consider my greatest strength.

In fall 2003, I felt like I had learned enough to shoulder a bigger load, so I volunteered to design our annual ACC football preview section, one of the few plum design assignments each year. It was the biggest project I had tackled up to that point, and it became my baby, conceived four months earlier when I discovered a Photoshop technique that gives photos a hand-drawn, comic-book-esque quality — the kind of discovery you make when you’re operating in an environment where you’re free to experiment without having to first ask for permission. I spent countless hours on the section, at work and at home, and turned out something that I’m still pretty proud of to this day. A couple weeks after the section was published, I went into work one evening and found an envelope sitting on my desk, containing a thank-you note and a four-figure check, compliments of the executive editor.

Little (or not so little) things like that were among the reasons that newsroom really appealed to me in those days. The paper was still family-owned at the time, and I think that definitely influenced the atmosphere. I couldn’t complain about the leadership since I always felt they treated me well (though I understand this point can differ depending on what you do and whom you work with, like at any company). The newsroom had a nice mix of veterans and up-and-comers, and unlike many other papers that size, it was a place where one could be content building a long career, especially in sports, since the location of the paper put you right in the heart of college basketball heaven (getting to live in the Triangle is a nice plus, too). We were a smallish paper but we were covering some big-time sports programs, and while we didn’t have as many resources as the big boys did, we always tried to hold our own where it really mattered. To employ an industry cliché, I guess you could call us “scrappy.” We didn’t work for awards, but we did collect our share, which was all the more satisfying knowing we were typically on the lower end of the circulation class in which we competed.

As for my colleagues, I got along great with most of them. We worked well together and we generally had fun in the process despite the nightly rush. For news design and copy editing desks, election nights are the busiest and most hectic nights, but as another industry cliché goes, every night on the sports desk is like election night. However, a night on the sports desk also rarely felt like work as one would imagine work to be. No one quibbled with us over trivial things like dress codes or the salty language that was a necessary release valve for the pressures we faced on a nightly basis. We weren’t locked into eight-hour shifts and were free to work fewer hours on some nights because, as the paper correctly figured, it all evened out over the long run as we often stayed well after deadline working on special projects (imagine that: staying at work as long or as short as needed to get the work done). And after that night’s paper was done, a couple of us would stand in the parking lot for hours at a time, talking shop and shooting the bull about all manners of things, sometimes until near dawn as the delivery trucks were pulling out of the parking lot with the edition we had cranked out hours earlier.

I was in a city I liked, at a workplace I enjoyed, doing work I loved, with people I considered my friends, and for people who appreciated my work. So what did I do two months after receiving the nice thank-you gift for my efforts on the ACC football section? I left the paper.

Too Comfortable?

During my first couple years at The Herald-sun, I had received a few inquiries from other news organizations looking for young, cheap journalists fresh out of school — including one for a copy-editing job at ESPN.com — but I was too enamored with what I had in Durham, both at work and in terms of family. The farthest I went in entertaining such inquiries was a two-day interview with the Charlotte Observer sports department (it’s hard to say “no” to the biggest newspaper in the state without at least taking a look). On September 10, 2001, I rolled into Charlotte around midday for a whirlwind afternoon of interviews and meals with various people at the paper. The next morning, I went back to take an aptitude test in the HR office, during which I thought I heard someone outside say, “The World Trade Center towers, they aren’t there anymore.” In the absence of context or further details, I quickly pushed it to the back of my mind; I had, after all, more important things to tend to, like this interview.

After finishing my test, I made my way upstairs to the newsroom and walked into a frenetic scene of people huddling around TV sets, hurrying to and fro, and yelling across the room. One of the assistant sports editors told me what had just transpired and said, “I think the plans for the rest of your day are scrapped. Let’s reschedule.” As I drove out of downtown Charlotte while the cops were setting up barricades, I thought to myself, “Maybe this is a sign.”

In all seriousness, though, I didn’t feel like I was a good fit for the Charlotte Observer’s design style. Don’t get me wrong: That paper is clean and functional and nice looking in an understated sort of way, but for a designer just starting out and looking for opportunities to learn and experiment, it felt too restrained and confining. In a way, the freewheeling atmosphere at The Herald-Sun had already stamped its mark on me. I courteously withdrew my name from consideration, and that was the only time I had even half-seriously thought about leaving until 2003.

The ACC football section I designed in 2003 had put me on the radar of some newspapers looking for young designers to mold in their image (and my obviously Chinese last name probably didn’t hurt either since newsrooms are constantly looking to add “diversity”). In October 2003, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., came calling. This time, I felt a greater urge to jump. The football section had whet my appetite for more large-scale design projects, and I knew that at The Herald-Sun, I would always run up against limitations in manpower, resources, and the number of opportunities to flex my design muscles. In addition, I was feeling the lure that most aspiring newspaper designers three years removed from college would probably feel to climb the newspaper ladder to some place bigger, more prominent, more widely read, to be able to point at a page gracing the eyeballs of hundreds of thousands of people and say, “Yeah, I did that.” Finally, I was feeling the fear of letting my career stagnate for no reason other than the fact that I was comfortable in Durham. I had, after all, already turned down a handful of opportunities, including ESPN.com and the biggest paper in this state. If I turned down the biggest paper in the neighboring state as well, how many more opportunities were going to keep coming my way?

So I decided it was time to push myself out of my comfort zone. I interviewed at The State — whose circulation was about two-and-half times that of The Herald-Sun’s — and came away impressed at the quality of its work and felt that its style of design was more in line with what I wanted to do. Those factors, along with the 23-percent pay raise The State had put on the table, convinced me to make the leap. I gave The Herald-Sun a one-month notice — I felt that was the least I could do for a paper that had done much for me at the outset of my career — and then made my way down to Columbia in one whirlwind November weekend.

Mover’s Remorse

On my first night at The State, I stepped outside the building during my dinner break, called a friend while pacing on the concrete steps by the side door, and confessed to her that for some reason I wasn’t feeling as excited as I should’ve been about starting a new job that was attractive enough to yank me out of my comfort zone. Of course, it might’ve had something to do with the fact that I sat down that night in front of a woefully underpowered computer that had less than 100 MBs of available disk space and was running Photoshop 3 — in 2003! The computer situation was remedied within a couple days, but the feeling I had that first night never truly improved. I started to miss the atmosphere and the people at The Herald-Sun almost immediately. I thought it would pass with time, but if anything, it only intensified in the ensuing months.

My new job certainly provided me with what I went there for — more opportunities and resources to do good design work. The sports desk was double the size of the one in Durham, which meant fewer pages per person and more time to spend on each page. I also never lacked for occasions to do special designs, as the sports department put out a giant feature package seemingly every week and was always doing special pages to commemorate this or preview that. I learned a lot during my time in Columbia, the most valuable of which was the benefit of advance planning. After constantly flying by the seat of my pants during my first three years in the business, I was now seeing how the bigger boys did it and how their less chaotic, more organized approach paid off. I received reinforcement on the importance of truly editing stories, not just proofreading. I saw what differentiated visual journalism from merely design, and I knew I wanted to do the former. I learned, I did some good work, and the people at The State liked my work.

Still, through it all I inwardly longed for the freedom and aggressiveness in experimenting with design that I had enjoyed at The Herald-Sun. The creative process at The State felt too formal, with too great a need to ask for permission rather than forgiveness for someone who was used to the exact opposite. I also missed the people I had worked with in Durham, in spite of (or because of) their respective eccentricities. My colleagues at The State were friendly folks, many of them were my age, and I got along fine with them and we hung out on occasion after work. But there were no hours-long bull sessions in the parking lot after work and nowhere near as many spontaneous belly laughs or four-letter words in the office. The place had a more buttoned-down, professional feel. Perhaps it was more conducive to getting good work done, but it also wasn’t as fun a place to work in (perhaps I just prefer being on a rag-tag ship of unruly buccaneers instead of a well-run galleon). There also seemed to be a lot of layers of decision makers, and every decision took longer and became more complicated than it needed to be, IMHO. That was difficult for someone who was used to making snap decisions on the fly because he never had much time to mull over every photo choice or every headline.

All those things, along with the fact that I missed my family and life in the Triangle, took their toll. After a few months, I e-mailed the sports editor at The Herald-Sun to tell him I was looking to move back to Durham if an opportunity arose. A couple months later, he called and told me a position had opened up on the sports desk. I jumped at it, even though it meant taking a sizable paycut from what I was making in Columbia, and a couple weeks later I was on my way back to Durham. The Charlotte Observer, The State’s sister paper, called while I was packing and offered me an opportunity to stay in the Knight Ridder chain (remember KR?). I really appreciated that gesture, but I stood firm, because I had figured out where I belonged.

Back Again

I first read this passage from a 1999 Sports Illustrated story on John Stockton when I was back in college:

If simple works, why change? If the Jazz franchise fits you like your favorite pair of khakis, why even think about playing anywhere else? Why even have an agent? Just figure out a salary you think is fair, tell the owner to do the same thing, and meet somewhere in the middle. If you’ve always worn your shorts a little snug and no longer than mid-thigh, why change just because everyone else is letting them billow down around the knees? If the hometown girl you began dating in college will give you a lifetime, no-cut contract, why go looking elsewhere? Marry her and settle down. If you’ve never been happier than you were in the neighborhood you grew up in, why not get yourself a house right next door to your parents’ and re-create your childhood for your five kids? “You don’t do anything just because other people do,” Stockton says. “My father taught me that.”

Obviously this approach to life and career isn’t for everyone, but it made sense to me. It took leaving The Herald-Sun for me to realize how much I enjoyed being there and that it was the right fit for me. My seven-month sojourn in Columbia had helped me figure out what really mattered to me in life and work, and those things were waiting for me back in Durham, not some other corner of the journalism world, even if that corner was offering more resources, more recognition, or more money. Thus, when I returned to The Herald-Sun, I knew in the back of my mind that this would most likely be the last newspaper I worked for, with the caveat that by then, I had also figured out that I would eventually want to leave journalism and explore other lines of design before possibly settling in one (possibly journalism). Nonetheless, I felt like there was still a lot left for me to do and try in journalism, and The Herald-Sun was where I wanted to do that. I was 25 when I started my second tour of duty there in June 2004, and I could easily see myself being there until I was 30, and possibly beyond.

Soon after returning to The Herald-Sun, I became the lead designer on the sports desk, and I threw myself into the role, adding the discipline and appreciation for planning that I had acquired in Columbia to the freedom and control I rediscovered in Durham. I was now the go-to guy for designing the special projects in the sports department, and I relished all those opportunities. That coming year, by coincidence, had more special projects than usual, and I also created some additional opportunities by applying some of what I learned in Columbia. I tried, and sometimes succeeded, in improving not only the design but also some aspects of how the sports department operated. I tried to make us plan in advance more, and some of those efforts paid off. I also played mentor to a couple younger designers who were in the shoes I once had been in.

I could see that I was affecting more than just the pages I worked on, a feeling I didn’t get in Columbia. At The State, the paper was big enough, with a culture and method of operation entrenched enough that one designer wasn’t going to make waves. In Durham, thanks to the smaller staff size and the more informal operation, it felt easier for one person to exert an influence on the paper, as long as he had the desire and didn’t mind putting in the hours. I was young, single, working a job I loved with a schedule that made it impossible for me to hang out with my friends who had normal jobs. So what else was I going to do but spend too many of my waking hours thinking about how to make the paper better? It was a time when I did a lot of my best work and a time when I did a lot of work, period. In retrospect, it would have been difficult for me to keep up that pace over the long haul, but at the time, I loved it. This was what I came back from Columbia to do. This was a virtually perfect fit for me, and I felt zero need to look around and wonder if there’s an even better fit out there somewhere.

Change of Plans

Several months into my return, things were going well. I was enjoying work and enjoying the fact that instead of four hours, I only had to drive four minutes to get a delicious meal at my parents’. By August 2004, two months after coming back to Durham, I had bought a house and was ready to settle in for the long haul.

But then late that year, we were rounded up in the newsroom one night for a surprise meeting. The top honchos announced that, after being family-owned for 115 years, the paper was being sold to a chain, the Paxton Media Group, which most of us hadn’t heard of. We were stunned, concerned, but still cautiously hopeful.

The cautiously hopeful part began to waver as we heard more and more whispers about our new masters, and it crashed and burned soon after the calendar flipped over to 2005. While spending an off day with my family just after New Year’s, I got a call from the sports editor informing me that the new ownership took control that day and, within half an hour of entering the building, had dismissed all the top management and said layoffs were on the way.

The axe fell swiftly in the ensuing weeks. The first round claimed one of our four full-time sports desk guys and one of our veteran sportswriters, both solid, hard-working journalists. For someone who had never gone through a layoff before, it was a traumatic experience. The night I found out about those layoffs is still the only time in my career, at any job, that I found myself so unable to concentrate on the work that I had to take a stroll to focus my thoughts long enough to get the paper out. After the initial shock and anger subsided somewhat, I began to feel the inkling to start my exploration of other fields of design ahead of schedule. I still loved what I did, and if you pointed me in the direction of a newspaper page, I’d unquestionably attack it with the same vigor I always had, but were the new masters deserving of such efforts?

Still, I didn’t leave right away. The day the sports editor informed us about the two casualties in the sports department from the first big round of layoffs, he finished with, “I’d understand if you guys have other opportunities that you want to pursue.” I told him at the end of that meeting, however, that he could count on me not going anywhere at least through April. I felt an obligation to stay at least through the Final Four, the busiest time of the year for the sports desk. It’d only be fair to the people I worked with. Besides, the paper had been good enough to give me an opportunity to come back to Durham from the wilderness only a half year earlier; I felt I owed them at least that much. While that year was the most turbulent and difficult of my time at The Herald-Sun, that basketball season was also when I felt like we, the sports desk, did some really good work. As an added bonus, North Carolina, my alma mater, was on its way to claiming the national championship and I fulfilled one of my goals when I set out on my newspaper design career — to do a UNC championship special section.

April came and went. With the euphoria of UNC’s championship getting ever more distant in the rear-view mirror, I started looking around for other jobs but was always hoping that the new ownership would show me that they cared as much as the former owners did about quality journalism. “Just give me a couple signs, and I’ll stay,” I thought. The signs we got, however, indicated quite the opposite. From big things like more layoffs to smaller things like increasing penny-pinching in the day-to-day operation, it was clear that this was a new day and that the rules were now very different. As can be expected, the mood in the newsroom was souring rapidly, and there was an unbridgeable chasm between the new management and the surviving staff. All the way until the day I left, I never uttered more than the usual necessary pleasantries to the new, Paxton-imported top editor. In a way, I felt like here I was, enjoying my own little slice of Eden when the serpent not only slithered in, but also kicked down the gate and poisoned the flowers.

Despite the initial layoffs, we had enough momentum left over from the culture that existed in the newsroom before the ownership change to carry us through that college basketball season as we had in years past. However, I sensed that the negative changes I was seeing were only the beginning, not the end, and I didn’t want to stick around for things to deteriorate further. Being a longtime 49ers fan, I was also mindful of the pitfall of overstaying one’s usefulness in the eyes of the company, loyalty or skills be damned. After all, if Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, and Jerry Rice could all be considered expendable by an organization known for its willingness to spend money on good players, what was I to a company that, as word had it on industry message boards, was ruthless in its pursuit of a profit margin much higher than the industry norm? There’s an old Chinese saying that came to my mind more than once during that period: “When the nest is broken, how can any egg be safe?”

As the months wore on, I became more and more convinced that I did not want to stay long. I had several non-journalism job interviews during that time, and when nothing materialized, I started an application for the masters program at the College of Design at N.C. State, an idea that I had been toying with for a while. I did get some e-mails from other newspapers expressing interest, and I even talked to the News & Observer, which had been busy scooping up some of the layoff casualties from The Herald-Sun to beef up its operations and the new Durham edition it was launching (I’m sure the massive changes at The Herald-Sun looked like a giant “C’mon into our turf” sign to its competitor on the other side of the Triangle). Part of me was a little tempted, but never seriously so. The N&O seemed like it had the potential to be a less-than-optimal fit for me as a designer, as Columbia had been, and I knew I’d always feel a bit weird about working for the paper I had viewed as the competition for years. Most importantly, when I considered the landscape of the newspaper industry, I saw that it was only a matter of time before the same tsunami that had just made landfall at The Herald-Sun swept into newsrooms everywhere, and I knew I didn’t want to have to relive that experience again and again. During my meeting with the N&O folks, one of them told me, alluding to what had happened in Durham, “We don’t lay people off.” My immediate, unspoken thought was, “Yeah, not yet.”

I was done with newspapers, I decided. It didn’t happen quite the way I had envisioned, but The Herald-Sun will, as I had suspected when I went back there, be the last newspaper I work for.

How Can We Miss You If You Don’t Really Leave?!

In December 2005, as I was busy taking the GRE and chasing down recommendation letters for my graduate school application, a chance to be the graphic designer at a nonprofit program at UNC came my way, and it seemed like such a good opportunity that I scrapped my grad-school plans and took the job instead. I put in my notice at The Herald-Sun — my tenure would end a day before the calendar year did — and submitted a four-page letter as part of my exit interview. It wasn’t a bridge-burning rant, but a calm listing of the reasons that made me leave, ending with the expression of my hope that the paper would someday return to being a place that values quality journalism. I wasn’t naive enough to think it would make a difference, but I wrote it all the same so I could feel at ease that I had said and done all that’s within my power, and that what happened next would be up to the other party. The HR lady conducting my exit interview scanned through the letter and said something to the effect of, “Yeah, we’ve certainly seen similar sentiments from other people who have left.” We then exchanged a what-can-you-do look.

When I walked out of the office after deadline shortly after midnight on Dec. 31, 2005, I knew I would be back. I had already agreed to help do the sports agate page on Saturday nights. In a way, my career at The Herald-Sun was coming full circle since this was what I had done at the start of my time there. While I’ve never been wealthy enough to say I cared nothing about the extra $150 to $200 a month from that arrangement, the money was always by far a secondary concern. The main reason I agreed to do it — offered to do it, in fact — was to help out my friends in the sports department because I knew they would have a tougher job than ever.

So, for the last five-plus years — like most of the nine years before that — I’ve spent most Saturday nights in The Herald-Sun office. It has been a pretty decent part-time gig — relatively undemanding in both time, energy, and brain power. I basically worked when I was able and willing, and the people at the paper were always grateful for the help. The arrangement gave me a chance to catch up with my newspaper friends who now existed on a schedule opposite from mine, a place where I could curse like a sailor in the office and no one would bat an eyelash, and a way for me to keep a toe in the journalism waters without getting wet.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the newspaper game for a good while after I left. As I told Neil Amato — the man who got me started in the business in the first place and who, like me, has since left it — over lunch a while back, no job you take from here on out will ever give you the same thrill. It was like a siren song, always trying to pull me back in. Almost six years later, however, I’ve finally moved on from that phase of my life. I’ve had three jobs since I left newspapers, and I feel more distant, more detached from the industry now, in a good way. Life after journalism has been pretty good to me, though I do still have a special place in my heart for that decade I spent in newspapers.

Perhaps it’s part of moving on, but in the time since my departure, even my attitude toward the Paxton management at the paper has become a little bit more mellowed. Part of it is due to the fact that I’ve gained a wider perspective on what’s been going on all around the industry. The other reason is that I’ve become a bit wiser about life and the world in general after having lived outside of the newspaper realm for a while and seeing the same or even worse ills out there. Or maybe it’s just a case of me no longer being at the paper to suffer from the new management’s decisions.

Whatever the reason, I’ve come to see — and I wasn’t necessarily able to see this at the time I left — that even if a different chain had bought the paper or even if the original owners had never sold it, chances are good that it still would have suffered similar cutbacks in the past five years. The economic changes in journalism are far too powerful to be stopped by trivial things like whether a news organization is family-owned or part of a chain or which chain it belonged to. I would still never invite the Paxton-imported editor out for a drink, but a few years after I left my full-time job at The Herald-Sun, on the rare occasion that he and I crossed paths in the newsroom on one of my Saturday nights in the office, I would at least make eye contact and could sometimes even flash a bit of a smile as we exchanged greetings. Gradually, I stopped seeing Paxton as the serpent in the garden, but rather just a particularly virulent manifestation of the slash-and-burn approach that was sweeping across the entire industry.

Watching Death from the Periphery

One of the negative side effects of my continuing association with the paper, however, is that I’ve gotten an up-close look at its steady deterioration over the past six years. The Herald-Sun’s circulation has plummeted to half of what it was at the time of the ownership change, while staff size, ambitions, and quality of work have all waned drastically. A couple times each year, it seems, I would go into the office and be informed that we had more “churn” and so-and-so had been laid off. And as more and more familiar faces left on their own accord, fewer and fewer of their empty positions were being filled. The turnover rate has also increased. Of course people have always come and gone at newspapers, but this was different. For comparison’s sake, I’d estimate that about two-thirds (and definitely at least half) of the people who were in The Herald-Sun sports department when I started there in 1997 were still there when I returned from Columbia in 2005. Now, of the 10 people in the department when I left in 2006, the sports editor is the only one remaining. A sports department that was 12 strong at the time of the ownership change has been slashed to a current headcount of three, a 75-percent reduction in six years.

No amount of innovation or “working smarter” can offset that level of loss. Add to it the fact that the desk has also been laying out the Sanford Herald’s pages, and it was inevitable that the quality of work would start to slip. Fewer and fewer events were being covered, with less and less depth. Time for editing, or even just proofreading, became ever more precious and virtually disappeared on some nights. Instead of visual journalism or even just design, the desk’s job quickly slipped toward [intlink id=”5681″ type=”post”]mere production[/intlink] — fill the pages with stories and let them go. Instead of complaining about not getting enough space for a special section, the concern was now about getting an abundance of space because there aren’t enough people to work on it. Whereas we once busted ass so we could do great work, people were now having to bust ass just to get the paper out.

Outside the paper, the world has moved on. While the initial layoffs right after the ownership change had incited outrage from the community, each ensuing layoff made increasingly fewer ripples, until almost no one outside the paper noticed anymore, even in the journalism world, since such news had become commonplace. And in the current economic crisis,  one newspaper’s financial woes just blended into the tableaux of bad news everywhere.

Inside the paper, however, the deterioration was hard to miss. The newsroom was hemorrhaging talent and experience and increasingly not replenishing either. The fat had long been trimmed, and most of what has been happening the last few years has been more akin to deciding that you don’t need one of your limbs anymore and cutting off that limb and carving out the part of your brain that controls it, and then doing it to another limb a few months later, and then another, until what you are left with is a limbless, near-brain-dead trunk.

The newsroom, once alive with activity, became increasingly empty, especially at night. One cubicle after another became derelicts, serving as eerie monuments to the people who once inhabited them, a few still sporting their last occupants’ nameplates and belongings, untouched since the day they left, which, in some cases, was several years ago. On the night shift, the desk is now often cloaked in a silent solitude interrupted only by the drone of the air conditioning and the occasional ring of the phone echoing in a newsroom that had never seemed so cavernous. There’s no other way to put it: For someone who knew what that newsroom had been like just a few years earlier, this was a demoralizing scene to walk into, even if I only walked in once a week. It reminds me of “North Country Blues,” the Bob Dylan song about the death of an ore-mining town that includes this verse:

So the mining gates locked
And the red iron rotted
And the room smelled heavy from drinking
Where the sad, silent song
Made the hour twice as long
As I waited for the sun to go sinking

I understand that the journalism landscape is changing and that newspapers and their staffs — and staff sizes — have to change with it. However, that need for change touches on the other part of this tragedy. The changes at The Herald-Sun would be easier to stomach if the company was doing more than just shedding staff. I can live with reducing staff if it was part of a bigger plan to turn around the paper’s fortunes. I’d be ok with reducing ambitions if you’re altering your approach so you can focus your limited resources to specialize in a few areas. I’d be ok with reducing or even eliminating the desk if it was part of re-inventing your workflow, and the role copy editing and design within that workflow, for the digital publishing age. I’d be ok with the newspaper no longer being a place where someone can or want to build a long career if it took steps to transform itself into a place that consistently attracted young talent by offering them good opportunities to practice the new journalism skills they’re learning in school and hone their craft before moving on to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, I saw none of that, a missed opportunity made even more frustrating by the fact that other newspapers facing similar pressures are trying to innovate and, in some cases, finding some success.

Still I kept going in and helping out about once a week, increasingly more out of loyalty to friends than anything else. There have been times when, upon being begged to pull an extra shift on a week night — something I typically loathe to do as it means a short night’s rest before work the next morning — I felt tempted to say no, to let management reap what it had sowed. But each time, I relented, because I knew the people who would suffer for it would be my friends and colleagues, who would be asked to work an extra day, to drive back from an assignment to squeeze in an extra desk shift, or to adjust their vacation plans to make up for the widening gap between workload and body count. So I kept saying yes, again and again, for the sake of loyalty. But as more and more of my friends have departed — and as the people who replaced them have departed — I’ve found myself wondering on more than one occasion, “How long am I going to keep doing this? Until the last of my friends have left?”

The parent company was good enough to alleviate me of that potential dilemma two weeks ago by announcing that it was moving all of The Herald-Sun’s desk functions out of state. That includes the work I’ve been doing on Saturday nights (the sports editor and I have discussed throwing some correspondent work my way when or if my schedule allows it, which is uncertain since I’m about to [intlink id=”5179″ type=”post”]start grad school[/intlink]). Of course, I’ve never really considered what I’ve doing at The Herald-Sun the last five-plus years employment, but rather more as an arrangement among friends, and I’m fortunate enough that I can withstand the loss of that income without too much trouble. I had been considering cutting back on my work there anyway once my masters program starts. I’m sure this change will produce its share of negative consequences, given the loss of local knowledge and the tender loving care that only an in-house design staff can give a paper, but for the people who will be left after this round of layoffs, this change could actually be somewhat of a blessing since they will no longer have to worry about spending part of their time filling in on desk and can instead focus on just reporting. However, there’s no denying that the news hurts. I am, after all, watching something that I had once poured so much of myself into — and something that has had a big influence on my life and career — first wither away steadily and now finally die.

My experience at The Herald-Sun over the last 13 years is hardly unique in the journalism world. What has happened at The Herald-Sun is a microcosm of the cost inherent in any revolution, a reminder of the inevitable casualties that get thrown overboard as journalism plows full-speed ahead into a future it cannot fully comprehend and which no one can truly predict. It can be a gory, bloody mess that we don’t necessarily want to pay too much attention to. The notions of creation and new opportunities, after all, are a lot more appealing than the ideas of destruction and shipwrecked careers. It’s always easier to look away and tell yourself, “These changes are hard but necessary,” or “The laid-off people will find other jobs.” The future will arrive; it always does. I’m sure it’ll offer its share of goods and bads, and it will never stop changing and moving. But having had a front-row seat from which to witness the destruction involved in bringing that future into existence is perhaps why I’m a half step slower to hail the coming of a golden age, even if I do find much to like about the new possibilities in journalism.

Perhaps one day we’ll look back on the times when each news organization had its own in-house copy-editing and design desk and wonder in amazement how they could have ever operated in such a manner. But for me, having lived through those times and having been shaped by one of those desks, seeing the copy and design desk at The Herald-Sun pass from the stage leaves me with an undeniable sense of loss. It has nothing to do with whether the new era of journalism is better or worse. Instead, it’s like seeing your childhood home get bulldozed. They may be putting up a new mansion in its place, shinier and better in every way, but you know it will never quite be the same, and part of you will always miss the old house that once stood there, leaks, cracks, and all.

Update (Aug. 14)

At 12:05 a.m. today, with no special fanfare, the last page for The Herald-Sun produced in Durham was sent off to composing. Here is what’s most likely the last newspaper page I’ll design.

As I got ready to leave the office, I discovered on one of the desks in the sports department a copy — my copy — of The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook by Tim Harrower, the textbook that helped lay the foundation for many a newspaper designer. I got this book when I was in college, and I brought it into the office years ago as a teaching aid in mentoring the younger designers on the sports desk. On this night, this book seemed to belong to a previous lifetime.

Also, former Herald-Sun colleague Ginny Skalski also shared her experience at the paper. Read it here.

5 thoughts on “A Difficult Goodbye”

  1. John, we shared the same experience at The Herald-Sun up until the time we both left. You put into words the way I felt about that place. I loved it, I would have stayed there forever. They let me try all sorts of wacky things on A1, and if it didn't work, that's fine. But I was always allowed to try. One time I was awarded with a nice gift card to The Cheesecake Factory which gave me and my husband a nice night out on the town in Raleigh (before there was one in Durham). I never wanted to leave, until Paxton came in and burst the bubble. I am grieving for that job still, and for the people who have stayed and have had to go through it over and over again.

    1. Hi Andrea. Thanks for the comment. I had forgotten we both left around the same time. I've never had another job that was as fun as that one, and after I left there, it was like, "Sigh, I guess it's time to grow up and actually go to 'work'."

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