May 17, 2005

Because I Want To Be Cool

I briefly noted my outrage at the lack of standards at Newsweek in this post titled Down Periscope. If you don't know, the now retracted riot inciting news item was published in a section of the magazine called Periscope. Tuning Spork left the following in the comments:

Hey, y'know what'd be cool? If you could write, as a former journalism major, why you abandoned a career on journalism for a career in graphics. And, then, why you value yer blogging time. That'd be cool!
Well who doesn't want to be cool? I will tell the story, though I think maybe Spork might be disappointed.

I wish it was story of great moral courage and defiance in the face of the liberal media establishment. Of fighting the good fight for a cause without hope. But it is really none of that.

I grew up in the city of Bath, Maine. If you know of it at all, you know there is only one thing in Bath. The Bath Iron Works. The BIW builds ships for the navy. I don't think they have worked on a commercial project for almost 30 years. My father worked at the shipyard. He started as an apprentice electrician. He retired as Chief Electrical Designer. When you saw those videos of Aegis class cruisers launching cruise missiles at Bagdad, you saw some of his work.

Bath was the quintessential factory town. Everyone worked at the Yard or made their living off of the people who worked there. Me I wanted to write. When I was 16 that was all I wanted to do with my life. I didn't see it as a practical choice though. And if there is one thing I learned growing up in Maine it was a solid Yankee Practicality.

We were not wealthy, even by Bath standards. If I was going to be a writer I was going have to work for a living too. This basically meant I was going to be working at the shipyard. The one thing I wanted almost as much as I wanted to write, was to not work at the shipyard. Journalism came to the rescue as the most practical solution. Making my living writing the news while I did my own writing on the side. So off to the University of Maine I went. (I had acceptances from a couple of other schools - bigger schools. More expensive schools. I took the practical route again.)

A core part of the curriculum of the Journalism department was writing for and doing the paste-up of the school newspaper. The Daily Maine Campus. Over the course of my career I held a number of staff positions - a couple of them paid positions. I started as special sections editor. Basically I put together a features section for each season - fall, winter, and mud - outlining the great seasonal things one could do on campus. I also did a section on a university budget crisis that won an award for the Maine College Press Association.

Next I did a stint as Editorial Page Editor. The second day of the semester I ran an editorial I wrote extolling the virtues of Ronald Reagan's platform of Peace Through Strength. The Editor in Cheif, who was so far left he couldn't see liberal let alone the middle, nearly had a breakdown. He threatened to run a retraction the following day - after which I would be fired. The entire senior staff threatened to walk out and he backed down. He once tried to argue that the cinder block wall in his office wasn't really solid because atomically there was more space between particles than there were particles. He insisted there was more empty space than wall, until I suggested he take off his shoe and put his foot through the space as hard as he could. We eventually came to an uneasy kind of peace though he never stopped regretting giving me the position.

My senior year I was not chosen by the committee to be Editor. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise. I took a position as managing editor. The paper was in my hands two nights a week. It was an exciting time. This was the year we got computers.

Prior to this year our production process was tortuous. We typed stories on typewriters fed by rolls of brown paper. These were given to the editors who marked them up before giving them to the typists who typed them in the big old typesetting machines. They also went to the professor teaching the core classes in news-writing and formed the basis of your grade. Every spelling error cost you a letter grade. Unless you misspelled a proper noun. That got you an E. This made the class tough for those of us with poor typing skills.

Then we replaced the typewriters with Sanyo PCs running Wordstar. These files were translated into a Compugraphic editing system. The formatting was very much like html and in about a week I figured out how to to automate much of the paper's standard formatting. Which was great because we had a production deadline. Our paper wass printed at the presses of the Ellsworth American, about a 45 minute drive from campus. At 10:30 the local paper the Bangor Daily News had a truck leaving with their Ellsworth edition. If we got there before they left, they would drop it off. Miss the truck and you were making the drive. I hated driving to Ellsworth.

By the end of my college career it was pretty clear that as far as newspaper work was concerned I was much better suited to production and opinion pieces. At least those were the parts of it that I enjoyed the most.

Along the way I took a couple of computer sceince classes - writing meaningless programs in Pascal on punch cards. I also managed to garner enough elective credits to have minors in International Relations and Philosophy.

I kicked around a couple of meaningless menial non-shipyard jobs for a year then saw an ad for a paste up person for the local paper, the Times Record. I sent them my resume and got a call form the editor. It seems they were also looking to hire a reporter. They put me in a room with a page of notes and a typewriter and gave me half an hour. I didn't get the job. I did a good enough job with the story, but the same typing skills that gave me so much trouble in college came back to haunt me.

Then I found a job with a small printer in Yarmouth, Maine. I started in the bindery department. In fact I was the bindery department. This gave my parents hope that college was not a complete waste. Printing was at least related to journalism.

While at the print shop I was introduced to the Macintosh. I went in one Saturday to play around with the MAC II and Pagemaker 1.0. I was hooked instantly. That first day I set up the next job in the new jobs bin - a two color business card. I set it up so that the laser printer produced the separations. They had never done them like that. they had just printed them out and cut apart the seps by hand. Over the course of four years I did every job in the place except run the presses.

I moved to Connecticut when the path of my future in the printing business began to look to clear. I had friends here, and I was seeing a woman who lived here so this made the perfect location to escape my fate. I took a job as a print buyer for a small marketing and communications company that no longer exists (but that's a story for another day). When the company fell apart all that was left was the creative partner, the mailroom guy and me - the guy who could work the computers. So in addition to doing all the admin stuff on a PC I started executing the boss's designs on the MAC. He liked to give a client three options. One day he handed me two layouts and told me to do the third on my own. That is how I started learning design. He gave me one valuable piece of advice that I have never forgotten. “Look At Everything.” Look at junk mail, study the type in movie credits, look at the label on the shampoo bottle. Sometime I hate that advice, because I can never turn it off, and my wife doesn't understand why I look at her clothing catalogs. But it was good advice.

Side note: that is also how I met my wife. Since the boss could no longer afford to keep me on full time he made me freelancer. He also said that any work I got on my own I could use his equipment as long as his work got done first. I started doing some work on the side for the woman I eventually married. (Another story for another day.)

Marriage and family plans meant I needed a real job. I went to work for a large marketing agency doing digital production. I got to work with a talented designer who is still a great friend. He didn't know much about the computer on his desk. We taught each other. Which was good because one day the agency decided they were no longer going to have a production department so they made all the production people art directors.

I loved that job despite the 15 hour days - every day. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun. Then they decided they wanted to have a production department again. They decided that their art director/computer wiz with a production background would be a good person to have there. I was no longer happy. I left and went to the agency down the road for a promotion and better money.

I was in charge of two major accounts. The retainers of these clients paid my salary. Due to a couple of corporate mergers the agency lost both clients. My job there ceased to exist.

From there I found my current position in the in-house design department of a large global corporation where I have been for six years.

Which brings us to today and the last part of Spork's question, “And, then, why you value yer blogging time.”

I'd give you the short answer, but I think it's a little too late for that.

First, blogging is fun. Having people read this is fun. Good for the ego - except when traffic goes down.

Second, through blogging there is a world wide conversation happening and I happen to believe that I have something to add. Whether or not I actually do is I suppose up to the rest of you to judge, but I will continue put my two cents in because I believe it is worth at least that much.

Third, there is still a small kernel of that youthful belief that if I work at it hard enough and long enough, I have it within me to write that sentence, that paragraph, that page that changes the world.

How cool would that be?

Posted by: Stephen Macklin at 05:43 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment


1 "I will tell the story, though I think maybe Spork might be disappointed."

Are you kidding?! That was quite something (in spite of a few typos...lol...).

Having started my college career in journalism and ending up in printing (running the presses -- the one thing you didn't do...), your story made my day. Not because it was somewhat familiar, but because you told it so well.

Thank you for taking the time, and congrats on having an outlet for your love of writing. Seems t' me you've got the best of all worlds, Steve!

Posted by: Tuning Spork at May 18, 2005 04:37 PM (gStd8)

2 Excellent post!

Posted by: Ted at May 19, 2005 03:04 AM (blNMI)

3 As much as we all want you to be here with us, I must say that you made a great choice not staying to work in "THE YARD". Nothing more unsatisfying than staying at a job for 26 years knowing that you have 20 more to go, and loathing every minute of it.
To have a job that you truly enjoy? How cool would that be?

MY HAT IS OFF TO YOU LITTLE BROTHER!

Posted by: Leo at May 31, 2005 12:47 PM (hMbqp)

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