2003 — and beyond: A retrospective of sorts
And happy anniversary to me.
Nine years ago today, I started as a page designer/copy editor for The (San Bernardino County) Sun. Nine. Years.
When I initially took the job, I was less than crazy about it. I had been living and working in Palm Springs for just under three years, but while I was thoroughly enjoying the former, I was very much hating the latter. Actually, “hate” isn’t even a strong enough word for it. It was making me miserable, and I needed an escape. Finally.
I had stuck with the job much longer than a lot of folks thought I should, telling them I couldn’t leave without feeling like I’d tried everything to stay. I liked the paper and still quite a few folks in it, and I believed in Gannett.
I had passed on the first opportunity to jump to San Bernardino, knowing there would likely be a second. But when the second chance came around, I didn’t feel it wise to push my luck waiting for a third.
So I jumped.
It rained nearly the entire 60ish miles to my interview, making it an hour commute, one way. I tried not to take the weather as a bad omen, but I didn’t want to go, and somewhere in the middle of that internal tug of war between rationality and , I think I cried all the way there because of it. But I pulled myself together, gave a good interview, and had an offer shortly thereafter.
It was less pay, less everything, and more cost to me, given the mileage. Thankfully, I was going to be able to carpool with a former coworker, so that would help.
What they didn’t tell me when I took the job was that I wasn’t going to be working a full 40 hours a week. As a cost-cutting measure, they insisted on 38.75 hours, so that “less” I was making was EVEN less — but by the time I figured that out, well, whatever. It is what it is.
And it wasn’t long-term. It was just an escape.
The manager who recruited me said she wasn’t expecting me to stay there forever. “I don’t care if six months or a year…” she told me. She just needed a designer she could count on. But being out from under the thumb of the soul-crushing managers was enough of a reason for me to say yes, and she knew it.
And so, I tried to focus on the positives. It had been some time since I’d had someone in the room I felt I could learn from, and it felt good to have someone expect something from me beyond just getting through the daily slog. It also felt good to know that since the Iraq War started just a couple days after my first day elsewhere, I knew my old design desk was scrambling a bit without me.
Call me petty, but they did deserve it.
Then I got bumped to the Saturday proofing shift. Suck.
Saturday’s proofing shift was the worst. Sunday papers were the biggest editions all week, which meant there were a boatload of pages to read. I never could quite figure out how our best proofer had managed to not be staffed to proof our highest-profile editions, but… whatever. I was a team-player, so I just sucked it up and did the best I could.
Until I completely biffed it.
In the slog of Sunday pages one day, I had given only a cursory glance at our second page. Checked the lottery numbers, though, because God forbid we ever get those wrong; readers would have our heads.
What I missed that time, however, was an otherwise benign headline a non-journalist had slapped on top of a rather somber photo of a horse. “Horsin’ around,” it read. A stupid headline, to be sure, but it was spelled right, and I signed off on the page and gave it to a coworker to make the minor fixes I’d marked before sending the page to the presses.
The headline wasn’t spelled wrong, but it was ever so wrong anyway. The photo was of a riderless horse, a boot clearly in the stirrup — the symbol of a fallen officer, at the funeral of said officer.
My boss came in the next day — on a Sunday — to sit me down and explain the mistake, and that the editor was furious, having already received several very angry emails about my error.
I was devastated. Not because I’d made an error, but because I’d made THAT error.
But my boss urged me to press on. I had to proof another day’s edition before I could even think about the consequences of my actions during the last, and so… I heeded his advice, and tried not to dwell on it.
When I got to work the next afternoon, my boss intercepted me almost as soon as I walked in the door. The editor was livid, he told me, and had suspended the person who had initially made the error. The best thing for me to do, my boss advised, was to “just fall on your sword.” No matter what happens, he said, just admit the error, and it will be OK.
And so, I was summoned.
Every editor in the newsroom was in his office, and he laid into me immediately. In the first pause, my boss was the first one to speak — and he threw me right under the bus.
Suddenly, I was on trial without a lawyer. I said nothing. I barely even moved.
The editor continued imparting his rage, and in the next bit of silence, he demanded a response: “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t fire you.”
I hadn’t responded. I hadn’t even flinched. The first person he’d talked to this way today had cried; showed remorse. I wasn’t exhibiting anything, and once I realized that was being held against me, I looked the editor right in the eye and told him, “If you’re looking for an emotional response from me, you should have been here yesterday.”
I got off with penance: I had to personally write back to each of the people who had written him an angry email about the mistake, and cc him on it. And so I did. I wrote each and every one of those emails individually. I copied-and-pasted nothing. And I lived to fight another day.
As punishment, I was relegated to designing the weekend Business sections. NO ONE wanted the weekend Biz shift; it was low-profile, it was boring, and the art was pathetic. Product shots and portraits, for the most part.
But that’s why I loved it.
It was crap work that no one was paying very much attention to as long as it was getting done. It didn’t have a hard deadline; just had to be done by the end of my Friday shift — with some wiggle room on Saturday, if necessary, since the boss wasn’t there anyway. And I wasn’t working with any staff content, so no really cared what I did with it.
So I did whatever the hell I wanted.
Giant type. Cutouts. Dramatic crops. And I got away with all of it, including a centerpiece headline that read “Doh!nuts” — the “o” was a cutout of a Krispy Kreme glazed.
Fast-forward two years, and I’m powering through front pages on some of the most important journalism that editor — the one who’d almost fired me — had shepherded in his entire career. Deploying a lot of the same design tactics I’d honed on those Business sections in the years prior, I won an award on that coverage — and he won a lot more for the content.
Sitting in his office toward the end of that era, I smiled and reminded him that he’d almost fired me once — a fact I managed to remind him of a few times in the years that followed. It seemed only fair, especially since I’d come to find out some time after the fact that the girl who had made the egregious error I had failed to catch had written one letter that was nothing special, and had sent that exact letter to every one of the people I’d also been required to contact.
He took my needling well, trying to surpress a sheepish smile whenever I’d mention it. And I tried not to bust out that fact too often, lest it lessen the effect.
Most of the best design work I’ve done since then hasn’t been anything truly special, and I haven’t submitted a contest entry in years. I suppose that some could argue I piqued, or at least that I was afraid I couldn’t win again. If anything, though, I’d be more afraid of winning given that anything I would have entered in recent years would have been basically slapped together in a marathon shift on deadline.
Instead, let’s just agree that I grew up and realized there’s more important things than doing something cool a few times a year.
Since heading up the web team, I’d say my opportunities to “do something cool” come along much more frequently. Writing code isn’t pretty, but it certainly devises opportunities to strike a much more human chord than any artistic design work I’ve ever done.
While there’s been more than a few times I’ve been tempted to wander elsewhere over the years… well… things happen for a reason. I’m not saying I’ll be here forever, or even for another nine years. But I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself on track for a decade+ with The Sun especially given that just a year ago, I was so ready to leave.
Call it the luck of the Irish. Here’s hoping it holds.