How do you define (or redefine) yourself?

A visit last week by my college buddy John England (a fine country-western singer and bandleader in Nashville) prompted me to write this post. In our catching-up conversations, somehow this came up: “What would you like your epitaph to be, on your tombstone? Newspaperman?” he asked.

I was a bit taken aback, not so much by his question but by my rejection of the label. Maybe in the ’80s, early ’90s, this might have come to mind. After all, I worked for one daily newspaper then, the St. Pete Times, and it was a logical label, proudly bandied about by the green-eyeshade wearing crowd.

But the question also reminded me of  a co-worker at the Times who once told me, commenting positively on some of my page designs: “you have a gift for organizing and distilling information, and making it accessible.” I had never quite thought of my role  in that way; certainly people outside the newspaper never did, who always asked: “so you design the ads, right?” or “you mean you pick the typefaces?”

Over the past few years, with newspapers in turmoil and the consulting business (for me, anyway) at times a roller coaster ride, I’ve tackled that question anew. What do I want to be? How do I want to use my skills? How can I make an impact?

To be honest, I was adrift for a bit. I had really defined myself over the years as newspaper man, consultant, educator, redesign guy. During a longer than desired dry spell, I decided it was OK to set that aside, and take a leap or two, and explore outside interests, now that I finally had some time:

  1. VOLUNTEERING: I looked on Craigslist and found a volunteer opportunity that sounded really cool. I pitched in one day a week at Hibbard Elementary School in Albany Park, a lower-income neighborhood here in Chicago. The art teacher, Barbara Meyers, posted an eloquent plea for help on the site: 1,200 kids passed through her room each week, each for 45 minutes a day, and she was swamped and needed help. I did menial stuff, in a way, handing out paste (so they don’t eat it), organizing pencils and crayons, but also, praising the kids for any effort they put into the projects. But it was helpful to Barbara, and got me out of my “I’m only a journalist/designer” head space for a bit. (Love the memory of the photo below, when Jorge enjoyed making clay sculptures in class. Using the classifieds to protect the work table. Just FYI.)
  2. making clay sculpture at Hibbard School

  3. MAKING NON-JOURNO FRIENDS: I only volunteered here for a semester but Barbara has become a good friend – another thing that newspaper diehards would be well advised to do – make friends in other fields. I found new friends in other areas as well. All of them are great to pull you out of the collective angst that newsroom groupthink has become these days, and they’ll inspire you and push you to try new things.
  4. PHOTOGRAPHY: I eventually threw myself into photography. Total amateur hour, but I’ve been having fun. After years of being the picture editor who designed pages for some of the world’s best photographers (thank you, St. Pete Times!), I finally was the one who had to decide what to shoot, when (and if) to focus, and so on. Fantastic. I became a big Flickr fanatic – posting more than 5,000 photos in less than two years (you don’t even want to know about the outtakes). You can see how I’ve organized my photo shoots on my set page, and browse the “galleries.” Some are travelogues, some are family albums, some are just pure abstracts – why not? I also have met new people this way. My photos occasionally are selected by various local blogs including Chicago Public Radio as “photo of the day.” No pay, but rewarding still. I get a special kick out of doing a photo shoot that feels like the type of project I used to edit back in St. Pete, such as this rugby match or this women’s roller derby team.
  5. I actually now use my photo projects to prototype templates for photo pages for clients, and to teach photojournalism. If you have been a page designer and want to make new allies with your photo team, this is a great thing to try. I guarantee it will sharpen your eye while picture editing as well.

  6. TRAVEL: While I’ve been luck to travel with my consulting business, I decided I wasn’t seeing the world in the way that I really wanted. Up close and personal, and in hidden corners. I took off for backpacking in India, I explored Chicago in new ways, I dove with gusto into a new interest in contemporary art, and started poking around galleries and museums around the world with a fresh eye. I also signed up for art classes at the Oxbow school in Michigan, and attended cultural events like Burning Man.
  7. BLOGGING: All these experiences led to stories I wanted to share with others. I revitalized the blog you are reading now (an offshoot of a longtime online column I ran with for a few years starting in 1997 – I was most likely the first blogger in the area of news design, back in the days when coding was really a bitch!) I started a new travel blog. I began an art blog. All this has been a great creative outlet, good P.R., and has helped keep my software skills a bit fresh, too.
  8. PHILANTHROPY: All of the above came full circle when, on a break from assignment in Kenya, I visited the slums of Nairobi, made some acquaintances there who inspired me, and had the crazy idea to start a kids club and library. It was at times a confounding challenge, but by December 2008, we got 1,000 books to the first community library in this slum of 1 million people. All this was partly made possible by my storytelling skills, writing, photography, and design. It’s a long story, but if interested, you can detour to it here.

The punchline here is: as tough as things may be with newspapers, or your career, there is ALWAYS someone in far worse need, quite possibly someone you can help with your communicating skills. Will you always be a newspaperman or woman? Perhaps not. But if you like, you can always distill information, present it in compelling ways, and connect communities and empower them to live better lives.

And isn’t that the reason why you got into all this in the first place?

* * *

As for the epitaph? Knock wood, I’m still quite engaged in news redesign projects, for print and online, thank you. But in light of all the above, I’d politely decline newspaperman, and instead might prefer: “he provided access to information, in many different ways.”

Nicofeli Library Up and Running!

 [The Nicofeli Kids Club and Library are officially up and running in the Kibera slum of Nairobi! What started as a crazy idea on a days-off tour of the city, hosted by a Reuters photographer, has turned into a new passion, which in turn, invigorates all my work with the news media. Want to learn more or help? Visit this page.]

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *