“Stop the ride; I want to get off!”
That might have been my unexpressed sentiment in leaving behind a 35-year career as a newspaper operations and technology executive. Two years ago this April, still a decade or so shy of my intended retirement, I walked away from an industry that had been, and in some ways still is, utterly entwined with my perceptions of who I was and am, embarking instead on a late-career shift to an entirely new profession and livelihood.
While I still write occasional columns for Editor & Publisher and do some technical writing for an industry software vendor, my motivation is not the tidbit of income that comes from freelance writing. Rather, I do it to maintain a connection, if tenuous, to a profession that has given me many, many fond memories, and is the context within which I built lasting relationships with scores of astonishingly talented and hard-working people. Some of those people I am privileged to consider my close friends.
Having entered the business as a reporter, with a freshly minted degree in journalism, I could hardly have guessed in 1980 that my newspaper career would take the trajectory it did. My then-employer, a small, family-owned chain of hometown weeklies, would see fit to elevate me to editor. Then, given a glimpse of my nascent facility with early personal computers as a publishing tool, the owner tapped me as production manager. At the time, I considered it a sidestep to an eventual role as managing editor, but the longer I spent overseeing prepress, systems, pressroom, packaging, and building maintenance, the more the operations and technology side of newspaper publishing seemed my appropriate niche. I would spend the subsequent 28 years at consecutively larger papers, growing my career as chief operating officer. Throughout, I maintained my affinity for the newsroom, taking personal pride in the societal role my papers played in their communities and our democracy.
For a time, I played an important role in a respected institution. I was compensated fairly. I enjoyed, for the most part, the challenges and wide variety of responsibilities that came with the job. I was very, very good at what I did. But at some point, without me being aware of it at the time (my spouse had to point it out for me)…it stopped being fun.
That was a jarring realization; I so wanted to dismiss it. But I had to listen, because my spouse also detects when I’m thirsty before I do. “Do you need a drink of water?” she would ask. And more often than not, consuming one would quiet my normally dormant inner jerk.
I would subsequently shift some of my energies and enthusiasm to a second job as a writing coach at a nearby university, renewing my devotion to that craft. Teaching journalism, creative writing, or graphic arts, after all, wouldn’t be outside of my wheelhouse. But I eventually gravitated toward a more complete separation from the familiar, turning a lifelong vocational interest in ambitious, high-end home improvement into a profession. I opened a modest practice as a licensed home inspector.
That’s right. I embraced a job that involves crawling around under houses—passed animal carcasses in stagnant puddles—as a preferable alternative to the continuing pursuit of my chosen career in the newspaper business.
I can be thankful that the newspaper profession prepared me for this new endeavor. I originally taught myself the rudiments of plumbing by installing a water heater at a remote news office. I framed, installed wall-board, trim, and doors; I ran electricity and hooked up outlets, switches, and light fixtures. The absence of financial resources to hire contractors was my invitation to develop my own skills on the job. At larger papers, I would come to manage staffs of plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, maintenance workers, and machine operators—with whom daily interactions broadened my knowledge base.
I already knew how to write, but polishing that craft as a reporter and editor assured I would be able to articulate my findings as a home inspector. I knew how to translate complex technical information—forgoing trade jargon—so that it could be understood by a layperson. Communications, whether written or verbal, is a transferable skill, even if it’s to be used in a utilitarian way. Here, I’d be writing reports aimed at educating would-be homeowners about the condition of their prospective homes. I’d also walk each client through their chosen home, assuring they understood its deficiencies and challenges before assuming ownership.
As for producing detailed reports with pictures, captions and text; importing data compiled from various devices; and assembling all those elements using specialized software, well, let’s just say there are parallels there that align with my previous occupation.
Whatever marketing and entrepreneurial skills I possess are also products of my newspaper career, repurposed for building my new business’ online and social media presence, as well as nurturing partnerships that are critical for professional and financial growth.
Two years into this new endeavor, I have the luxury at looking back at my newspaper career—not without pangs of loss—for some perspective about how the industry changed, how I responded to that change, and what I might have done differently so that I could have continued squeezing fun out of the newspaper profession for what remained of my working career.
It seems to me it comes down to this: I was happiest when I was positioned to drive change instead of change driving me.
One of my earliest anecdotes that demonstrates this goes back to the late 1980s when we were still manually dummying ads onto “blueboards,” using wooden rulers and non-repro (light blue) felt markers to indicate where ads go, and then pasting each individual ad onto its designated blueboard, using hot wax as an adhesive. With five weekly broadsheet newspapers and ads running in any combination of them, the task of making sure the right ad got onto the right page of the right paper was akin to mixing multiple jigsaw puzzle pieces into one pile and being able to pick out a specific piece for a specific puzzle, on demand.
We had this lovable crank of a fellow whose job it was to perform this task, day-in and day-out, without error. However, when he was sick or on vacation, it fell to his manager, which happened to be…you guessed it. It was not more than a few times attempting to navigate his system of status shelves and alphabetized drawers before I set myself upon the task of automating this process. It involved discovering an existing software solution that I couldn’t afford; finding another newspaper that had a crude, but functional, home-grown alternative; convincing them to share the solution with me (as-is, with no technical support); and then making that solution work with an advertising mainframe that didn’t initially have a means for exporting ad data.
I would subsequently start shadowing my lovable crank’s manual layouts with my own computer-generated dummies until I was consistently doing it faster than he could. I’m certain I caused this fellow quite a bit of discomfort, but I didn’t make him do it my way. He eventually asked me to show him how, and over an extended training period, without any deadlines, he made the transition voluntarily.
I don’t remember there being a particular scope of work or timeline laid out for me when, at another paper in the mid-1990s, we set about launching the paper’s first website. The newsroom assigned a young reporter to generate content, and I started teaching myself HTML and building page templates. I thought it would be cool to publish our classified liner ads on a daily basis, but this was before our classified system had a means of exporting ads with HTML tags, and I learned by first-hand experience that manual tagging would take hours and hours every day. With the help of an online community of Applescript experts, I wound up inventing my own solution to this problem and along the way became an evangelist for workflow automation. I would come to build solutions for: tracking page flow from the newsroom and reporting on-time press starts; tracking display ad workflow through the creative services department; building printed catalogues; dummying comics pages; exporting editorial content in XML format for automatic ingestion into online content management and library systems; and converting all our display ads for online publication and making them searchable.
I remember a corporate VP asking me why I would publish all our display and classified ads online, and my answer was: “Because I can.” He seemed to want a revenue justification, but I had practical uses for the solution, if not revenue. Our sales reps were using it internally for grabbing pickup ads. It was subsequently reducing write-offs due to the wrong ad being run.
For most of my career, it was other people’s jobs to worry about revenue. I enabled cost savings by productivity enhancement, doing away with boring, repetitive, error-prone tasks that nobody wanted to do anyway. There were positions eliminated—both in and outside my direct area of supervision—because they didn’t need to be done anymore or could be done by fewer people. I realized that this subjected others to that uncomfortable sense of change beyond one’s control—and I agonized about that sometimes—but usually the folks that readily embraced the change would be rewarded. It was the folks with feet of clay who let themselves become casualties of progress.
I preferred change to the status quo. I had jobs that I loved with dream bosses (thanks, TBN, Dick, and Greg) but after good runs of 14, 11, and six years, respectively, I left them if I found a meaty, new challenge somewhere else to apply my talents. Staying in one place for too long seemed a recipe for stagnation and boredom, and I never did let that happen to myself.
I would eventually assume responsibility for mid-to-large commercial print operations and sales, reluctantly leaving technological innovation to my very able IT staffs. With each new paper, I slotted myself into a niche where the need was greatest, and if there was a commercial print manager doing quotes on the backs of napkins, using paper and ink consumption formulas squirreled away in the back of his head, I was obliged to provide a more transparent and reproducible method.
If there was a shame in distancing myself from IT, it was an area anyway in which centralization at chain newspapers was stripping away local innovation. One could be the company’s foremost expert on building customized workflow solutions with Applescript, and that would have limited value at a chain standardizing on another platform.
And while it was also true that chains began centralizing their production facilities about that time—consolidating print and packaging—I had positioned myself at what would become a commercial print hub for multiple daily newspapers. Though sales was not really my thing, one of my proudest moments in newspapering was landing my paper’s largest ever commercial print customer and shepherding it through the process of transition and stabilization in 2012.
Surpassed by Change
I’m hard-pressed to put my finger on where the wagon started getting ahead of the horse. I may have let go of the reins in 2015, but the momentum of industry change was shifting earlier.
I love my iPhone and iPad, but it was as much my hero Steve Job’s fault as anyone’s that readership habits moved to mobile devices about the same time print advertising dollars dried up in the financial meltdown of 2007 and thereafter.
I’d witnessed and participated in staff curtailments when disruptive influences broadsided the industry before. I laid off typesetters when the industry computerized and composition techs when paste-up yielded to desktop publishing. I presided over the outsourcing of a print facility decades ago when aging equipment and limited financial resources conspired to threaten my employer’s solvency. I enabled administrative and clerical positions to go dark by providing the technical solutions to render them obsolete. I consolidated shifts in my pressroom when page count and circulation declines made it possible and necessary.
But somewhere along the way—between the outsourcing of creative services departments and newsrooms becoming a shadow of their former selves—fatigue began to set in. I truly thought I could step out before I had to contribute one last blow to the ongoing sustainability of the business, but even that was denied me.
My utmost regrets to the gritty veterans that remain. It’s a noble profession, and you have your work cut out for you. For me, I’m rooting for you from the nearest crawlspace, my foxhole in a war whose outcome has greater implications for our republic than our citizens understand.
W. Eric Schult is a retired, 35-year veteran of the newspaper business. He most recently served as senior operations and technology executive at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. Contact him on LinkedIn.com.