Mic drop

I fled the news today, oh boy

Seven-minute read

I’ve worked at newspapers since 1987.

Seems like every job that can be done at a paper, I’ve done at least once. I’ve been a reporter, copy editor and page designer.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a team that created and launched a new daily newspaper. It started with an all-day secret skunkworks meeting in my apartment. I designed the paper from scratch, so I’ve had a rare chance to make a newspaper exactly how I wanted to make it.

I even paid for my first two years of college by working as a janitor – at a newspaper.

I’ve done pressroom preproduction of film and printing plates. Before that I did manual pasteup with hot wax and laser printed type.

During college I worked press late at night after all the designers and editors went home. I really was an ink-strained wretch by the end of the press run.

When drivers didn’t show up on a couple of occasions, I delivered newspapers. (Yes, we do aim for puddles.)

I was part of a team that installed and maintained a newsroom front-end system, so I’ve helped build the infrastructure that newsrooms use to produce newspapers.

I’ve done content, too. I spent several years as an online news producer, writing and updating breaking news. I shot and edited video. I’ve made interactive graphics and data visualizations, including a project that was a Pulitzer finalist.

This year I had the opportunity to be part of a newsroom that was rewarded a well-deserved Pulitzer.

Most recently, I designed and built three news sites from scratch and was working on a fourth this week.

Newspapers. Yeah, I’ve done that.

I’d been thinking about an exit from news for a long time.

For most of the 2000s I was a page designer at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. It was a very good newspaper for its size. More importantly it was a lovely place to work.

Its editor had a “no assholes” policy. And he meant it.

Some had slipped through the screening – a photo editor who loved to bully people comes to mind – but the system tended to expel them because they never fit in. For a newspaper, it was strangely nondysfunctional place. In fact, it was a terrific place to work. I felt like I’d arrived just by being there.

We also could say, with pride, that there had never been layoffs in the paper’s 160-plus-year history. When I was recruiting people to work for Link, the newspaper startup I mentioned earlier, I would say “Don’t worry. They won’t just shut it down and fire you. They look after people here.”

But, in 2008, long traditions didn’t matter.

The newspaper had been put up for sale by the owner’s son. Layoffs were announced. Everyone I’d promised job security was fired and Link was shut down. About a dozen bright, talented folks from Link were sacked. I narrowly avoided the bloodbath.

I held the goodbye party – Irish wake, actually – at my place. I had a coffin in my living room. We poured one out. Sometime around 2 am, in the pouring rain, we drunkenly stole a Link news box from a corner near my house.

Even if Link was killed unceremoniously, it went out well.

In The Pilot newsroom, a dozen or more people were let go. It was traumatic. I attended three goodbye parties in one night, going from bar to bar with other coworkers making the farewell rounds.

We hoped that was all.

But it didn’t stop. We saw several rounds of cuts. What was once a newsroom of about 300 people was dwindling. I saw lots of good people exit. After a round of cuts late in 2014, it’s now half the size it once was.

The thing that stood out about so many pink-slipped friends was the haunted look and the question: “What am I going to do now?”

Few had resumes as varied as mine. Most had been a reporter or editor, sometimes for decades. These were experienced, smart people. In a newsroom, they were near the top of their industry. Outside the newsroom, they were fucked.

I didn’t want that to be me. I wanted to make sure that if the music ever stopped, that I had a chair.

When I was 15, I took a computer science class in high school. It was primitive by today’s standards. We had a classroom full of Apple ][ computers, and if I got there early enough I could get one of the good machines that could show 256 colors and 80 columns of text instead of 40.

We wrote programs in BASIC. In other words, lots of goto and gosub loops.

My favorite part of the class was the section in which we studied graphics. The assignment was to write a program that could draw lines between a point on an X axis with one on a Y. The result was something that looked like string art.

Even then, my inclination was that as soon as I grokked something that I would start working on variations of it. What if the lines could be random colors? What if it could keep drawing them endlessly? What if the points were random? I made a version that produced something like psychedelic pixie sticks crossed with Jackson Pollack.

It was my first foray into making art on computers – hardly Pixar quality, but still fun. It was also my entrance into the possibilities of computers. I should have known then I’d found what I really wanted to do. I made my first web site in 1998. I’ve had davidputney.com since 2000. My hobby was making websites long before it was my job.

I’ve spent decades circling back to this point. I’ve used computers for graphic design, sure, but for me it’s most natural to not just make the art but to make the thing that makes the art.

Turns out 15-year-old David actually knew what he wanted to do. It just took a while for me to figure it out.

It’s time.

I am leaving my job as a web designer at The Boston Globe and taking a job with a Cantina, a technology consulting company where I will help design and build web sites.

I’ve learned a lot in two years at The Globe and have had some amazing opportunities that have made this career move possible. I’ve met and worked with some wonderful, smart – even brilliant – people.

I’ve also learned there what I don’t want. The job took a lot out of me the past couple years.

I’m still trying to balance the good with the bad. But I will always be grateful for my time there, knowledge I gained and friends I met. I’ve recently found out how good of friends they really are. (Review: ***** Excellent. Would be friends with again.)

What lies ahead for me is exciting, but it’s also scary – oh boy it is. I’ve worked in newspapers since 1987. It isn’t all I know, but it’s certainly what I know.

I’m excited for what I stand to learn, also. Maybe that’s the trick to life: To not let fear of the unknown hold you back.

Several years ago I was struggling with a big life decision. I read an interview with director and screenwriter Brad Bird, who you may remember from such films as “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

He said Pixar contacted him and asked him to come up to their Bay Area office to discuss writing and directing a film. Pixar had made an unprecedented string of hugely successful movies, not just financially but artistically. Although Bird’s sole feature “The Iron Giant” had been a moving, beloved film for some, it hadn’t exactly set the world on fire at the box office.

He said the prospect of going to Pixar was scary to even think about. He wrestled with the decision, just as I was with mine.

Then he realized that because he was so scared, that was exactly the reason he should go. It was what he needed to do.

Same here. Decision made. And on that bombshell, it’s time to end.

~30~