Twenty-five years ago today, I departed for my first big visual journalism teaching assignment: A one-week gig at the Echo in Sunderland, England.
Somewhere in storage, I have two scrapbooks full of pictures and memories of that trip. I sure wish I had access to that now. I don’t, though, so I have no real visuals at all for this story — other than this one, of me teaching.
Wow. I wore a tie then.
Wow. I wore sweaters then.
Wow. I had hair then.
How did it happen that a young guy like me got such a sweet gig? It was a total fluke.
In September 1989, three representatives of the Echo came to the U.S. to pick up a marketing award their paper had won. While they were here, they took the opportunity to visit a number of newspapers to see how newsrooms were using those newfangled Macintosh computers. They had bought one for their own paper, but hardly anyone was using it. Just to build borders for ads, I was told.
At some point, the three of them ended up in the Charlotte area to take in a NASCAR race. They stayed at the lake house owned by Wayne Patrick, publisher of the Herald of Rock Hill, S.C. Wayne asked them how their journey was going and they complained that they really hadn’t been able to spend much time with actual Macintosh users at the big papers they had visited.
Wayne told them: Well, hey, we have a guy at our paper who’s pretty good on an Apple computer. His name is even “Apple.” Come by the paper Friday and you can spend as much time as you like watching him work.
So that’s how I got blindsided on a very busy Friday-before-Labor-Day-weekend with these three English newspaper guys who wanted to shadow me.
Sigh. Whatever, y’know?
I started plowing through my stack of holiday assignments, explaining each step of the way what I was doing. The three gentlemen took careful notes and asked really good questions. After a while, several things became clear:
- The artists back in England really weren’t using the kinds of software they needed to do the kind of work the management expected. In addition to MacDraw, they’d need Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop and Aldus Freehand.
- The little Macintosh in their department wasn’t nearly robust enough to get the job done. They’d need a bigger Mac with more memory and a much, much bigger screen. Plus, a scanner.
- And they really needed someone to demonstrate not just what but how to use a Mac in their daily duties.
They asked me: How would you like to come to England and teach our people how to use an Apple Mac?
I just laughed. Yeah, right. I had spoken to a couple of college and high school classes, but I had never taught before in my life. These guys couldn’t possibly be serious.
The English folks departed and I forgot all about them. Until a few weeks later, when they contacted Wayne to set up my trip.
Egads! I didn’t even have a passport! I had to take a day off and drive to Anderson to pick up a copy of my birth certificate. Then, my mom — a postmaster — expedited my passport application through the office of her pal, Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Just a few weeks before I was scheduled to depart, Hurricane Hugo ripped through the area. I was immersed in aftermath graphics: How a hurricane destroys a house, parts of our county that still didn’t have power.
I was awfully worried about jet lag. I had been told it would take me days to recover from my trip. After studying the issue for a while, I decided to shift my hours before I departed. Each day I got up a half-hour earlier and tried to go to sleep a half-hour earlier. I did this for about two weeks. By the time it came for me to leave, I had matched my own schedule to the time zone I’d be visiting.
This worked out well — so well, in fact, that I did the same thing for every trip I took to Africa from 2009 to 2012. Time-shifting is a pain in the ass. But take it from me: It works.
Finally, the day came to depart. I had flown only twice in my life: To Tampa and back to attend an infographics session earlier that year at the Poynter Institute. Now, I was to fly direct from Charlotte to London’s Gatwick airport. And I was terrified.
I didn’t sleep much on that flight, so I was pretty wired when I got there. The Echo‘s advertising director met me at the airport. We had train tickets to take us to the northern part of England later that evening, so we checked my bags into a locker at the train station and we took a double-decker bus tour of London.
After lunch, my host told me we had just a few hours before departure. Just enough time to do maybe one thing. What would I like to see? I chose Westminster Abbey.
So we took a guided tour of Westminster Abbey, which I enjoyed very much.
I didn’t sleep on the train as much as I passed out from exhaustion. We pulled into our station in Durham quite late. My host delivered me to my hotel: Lumley Castle, a 700-year-old castle near Chester-le-Street that had been converted into a hotel.
They had me booked into one of the VIP rooms in the original part of the building. The ceilings were low and the winding stone staircases were impossibly narrow. What an adventure!
Every morning, a waiter would bring a wonderful, hot English-style breakfast to my room. They’d also drop off a newspaper. I asked for an Echo plus a different newspaper each day so I could sample them all.
On my second Saturday night, the man at the desk asked: “You’ll be wanting a Sunday Sport, then?”
A whole paper devoted to sports? Are you kidding me? Sure, I want a Sunday Sport!
Imagine the look on my face Sunday morning when I opened my door, picked up the Sunday Sport and discovered that the Sunday Sport is actually a pornography newspaper. It’s all topless women and stories about sex.
The deal was that I taught for five days during the week. In the evenings, they took me out to do something interesting. On the weekends, they took me sightseeing. In addition to Westminster Abbey, I got to tour the gorgeous cathedral in Durham…
…the beautiful city of Newcastle (as in: “Coals to Newcastle”) and they took me out to see Hadrian’s Wall.
One night, we went down to the docks so I could have fish n’ chips in their natural environment: We sprinkled salt and vinegar on them and ate them from newspapers rolled up into cones.
Another night, the publisher and the editor took me to a nationally-televised championship boxing match starring the local hero, Billy Hardy.
We had ringside seats — so close that as the boxers got punched, their sweat flew off of them and splattered us. Ew.
We sat though a number of preliminary bouts but when the time came for the headline of the night, an official climbed into the ring, picked up the microphone and asked for everyone to quickly leave the building. Without panic, everyone got up from their seats and filed out of the exits.
The publisher went over and checked with the official: It was a bomb threat from the IRA. We, too, walked out of the nearest fire exit and milled around for a good 15 or 20 minutes. When the all-clear was given, everyone queued up into straight lines and marched back to their seats. The emergency doors shut, the lights came back up, the TV cameras came on again and they literally picked up where they had left off.
I was stunned. Does this happen a lot? Isn’t this big news?
Yes, it happens from time to time, I was told. But no, we never report it and we never explain to the TV audience. That’s just what the IRA wants: Publicity.
Finally, the big match began. Billy Hardy punched the lights out on his opponent about 40 seconds or so into the first round. My hosts, who had hoped for a hard-fought, exciting marathon match were disappointed.
I was delighted: I hate boxing!
We had a Sunday dinner one day in an English pub. I had roast beef, as I recall. The English seem very self-conscious about their food. I loved it.
The classes went well, too. The paper rented a half-dozen or so top-of-the-line Macs with 20-inch color monitors and all the RAM and software that I used back home. The computer dealer who rented the equipment to them gave them a special deal if they could come in and videotape this “Mr. Apple” who was coming to teach.
Sure, they were told. Come on in.
So I showed up at work on the first day to find a line of dignitaries from the local computer dealer eager to shake my hand and welcome me to their area. You should have seen the looks on their faces when they discovered I was just a 27-year-old kid who drew locator maps and bar charts for a tiny paper in South Carolina!
They filmed for a few minutes, quietly packed up their cameras and lights and sadly slipped out. I never saw them again.
I worked with five or six artists. There really wasn’t a such thing as a news artist there — the artists all handled advertising, marketing and news assignments. They knew coming in that I had primarily a news background and that I’d be teaching from a news point of view.
Each day, we started out by booting up a software package. They’d watch as I ran through the basics of how to use the application and I’d zip out a piece or two for them. In the afternoons, they each would then try to work on sample projects. Occasionally, one or two of them would try to do a live project that would actually see print later.
We used MacDraw II, Illustrator, Photoshop and Freehand. By the end of the week, they knew the basics of each application, what each could be used for and they knew enough so they could begin groping around to discover things on their own. I showed them how to scan and trace sketches or maps. We didn’t cover too much journalism, though, like I do in my classes these days. We just talked software.
Finally, the week came to a close. I was given a second week of sightseeing. Early Monday morning, I was put on a plane to fly back to Gatwick where I’d enjoy a brief layover before my plane departed for Charlotte.
Naturally, I didn’t try to time-shift my schedule back the other way to go home. So when I arrived back in Rock Hill, I was pretty well burned out. It took me the better part of a week to sleep it all off. Luckily, my colleagues at the Herald were awfully understanding.
It wasn’t until I got back that I realized it had never rained on me in England. Sharon had gone to the Burlington Coat Factory Outlet to buy me a new London Fog-brand trenchcoat for my trip, but I had never gotten it wet.
The trip had gone well and the classes had gone well. But I was acutely aware that I wasn’t a trained speaker, nor did I feel I was particularly good at it. I made the odd classroom visit from time to time, but I didn’t perform another formal teaching assignment until 11 years later, when I was asked to speak at a Society for News Design Quickcourse in Rockford, Ill., in April 2000.
That one went well — really really well, in fact. On the basis of that gig, Bill Dunn asked me to speak at the big SND annual workshop that fall in Minneapolis. I don’t know how many people attended my session there, but there were 200 seats in my room — I know because I counted them before hand — and I ended up with a standing-room-only crowd.
After that, my dance card got really busy. I did lots of workshops, big and small: Several SND Quickcourses. SND annual workshops in Orlando and St. Louis. The Iowa High School Press Association. Series of assignments for the Pennsylvania Press Association and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
I finally scored another overseas assignment when I taught in the Philippines in 2007 along with Tonia Cowan, Peter Ong and Kris Visselman.
I made my first trip to South Africa in 2009 for a two-week workshop. That gig was extended to a third week and then that client asked me to come back for two more months. In 2010, they hired me to consult for them for five months.
I also took on two-week teaching assignments in Kenya and Nigeria. I was asked a number of times to teach in Egypt, but we could never work out the details.
Twenty-three years after my week in Lumley Castle, I spent
two weeks in the Hotel Stanley in downtown Nairobi, Kenya.
On the wall of the old Exchange bar I found this old drawing
of Lumley. Go figure.
I rarely teach these days. I’m happy to when I’m asked, but hardly anyone asks. I presume this is because most newspapers have slashed their training budgets.
Still, I was happy and honored to work as a teacher and consultant as long as I was needed and as long as clients found me useful.
I’ll always fondly remember that first assignment.