Why I went to Fargo in February… and why I loved it

In the years since I left the cold, cold north — we moved out of Iowa back in 2003 — I’ve managed to throw out most of my warm clothes. No sweaters. No hats or heavy jackets. My snow boots dry-rotted years ago.

For the past 12 years, I’ve enjoyed living in relatively balmy Virginia Beach, Orange County and, now, South Texas. And, to give me some credit, I agreed to this teaching + consulting trip to Fargo, N.D., last fall, when I was toasty warm in Southern California. I just assumed I’d be able to deal with whatever mother nature threw at me.

So it was with a bit of alarm that I watched the extended forecast roll in the week before I left.

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That showed a full week below freezing and lows, four out of six nights, below zero. What it doesn’t show is the wind chill. And it’s very windy in Fargo, this time of year. This screen snapshot from my phone the day I departed showed a wind chill factor of minus 40.

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Minus 40. Wow.

In fact, it was closer to minus 30 when I arrived last Sunday night. Obviously, I survived.

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I took my thickest coat — which really isn’t all that thick — my one pair of gloves and the wonderful scarf that was a gift from my friends in South Africa. I left my usual Hawaiian-themed shirts at home and took the warmest clothes I could find in my closet. I have a limited number of long-sleeved shirts. I took all but two with me.

The hospitality I received from my new friends at the Forum of Fargo/Moorehead was just wonderful. Editor Matt Von Pinnon met me at the airport with two things: A sign, made by his daughter…

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…and a knit stocking cap. Which I didn’t actually use all week long. But Matt was afraid I’d hurt my ears walking around in the cold.

I arrived at my hotel — the Radisson, in downtown Fargo — just early enough to glimpse the area in the fading sunlight.

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It looked cold outside and it was. My hotel was, in fact, the tallest building in town. This is what it looked like, later in the week.

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I was on the sixth floor and I was never really uncomfortable at any time… as long as I was inside. The folks there know that, when you walk in, you’ll be awfully chilly. So they have this fire-burning heater set in the wall by the front door.

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I’d walk downstairs to find folks crowded around that thing, trying to thaw out their fingers.

Bright and early Monday, I had breakfast in the in-house restaurant on the second floor of the Radisson, from which I had a clear view of the Forum Communications building.

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That shows how far I had to walk in the frigid air every morning: Exactly one block. It took me maybe a minute.

Every day at 9 a.m. or so, I’d walk in the front door…

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…receive a friendly greeting from both the receptionist and from this bronze kid hawking newspapers…

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…and ride up the elevator to the newsroom, where they hold the morning news huddle every day at 9:15.

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Interestingly, they begin every morning huddle with a trivia quiz by Jack Zaleski, the editorial page editor sitting here to the right of Matt.

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Jack would read off five questions. Folks would write down their guesses on the back of their daily budgets and then compare their answers to Jack’s answers after the meeting.

I managed to hit five out of five on Tuesday. Which kind of made up for my dismal performances on the other days.

On Monday, we hooked up my laptop to the brand-new oversized newsroom flatscreen — They used my visit as an excuse to upgrade, I was told — and I gave an updated version of my Graphics for Word People talk and a presentation on basic charting.

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One of the things that delighted me about this trip was how quickly and how enthusiastically the staff of the Forum picked up on the lessons I bought them. We spent some time Monday looking at spectacular pages built by papers around the world, blowing most of the stories off page one — when the news merited it, of course.

That very afternoon, we discussed how to present the story about a hotly contested runoff election. Was a boxing metaphor appropriate? Yes it was. So I fished out of my hard drive a few Chris Morris illustrations from a while back and showed them to the Forum‘s super-terrific artist, Troy Becker.

Troy put his own spin on the idea and turned Tuesday’s front page into an entire boxing poster.

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Holy cow. It happened so fast that it really caught me off guard. That suggested these folks were really, really hungry for inspiration.

We also spent a lot of time talking about alternative approaches and things like quick-and-easy “big numbers” graphics. The Forum‘s design director, Jason Miller

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decided this was the way to go for Wednesday’s paper. And darned if he didn’t knock it out of the park.

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He even sampled the red color out of the photo, to help the centerpiece hold together.

Later in the week, we talked about skyboxes. Most newspapers build boring, ordinary skyboxes that aren’t very effective at catching anyone’s eye. Which, of course, defeats the purpose of a skybox in the first place. We talked about how skyboxes need to be selected more wisely, cropped better, constructed more effectively and written in a more snappy manner.

And occasionally, maybe — just maybe — a skybox might interact with the paper’s nameplate. We looked at a lot of examples of cool, eyecatching skyboxes. Everyone seemed to appreciate the session.

So, for Thursday’s paper, Troy illustrated the front of the daily features section…

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…and they decided they wanted to put this in the skybox. Troy’s artwork converted nicely for a fun piece of art. But that day, the staff went a step further when Troy suggested this catchy headline:

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So by midweek, I was completely knocked out by what the Forum staff was doing with the topics were were covering each day.

On Wednesday, however, we changed everything up. Forum Communications owns dozens of other papers around the region, including maybe 12 or 15 dailies. The ownership had asked all the other dailies if they wanted to attend a few sessions. I’m told they expected maybe a handful of additional people to show up. Instead, we had 45 or 50 responses.

This was too many people to see my presentations on the new widescreen and it was too many people to stuff into the largest conference room in the building. So for the first time in my life, I got to play Broadway.

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In order to get there from the hotel, I had to walk a block in the opposite direction from the newspaper, turn left and then walk another block. The meeting place was then directly across the street.

We met in a little building that held a coffee shop, an art studio and a marketing firm. In the back of the building was a cute little venue called Studio 222. The operator, Spider Johnk rents it out for speeches, concerts and whatnot.

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In fact, I had to giggle when I saw myself listed on their calendar.

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Every Friday night, Spider’s Studio 222 hosts a live jazz show. So the place had a basement jazz club kind of feel to it, including vintage advertising-type art.

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Naturally, I had to introduce myself to the gorgeous lady on the wall.

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Find Studio 222′s web site here and its Facebook page here.

Folks from all over the chain came to see my presentations. On a few occasions, folks from the Forum staff came over too, packing the place pretty tightly.

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Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, I gave eight presentations there at Studio 222. I spoke on the aforementioned Skybox design and proactivity for visual journalists. I spoke on breaking news visuals and showed sketches from the old days when I covered plane crashes and shooting sprees.

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I spoke on alternative story forms and techniques for scrounging when centerpiece art is scarce. And, of course, I gave my old Art of Being Brilliant motivational talk. I hadn’t done that one in a while.

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And I showed folks some material I’ve not shown in a long, long time. I was especially delighted with this picture — one of the best ever taken of me teaching.

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One staffer tweeted this really awesome quote — one so awesome I don’t even remember saying it.

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Turns out, I was talking about the complicated blends in the water in that battleship graphic from 1995. The folks at Adobe told me the water was clearly drawn in photoshop and then placed as an eps image. But no, it was all vector blends. I don’t think they believed me until we sent them a copy of the graphic on a syquest disc.

The folks in Fargo me me feel like such a rock star. I just hope I made last week’s shows worth their time.

And, on occasion, I learned something new myself. I knew it was possible to create artwork on an iPad, but I hadn’t seen anyone actually do it until Friday, when Troy Becker showed me his cartoon work.

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Troy creates two cartoons a week for the Forum‘s sports section. He uses his iPad, a stylus and an application called Sketches.

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The pro edition of Sketches costs $4.99. Plus, you could pay an additional $1.99 for “more tools.” And then $1.99 for a layers version. And then $1.99 for a version enabled for use with a stylus.

So the outlay would could be as much as eleven bucks, depending on how you need to configure your app. But you get so much function for this. Note the various pen tools on the left side of Troy’s screen.

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This photo looks pretty rough, but the actual artwork on Troy’s Retina screen was perfect.

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Troy then uses the various pens and whatnot to trace directly over his pencil sketch. A wide variety of textures and effects are literally at his fingertips.

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Once the drawing is done, he fills in the image with, y’know, 50 shades of grey. Or maybe just three or four shades of grey.

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He moves the result over to his computer, where he adds the text…

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…which, I might add, is made from his own handwriting.

Very cool.

So as I was wrapping up and saying my goodbyes Friday afternoon, I found this little gem on Twitter.

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Not only did they decide to put Leonard Nimoy in the Skybox for Saturday’s paper, they had Spock’s Vulcan salute take the place of the “u” in Forum. I couldn’t get over how well this fulfilled the challenges I laid out for them in Wednesday’s session on skyboxes.

Jason told me that he designed the thing but then turned it over to designer Alicia Strnad – a comics and sci-fi fan — to write the actual text.

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Alicia came up with that particular quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

I was so thrilled. What a great week it had been. In addition, Jason built a huge page-one bar chart for Saturday’s page one and another one for Sunday’s metro front.

I got up mighty early Saturday and took the shuttle to the airport long before dawn. The sun came up as we were sitting on the tarmac, waiting for our plane to be de-iced.

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The window was too fogged to see it clearly. But Saturday’s dawn was certainly colorful enough.

I flew to O’Hare and then to Austin, retrieved my car and then drove the two hours home to Victoria. Where I was delighted to discover that a) My cats were just fine, b) My daughter didn’t host a party in my absence, and c) My own paper, the Victoria Advocate, looked pretty good during my absence.

So it was a wonderful week in Fargo. Just fantastic.

A collection of newspaper tributes to Leonard Nimoy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this weekend, then you’ve probably heard that Leonard Nimoy — the actor who played the iconic science fiction character of Mr. Spock on Star Trek — died. He was 83.

Nimoy was originally from Boston and it reportedly took him years to ditch his Bahhstahhn accent. Astronaut Terry Virts tweeted this little tribute from the International Space Station — high above Boston on Saturday.

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That, of course, is the Vulcan hand salute, typically used when one wishes another to “live long and prosper.”

I spent this past week in Fargo, N.D., where I taught staffers of the Forum newspaper company. Among the topics we talked about were ways to have fun with skyboxes and when to alter the paper’s nameplate. After my week was over and I returned to my hotel Friday night, I nearly fell out of my chair when I spotted this little gem on Twitter.

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Sure enough, that was the Forum’s nameplate Saturday. Outstanding.

Several papers paid homage to Nimoy Saturday or today. Most looked rather like this one, on teh front of Saturday’s Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader.

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The Associated Press moved that portrait of Nimoy, shot just a few years ago before his health began to fall off. Note the secondary photo of Nimoy, shot during an appearance at Eastern Kentucky University in 1978, around the time the first Star Trek movie was being made.

Also, note the downpage interview with Walter Koening, who played Star Trek‘s Ensign Chekov,

My favorite front page of the day was this one by the Hartford Courant.

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That is essentially a centerpiece promo to a story inside. But it was clearly assembled by someone who had a lot of love for Nimoy and for Star Trek.

The Staten Island Advance led Saturday’s front page with a collection of ten “pithy sayings” from Nimoy’s character.

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Here’s a closer look:

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The folks in Pensacola, Fla., received the benefit of some great timing: There was a comic book/scifi convention in town this weekend. Sending someone to poll the folks there about the loss of Nimoy was a no-brainer.

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My friends at the Villages Daily Sun in Florida went out and asked locals about Nimoy and Spock.

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It’s great if you have a science fiction crowd in town. But this proves you didn’t really need one. Nearly everyone loved Star Trek and Mr. Spock.

The two major New York City tabloids were regional twins yesterday. The Daily News used that AP portrait with a rather obvious “Beam me up” headline….

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…while the New York Post wrote a similar headline but stuck with a vintage 50-year-old photo from the original TV series.

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My former colleagues at the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., pushed back whatever they had planned for Sunday’s Focus page and spent their Friday putting together this nice page on the career of Leonard Nimoy.

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Jeff Goertzen and Kurt Snibbe get brownie points for pulling out a picture of Nimoy singing. Ugh!

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Kurt drew this little bit down the right side of the page showing three seemingly mystical aspects — or abilities — of the Spock character.

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The Los Angeles Times Saturday led page one with a fairly recent portrait of Nimoy — shot through a window, for some reason — and a very nice obit.

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I didn’t quite understand the little graphic at the bottom of the package, though. Here’s that same little graphic, from the web site.

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This turned out to be a little refer to a fun online listing of all of Nimoy’s onscreen appearances as Spock, created by Javier Zarracina. There’s a little icon of Spock for every episode in which he appeared.

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Mouse over each to find out what episode it was and when it was broadcast.

As you continue to scroll down, you see variations in Spock’s wardrobe for the odd episode here and there — like, for instance, the dungarees and stocking cap he wore when he and Kirk visited Earth in the 1930s in the episode City on the Edge of Forever (upper right). Or his fighting stance in Amok Time (second row, second from left). Or the “evil” alternate-universe Spock from Mirror, Mirror (second row, far right).

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The little figures are animated, which is guaranteed to make you smile. Especially the Amok Time figure.

As you scroll to the early 1970s, you find icons for the animated Star Trek series from that era…

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…and then the Star Trek movie series, which debuted my last year in high school.

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Here, you see the final original Star Trek movie in which Spock appeared, his two appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then his surprise appearance in the Star Trek reboot movie in 2009. Note the 18-year time gap.

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I didn’t quite understand the little figure in 2012 until I read up on it: That year, Nimoy voiced a vintage Spock action figure in an episode of Big Bang Theory.

Fun, fun stuff. Go here to see it for yourself.

And then there’s this fine tribute to Nimoy by the Washington Post — which I would have never seen had it not been for my monitoring Twitter during my travel layover Saturday at O’Hare.

First, there’s this great headline atop the job of Nimoy’s obit in Saturday’s paper.

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But the truly outstanding part was this fabulous illustration on the front of Saturday’s Style section.

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That was created by London-based freelance illustrator Noma Bar.

Noma writes, on his web site:

I am after maximum communication with minimum elements.

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Right. Well, he certainly pulled it off with this Spock piece.

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Find Noma’s Twitter feed here.

Birthdays for Monday, March 2

Here’s wishing the happiest of birthdays to seven wonderful folks…

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Rachel Alves is an editor for Parágrafo Editora, a corporate communications and magazine and branded content publisher located in São Paulo, Brazil. Previously, Rachel worked for Volkswagen.

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Mark Evanier is a prominent writer of TV shows, animated cartoons, books and comic books. He’s worked on live-action programs such as Welcome Back, Kotter and Pink Lady and Jeff and children’s shows like Scooby-Doo, Dungeons & Dragons and especially Garfield. He’s written a number of books, but two of particular note are a) Kirby: King of Comics, a biography of comic artist Jack Kirby published in 2008, and b) The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio, published in November.

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Both are lavishly illustrated and highly recommended by little ol’ me. Mark also writes a very entertaining blog and hosts a lot — and I mean a lot — of panels at comics conventions, most notably the famed San Diego Comicon. Find his Twitter feed here. Mark turns 63 today.

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Eric Hartley is a reporter for the Las Vegas Review Journal. A 2000 graduate of the University of Maryland, Eric spent nine years with the Capital of Bucharest, Romania, before moving to the Los Angeles Daily News in 2013. He moved to the Orange County Register in 2013 but — like so many of us at that paper — moved on again soon afterward. Among the topics Eric covers: The city government of nearby Henderson, Nev. Last month, he found himself the target of a misguided attempt by the city government there to keep employees from talking to the media. Find Eric’s Twitter feed here.

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Spencer Holladay is Indiana team leader at the Gannett Design Studio in Louisville, Ky. A 2009 graduate of Arizona State University, Spencer interned at the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette before signing on at the Las Vegas Sun as a news designer. He was promoted to the Sun‘s monthly business magazine, VEGAS INC. The Sun laid him off in 2011. He started work in Louisville in 2012. He also teaches online via the Academy of Art University, Find Spencer’s portfolio here and his Twitter feed here.

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Machu Shanavas is a senior designer for Apex Press and Publishing in Muscat, Oman. He’s a 1993 graduate of SD College in Alappuzha, India.

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Bill Tiernan has been a staff photographer for the Virginian-Pilot for 31 years. A graduate of West Virginia University, Bill worked for papers in West Virginia and Illinois before joining the Pilot in 1984. Find a list of links to his online photo galleries here.

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Vince Tuss is night editor for online at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Minn. A 1994 graduate of George Washington University, Vince interned for the Boston Globe and with the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund before moving to the Times-News of Twin Falls, Idaho, as a copy editor. He moved to the Statesman of Boise in 1995 and then to the Omaha World Herald as a copy and assigning editor in 1999. He moved to the Strib in 2004. Find his Twitter feed here. Vince turns 42 today.

Rachel, Eric, Spencer, Machu, Vince, Bill and Mark share a birthday with actors Daniel Wroughton Craig, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ethan Gregory Peck, Cheryl Gates McFadden, Laraine Newman and Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III (better known as Desi Arnaz); musicians Karen Anne Carpenter, Lewis Allen Rabinowitz (better known as Lou Reed), John Francis Bongiovi Jr. (better known as Jon Bon Jovi), John Cowsill (of the Cowsills and now with the Beach Boys) and Christopher Anthony John Martin (of Coldplay); politicians Kenneth Lee “Ken” Salazar, Russell Dana “Russ” Feingold and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev; sports greats Benjamin Todd “Ben” Roethlisberger, Reginald Alfred “Reggie” Bush (both football), Melvin Thomas Ott, Ronald Edwin “Ron” Gant (both baseball), Henrik Lundqvist (hockey), Ian Harold Woosnam (golf) and Denzil E. “Denny” Crum (basketball coach) and authors John Wallace Blount Jr. (better known as John Irving), Peter Francis Straub, Thomas Kennerly “Tom” Wolfe Jr. and Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known, of course, as Dr. Seuss).

In addition, today is Dr. Seuss Day and Read Across America Day. Seriously.

Have a terrific birthday, folks! Best wishes!

Birthdays for Sunday, March 1

Here’s wishing the happiest of birthdays to two brilliant visual journalists…

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Jeff Drew is senior editor for the Journal of Accountancy at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Raleigh, N.C. A 1994 graduate of N.C. State University in Raleigh, Jeff spent four years as a sports copy editor for the News & Observer until joining the Total Sports web operation as managing editor in 1997. Total Sports morphed into Quokka Sports and then shut down in 2001. Shortly after, Jeff joined the Triangle Business Journal as associate editor. He moved to his current position in 2011. Find his Twitter feed here. Jeff turns 45 today.

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Rick Tuma is an artist, designer and illustrator for the Chicago Tribune. A graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Rick has worked for the Tribune since 1983. I wrote about him most recently here, here and here. Rick also runs a free-lance studio on the side. Find his web site here and his Twitter feed here.

Jeff and Rick share a birthday with actors Donovan Edward Patton (Joe from Blue’s Clues), Mark-Paul Harry Gosselaar, George Coleman Eads III, James Timothy “Tim” Daly, Javier Ángel Encinas Bardem, Alan Willis Jeffery (better known as Alan Thicke), Dirk Niewoehner (better known as Dirk Benedict), Catherine Bachman (better known as Catherine Bach), James David Graham Niven and Konrad Robert Falkowski (better known as Robert Conrad); musicians Justin Drew Bieber, Kesha Rose Sebert (better known as Ke$ha), Ryan Peake (of Nickelback), Alton Glenn Miller, Harold George Belafonete Jr. (better known as Harry Belafonte) and Roger Harry Daltry; directors Ronald William “Ron” Howard and Zachary Edward “Zack” Snyder; poet Ralph Waldo Emerson; onetime Supreme Court nominee Robert Heron Bork; sports greats Stephen Lamont Davis, Elvin Lamont Bethea and Lino Dante “Alan” Ameche (all three football), Alvin Ray “Pete” Rozelle (NFL commissioner), Mayce Edward Christopher “Chris” Webber III (basketball), Ronald Michael “Ron” Francis Jr. (hockey) and sports announcer Harry Christopher Carabina (better known as Harry Caray).

In addition, today is Pig Day, World Compliment Day, Daughters and Sons Day, Endometriosis Day, Namesake Day, National Horse Protection Day, National Peanut Lovers Day, Asiatic Fleet Memorial Day and National Black Women and Jazz and the Arts Day. Seriously.

Have a wonderful birthday, you two! Best wishes!

Birthdays for Saturday, Feb. 28

Here’s wishing the happiest of birthdays to six wonderful visual journalists…

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Jason Clayworth is a political reporter for the Des Moines (Iowa) Register. A 1999 graduate of Drake University in Des Moines, Jason interned with the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Record-Herald of Indianola before signing on with the Register in 2000. Find his Twitter feed here. Jason turns 38 today.

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Kristen Hansen is a copy editor and designer for the Gwinnett Daily Post of Lawrenceville, Ga. She’s a 2006 graduate of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper there, the Profile. Find her portfolio here and her blog here.

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Megan Lavey-Heaton is a web and mobile news producer and a SMO specialist for the PA Media Group of Harrisburg, Pa. A 2002 graduate of the University of Alabama, Meg worked for the student paper — the Crimson White — and was a member of ‘Bama’s famed Million Dollar Band. Meg worked at the Selma (Ala.) Times-Journal and the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier before joining the Lewiston, Maine, Sun Journal in 2004. She moved to the Arizona Daily Star of Tucson in 2006 but left the newspaper business two years later. She returned in 2010 with the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa. I shadowed her one night, in her first month there. In addition, Meg spent several years as a tech blogger for the Unofficial Apple Weblog and she collaborates on a web comic called Namesake. I wrote a Q&A with her when she and her pal, Isabelle Melançon, started that comic. There are two collected volumes of Namesake available.

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They’re darned good and they’re available darned cheaply. Find them both here.

Find her portfolio here and her Twitter feed here. Megan turns 35 today.

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Dave Martineau is part owner of Bullet News Niagara, a four-year-old hyperlocal site covering news in Niagara, Toronto, Canada. Previously, Dave was publisher of the Niagara Falls Review. Find his blog here and his Twitter feed here. Dave turns 50 today.

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Wes Rand is an artist and illustrator for the Hartford Courant. A 1987 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Wes spent three years working for Wilson Publishing before joining the Bulletin of Norwich, Conn., in 1991. He moved to the Courant in 2000 and has worked there ever since. Find his portfolio page here, his blog here and his Twitter feed here. Wes turns 52 today.

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Leonard Vaughan retired in 2009 from the prepress production department of the Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer. Leonard turns 65 today.

Kristen, Megan, Jason, Dave, Wes and Leonard share a birthday with actors Robert Sean Leonard, John Michael Turturro, Gilbert Gottfried, Bernadette Lazzara (better known as Bernadette Peters), Allan George See (better known as Gavin McLeod), Charles Durning, Mercedes J. Ruehl, Dorothy Stratten, Rae Dawn Chong, Sarah Lee Bolger, Alison Elizabeth “Ali” Larter and Samuel Joel “Zero” Mostel; musicians Cynthia Leigh “Cindy” Wilson (of the B-52s), Lewis Brian Hopkins Jones (of the Rolling Stones) and Jason Aldine Williams (better known as Jason Aldean); choreographer Thomas James “Tommy” Tune; car painter Earl Scheib; TV chef Ainsley Harriott; sports greats Eric Bryan Lindros (hockey), Mario Gabriele Andretti (auto racing), Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith (football), John Hayden Fry, Brian Harold Billick (football coaches) and Dean Edwards Smith (basketball coach); gangster Benjamin Siegelbaum (better known as Bugsy Siegel); convicted corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff; molecular biologist Linus Carl Pauling and cartoonist Milton Arthur Paul Caniff.

In addition, today is National Tooth Fairy Day, International Sword Swallowers Day, National Floral Design Day, Open That Bottle Night and Rare Disease Day. Seriously.

Have a great birthday today, folks! Best wishes!