When a woman miscarries, they sometimes give the mother-to-have-been a funeral for the fetus. Amputees often have ceremonies for their dead limb. Is it possible that I need a parting ceremony for a period of my life? Eight productive years spent languishing? Am I in a grieving period for the prime of my career?
The period in question started in the year 2000, at a company that was just getting the idea to circle the wagons. The eight or nine small-town newspapers in Westchester and Rockland Counties, NY, bought throughout the 20th century by Gannett (of USA Today fame), were now one regional entity: The Journal News. A year later, they hired me for the art unit in their marketing department.
Till then, what I’d been doing for a living, clients would call temping, but we temps always call agency freelancing. It was one such assignment that The Journal News made permanent. I’d hopscotch between Westchester, NY and Fairfield, CT, meeting new people in different shops, seeing and comparing different workflows, and overhearing the button-down communication of scrappy small companies.
Gannett was by far the biggest corporation I had ever worked for. And knowing full well what a hoary tradition a newspaper is necessarily saddled with, I took my cubicle with trepidation, suspecting that I was now a cog in a monstrously vast gearbox.
I had a career of making compromises. So this was nothing new, in that respect.
I majored in Communication Arts, with emphasis on film, ideally go get into animation or special effects. My first job out of college, in 1979, was a dream gig: production assistant in a tiny 3D (pre-computer) animation shop, doing shots for TV commercials. (Bob Franz, if you’re out there, a shout-out to you!) That lasted less than a year, after which I couldn’t find a follow-up job. Desperate, I was hired as a paste-up artist in a local Pennysaver. (I think I actually cried during the interview.) I had always considered print the copout medium, because I knew I had the skills for the job, without even going to school for them. All I lacked to make a career in print was the desire.
Guess what I made my career in anyway.
So, after nearly 20 years of doing something that came easy to me (the switch to computer was pretty effortless), I was at the absolute bottom point: in a newspaper. Any lower and I’d have to build a time machine: we’re talking teletype, or smoke signals, or the Pony Express.
Even in 2000, much of The Journal News still was put together with a phototypesetter, a stat camera, a waxer and Xacto blades. In the lobby, they displayed with pride a huge orange Linotype machine. It had two non-matching plaques; one describing the technology, eventually replaced by phototypesetting in the mid-50s, and one describing how that particular unit had been in operation at one of the bought small-town papers well into 1974. That said it all, to every visitor and every white-collar employee, every day.
Anyway, back to my story.
After a couple of months, I noticed something that I considered quite disturbing. A badly hyphenated word. No big deal, you may say. However:
- In grammar courses I took in college, a mis-hyphenation was graded as a misspelling. I was warned by the professors that out in the real world, it would be treated the same way.
- The product on which it was misspelled was the newspaper, The Journal News, the flagship product in a growing list of support products like magazines, one-shots, and web sites.
- The word was a proper name. The name of the pivotal county that is The Journal News’ market. Westchester.
- Westchester is a compound name (west + chester), which means you’re clearly supposed to hyphenate after the T. They hyphened it after the h. Westch-ester.
- The word Westchester occurred so often on the front page that this bad line break would appear at least once every day.
So, in summary: on the packaging of its flagship product, the most visible page, my new employer—the Fourth Estate, the last refuge of good English, not to mention reputation built on attention to detail—misspelled the name of the home of at least half its customers.
It was an easy fix, I knew. (Forgive the tech-talk.) The software at the time was Quark XPress 4, which I’d been using for years. It had a hyphenation algorithm that grouped “tch”, and a hyphenation dictionary that had too few proper names. The instruction manual suggested adding the word to that dictionary. But every desk of Quark XPress, including the platemaker, had to have the identical dictionary; one exception, and every page’s breaks would suffer. So that’s no good.
Another solution, one I had tested, involved replacing every instance of the word with the same word and a discretionary hyphen in the right place. You’d only need to do it at one desk, one page at a time, or even before the copy flowed onto the pages. You could even rig an AppleScript to do it automatically at the pivotal station. It was just a matter of either finding or writing the script, and determining where in the workflow to introduce the change to the text.
So I found out who the guy was in the production department, and I wrote him an email. I told him what was wrong with the method in the manual, and my idea for a workaround.
He responded not to me, but to his superior. Who forward it to my superior. The response, rather than being welcoming, was indignance and shock. Who the hell was I to tell someone outside my department how to do his job?
Not only was the involvement of middle management spanning two departments now a game of post office, where the only suggestion to make it back to me was the unworkable one, the workaround one forgotten if I’d never written it. The middle managers were technophobes. But they were good company people.They knew how to keep the walls between the gardens nice and high and thick and impenetrable.
And they knew why, I assume. They never explained it to me.
What gets me is, the middle manager above me was a new hire. She was charged, you’d think, with breaking down the obstructions, of not just raising red tape over our heads but eliminating it, for the good of the product, and of the customer. However, she dispensed the red tape. She was the red tape. It’s like a boxer hiring a sparring partner, someone whose job is to fight you.
I was now faced with some choices as to how to proceed:
- Go “skunkworks” on these managers, locate this guy via untraceable non-electronic means, commiserate with him, gain his confidence, use a lot of “us vs. them” psychology on him (not falsely, since we were the only two in this kerfuffle who knew the software), and hack out a solution.
- Use proper channels, which would have involved filtration of memos up and down, likely resulting in nothing.
- Determine that this is a die-marker indication of a sclerotic corporate culture, and return to freelancing.
To my abiding regret and shame, I did nothing.
I decided that a company with a management (not to mention a readership!) that couldn’t even tell the difference, or care, didn’t deserve to have the problem fixed. The handwriting on the wall was quite clear, even then: newspapers were going down. And while Gannett led the way in stopgap measures (like a huge online presence), and The Journal News was setting benchmarks for the rest of the company (as trumpeted in the decreasingly frequent printed house organ), it was too little, too late.
I know I could have gone commando and saved the day, getting forgiveness rather than permission, but at the end of that day, what I’d be incrementally saving from mediocrity was a newspaper. Hard to rally loyalty for a newspaper in the 21st century.
Days went by, and no fix for the hyphenation error. Weeks. Months. Years. And my bitterness grew.
Finally, one day, the problem was fixed. (That’s how I knew they switched to InDesign.) But by now the rate of descent of the business was noticeable to all, including the stock market. Gannett is now worth one-tenth what it was when I was hired. The things that changed were in other departments; I was stuck in marketing. In the aspects that impacted me, nothing changed. In fact, they got worse.
And yet, I take the blame for it. I was an at-will hire; every Monday morning, they offered another week of work. And every Monday, I consented. Week after week.
For eight years.
So now, here I am, having quit this soul-sapping job, as an alleviation of actual physical symptoms. The money I thought I smelled out here is now elusive, the economy in the crapper, so I’m constantly reminded. And I’m even wondering whether this job eroded my skill level, so much of my creative brain lying fallow, unneeded.
And so I grieve for a slice of my existence on this planet I’ll never get back. And wonder what the future holds for the likes of me, acutely aware of my age. 51.
I’ve come to some conclusions:
- I have worked for my last big corporation. Or if I do work for one, it has to be young, and consider its youth an asset.
- I’m going to tell the human resources people the above story, and warn them that they’ll have hired a guy who won’t make the same mistake again, who’ll opt for saving the day, who’ll look with the properly jaundiced eye at management’s attempts to throttle self-initiation.
- I’ll try to find work only for companies in whose success I have some kind of emotional stake, or can find one.
If you’re an employer and are reading this, you’ve been warned. If you take all the above blathering as good news, then we definitely need to talk.