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How I learned to stop worrying and love layout: an editor reinvents his pages.

So it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Last year marked my thirtieth anniversary at the Gainesville Sun, my twenty-third year as editorial page editor. And I figured I pretty much had the job down pat: Write editorials, edit letters and columns, deal with angry readers, do it all over again the next day.

But these are tumultuous times for newspapers, and at our company the anxiety level has gone nowhere but up. People leave and aren't replaced. Budgets are tightened. We talk incessantly about "adding value," and doing more with less.

Oh yeah, and I read Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat. If you haven't read it, here's the Cliffs Notes version: It doesn't matter how irreplaceable you think you are, if you're not continually learning new skills you are destined to end up on the ash heap of yesterday's economy. (And if you think our jobs can't be outsourced to India, you better read Friedman.)

We are a two-person department, counting political cartoonist lake Fuller. And our pages have always been laid out by the same people on the day desk who also make up feature, business, and other section pages. Over the course of a week, as many as four different people might be turning out opinion pages. And, not surprisingly, they worked from a template.

Which means that our editorial pages tended to have a certain uniform quality to them. "Uniform" being code for gray and predictable: One or two daily editorials, with headlines and subheads. An editorial cartoon atop third columns of letters. And over on the op-ed page, three syndicated or guest columns, usually with mugs and the occasional illustration.

I won't say I was dragged kicking in screaming into learning page layout. But it's true that I'd avoided acquiring that skill for years on the logical theory that writers write and other people do that other stuff.

But last year, for a variety of reasons, Jake and I decided to take responsibility for producing our own pages. How hard could it be? It's all done on a computer screen these days. You don't even need a pica pole any more.

My teacher was a bright, twenty-one-year-old part-timer on the day desk, a pre-law student with an eye for design. This turned out to be a good thing, because she liked to pull up the template, stare at it for a moment, and then say, "You know what we could do ..."

Three remarkable things came out of all this.

* First, our pages have become less gray and predictable, and more dynamic and fun to read.

* Second, I discovered that I enjoy page design and layout. It's rather like putting together a puzzle, only you make up the pieces as you go along.

* And most remarkable of all, I think it's made me a better writer.

Which is to say that it really is easier to write long than short. It wasn't until I'd made the jump to page makeup that I began to realize how self-indulgent my writing had become.

Editorials of six hundred, seven hundred, or even more words have become a rarity in the Sun. These days it's more likely to be four hundred words (or less) "and a cloud of dust."

I usually start the day combing through the AP photo wire, looking for pictures that are worth a thousand words. Occasionally, I piece together "photo-editorial essays," accompanied by just a paragraph of text.

Message to readers: Get in, get out, get on with your life.

My thirtieth year at the Sun has been one of the most remarkable. I'm striving to say more in fewer words. I'm experimenting with headline styles, readouts, drop caps, and art ... lots of art. And I'm still learning and, on occasion, making it up as I go along.

"You're like a monkey with a box of crayons," Jake, formerly the only "artist" on the editorial staff, told me after I'd assembled one visual masterpiece.

He may have been kidding. But I took it as a compliment.

Ron Cunningham is the editorial page editor at The Gainesville Sun in Florida. E-mail
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Author:Cunningham, Ron
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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