Newspapers: I love all of them, but my heart is with the small ones

I guess I might as well change my permanent address to “Midwest,” following more than a dozen scheduled visits to Iowa and Minnesota during February, March and April. People began to ask with frequency, “Why don’t you schedule your visits to Minnesota (or Iowa or Canada) in the summer?”

My most common response is, “I need a new manager.” I suppose the honest answer is that I go when I’m asked and people in the coldest areas are practical jokers or they just seem to need me more in the winter and early spring.

A year ago, I was booked to speak at a conference of community papers that meets in Des Moines each spring. This was the 15th year in a row that I’d been asked to speak at the MFCP convention and it has come to be one of my favorites.

I didn’t realize when I booked this convention that I would later receive a request to visit a newspaper three hours up the road in Armstrong, Iowa. So it was that I ended up in Armstrong, just south of the Minnesota border, last Thursday after a dark drive through the “flatlands” of Iowa. Remember, I am from the mountains of Tennessee after all. A nice surprise was a “last minute” invitation to have dinner with friends at the paper in Algona, Iowa.

When I first received a request from Kristin Grabinoski, publisher, to visit Armstrong, the idea was to improve production quality at the four small papers that make up their group. Papers with circulations as small as 350 make up the group, with a couple of “larger” weeklies in Iowa and South Dakota.

I enjoyed the tour of the Armstrong office, which included a new press, next to their older press, in the back area of the building. Kristin explained that the new press would be used for longer runs and the current press would be used for shorter runs. Clint, the chief designer in Armstrong, took me on a tour of the town while we waited for the rest of the group to show up. It reminded me of my visit to Hartingdon, Nebraska last year, where the publisher took me to the bowling alley, just down the street from the newspaper office, for a drink at the end of the day.

When the group arrived, ten, in all, for training, we met in the town conference facility across the street from the newspaper. The group was all somewhat experienced in InDesign, Photoshop, Acrobat and other apps used by newspaper editors and designers, but all were ready to learn more advanced skills.

We started off by learning to use scripts in InDesign. The “wows” were audible as I showed the group how to reverse last and first names in a list, then alphabetize them. We went on to learn advanced skills to both increase the quality of their papers and speed up the production process.

Next was lunch. I’m not sure where the food came from. I didn’t see any restaurants open downtown. But it was good, including a local favorite that included beef and bits of rice. The rest of the Armstrong staff, plus a surprise guest on his way through town, joined to visit and eat together.

Toward the end of lunch, the group relaxed while we talked about skills to improve the design of their papers.

The last 2 1/2 hours of my visit was spent teaching advanced photo editing and PDF skills to the group. Fortunately, I had shown up early so we could do a quick press test and look at the results, which helped a lot with determining the best settings for the papers to use when editing photos.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Kristin showed me an auto ad that printed with rectangles where numbers were supposed to be. Those CID fonts have been really problematic at a lot of papers lately. Clint pulled up some other files that had caused similar problems and fixed them like a veteran after our session.

At the end of the day, everyone seemed satisfied. And I left having made new friends in another community where real journalism is practiced.

My next stops? Texas, Nebraska, Canada and – you guessed it – Iowa and Minnesota.

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