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Adapt or die

By John McCoy

The newspaper world we work in is no different from the natural world we write about. We adapt to changing conditions or we perish.

In newsrooms across the country, the buzz is about “doing more with less.” Publishers aren’t exactly flush with cash nowadays. Ad revenue is tighter than a tick on a coon dog.

When news budgets shrink, we outdoor writers become runt hatchlings in the newsroom nest. Who gets shoved out first – the paper’s top political writer or its top outdoor writer?

You know it. Publishers, executive editors and managing editors seem to view outdoor coverage as optional. To some, we outdoor writers are curious creatures who qualify for a specialized beat mainly because we’re skilled in outdoor-speak. To others, we’re odd ducks who occupy disconnected boxes in sports-staff flow charts. I once heard my beat described as “a toy store within a toy store.” Now there’s an ego boost!

So how do we remaining specimens of Outdoorsus arcaniensis survive in a publishing environment turned even more Darwinian?

We become fit.

With a little work, we can become fitter than our sports-staff counterparts. With a lot of work, we can become the fittest reporters in our newsrooms. How do we do that? We diversify. We learn new skills. We become so valuable to our employers that they can’t imagine newsrooms without us.

In the past year, I’ve helped my newspaper’s online staff set up outdoor-related attractions on our Web site. I’ve videotaped multimedia segments, in front of and behind the camera. I’ve recorded voice-over clips for multimedia slide shows. I’ve shot almost every photo used in the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s outdoors-related stories. I’ve started a blog, learned to process digital images in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and I’m now learning the intricacies of Quark XPress. By the time you read this, I’ll be designing and laying out my weekly “Woods & Waters” page.

It’s more work, but completely worthwhile. The more facets of outdoor-page production I handle solo, the more money I save the publisher. The more money I save the publisher, the more likely she keeps me at the job I most enjoy.

I’m not the only OWAA member doing this. Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle writes books, does television and radio, and still finds time to crank out Pulitzer-nominated features and news articles. Mark Taylor at the Roanoke Times does multimedia video packages and hosts a popular blog.

If you haven’t yet looked at ways to expand your skill sets, by all means do. It’s not as difficult or as expensive as it sounds.

Photography is a good place to start. Compared to old-fashioned film photography, digital imaging is a snap. Press a button and you know instantly whether you’ve captured the shot or not. If you haven’t, simply adjust the camera’s controls and try again until you get it right. Even if your “keeper” images end up poorly composed or a little underexposed, you can recover them using photo processing software. Photoshop and other sophisticated programs take a while to learn, but learning them helps you treat readers to much more pleasing pictures.

I learned a slew of Lightroom techniques by clicking up Google and YouTube and entering search strings for the procedures I wanted. When I couldn’t find the desired tutorials online, a trip to the library or the local bookstore secured the information.

Vocational schools and community colleges offer adult-education classes in photography, Photoshop, video editing and sound editing. If you’re lucky, your employer might pay for those classes. If not, so what? You’re making yourself a more valuable employee. Think of it as employment insurance.

My paper recently hosted a series of seminars offered by the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. I could have attended courses in writing or reporting. I instead chose a one-day course on page design. It turned out to be time well invested. As a broadcast major in college, I missed out on the layout and design courses required of print majors. Six hours of intense instruction at the seminar got me reasonably grounded in layout basics.

The cool thing about this midlife re-education process is that the bosses have noticed. In a candid moment, the managing editor said I’ve become more valuable than ever to the company.

I won’t lie. It’s been challenging. Taking courses, learning new computer skills and tackling new endeavors require time – a rare and precious commodity for a 53-year-old man with a working wife and an autistic son.

At the same time, though, I’m having fun. The other reporters on the staff have long contended that I have the most fun of anyone in the newsroom. “Great gig, McCoy,” they say. “You get to cover the things you like most, and you get paid for it.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. ◊

John McCoy is the Charleston Gazette’s outdoors reporter. When he’s not taking classes or learning new skills, he serves as OWAA’s secretary.

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