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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Further Review: The man, mind behind Spokesman-Review full-page infographics

By Charles Apple The Spokesman-Review

I’ve spent most of my career as a graphics guy – either an artist or a graphics editor. Before that, I was a cartoonist. And before that, I was a sportswriter. I started writing sports roundups about my school for the weekly newspaper in McCormick, South Carolina, when I was in the eighth grade.

On top of all that, I love researching and learning new things. Remember back in high school when you were tasked with turning in an eight-page paper on some topic, but the class geek would turn in 30 pages? Yeah, that was me.

I’m the luckiest guy on the planet that I’ve found a way to blend my odd set of skills into one job: building the Further Review pages you see in The Spokesman-Review.

I come up with the topics. I research them and write them up. I hunt down data for various graphic elements and photos from historical archives. And then I design the pages.

When I first began building these kinds of pages regularly – eight years ago at the Orange County Register – the man who hired me, Ken Brusic, declined to give me a list of topics he wanted covered. His one instruction to me was: “Indulge yourself.”

That’s what I’ve tried to do ever since.

The deputy managing editor for local sections, Rob Curley, sat only five or six steps away from my desk. For some reason, he took a liking to my work. He supported my efforts after he became editor of the Register and then he hired me to work for you fine folks in Spokane, saving me from a life of early retirement.

After years of living in California and Texas while my wife moved back home to take care of her elderly father in Lilburn, Georgia – on the northeast side of Atlanta – I wasn’t in any mood to separate again. So Rob not only hired me but set me up to work 2,000 miles away. So I build my pages here in my home office and send them to Spokane via those interwebs you have heard so much about.

I try to indulge myself and have fun with my work. If I can make my days interesting and fun for myself, perhaps that will result in interesting and fun pages for you. At least, that’s the theory.

Topics

Every once in a while, someone there at the home office will call with a request. A good example: When The Spokesman-Review published a special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, they asked me to do a science piece. I ended up taking up two full pages with that one.

But for the most part, they let me do my thing. And absolutely, coming up with a suitable topic is the most difficult part of this job. It’s possible to work with current events and happenings in the news, but I also like to work several days in advance. I don’t want to throw our hard-working copy editors into a deadline pinch, so I try to work a week or so ahead.

Last year, I had plenty of angles I could take with the huge presidential election that was ahead of us. Politics is one of my specialties – I even minored in political science in college. I have an endless supply of ideas for ways to explain political concepts and procedures. At one point, I had hoped to write a book about presidential politics – all in Further Review style. Maybe one day I’ll circle back to that.

But as a huge fan of history and with a strong sense of how it repeats itself, I tend to fall back on what I call “on this date” topics. I try to limit myself to “round number” years: 10 or 20 or 25 years ago, as opposed to 37 or 42 years ago.

This means most of my pages have what we in the news business call a “time peg.” Why is this page in today’s paper, as opposed to two months ago or two months from now or two years from now? This might not be readily apparent to some readers, but I’d like to think it brings a bit of order to our presentations.

My personal interests are varied: In addition to history and politics, I also love science – I first became mesmerized by newspapers in the late 1960s and early 1970s reading coverage of the Apollo space missions I had watched every moment of on TV the day before. I’m quite a bit weaker in physics and biology, but I do love finding interesting visual ways to tell those stories.

I’m also fascinated by pop culture and how that’s reflected in music, movies and television. That helps me cover a lot of bases when I’m zeroing in on topics to put in front of you.

As I choose my topics, I begin thinking of what my main image is going to be. Can I find the perfect photo to run big across the top of my page? Or huge down the side of the page? Is there a timeline of how something came to be? Are there numbers that will quantify the main point I want to make? Maybe I build a giant, full-page chart and the chunks of my story drop into the spaces around it.

I don’t like to think in terms of “I’m writing a story that has visuals.” Many times, my visual IS the story. My most successful pages, I think, are the ones in which this blend is seamless.

Research

Once I have my topic nailed down, I dive into research. This is what makes me the perfect guy for this job: I’m always researching. I can’t turn off that part of my brain. In my personal hours, I’m reading nonfiction and I’m coming across things that make me stop and say: “Hey, that would make a great Further Review page!”

I have an extensive reference library here in our home: Fourteen entire bookcases and growing. For example, I have an entire shelf of Apollo moonshot histories. I have an entire bookcase of books on presidential politics and biographies. This saves me an awful lot of research time when I can simply walk four or five steps and pull just the right book off the shelf.

And, of course, I do a lot of research online. Combing the internet for solid source material can be difficult at times – I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are lots of sources out there for bogus information. But there are plenty of good ones as well. The trick is to know the difference.

I’ve taught classes in this at the National College Media Convention. If you watch my list of sources – usually I tuck them into the bottom left corner of my pages – you’ll see some that pop up time and time again: The New York Times. National Geographic. Encyclopedia Britannica.

A journalist is no better than their sources. So finding just the right ones is important.

For photos, I most often rely on the extensive photo library of the Associated Press. I find a lot of historical photos are available through the Library of Congress.

I put a lot of energy into making sure the photos I use are either licensed for our use or in the public domain. For example: Any photograph paid for by Uncle Sam is, by law, free to use. That would include historical NASA photos, satellite photos of hurricanes, pictures of stars and other planets taken by the Hubble space telescope, microscope photos of viruses posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or photos posted on the National Parks Service website.

You don’t want to infringe on anyone’s copyright. But if you know the rules and you’re willing to take the time digging, you can open up a lot of options.

Design

I’m always striving to make my pages a visual treat for you folks out there in newspaper reader land. I spent five years as graphics editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, which was regarded at the time as one of the best-looking papers in the country. The design team’s aim every day was to “surprise and delight” their readers. I’ve never forgotten that.

Some of my pages come out more text-heavy than I’d like. On some, I run out of page while I still have plenty of good material I’d like to squeeze in. On others, I feel like I’m stretching to fill a page.

But for the most part, pages tend to come together fairly easily. That’s because most of the tough parts – researching, writing, finding visuals, planning my space – I’ve already thought through when it comes time to put it all onto paper.

I say paper, but of course, I design everything on a computer: An Apple MacBook Pro laptop, in fact. Instead of our standard page design software – Abobe InDesign – I build my pages in Adobe Illustrator, which is an application normally used to build infographics.

As a result, you could say my Further Review pages are actually giant infographics masquerading as pages and you wouldn’t be wrong.

I mentioned Adobe, so let me add: Yes, I use Adobe Photoshop. As do all newspaper designers and photographers. But we in the newspaper business are extremely aware of the things unscrupulous news sources can do to change a photo and make it lie to a reader.

We have pretty firm rules on what you can and can’t do with a photo. Typically, I use Photoshop to make sure the photo can run the size I need and will show up in the newspaper with the correct “toning.” I’ll often add a little blue to a black-and-white photo – something we call “duotone” – to keep it from looking blah on my color pages.

And we may crop a photo. If I’m writing about a famous old baseball player, for example, I might cut out the background so the player seems to “pop” out of my page. We’d call that a “knockout.”

But we’re very careful not to change the meaning of or content in a photo. That would not be something we’d want to do for our readers.

Editing

Once a Further Review page is done, I run a spellcheck on it, save it as a PDF file and ship it to my friends on the copy desk in Spokane.

They’ll generally read it overnight and I will awaken here in the Eastern time zone to find a list of fixes waiting for me. I’ll then make those fixes and send the desk an updated page. That’s the one you see in the paper. Ideally, we have my page done and locked down anywhere from two to seven days before you finally see it.

Distribution

Now, here’s something you may not know: There are 20 or so other newspapers or newspaper groups across the country that also run our Further Review pages.

Rob’s idea was that one day, The Spokesman-Review might sell my work to other papers – something we call “syndication.” Lots of things in your daily Spokesman-Review are syndicated features: The comic strips, the advice columns and so on.

So this might be a way for The Spokesman-Review to join the ranks of producers of such material. In addition, it might raise a little revenue for things like hiring more reporters for his newsroom. Rob excels at finding innovative ways to pay for more news gathering for you good folks of the Inland Northwest.

Maybe we’ll do that one day. But today is not that day.

Right now, newspapers around the country are suffering from the ongoing pandemic. Local commerce is down in many areas. Businesses have cut back on their newspaper advertising, meaning that some newspapers have been forced to shrink – in both the number of pages they publish and in the number of staffers they employ.

Some newspapers are desperate for new and interesting material to “surprise and delight” their readers. That’s where Rob stepped up. He suggested I offer our work to newspapers big and small, across the country – free of charge. And that’s what we do.

The paper I get in my driveway here at home, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is one of them. I’ve been doing this sort of work for 35 years now, but I still get a thrill from seeing my work in print.

Also running my Further Review pages: The Index-Journal of Greenwood, South Carolina – which is one of the papers I read growing up. It’s taken decades, but folks “back home” can finally see some of the work I do in their own newspaper.

Some of the other papers using Further Review pages: My former colleagues at the Houston Chronicle; the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Massachusetts; the Bulletin of Bend, Oregon; the Telegraph-Herald of Dubuque, Iowa; the News-Gazette of Champaign, Illinois; and lots of smaller papers in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Georgia and Florida.

Feedback

That’s how I go about building and distributing our Further Review pages. Here are a few more thoughts I’d like to leave you with.

  • I love feedback. Feel free to send me emails. Especially compliments.
  • I love suggestions. I might not always be able to use every idea, but if you have something you think might make an interesting page, let me know.
  • National news outlets are important and they do work that’s vital to the interests of our nation. Having worked for a couple of them, I give them their due. But there is No. Substitute. For. Local. News.

Please support the work my Spokesman-Review colleagues are doing. Read the paper. Visit the website. Patronize the paper’s advertisers. Join the paper’s Northwest Passages Book Club and attend its events – when they’re able to start back up again.

Local newspapers are your first line of defense against this crazy old world and the crazy things that happen these days.

Most of all, thanks for reading the work I do for you. I can’t thank you enough for that.

And, hey – please say hello to those gorgeous downtown waterfalls for me!

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