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Winning S.C. Journalist of the Year, February 2005. (Grace Beahm photo)

Winning S.C. Journalist of the Year, February 2005. (Grace Beahm photo)

(If you’re looking for my essays on media and new-media, click here)

I spent most of my newspaper career coaxing better performances out of reporters in Shelby, NC, and Charleston, SC, but I went into the business because I wanted to write news, not manage and edit it.  After more than a decade as an assigning editor I finally earned a chance at a second stint as a reporter in 2004, and immediately won the top award bestowed by my state’s press association.


My second stint as a feature writer (February 2007-August 2009) returned me to a vastly different features department. Though I’d won Journalist of the Year for putting science back in the Health and Science section, while I was away on Web duty the paper’s top editors reversed course, formally changing the name of the section to Your Health and banishing science and technology coverage. I was a features writer without a section, working in a department that was shedding readers at an alarming rate.

So I went looking for a way to innovate, and since the Friday fashion section was unstaffed and unpopular, I used that as an opportunity. After the editors rejected my pitch for a Web/Tech/Gadgets/Innovation-themed section, they went for our second pitch (created with my wife, Content Development Editor Janet Edens, and Features Editor Judy Watts). To beat the features curse  (long stories about boring subjects), we would develop an any-topic features section that would never jump a story. We would break traditional features narratives into five component parts that could be arranged in any order, giving greater flexibility and creativity to the page designer.

Other standing features also followed the No. 5 conceit, reinforcing the message that the section was constructed so that anyone could spend five entertaining and informative minutes with it and feel like they’d gotten something unique from the day’s paper. Finally, I added an interactive reader games section (Fun & Games) to the second page (where the jumps usually went), and built dedicated blogs for both products.

We launched the section in March 2007 to rave in-house reviews and good anecdotal evidence from the public. Response to the weekly cartoon caption contest (which I drew and administered online) was strong from the first week, with entries often numbering in the hundreds. And the creative, typically collaborative design work of Rudolfo Larios was regularly praised.

But Friday 5′s star waned considerably as the mood in the newsroom soured during 2008. Despite Friday 5′s apparent popularity, the paper’s flirtation with unusual features sections ended several weeks after I left on a buyout in August 2008.

Whereas Friday 5 required the services of myself, the usual staff of copy editors and a single page designer (I did my own Web work, my own photography and my own video), its replacement required a staff of six editors and reporters, weekly photo support and blogging and video services from the Web and multimedia staffs. The new section received big promotional support. I had to stop offering contest prizes because I couldn’t get the company to spring for coffee cups or T-shirts. All in all, it kind of a sad tale.

Friday 5 was my farewell to print, but I’ll remember it as a grand experiment that ended too soon.


F5 publishing Taming the Second-Career Startup (Aug. 17, 2007): One of my most challenging pieces was this bit of reporting about a husband-wife team who had built a successful publishing company. I wound up re-imagined their “story” as five lessons for other middle-aged entrepreneurs. Getting the info for something like this isn’t hard. But presenting in short form, without narrative? You have to re-wire parts of your brain.
f5 Bright Five Bright Ideas (Aug. 24, 2007): There are an amazing number of smart ideas being generated at any moment, but it’s depressing how rarely they ever show up in newspaper.
F5 Maps Where in the World Is…?  (Sept. 7, 2007): When the Miss Teen S.C. had her infamous brainlock and became the face that launched a million YouTube views, the story dominated conversation in Charleston for weeks. But the paper had little to say. What can you say? My quick-turn-around answer: Give everyone a geography quiz! By the way, it takes about as much research and work to make something like this as it does to create the standard autopilot feature story.
F5 Stick Get on the Stick (Sept. 14, 2007): Anyone who has to move around from computer to computer knows how frustrating and inefficient that is. So after I installed and tested the Portable Apps Suite, I turned it into a Five topic. Geeks loved it, but the surprising thing was that several elderly readers called me for more info. So much for that “tech is for younger readers” stereotype.
F5 The Man Five Ways to Stick It To The Man (Sept. 28, 2007): EVERYONE wants to “Stick it to The Man” every now and then. Even THE MAN wants to “Stick it to Some OTHER Man.” So why not speak to this universal desire?
F5 Coffee Five Best Local Coffee Shops (Oct. 5, 2007): Newspapers don’t like to make definitive statements like this. Hurts advertising. Besides: Who says what’s best? So I gave the question to Friday 5 readers and let them discuss it on my blog. After rounding up their input, I went around to each. These aren’t necessarily my favorites — but it was cool putting together this project with readers.
F5 Video Friday 5 Guide to Online Video (Oct. 12, 2007): Sure, the newspaper industry was still ignoring Web video in 2007, but free hosting and improved playback was making it extremely popular with PEOPLE. I figured, why not figure out the landscape and explain the best of what’s out there?
F5 Geek DIY Geek Superhero Guide (Nov. 30, 2007): F5 always tried to emphasize Do-It-Yourself culture, often running links from MAKE Magazine and other project-oriented pubs. In this cleverly designed installment (I proposed the visual concept for this one, recruited and dressed the model with my own gear, etc.), I introduced some of the cool new products everyone ought to have around the house.
F5 Graffiti Charleston Grafitti (Dec. 14, 2007): Under its previous police chief, Charleston had a zero-tolerance graffiti policy, but it didn’t take long after his retirement before downtown took on a much more overlaid appearance. I like “public art” and clever messages and I dislike vandalism and tagging, but where were the lines? To demonstrate the situation, I took my camera and went on a walk down King Street, documenting well over 200 individual pieces of graffiti.
F5 Big-Little Big Little Stories (Dec. 28, 2007): Year-in-Review pieces are standard fare in late December. I decided to do mine on the important stories that nobody noticed or that few people understood — like the confluence of the iPhone and the Dramatic Chipmunk video (portending a whole new relationship between mobile devices and streaming video and pop culture), or the Estonian Web War I.

Back to the Words topic page.