Don Eggert: Making Stories Into Something More

Editor’s Note: This is the 35th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies from Middlebury College in Vermont, Don Eggert knew his options were limited. He could work “for corporate McDonalds in Moscow, or work for the CIA here, not much else.” So he went to work as a freelance designer.

His first job doing layout for pay came when he landed a job as art director for a hunting magazine, a position he held until a “hostile takeover” put him out of work. It wasn’t long, however, before he saw that Seven Days was looking for a designer. Seven years later he is one of the paper’s two art directors, as well as Webmaster and general IT Guy. His design for “The Blogger,” which simulated a blog on paper, won an AltWeekly Award for Editorial Layout.

What was the design process for that piece?

For that particular story, the writer had finally gotten through to our editor that blogs were going to be important to the election, and she had found out about a couple of local people who were involved in some big national political blogs. So when she talked to me, she was really excited. Usually, we have a five- or 10-minute conversation about the layout. Sometimes I don’t read the story at all, which is bad.

But this time I took maybe even an extra hour to lay it out. I photographed a computer rather than taking some kind of stock art. Then I took a screen shot and put the screen shot onto the screen to make it look real. And then the stickies — maybe now I would have done that differently — I put the stickies on the screen and then added the text.

So there were a few elements: the photography of the computer, the photo of the person, and then the screen shot — and I laid it out like the blog itself. There were links, but you obviously couldn’t click on them.

One of the judges wanted the stickies to have real handwriting on them.

I was nervous that when I took the photo it wouldn’t get the text of the message very well, and I also didn’t know what was going to go on them — I talked to the editors about it and they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do.

How do you choose which illustrators and photographers to work with for any given project?

Most of the time we have a little meeting. The week before the paper comes out there’s an editorial meeting and we go to that, and then the other art director and I take turns laying out the features each week. The person who lays out the features also designs the cover and assigns the illustrations and photography for the whole paper.

We have different photographers we work with, and a couple of illustrators. We have a feeling now for who can take what kind of photos and who can draw what kinds of illustrations. Some of that stuff the writers even know. So that makes it a lot easier, when everybody gets it. We don’t do a lot of pre-planning, and there is a lack of time. But lately the problem seems to be that the writers don’t have a clear idea of what they’re writing about, and we need to do the assigning without a lot of information, and that gets a little bit rough. We end up interviewing them about their story.

What was the timeline of “The Blogger,” and what is the usual timeline?

We spend a little more time on our cover stories than on our other features. Every week we have free rein over the cover stories. And sometimes that can be hard, like, “oh, God that’s so many options.” If you have too many options, it’s pretty daunting because you feel like you could be doing more, taking more time, doing a better job. So you’re laying out ads and listings all day and you come to this thing, this cover piece, and you want it to be really good, but there’s this totally different aspect of just trying to get the paper out the door.

When it comes to doing a cover story, I like to spend at least 45 minutes to an hour on it. Sometimes the cover can come together really quickly. Sometimes it needs a lot of finessing. “The Blogger” took two hours or so, start to finish.

What is the limiting factor for a good layout? Budget? Time?

Time is the biggest limiting factor. I’ve never had trouble with budget. My editors are really good about allowing us to do whatever we need to do to make the story work because they know that if we present the story in a particularly good manner, it’s going to be read. And that’s what they want — they want their stories to get read, and they’ve got to compete with the personals and all the other stuff people pick up the paper for. So they’re on our side most of the time.

How do they measure the success of one of your layouts?

It’s hard to know. Cover-wise, we tend to think that the returns on the circulation are going to tell you how effective the cover was. One week we were doing our seventh anniversary issue — because we’re Seven Days — and we did the usual thing: we took all the covers of the last seven years and just sort of tiled them across the page. We had the logo on there so many times I felt that we didn’t need to put the usual Seven Days logo at the top of the page. And what happened was people didn’t know it was us on the newsstand for some reason — it was the same place they always picked it up — but there were a lot of returns on it. And we learned the lesson that you have to keep it consistent: People have to know what they’re picking up.

You must have writers who are extremely invested in their stories. Is it harder to work with them?

Sometimes. I think they trust us to do a good job with it. Some people are so into what they’ve written that they think it can stand on its own, and they don’t really care what it looks like. There are other times where we really have to work with the writers.

Sometimes I prefer a weak story, or a fluffy story, because it’s more of a challenge to make it more than it actually is. And sometimes a writer will say yeah, this is just something I had to do, and I’ll say, okay, I’ll try to make it better. But there’s lot of pressure when the writer comes to you with the best story, and they’ve been working on it for a long time, and have a lot invested in it.

The worst is when they come to us and say, “I’ve got a great story, but I have no idea what I want you to do with it.” Sometimes they’re just like, “no, I can’t help you, you have to figure it out.” That’s hard to take, but sometimes it opens things up, too. It’s like, “okay, this is my job; I have to figure this out.”

What are some layout challenges at your paper?

Well, there are a couple of factors. Part of it is that everybody wants to work with color — the readers expect it, the staff and advertisers all want you to use color. But our printing presses are really just awful with color — I don’t think they were meant to do with color what we want them to do. So it’s hard to design these complicated pages on the computer and see them look really bad in print. If you had seen that blogger piece on paper instead of on a PDF, you would have been less impressed.

Our newspaper is also weird because we fold the paper — it’s actually taller than your average short-tab, and it has this fold down the middle. And the machine that folds it rubs the ink around. So we have to not put anything too inky in the fold part.

Is there an overall attitude or style that your editors want you to express in the paper?

It really varies — we talk about who we are trying to reach all the time. There’s no mission for the paper, nothing like that. We also don’t have competitors — there’s no local competing paper. So as people’s interests change, we can just move with that. You’re right that the designs have to reflect some kind of sensibility, but lately the paper has been designed around the features that come about week-to-week.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I really like deadlines. I like the fact that I know when my job is done, I know how long it took to get to that point and what I need to do to get to that point, and afterwards there’s just this huge relief. And almost immediately afterwards I can see what has come out of two days of pretty intense work. And by extension, if it doesn’t come out that well, one week later I get another shot to improve on it.

Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.

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