Q&A with Charles Apple, Focus page editor at the Orange County Register

Charles Apple is Focus page editor at the Orange County Register, creating alternative story forms like this one (PDF). Before taking that job in California earlier this year, Apple had worked as graphics artist and editor at The Chicago Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., among other publications. In this interview, conducted by email, Apple discusses his role at the Orange County newspaper and how the focus pages go from idea into print.

Q. Describe your job as Focus page editor. What is typical day like at the Register?

A. Basically, they give me a full page every weekday and tell me to “do something spectacular.” It’s that simple.

I’m free to choose my own topics, select wire stories to play off of or write my own. I can collaborate with someone or I can do it myself — and I normally do the latter.

I design my own pages. I can ask the photo department for help, or I can scrounge for art myself. I can illustrate if I want. I can ask graphics for a hand.

My friends have told me it’s the closest thing they’ve ever seen to a “dream job.” And they might be right.

I usually work at least a week ahead. Every Friday at 4:30 p.m., we have a “show and tell” session in which the paper’s three focus page teams post their pages on the wall and then explain them.

So my deadline is to have the entire week’s pages done by then. This means I’m only on deadline when we choose to do something live off the news. That’s only happened two or three times in five months.

So while I sit by the A-section desk and the wire and news editors, I’m pretty far removed from the daily grind. Which is a big change for me: I spent many, many years as a graphics editor.

I should probably tell you I’m having withdrawals, but that woudn’t be true. I’m enjoying the lack of — or, at least, some easing from — daily deadline pressure. I hope that’s showing up in my work.

Q. How do you come up with ideas for the pages, and how do you assemble the information for them?

A. It depends on the topic and whatever I can find.

Part of my sales pitch to the Register is that I wouldn’t feel compelled to limit myself to whatever I can find on the wires. If I see something good, I might use it (or modify it or rewrite it). But more typically, I come up with an idea first, and then I set out in search of a story or raw materials that I can use to build my page.

For a while, I was using one or two actual wire stories a week. But I didn’t like the way they were looking on my pages — they seemed awfully lifeless, compared with the alternative story forms and chunky-type experiences I was writing. So I’ve totally ditched them now.

If I use a wire story, I’ll chop it up and use only the nut grafs. Essentially, I turn it into graphic-like text.

At some point, I’m sure I’ll find a longer narrative I won’t mind using. But that’s not happened for several months, now.

For topics, I have a number of places I go for inspiration: I like looking at Twitter and Facebook to see what folks are talking about. A number of really cool pages have come out of social media conversations.

I also like to cruise calendar and anniversary sites. Everything I do needs some sort of peg, I think, no matter how oblique. So I might use an anniversary to springboard into some topic that intrigues me.

A couple of my colleagues have picked up on this and called me the “master of the obscure.” I like that. Perhaps I can get Sharon, my wife, to put that on my tombstone.

PinochetIn particular, I like finding historical tidbits that I didn’t know before: The quotes I used for headlines in my Pinochet or Martin Luther King pages, for example. Or puncturing urban legends about historical events. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but if something — anything — makes me stop and go “hmmm,” then I flag it for a possible Focus page.

Once I have my topic, then it’s a matter of research. And that’s always been one of my specialties: Back when I was a graphics guy, I often researched my own material. I’ll hunt for news stories, academic reports, press releases, book excerpts. Anything, really.

What I do for these Focus pages isn’t reporting as much as it’s aggregation. My 10 years of experience online reporting and blogging really helps me here.

One little trick: I’ll often go to Wikipedia early in the process. I don’t necessarily trust anything I read there — I like crowdsourced ideas, but not crowdsourced data. But I might follow the bookmarks at the bottom of an entry. That can be a huge time-saver.

I find myself using a lot of U.K. sources: the BBC, the Guardian. Some of that is due to those sites having a high Google profile. But some of it is because they do a really great job with the material I’m hunting for. Rarely have I put together a timeline that didn’t cite one or both of those.

I’m finding myself using less Associated Press material than at any point in my career, and I’m not quite sure why. I’m finding the AP less and less relevant to my needs. For a while, there, I was using a lot of McClatchy-Tribune material, but not so much now.

The key is to expose myself to as much material as I can quickly and then begin zeroing in on my angle and the elements I need. Generally speaking, I spent maybe two or three hours researching and then six to eight hours writing and designing. And that’s the way I do it: I generally write as I assemble a page. I do these in a very nonlinear way.

Which is why I don’t work in our CCI system. CCI operates in an old-fashioned, linear way: You set up a story, then you write it, then you design it. I’m skipping around in that process.

Early on, my editors gave me carte blanche to work outside CCI. I’m working in Adobe Illustrator, simply because I’m very fast in that program. But I could easily do most of my work in InDesign as well.

Q. How does headline writing and editing work for the pages?

Once I’m done with a page, I’ll print out a full-sized, black-and-white hard copy for the nightside copy desk. They’ll mark it up with a red pen — just like we used to do, 20 years ago.

This seems like awfully old technology, and it is. But unless we want to set up our desk with Adobe Illustrator, it’s the most efficient way to operate.

Having spent so many years as a graphics editor, I know several tricks to try to make my pages as clean as possible before I take them to the desk. Sometimes, I’m successful doing that. Sometimes, not so much.

Fact is, I’m pretty sucky when it comes to editing my own work. I count on my desk to keep me from making a fool of myself. So far, they’ve done pretty well, I think.

The headline writing has, in fact, been interesting. For years, I’ve always written my own headlines and then accepted changes from the desk. I’ve never really considered myself to be a good headline writer. In the past, my editors have rolled their eyes and told me I use way too many puns.

But here, the management just loves my headlines. Maybe they just like my approach. Maybe I’ve actually gotten better at it. I’m not sure which.

But I’m working in lots of cultural references and quotes and going for a much more conversational tone in my display copy. This is a pretty big change from what this paper has traditionally used in the A section, so it’s been a bit of a learning curve for all of us.

The management, though, loves my headlines and has encouraged me to keep on doing what I’m doing. The desk has been supportive in helping me shape these headlines into usable work.

And every once in a while, I’ll sit back and think: Hmm. Not bad at all.

This is the first job I’ve had in a long, long while in which I feel as valued for my writing skills as I am my design skills. That’s given me an enormous sense of satisfaction. As you know, there’s nothing like the empowerment a journalist gets from self-confidence.

That’s a credit to my editors and my colleagues.

Q. You were recently a speaker at workshop on visual storytelling. What do you see as the future of editing and design in that regard as more readers get news and information on smartphones and tablets?

A. For years, I’ve been preaching the value of alternative story forms — stories told in shorter, briefer chunks and intermixed with photos or graphics or other visual elements. Even longer narratives can be told in this way — the best example would be the New York Times’ now-famous “Snow Fall” piece. It’s more a matter of how you mix the pieces.

Not only do these ASFs make great print packages, they translate very well into tablet form. So I’ve always felt that journalists who know how to tell a great story as an ASF is perfectly positioned to move to the tablet medium.

Now, that’s tablets. Smartphones, I’ve been concerned about. I consume info via my own iPhone and I find it hard as hell sometimes: Download times are too long, and it’s hard to scroll around.

But then we recently moved my visual journalism blog from ACES to my own domain and rebuilt it as a responsive website, meaning you can now read my blog on a smartphone without having to zoom in and out and scroll back and forth. It’s not perfect, but it works well enough to give me hope that, yeah: If I had to spend the rest of my life producing material for one of these puppies, I could do that.

That leaves the business model. And I happen to be working for (relatively new owners) whose philosophy has been to invest in journalism, charge for the work and then make damned sure you give the reader more than she paid for. A LOT more. It’s a radical idea and completely opposite what most of the rest of the business is doing.

But darned if it doesn’t appear to be working. If this doesn’t make you giddy with hope, then you’re not paying enough attention.

Other examples of Apple’s pages (PDF):

UPDATE: Apple is now at The Houston Chronicle, where he continues to explore alternative story forms.

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