From designer to pop-music critic, Emmet Smith shares his story

Music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer is not a job that comes open very often.

Iconic rock critic Jane Scott started a one-of-a-kind tradition in the early 1960s, covering the Beatles when no other major American newspaper had a music critic on staff. The only other names to hold the job in more than 50 years: Michael Norman, now the Plain Dealer’s Online Arts and Entertainment Editor, and John Soeder, who left in September to become a Senior Writer at Cleveland State University.

Now a well-known name in newspaper design circles joins this Plain Dealer short list.

After a decade as a designer at the Plain Dealer, Emmet Smith recently began his new role as pop music critic. He will be sharing duties in music-rich Cleveland with Chuck Yarborough, as announced in October by Assistant Managing Editor for Features Debbie Van Tassel.

Emmet officially left his position as Deputy Design Director/News just after the November 6 election. Since then he has been meeting club owners, visiting record stores, attending concerts and kicking off his local beat column.

We caught up with Emmet after a holiday visit to the 300-acre corn and bean farm owned by his wife Emily’s family. Emily also works at the Plain Dealer as a fashion editor and the couple just celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary. Family is a big part of Emmet and Emily’s life in Cleveland with two-year-old twin boys Henry and Eli. They will soon be joined by a third boy, due in February and code-named Storm Trooper.

As his boys slept in the back of the family’s minivan during the two-hour drive across snow-covered Northwest Ohio, Emmet talked to us about the big turn in his career.

Last Sunday, the Plain Dealer featured a centerpiece on the Rock Hall written by former news designer Emmet Smith.

Q. Take me back to the beginning. When did the possibility of this move first come to your attention?

A. They sent out an email that John Soeder was leaving and I quickly shot a note to my wife, kind of jokingly saying, “Hey, I’ll take that job.” Like most good ideas, it started a little bit in the realm of the ridiculous, but you realize, “Hey, maybe I actually would like that job.” So it went from there and I put my name in the hat. I did a couple reviews and a live news story when they announced the nominees for this year’s class for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a bit of a tryout, just to prove that a guy on the design side was in fact literate and could put together complete sentences.

I’ve been doing the design thing for about 10 years now and I got to a point where I had to decide if I wanted to keep going up in design or where do I want to end up? I think we need strong design leaders in newspapers, but we also need leaders in other departments that have design literacy. You look at what people like Denis Finley [Editor of the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, Va.] and Steve Cavendish [Editor of The City Paper in Nashville, Tenn.] have done, a lot of that comes from having a pretty good understanding of the entire process, not just one piece of it.

Q. What kind of questions did you have about the position before you made a decision?

A. I went out for coffee with John Soeder, who got and held the job while he had a young family. I think the thing that concerned me most about it was the effect it had on his family life. He actually felt like he saw his family more because most of his work was while they were asleep. There were a lot of days when he could write from home. When you’re a designer, you’re kind of chained to the office. On this side, there’s a little more flexibility if you need to pick up some milk or somebody gets sick.

Q. Did the possibility of Advance Publishing making changes similar to the ones they made in New Orleans, Alabama and Pennsylvania play any kind of role in your decision?

A. No, my wife and I have talked about it a lot. But we like Cleveland and we’re a little bit like ostriches with our heads in the ground about that whole thing. We’re going to do what we do, as well as we can, and let the chips fall where they may. If Advance wants to change things, they can run me out of town. But I’m not volunteering to go.

Q. Do you feel more secure at all in this position than you might have on the design side?

A. If anything, I think I feel a little bit less secure. I don’t have 10 years of clips and awards backing up why I should be in this job. On the other hand, Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s a great local music scene and this is one of those critic beats that is intensely local. Could they give it up? Sure, they could give anything up. I’m not sure it would be the first thing they would give up … but you never know what’s going to happen.

Q. Were your design supervisors supportive?

A. David [Kordalski, AME/Visuals] was probably my biggest advocate in the process. I’m sure he was sad to see me go, but he knew that I’ve been trying to figure out what’s next for a while. He felt this was a good fit and a good next step.

Q. What kind of reaction have you gotten from friends and colleagues in the design community?

A. I think the way things are at newspapers right now, everybody was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. That’s great.” Anything that’s fresh, doing something you want instead of trying to hold on by your fingernails, I think gives people a little hope.

Q. Would you have considered a different kind of writing position if this opportunity hadn’t come up, or do you see this as a very unique situation that aligned with your interest in music?

A. I’ve thought about different reporting positions before. This one, in addition to my love and knowledge of music, offered the opportunity for criticism, commentary, feature writing, news reporting … so in one position, you get a pretty broad swath of the different kinds of writing and reporting that go on at a newspaper. This was pretty uniquely positioned between what I was looking for and what I could bring to it. I would have considered different writing positions, but this one is certainly an excellent fit.

Q. Had you done any reporting or writing before this?

A. Not since college. It’s a testament to the newspaper that they were willing to take a flyer on me.

Q. Why do you think they were willing to do that?

A. I’ve done what most good designers do. I tried to make pages look good but I also dug into stories made sure pages said the right thing. When I had conversations in the newsroom, I was rarely talking about the design so much as how we tell the story. You have enough of those conversations with people and they know that you’re thinking about the right things and asking the right questions, which translates into good stories.

One of Emmet Smith’s most notable pages.

Q. What has been the biggest adjustment for you so far in your transition to writing?

A. Knowing when to stop. There’s so much to do and so much I want to get done, it’s learning how to slow down, pace myself and pick my spots.

Q. Have the editors on the word side been helpful?

A. Oh yeah. I think I’ve actually had it easier than most new reporters because I already know the editors, have had conversations with them that didn’t involve pointing out my mistake. It’s a pretty self-directed beat, so they’ve been great about pointing me in the right direction while letting me do my thing.

Q. Do you find any similarities in the creative process between designing and writing?

A. You’re always looking for that nugget, whether it’s a story or designing a page. That one thing to build off of, the one really great idea. Whether it’s the right quote, the right angle, the right visual metaphor or whatever, as long as you’re trying to say the right thing then it just becomes the craft of getting there.

Q. What has surprised you the most so far?

A. That I like rap music. (Laughs) I didn’t expect that.

Q. That’s a good point. How hard is it to write about music that you aren’t personally interested in?

A. I’ve never been a huge genre guy, I kind of like a good song no matter what it’s dressed up in. I’m definitely a song guy though, I’ve got to have a good melody. But there isn’t that much that really grates on me. Except for the new Green Day, which is terrible. (Laughs)

Q. Do you have any ideas or goals as a pop music critic that you’re excited about?

A. I think it can be hard for designers to get the non-traditional story forms done. You know anything that isn’t a byline, 20 inches of copy and a contact line. I’m still getting my feet under me at this point, but I hope to produce more stories in non-linear ways. There are plenty of opportunities for that because music lends itself to lists, competitions and all sorts of story forms that are easier to digest.

Q. How do you feel about expressing your opinion as part of your job?

A. It’s hard because I’ve always been kind of on the proper journalist side of things. So having to form an opinion, articulate it, stand behind it and then answer all the phone calls in the morning (laughs) … has definitely been a different experience. I never once had anybody call me up to complain about a page design. I’ve had voicemails now that start out with, “I haven’t read your column yet, but … you’re an idiot!”

Q. How do you handle that?

A. Actually, my wife has been great training. Not that she calls me an idiot all the time, but she’s been getting those kind of calls for years and always shares them with me. I always said, “What do you even care? It’s just some guy in his underpants in his mom’s basement screaming at you at 5 in the morning? It doesn’t matter.” It’s really different when it’s you, but I’ve got all those lectures in my head that I’ve given her over the years. So if I take it personally, I can’t lecture her anymore.

Q. What do you think you’ll miss most about being a designer?

A. Every time big news happens, I get a little twinge. Normally I would be there trying to make sense of it and figuring out what to say on the front page. Now I’m kind of watching other people do it. It’s more fun to read the paper though, because I haven’t read everything already.

Q. What do you think you’ll miss least about being a designer?

A. (Pauses) You know, I loved being a designer. I just came to a point where I wasn’t learning as much anymore. And for me, I have to be growing all the time or I get really bored.

Q. If you had to pick one thing you expect to enjoy most about being a pop music critic, what would that be?

A. Going to concerts three or four nights a week. And getting paid for it. I mean, you really can’t get a better job than that.

Q. Let’s flash-forward to a year from now, how will you know if this move has been a success? What will that look like?

A. Hmmm. If I’m still employed, that would be good. I’ll take that as the baseline for success in 2013. You know, a good well-rounded writing portfolio. If I’ve got a handful of columns, ahandful of features and a handful of reviews that I can stand behind and say, “Alright, I can do this.” If I don’t look back on it and cringe. When you step out of your comfort zone, there’s always that fear of failure, that feeling of, “What if I really can’t do this now that I’ve told everybody that I can.” You’re always your own harshest critic, so if I can look back in December 2013 and have a handful of things that I don’t cringe at, I will feel good.

Q. What advice would you have for designers elsewhere who might be interested in transitioning to other roles?

A. Look for opportunities at your paper. Develop great relationships with word-side editors based on talking about stories, based on concept. Don’t talk down to them about design, talk tothem about stories. If you establish yourself as a journalist in a newsroom, doors will open up. And if you’re in a newsroom where doors will not open up that way, maybe you’re not in the right newsroom. But I think the good newsrooms recognize a journalist no matter where they are.

(Paul Wallen is Senior Features Designer and Art Director of Bay Magazine at the Tampa Bay Times. See examples of his work here.)