60 Hours in Cleveland: The Plain Dealer’s LeBron Section

This post is not about me. I have been design and graphics editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer since May 19 — by happenstance seven weeks before LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers on July 11. I replaced Emmet Smith, who was in the same chair in 2010 when James left the Cavs. Both of us found ourselves in those spots when a sports free agent move shook the city to its core, and we reacted as any countless number of our contemporaries would have in the same situation. As such, it would be a crime to cast this in a “look what I did” manner. Below, I will aim to restrict the words “me” and “I” to situations in which they are necessary for either accuracy or not sounding ridiculous. I hope the glance into the week we had can be of use, or at least insight, and nothing more. 

Also this is really long. I tried to include every detail. You don’t have to read. Close your browser. It’s ok. — Josh Crutchmer

BACKGROUND: 2010

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When James left the Cavaliers in 2010, this was our front page. For those wanting the full story, Poynter posted a pretty good refresher on Friday. What you need to know is, the reaction was as intense as the cover, including in media circles. In the community, the sense we felt was that if James were to ever return, an equally intense bookend would be expected.

BACKGROUND: June 24

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Two days before the Cavs drafted Andrew Wiggins first overall and one day before they named David Blatt head coach, James opted out of his contract in Miami, making him a free agent. Above was the June 25 front page of the Plain Dealer.

In the aftermath, AME/Visuals David Kordalski, production director Daryl Kannberg and myself had the appropriate “what if” discussions. They were almost always punctuated with, “That’ll never happen so this is a waste of time anyway.” Initially, the talks centered around the front page of the paper: Do we remake the 2010 cover or move on? If we do a remake, do we use file art from Cleveland or current art from Miami? Or do we illustrate it instead?

Those discussions ultimately produced only a conviction that, no matter what we did, we would have to at least look at a revised cover as part of the planning process. I took off for a week in Vegas. Nothing happened. I returned to work this past Tuesday, July 8.

BACKGROUND: July 8

I returned to work to find that Kordalski had worked up a revision of the 2010 cover using a photo of James from the Heat, walking toward the camera, in a mirror image of the pose from four years ago. Even as buzz built and rumors swirled that James might be serious about a return, we kept it at arms’ length. The extent of our planning on Tuesday was, “Well if it happens, let’s do as much as we can and call it good.”

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In addition, our resources were maxed out on Tuesday with the news that the 2016 GOP Convention would be coming to Cleveland. James did not make it past the promo field on A1.

60 HOURS TO DEADLINE: Wednesday

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The “Oh. This is serious, isn’t it?” moment happened on Wednesday during our 10:30 a.m. visuals meeting — attended by us along with the paper’s managing editor, graphics artists and photo editor. News broke that the Cavs had traded Jarrett Jack and others to the Brooklyn Nets for a bag of magic beans, easily freeing up the cap space to meet James’ max contract. Open speculation was that there was no backup plan for James — this was either going to be dinner at Cleveland Chop House or a handful of uncooked spaghetti. In and around fervent planning, we turned out a James-centric A1 for Thursday.

(Also, you can just go ahead and assume that from this point forward, somebody in the building was refreshing LeBronJames.com continually up until the end.)

Hours 60-56: The Cover

On one hand, we had a perfect bookend cover finished — the revision of the 2010 cover I hinted at earlier (and will show in a minute.) On the other, we were bookending ourselves, and while that’s nice, is it the most appropriate way to reflect James’ return instead of, say, moving on and treating this event as unique? On another, he was in a Heat jersey. We didn’t necessarily resolve those questions. What’s important about that time period is that momentum had swelled AGAINST doing a straight revision of the 2010 cover.

Meanwhile, perceptive people would note that we (Kordalski and myself) were being hit up rather regularly on social media with some similar version of the same joke and/or suggestion: You’re going to turn that cover around and make it say “Back.” right? And we also saw that knockoffs of the original page had begun to pop up around the country. By early Wednesday afternoon, we were both feeling pretty unoriginal with ourselves.

Personally, I wanted to do an illustration. I thought of my favorite portrait illustrator, Robert Carter of Cracked Hat design. I sent Kordalski some links to his work and some projects I had done with him, and he was blown away. (You might be too, check his stuff out.)

I also knew that Carter had worked on tight deadlines before, most recently with the Minneapolis Star Tribune when they were given the Super Bowl and with the Los Angeles Times for the Stanley Cup.

I suggested that we have Carter draw James walking back toward the camera in a Cavs’ No. 6 jersey. (Look, we have no idea what his number will be yet. It might be 23 again. It could be 32. All we know is that his most recent number was 6, and that is his Team USA number. We also know that he publicly swore off 23 after he left Cleveland, and that, on Friday, the only picture of him on his website in a Cavs jersey had the number cloned out.) And I suggested that we do the revised cover with that illustration, and in the process add two rings to James’ hand.

Kordalski told me to find out if Carter was available. He also noticed on my computer that I was perusing the old “We are all Witnesses” banner that used to hang in downtown Cleveland — the one of James tossing the powder over his head. Kordalski’s exact words were, “You know, we could have him draw THAT instead.”

So I crafted an email to Carter: “Hey Rob. You busy this week? How would you feel about sketching LeBron James on the chance he comes back to Cleveland?”

Carter’s reply: “Hey! I just finished a project for the Star Tribune, so I’m free. I’d love to sketch LeBron. Send me the deets.”

I sent him the concept in my head — a black-and-white portrait of James throwing the chalk, in a Cavs No. 6 jersey, with only a spot gold used for the championship rings on James’ hand. Carter responded that he didn’t think the color would work by itself there, and suggested making the jersey number gold to match.

A few reference images later and a quick price negotiation, and he was off. He asked me what his deadline was, and this is what I had to say:

“Rob. I literally have no idea. You might have six hours to do this. You might have three weeks. Is that ok?”

Wednesday eventually played out with no announcement from James. But concurrently:

Hours 56-48: WTF are we going to do?

Sparing details, the production of the Plain Dealer is conducted from offices within the press plant, and space and color are set by Kannberg. As long as he stays within a budget and the presses can hold it, we are free to use it how we see fit. So if we decide we’re going to do a live section, we just do it.

Kannberg found out that they could set our presses up to handle an 8-page section in 30 minutes. Our final deadline is 11:30. That meant, if we wanted to, we could add a section as late as 11 p.m.

We sat down Wednesday afternoon and sketched out a rough plan for an 8-page section:

• A main story spread.

• A doubletruck that looks back on his career to this point

• A spread on local reaction.

• A back-page poster.

We brought Tony Briggmin Lariccia, who designs sports, news and projects, and Andrea Zagata, lead sports designer, into discussions and said, “If this happens, we’re going to divvy up the work so that nobody is overwhelmed on deadline.” and we assigned legwork to both of them, as well as myself:

• I would research and design a career retrospective doubletruck asap.

• Andrea would work on a back-page poster that included “whatever thing he says if he says anything” and that also could be crafted into a cover if for some reason the illustration didn’t work out or we had multiple fronts to design.

• Tony would mock up a reaction spread (two pages)

We broke the huddle and got to work. By the end of Wednesday, I had a doubletruck written and designed, except for a main image (I found an incredible one Thursday doing an archive search).

Oh, and while all that happened, Carter was at work too.

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Kordalski took what we had discussed as a cover and sketched it out for Carter. We had a long headline discussion as a staff and settled on “Home” if it were to happen.

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Carter came back to us with this sketch at around 3 p.m. Wednesday. He asked me if he could take the sketch to final (“YES!!”) and what his deadline was. My reply is pasted below:

Well (and I realize that by typing this I am somehow altering the space-time and he will announce it) it’s looking like a final deadline of 5-6 p.m. tomorrow.

BUT, since this is a breaking news situation …

Try to have it at a point at 10 p.m. tonight that if he does announce it’s the Cavs that we can call it good and run with it. I’ve seen your in-process works before and they’re better than most finals. Our print deadline is 11:30 p.m. so if he does NOT have an announcement by then, the earliest we would run it would be in Friday’s paper.

Kordalski and Kannberg left around 9 p.m. (after showing up at 9 a.m.) and I hung around until Carter sent his 10 p.m. work in progress.

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Obviously, if James HAD announced at 11 p.m. Wednesday, we would have been ok with this. It was missing tattoos and some details, but we could have survived. I took the time to practice toning it for our presses  — took three times, start to finish, to feel ok with it. If it was too bright, the gold would wash out. If I left it untouched so the gold showed up sharp, the rest would be muddy. Worst of all, when I got it to look right, I hadn’t written down any steps so I’d have to start over from scratch on the final.

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Still, we had a plan in place.

Meanwhile, all of the nothing was actually happening. Thursday’s A1 implied as much.

Hours 34-24: Thursday

If you’ve ever been at a party and cast glances someone who could have been “special” in a way that might have been entirely inappropriate, only to spend the entire party thinking about how awesome it would be if something “special” would happen instead of acting on anything, you have an idea of how Thursday was in the Plain Dealer’s hub for publications.

We did all the legwork we could do. I finished a doubletruck. Briggmin set up a spread. I set up a cover spread. Zagata set up a poster. And then we watched as what I can only describe as fuckall happened.

Every time a rumored announcement came across Twitter, we’d form a covey around TVs. As the spectacle grew around James’ house in Akron, we did what you would have done in our situation: We started getting cynical. “This is one big damn waste of time, isn’t it?” By the end of the night, overseas odds had flipped so wildly that James was now a 1-3 favorite to sign anywhere other than Cleveland. It’s safe to say we left Thursday night feeling we’d been bamboozled.

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Also, we were fresh out of ideas for how to display the fuckall, so we went back to a Convention centerpiece on A1.

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Worst of all, Carter’s final illustration had turned out to be a masterclass. Not only did we go home fretting wasted plans, freelance budget, and general time, we fretted one of the best portraits we’d ever come across simply sitting on a cutting room floor. (Yes, I watermarked it hastily just now. You’re not even still reading.)

Same drill as the night before: Tone. Hate it. Tone again. Hate it. Do a line of coke. Tone it again PERFECT.

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All the cover needed by 7 p.m. Thursday was some real words, and, oh right, an announcement.

Hours 12-4: Friday

At noon Friday, I headed in, along with Zagata. En route, Kordalski and I were playing, “HOW ARE WE GONNA WRIGGLE OUR WAY OUT OF THIS ONE” via mass text, which we were also including Emmet Smith in on. We were throwing out increasingly sarcastic cover suggestions when breaking news came over satellite radio: “Lebron James is coming home” … and the best way I can describe the text thread is:

Joke.

Joke.

Joke.

Joke.

Whoa.

Smith got the last word in: “Get to work, boys.”

We had a cover done, but we had a problem:

On Saturdays, we print an Early Sunday edition of the paper for street sales. It’s Saturday’s content with Sunday’s ads. On a normal Friday night, we just change the A1 flag to reflect this. Immediately upon the announcement, Kordalski and Kannberg got a request: “Can we sell Saturday’s paper on the street next to the Early Sunday edition, and have different covers for both?”

They made an immediate judgment: The 2010 revision would act as the cover for the Early Sunday edition. It would be on newsstands next to the Saturday edition, which would have Carter’s illustration (subscribers would also get this one). Page 2 of each version would have the alternate cover, so readers would still get everything.

(This also means that we effectively doubled our street-sales run for Saturday, right off the bat. The idea was simple enough: It’s a historic paper, let readers buy the correct date. But let’s not do it at the expense of the sales of the early Sunday edition. No problem.)

Kordalski and I then spent all of five more minutes with the cover. An excerpt from James’ powerful essay, triple-check our spacing, and that’s that.

At this point, we made a snap decision: Share the ever loving hell out of this cover.

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We shared it here. I shared it at sportsdesigner. We shared it at cleveland.com. We sent it to ESPN, Fox Sports and the NBA Network. Poynter got wind of it. So did AP, USA Today and the rest of society. Before we’d even dropped a word of live content into this section, its cover was available around the world.

Then, the calls started.

And they kept coming.

All to Kannberg.

All with the same message: “WE SOLD ANOTHER AD.”

The best way I can describe the hours of 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday would be to put this scene on a continuous loop:

1. Look at content plan coming from the Plain Dealer and Northeast Ohio Media Group reporters and writers.

2. Book out section based on content plan.

3. Get to work

4. STOP WORKING IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE WE SOLD ANOTHER AD

5. Kill content from the section.

6. Go up in space.

7. Reinstate content

8. GO BACK TO STEP ONE AND START OVER

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8 pages became 12

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12 pages became 16

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16 pages became 20

And then 20 pages got stretched, squeezed and turned because the ad spigot WOULD NOT TURN OFF. It finally stopped when we had to make a call at 7:30 p.m.: “If we do not stop selling ads and start putting out a section, we will not have a section.”

Otherwise, we’d still be selling them right now. All that’s important to know is, a significant amount of ads were sold, and a significant amount of money was paid for them. Some serious 1980s shit Friday night.

Hours 4-0: Friday night.

You know what’s really easy to do when you have a plan in place and people you trust to execute the plan sitting in their chairs, and a workload spread out evenly?

EXECUTING THE PLAN.

There’s nothing to say about 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday except:

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That’s really it, friends. The part of the story where I get all detailed about designing 20 pages is no different than the one you’re living out tonight, or have ever lived out. When a plan is in place, it’ll work itself out.

All that’s left to do is watch the presses roll and raise a glass.

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I hope you find this useful at some point. If not, eh, who cares? You stopped reading before the last time I said you stopped reading.

tl;dr kitties are soft