a peek inside the fishbowl

23 Feb, 2016

This one or or that one (a bit about work, and cover photos)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Publishing/writing/career stuff

Some of you may or may not know this already, but I’m the editor of the local community newspaper in my area of Ottawa.

It is not exactly a traditional 9-5 job. There is no typical day for me. I spend a lot of my time at my desk in my home office. Unfortunately, this has been a challenge today because I’ve thrown my back out, but yesterday I attended a meeting at the office and stopped for groceries on the way home. The other day I attended two photo shoots (one of which I played a supervisory role and in the other I was the one with a camera in hand), I had one phone interview, transcribed an interview, and unloaded the dishwasher while making myself a quick lunch. All the while I am answering emails on my phone. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing, reading someone else’s writing, or talking about writing.

My job involves  a combination of working from home, at the office, in coffee shops. If I’m interviewing someone it’s usually at their home or office. It’s flexible work most of the time. Other times it is not flexible at all.

The paper is published once every two weeks, which makes my job somewhat cyclical in nature. Generally speaking, at the beginning of the cycle I’m assigning stories, in the middle I’m working with writers and photographers as we figure out the best way to present these stories, and at the end of the cycle I’m working with our proofreader and production department to create the final product. After that I’m uploading it all to our website and social media channels. And then the cycle starts again.

One part of my job is to write the headlines and choose the cover photo. A couple of issues ago the cover story was about the rise of barbershops in our community. I proposed this story because (a) it was something I was curious about. I have definitely noticed an upswing in the number of traditional barbershops. There seems to be one on every block. Why is this? (b) I figured if I was curious, other people would be too and (c) I thought it would make a great cover photo and story.

I always ask the photographer to take and share a few different options for the cover so I can pick one for the final product. Ellen Bond, who was assigned to shoot this story, delivered a bunch different photos but I liked these two the best:

Barbershop 2

Barbershop 1

For me, the background, or setting, of the photo is almost as important as the main subject. If it’s not the right setting, the first impression can be confusing for the reader. I need the photo to give some context and I want the people who are passing by the paper in a newsbox to make an instant connection. Imagine if the subject in the photo above was shown in a toy store? Or at a swimming pool? Or in a bed of roses? That would be pretty confusing, right?

I really liked the setting of Ellen’s photos. It’s a descriptive setting, full of personality and says something about the business of barbering. As for the subject, there’s no denying that he’s an eye-catching kind of fellow.

From an artistic perspective, I personally liked the top photo. It is very striking. In fact, I think it would make a great movie poster. In the end, I opted for the second one. It just made more sense to use it. The cover photo needs to reflect the topic of the story, which, in this case, is about the resurgence of the traditional barbershop. You can read it here.

For cover shots I prefer the photos to contain a high percentage of people. In other words, I like the subject to take up a lot of the frame. I also like them to be looking at the camera. People are programmed to look into other people’s eyes. We can’t help ourselves, it’s so automatic. When we look at someone we immediately look at their eyes. If the subject of the photo is looking at the camera, I feel like they’re making a connection with the reader, even though it’s a connection through space and time (and dimensions, for that matter). And if there’s a connection, the reader is more likely to pick up a copy of the paper in their local news box, or at the community centre, or when it lands on their doorstep.

In the first issue of 2016 we made a cover out of the individual cover photos we ran in 2015. You can see that right here. A few of the cover shots were taken by me, but you’ll notice that most of the covers are single people who are looking right at the camera.

Sometimes one of the most challenging parts of my job is writing the headline. It is surprisingly tough to do. Although I am happy that most of the writers on my team supply headlines, they don’t always work out. Quite often they’re too long and I don’t have the space for a long headline. What about the headline of the barber story? I was really tempted to go with something punny. There’s no shortage of hair cutting jokes we could have used: “A cut above the rest” or “Hair today, gone tomorrow.” My original headline for this piece was “A new generation revives an old tradition” but I had to shorten it for space (“New generation, old traditions”) and decided to ditch the hair jokes.

I had a chat with the owner of the barbershop after the story ran. (Full disclosure, she is also my hairdresser.) She’s a prominent businesswoman and she wrote a letter in response to the barbershop story, which I’m pleased to print in the next issue because it is a very nice follow-up to the piece.

During the newspaper cycle – at the beginning, middle, and even near the end when I’m sweating over the headline – I am reminded of how much I love this community. There are so many hard working, creative, charitable people here, and they do so much to make this a great place to live. Perhaps that is the best thing about the kind of work I do. I get to meet these people, hear their stories, and share them with others.

4 Responses to "This one or or that one (a bit about work, and cover photos)"

1 | Bob LeDrew (@bobledrew)

February 23rd, 2016 at 7:18 pm


Way back in the day (1990-1992) I edited some controlled circulation magazines in Halifax, and for part of that lived in a large apartment complex. My one regret on leaving that apartment was I would miss out on the instant feedback that the mailroom would provide on the magazine’s cover art. Good art = very few copies in the garbage (pre-recycling!). Bad art = a canful, and a red face on me.

2 | andrea tomkins

February 25th, 2016 at 8:18 am


That’s actually good feedback! Our paper goes door to door and is delivered to news boxes across the ward. Those boxes are hard to keep full and copies disappear quickly. Perhaps we are doing something right!

3 | Tricia

February 29th, 2016 at 3:08 pm


I read every edition. I love finding stuff out about my community and always check out the back section to see what’s coming up. I really enjoy the historical stuff too. You’re doing a great job.

4 | andrea tomkins

March 1st, 2016 at 10:25 am


Thank you for taking the time to comment Tricia! I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the paper. :)

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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