Dave Plotkin reflects on learning to write and design on the fly at Orlando Weekly

Dave Plotkin reflects on learning to write and design on the fly at Orlando Weekly

Orlando Weekly is in my veins. It's in my DNA.

Since the beginning, OW has upheld the tradition of Orlando's famously low barrier to entry, accessible to young journalists and artists who wanted to audition their skills in front of a critical audience.

I was a part of that audience in middle school, just a few years after The Weekly first started printing. For a short while, issues were delivered to our driveway in a little plastic bag. That's how I came to discover writers like Billy Manes and Liz Langley, whose boozy adventures first tempted me to go downtown at age 15.

In 2002, back home from a media internship in New York, I was restless and self-publishing an email blast called "Cap'n. Dave's Weakly Reader" about things in Orlando that made me crazy. Bob Whitby was OW's editor and an email subscriber. When I wrote that the next issue would feature a story about boy-band con artist Lou Pearlman, Whitby asked if I could write it for Orlando Weekly instead.

That 600-word assignment ended up becoming a 2,900-word cover story. Whitby filled my first draft with red-inked edits, and I eventually got Pearlman himself on the phone for an interview (he's a loud-breather). The writing wasn't amazing, but it was one of the first articles to shine a light on Pearlman's schemes.

The next month, in November 2002, Whitby asked me to start a weekly column about the local media. He titled it "Slug," a name that I still hate.

I was in way over my head. For the next year, I got to tour local TV news stations and the Sentinel, writing snarky pieces about what I'd seen, pissing off my hosts.

After a visit to the Sentinel in 2002, I called their editorial offices "a dismal realm of slap bracelets and Hammer pants." In January 2003, I giddily published an internal email sent by editor Tim Franklin to his staff, calling for a "Young Readers Task Force" to think up ways to get young people interested in the sagging paper.

I had absolutely no business writing a media column, and most of my subjects hated me. At age 23, this was exhilarating.

Writing for OW was like earning a master's degree in how to conduct interviews and fact-check stories, and how to work with an editorial team. I was late on every single deadline, and Whitby eventually fired me after a year. This would not be my last time getting fired by OW.

For the next few years, I edited another local paper out of UCF, The Independent, and focused on things that could actually earn me a living. But I occasionally wrote critical emails to Whitby, which resulted in a 2005 Best of Orlando award for "Best Candidate for Orlando Weekly Public Editor."

"HappyTown™ is so tantalizingly close to being a feature that works," I wrote in one message. "Why not a blank Paint Your Own Cover issue?" I proposed in another. "That way, you'd produce 60,000 examples of better cover design."

But you always hurt the ones you love, and I did love Orlando Weekly. I also wanted to redesign it so badly. My chance came in 2011, when OW was searching for a new art director.

I wrote my résumé on a Stardust Video & Coffee receipt (yes, roll your eyes), and asked new OW editor Erin Sullivan to give me a shot. I had to lay out my first issue in two days, and my computer died on the second day at work. The shoestring editorial budget meant that I had to make do with a retired Mac desktop and a long-outdated version of the Adobe Creative Suite. I experienced the Pinwheel of Death every single day.

I really didn't know what I was doing, but I knew what I liked. The redesign brought the paper out of the black-and-white days, and I got to write and experiment in the role. In March 2012, I wrote an April Fool's cover story describing how the capital of Florida was moving to Orlando, complete with semi-obscene visuals of the new building.

After yet another all-nighter, and with the paper running late again, Sullivan mercifully let me go. We cried and hugged, and I got to pass the paper off to local design firm Laughing Samurai, which felt pretty damn good.

A year later, Sullivan invited me back to write a political column, which I titled "Give Me Your Money."

It worked, and to this day, people are still giving me their money.

Dave Plotkin was a columnist for Orlando Weekly from 2002 to 2003, art director in 2011-2012 and he became a columnist again in 2014.

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