The Digital Journalist
Colburn Moves to Nebraska
June 2004

by Don Winslow

In 1851 John B.L. Soule wrote an editorial in the Terre Haute, Indiana, Express, titled "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." Horace Greeley, who is often credited with the shorter misquote, "Go West, young man," which Greeley partially used in an 1865 editorial without crediting Soule, at least agreed with Soule's original intent: that many able bodied young men were needed to settle the country's new frontier and to build a foundation for the picturesque new nation sprouting up out beyond where the sun sets.

Some 153 years later, Jim Colburn, at the young age of 49, is answering the call. After 19 years inside the Beltway, the last 7 of those as TIME magazine's Washington, DC, bureau picture editor, Colburn is in the process of heading west. Maybe he's not the typical young man Soule and Greeley would have urged to head west, but now it's the summer of 2004 and, after sticking around in DC just long enough to watch his daughter graduate from high school in Potomac on June 4, he's packed in his 2001 Honda Civic and will be westbound come the next morning.

Colburn and his daughter at her graduation

Photo by Joseph Newman
Colburn is heading far west. Beyond Georgetown and Bethesda. Beyond Chevy Chase and Rockville. Beyond Maryland's western border, out into "the sticks" as it's often called by those urbanite DC residents who navigate Pierre Charles L'Enfant's elliptical Washington boulevards. Westward, beyond Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Way west, even past Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. All the way across Iowa, too. West. As in Lincoln, Nebraska, west. Some 1,204.3 miles west of the Rose Garden. That kind of west. Westward to a place out on the Great Plains where a daily newspaper called the Lincoln Journal Star is produced daily on P Street in Nebraska's capital city, printed two blocks south of the University of Nebraska City Campus and three blocks east of the big railroad switching yards.

It's a significantly different skyline out there in Nebraska than the one outside the TIME bureau in DC, which is situated north of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Washington Mall at 12th and E Street NW, just walking distance from the very seat of government and the White House, a quick taxi ride across the river from where terrorists crashed an airliner into the Pentagon. Washington is a low skyline in a city where - as Colburn now puts it - "there's a big bullseye over it on the maps, because it's a huge target."

He's trading that domed eastern skyline for the new one in Lincoln, where a statue of "The Sower" not only tops the Nebraska State Capitol Building but it also graces the masthead of the Lincoln Journal Star, the newspaper that's Colburn's Honda's final destination. The Journal Star circulates through 17 of the counties of southeast Nebraska with some 75,000 copies throughout the week and nearly 84,000 on Sunday. It's where publisher Bill Johnston and editor Kathy Rutledge have the goal of shooting 100,000 Sunday copies off the press someday very soon and it's where - since 1995 - it's been the only newspaper in Lincoln. The Star, owned by Lee Enterprises, was the morning paper; the Journal, owned by the Seacrest family, was the evening paper. Lee bought the Journal in 1995 and launched an expanded morning paper, the Lincoln Journal Star.

While it was new combination for the newspaper readers in Lincoln, it was a practiced moved for Lee Enterprises. Lee has been in the community newspaper business since 1890 and owns 44 daily newspapers in 18 states and publishes 175 weekly shopping circulars and specialty papers, according to Forbes magazine, which says Lee is traditionally a "small cap stock with big yields," (read, they make a good profit while spending little), "often returning investors 2.5 times as much as mutual funds." Forbes also says Lee has a successful business selling advertising to small businesses that can't reach their audience through other avenues. Based in Davenport, Iowa, Lee has found a way to make money specializing in community news, Forbes says.

Colburn packs up his car

Photo by Lois Colburn
In Lincoln that small cap and big yield tradition goes back to at least the late 1800s. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, novelist, and magazine editor Willa Cather, who graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895 and was the first woman inducted into the Nebraska Hall Of Fame, started in journalism by working her way through college as a drama critic writing theater reviews for the hometown Journal. Today the Lee Enterprises Web site proudly points out that she did so for the grand salary of $1 per day.

So where Cather once writ, Colburn will soon sit. Hopefully with better pay. The Journal Star is where Colburn has been hired as the new - and first, really - photography editor, where he is expected to not only replace a retired photography department manager, but to help the photography department make the physical move from the second floor down into the newsroom, as well as make the philosophical move from a "production" department to an "editorial" department. The goal is to become part of the newsroom, to become more of a part of the process. It's a move intended to make the photography department, finally, equal partners in the newspaper.

"Everyone at the newspaper seems to be into it," Colburn says while waiting in a suburban Maryland motel for graduation and then the upcoming journey west, having moved out of the Maryland house and the furniture has already been unloaded in Nebraska. "The newspaper had decided to make the change, and the photo department's manager's retirement seemed like a good time to do it. Photo has been upstairs as a production department up until now and the editors wanted to put photo on equal footing with the other departments at the paper. It's a good idea. I'm going to be down in the newsroom, everyone's going to be integrated into the news environment, and maybe it should have been done before, but now we're going to do it now."

"Photographers have been separated from the rest of the newsroom by a long walk, a flight of stairs and a tendency for others to think of them as a service department," editor Rutledge said. "But that's all changing. With Jim's leadership, we intend to become a newspaper renowned for its photojournalism. We know that requires a shift in attitude - from thinking of someone as 'my photographer' who supplies the 'art' to recognizing that photojournalists report as powerfully as writers do. We're fortunate to have Colburn as our guide on this journey."

The staff photographers are certainly anticipating the arrival of the paper's first picture editor. "Jim has a lot of expectations waiting for him when he gets here," staff photographer Krista Niles said just three weeks before Colburn's start date. She's been at the Journal Star for a year, after working as a freelancer in New York City and taking assignments from picture editors there. (Her photographs from New York are part of the Pulizer Prize-winning coverage of 9/11 by The Associated Press). "It will be the first time in the history of this newspaper that there will be a picture editor, both in title and empowerment. We're all looking for Jim to come in and create a vision here for photojournalism, and for the use of photography in the newspaper."

Niles said the physical move from upstairs down to the newsroom already happened this week, and that with the move "there's lots of excitement here right now. We're finally on an equal footing with the rest of the paper, and the photographers are looking for a big increase in communication between the reporters and editors and photographers and the graphic artists who design the section fronts." The new picture desk in the newsroom will be near the graphic designers, Niles said, and that has the photographers filled with anticipation of a new working relationship with the people who lay out the pages. "Having Jim as the picture editor should put the photographers into the very best position to make great photos," she said, and then hopefully working with the designers will get those pictures properly into print.

Already Colburn is thinking about how managing a staff of newspaper photographers and editing their daily work is going to be different than what he was doing in Washington for the weekly TIME. "John Filo, who shot the famous Kent State photograph, when he was at Newsweek for a while [as an editor], he was just awesome because his basic premise was to tell the photographers to 'cover yourself with a picture, and then go nuts,' meaning for them to shoot the pictures that the photographers wanted to shoot. I think that's great. I think that you have to trust that photographers are intelligent people, and then let them do what they think they ought to do. And that results in the best pictures."

"The photographers in Lincoln, the ones I met with, everyone that I saw was really good," Colburn says. "And their work was really good, and they were personable and intelligent. They are producing award-winning stuff. I was going through old newspapers, going online and looking at their images, and it was really amazing. I talked to the editor about getting them to start entering contests for awards, even World Press, and that they should expect for them to be able to do it on company time, and for the company to pay for their entries, because it's good for the paper and it's good for the company. One guy, he's been working on a project for a couple of months now, and it's awesome. I want to make sure photos get into the newspaper and I've thought about maybe once a month having a double page, a spread of photos, of the ones we couldn't get into print somewhere before."

How odd, what leap of happenstance is it, that Colburn, rooted firmly inside a political junkie's dream job on Ground Zero of American politics, ended up being the picture editor tapped to step into the Journal Star's new role? The answer is: very. Because Colburn did not go looking for the job. Or looking for any job. But it's because of an aggressive public relations manager at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, NE, where Colburn's wife, Lois, accepted a new job offer to run the medical center's continuing professional education program for their doctors and nurses. The PR manager shopped the TIME picture editor's resume around "to everyone photographic in southeast Nebraska," Colburn says.

"When Lois accepted the job at the medical center, Tom O'Connor, their PR guy, said, 'we're going to find you a job.' Yeah, like, right, I said. And basically, by some blind luck, the person in Lincoln had just retired and the Journal Star had an opening. They got back to Tom, and I applied," Colburn said. Lois had already started her new job at the medical center in Omaha, some fifty miles north of Lincoln, when Jim went out in January of this year to talk with Kathy Rutledge, the editor, and to meet the publisher and the managing editor. "I just went out to say 'hi' and we got along well. I liked them a lot, they seemed to like me, and then they posted the job and interviewed some people, and then they offered me the job. So I went out again in the beginning of May and talked to the editors, and to the photographers and the writers, to see how we got along. And then I said 'yes.'"

The Colburns bought a house in Omaha not very far from the medical center, and Jim's the one will be doing the daily commute down to Lincoln. But it won't be in the old Honda. "When I get there, I get to buy a new Acura for the commute," Colburn says with a laugh. "Door to door, from the house in Omaha to the newspaper in Lincoln, it's 51.4 miles and takes about 45 minutes. That's less time than it takes me to drive the 11 miles from Bethesda to the TIME bureau in DC," he laughs. "I'm going to spend a couple of weeks in Omaha dealing with the house, fixing up the kitchen, painting a few rooms, junk like that," he says. That's after the drive cross country, when he plans to stop in at least a few cities along the way to visit with old friends, including stops in Indiana at two cities named, appropriately, "Colburn." "Just to take a few pictures, some snaps," he says.

His first day at the newspaper is June 28 and his new life is, he realizes, going to be very different. He won't be shooting pictures in Lincoln, he'll be editing pictures and managing a staff. And now that he and Lois raised their daughter, Christine, 17, who after graduation is off to Emerson College in Boston to study filmmaking, ("Another worthwhile profession, just like her father!" Colburn laughs out loud), it's just going to be the two of them again, out in the Great Plains, starting up this new life, with both in new jobs and both in new places. What are some of his expectations? "I hope to take some of the burden off the photographers and to let them go out and take pictures," he says. "I want to be the guy that handles all the 'stuff' and keeps track of stories, goes to the meetings, talks with the other editors, and try to match the photographers up with stories, and maybe even try to think of some new things. I don't want the editors to feel like they need 'a photo request.' I want to change that thinking into being 'an assignment.' And I'll be more than happy to sit on the football game sidelines, editing and transmitting pictures, not shooting pictures. That's for the photographers."

Still, life in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a long way away from TIME in Washington. And from a childhood growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the Sixties and Seventies. And from going to college in England in the early Seventies after his Polish father and English mother left the States for a new life in the UK, just when Jim was nearly finished with high school. "Because my mom was English, I qualified for free tuition. I had to pay for room and board, but I got a dynamite photography education at the Medway College of Art & Design in Rochester in Kent, which is part of the University of Kent," Colburn said. "At the time, artists were not considered 'worthy' of university degrees, so we got a 'diploma' that is really the equivalent of an American BA, because it was really rigorous. But their attitude was, 'if you want to go out of here and be a struggling artist and take black and white art photographs of your girlfriend, fine. But don't blame us if you starve," he remembers. "But I got really lucky, I got a great education, and when I got fed up with the Brits I moved to New York City in 1978."

Which is where he met Ernie Boehm. "He was an absolute prince," Colburn says. "I've often heard him described as the only honest photo agent in New York." Colburn was working in the New School darkrooms, trying to freelance, trying to break into photography, and Boehm started him off at PhotoReporters as a picture researcher. "I worked in the office as a photo researcher during the day, and started shooting in the evenings, and that went on until it was became more shooting and less researching, and it was great, it was a happening time. It was Studio 54, and movie premiers, and news, and it was a great and wonderful time." But by 1985 he needed a change and so he moved to Washington, "which is really just Hollywood for ugly people," he says. "But I've been a political junky for my whole life and it was cool. I got some credentials, and I stayed with PhotoReporters until it folded in 1991 or 92 after Ernie sold it and retired, then it folded a couple of years later." Colburn found himself working often for Newsweek and an assortment of foreign magazines. "Back in those days, you had to be 'a magazine's person;' if you worked a lot for Newsweek you couldn't work for TIME or U.S. News & World Report, so I worked a lot for Newsweek," he remembers.

So from Newsweek, how did he end up at TIME? "I knew my predecessor at the TIME job, Stanley Kayne," Colburn says. "I worked with him at PhotoReporters and knew him from New York. Stanley is one of the best picture editors, because he doesn't have any fantasies about being a photographer or telling photographers what to do. But he could convey exactly what pictures he wanted from you, and when you came back with them he could pick them out of the stack."

"At some point, around 1997, Stanley called me up to say, 'I'm leaving TIME and going to U.S. News & World Report.' I said, 'Have they hired anyone for your job? And he said, 'No, go for it." Colburn applied for the job and Michelle Stephenson hired him. "For them, it was probably taking a chance to hire me," he now says, "because I was a photographer with no editing experience outside of my own photos. But the job was mostly hustling rather than taking pictures, it was more arranging stuff, making sure things were covered, talking to the White House, arranging for a shoot, getting a hand-out picture. I might narrow pictures down to thirty, and transmit thirty to New York. It was a winnowing process; it was a great job. I loved it."

David Burnett, of Contact Press Images who shoots for TIME both in Washington and around the world, says that he's going to "miss Jim's wit and humor. He's the guy who showed up during the early days of the Clinton White House with the stickers, prominently displayed on TIME's 200mm lens hoods, with the unforgettable slogan, "He's Running A Few Minutes Late." (President Clinton had a knack for never being on time). And he was always late!"

Now on the way out of town, Colburn says "I loved the people at TIME. I loved the bureau, and the people in New York, and I wouldn't be leaving if Lois didn't have this job offer, I'd be perfectly content to stay on at TIME. But this, this is such an interesting idea, and we said, 'let's move.' But I know to some extent I'm going to miss TIME because so much happens there in DC that's so important. I'm going to miss the weekly story conferences, hearing some of the best reporters and writers talk about their stories, and having them tell me things that never get in the magazine, and knowing who is doing what to who a week beforehand."

"But, on the other hand," Colburn says, "it's going to be nice living in a city that doesn't have a big bullseye over it, that isn't a huge target. I think Lincoln is going to be somewhat calmer. But football is a big thing in Lincoln. A BIG thing. And I'm going to have a wonderful time. I've never spent a winter in the Midwest, but I grew up in New England and they'd get two feet of snow and then they'd clear it off the roads, and it was fine. So I'm going to buy myself a set of new snow tires, and then I'm ready to go."

Colburn also has no intention of giving up his monthly humor column in The Digital Journalist. "Dirck thinks it's a humor column," Colburn said somewhat sarcastically, "but I think it's much deeper than that!"

© Don Winslow
News Photographer magazine