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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
February 20, 2007
DeKalb — Not everyone can say a radio changed their life, but not everyone is Northern Illinois University student Billy Kulpa.
Kulpa, a high school graduate without a plan, listened to 12 long hours of sports talk each day while he detailed cars at a Rockford auto dealership. One day, working on his knees, he heard ESPN Radio’s Dan Patrick read an e-mail on air that asked the famous sports broadcaster how to become, well, a famous sports broadcaster.
Patrick’s response: Learn to write.
Intrigued and empowered, Kulpa enrolled at Rock Valley College and took a job with The Valley Forge, the campus newspaper.
Only one semester later, and with more enthusiasm than experience, he became sports editor. Higher jobs followed, including managing editor his second year and editor-in-chief his third. With those positions came a multitude of responsibilities beyond writing, one of which was the paper’s design.
And so began a love affair that has catapulted Kulpa to the top of the nation’s collegians pursuing careers in visual journalism.
Kulpa is one of 32 students nationwide to win a coveted Poynter Summer Fellowship for Young Journalists. He’ll attend the prestigious institute in Florida from June 3 to July 13; three days later, he begins a two-month design internship with the Orlando Sentinel.
“I got into design, and I started getting better. I wanted to be good at it,” says Kulpa, downing a store-bought Rice Krispies treat and a 20-ounce Mountain Dew for breakfast.
“It’s not something everyone knows about – designing newspapers – and I had to learn everything for myself,” he adds. “It’s a job where I excel. I like the creativity. There’s not really one way to do things. Some people equate it to putting together a puzzle, but it’s not. There’s not just one solution.”
Jim Killam, adviser to campus newspaper the Northern Star, says Kulpa is independent, driven and passionate.
“He’s really discovered what motivates him, and that’s visual journalism. He’s figured out that he’s very good at it, and we’ve had it confirmed by some national organizations and by people at some pretty important newspapers,” Killam says. “Billy is very good at looking at what’s going on in the world of news design, spotting trends and spotting newspapers the Star can emulate or improve on in some way.”
'Crazy Hard Week'
Kulpa is eager for what Poynter will bring, what he calls “a master’s degree in six weeks.”
“I’m living here in the cornfields, and I’m pretty good at what I do in DeKalb,” he says. “What they offer at Poynter is a perspective from the best journalists in the world. It’s a tremendous privilege. It’s unbelievable.”
He was offered his fellowship while in Flordia competing in “The Intern,” a contest sponsored by the Society for News Design.
Admission to “The Intern” contest was based on a 500-word essay, a 60-second video and a “campaign poster.” Once there, he and nine others were placed on teams and matched up in a competition modeled after reality TV programs.
A first-round challenge involved creating a news page at the Sentinel offices.
Returned to their hotel rooms near midnight, they were awoken only four hours later by contest organizers pounding on the doors. Osama bin Laden is dead, the contestants were told, and all their front pages needed immediate renovation.
Another challenge sent them to Disney World, where they were handed cameras and lists of photos to shoot that visually expressed concepts such as love, happy, frilly or about a dozen other things. Kulpa’s photos later were given to another contestant to use; he received another competitor’s snapshots for his page.
When the pool was cut to five, Kulpa was still alive.
A Thursday session opened with a cryptic instruction: Pay attention. Martin Gee, a designer at the San Jose Mercury News, gave the keynote address.
Afterward, more than two dozen students who had applied that week for Poynter fellowships were given 20 minutes to create graphics – “charticles,” Kulpa calls them – that expressed what they’d learned that morning.
Kulpa’s compared “Where I Am” to “Where I Need to Be.”
“His entry was most successful, based on our specific instructions,” wrote Sara Quinn, a member of the visual journalism faculty at Poynter. “His writing was very witty and concise – consistently so throughout his profile.”
After winning one of the prized fellowships, which would conflict with the scheduling of his internship, he called Killam for advice. “Take the fellowship!” Killam exclaimed.
Editors at the Sentinel still wanted him, fortunately, and pushed back his start date.
“It was a crazy, crazy hard week,” Kulpa says.
'Just do it'
At NIU, Kulpa is best known (or perhaps unknown) as the behind-the-scenes guy partially responsible for last January’s bold new look of the Northern Star.
Red and orange? Kulpa’s favorite colors.
He played that same role again through the summer with new editors Justin Smith and Steve Brown as the unconventional motif was refined and repackaged, returning some elements of traditional newspaper design with the modern concept that the paper should resemble a Web page.
The original decision to overhaul the Star’s design came quickly and began just as quickly, Kulpa says. He and then-editor Derek Wright initiated their work in the middle of December 2005 for a mid-January 2006 launch.
“Our product looked dated,” Kulpa says. “We were stuck with things we didn’t use and things our readers didn’t use.”
The pair planned to take their time. A conversation with Mike Kellams, sports editor at the Chicago Tribune and former designer of the Tribune’s RedEye, changed their minds. With only a few semesters of college left, Kellams asked, why wait?
“He said, ‘Just do it,’ and he was right,” Kulpa says.
So they started from scratch. “For 12 hours a day we yelled at each other – in a good way, a healthy way,” Kulpa says. “I don’t think we realized the magnitude of it at the time.”
The results startled the campus community, which wasn’t sure what to think, and the Star’s alumni, who praised the innovation.
It also won awards, including one from the Student Society for News Design. Kulpa says Matt Mansfield, assistant managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News, told him “it was the best college redesign he’d seen in the last 10 years.”
But Kulpa believes it had one flaw: The complete absence of stories on the front page, which looked radically different each day, sent some readers past Page One without even looking.
“That inspired the current incarnation,” he says of this year’s fronts, which do feature a story with a left-side column of “widgets,” or small bits of interesting information, the weather and an index of what’s inside.
Equally limitless are his ambitions.
He hopes to enroll this fall at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism to pursue a master’s degree in new media studies. “The field is definitely changing,” he says. “Internet is a newspaper’s main product. You write for the Web and update for tomorrow’s print.”
Next? A visual design job in the Chicago media, of course.
“I really like to lead,” Kulpa says. “I want to be the guy who’s determining the visual culture of a major newspaper or magazine.”
And he will, Killam says.
“The look of the Star is as good as it’s ever been, and that’s due to Billy’s efforts along with several other of our students,” Killam says. “He’s helped raise the level of sophistication here about news design. It’s not just creating pretty pages. There’s psychology behind it – getting people to read pages and stories – and he understands that well.”
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