WMS people

Alumni Spotlight: Ryan Sager, ’93


I’ve never considered it a coincidence that a good deal of my career to date has been spent in start-up environments. My earliest journalistic endeavor, aside from whispering to classmates instead of paying attention “on circle,” was starting a student newspaper in high school. After college, I got the opportunity to join the founding staff of a real start-up paper in the city, the New York Sun—which in 2002 revived the name and motto (“It Shines for All”) of the famed paper (best known for its 1897 editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus”), which was absorbed in the newspaper consolidation of the 1950s.

The Sun was the first general-interest broadsheet newspaper launched in the city in decades. You may have heard that print is dead, but there are those of us who still have faith in the power of ink and paper, and we did what we could to power our journalistic enterprise on coffee, cheap Pakistani food and young, also-cheap blood. Under the leadership of legendary newspaperman Seth Lipsky, an inexperienced, ambitious staff of us, perhaps none with an operative memory of the Carter administration, kept the daily operation running. Called “news assistants”—presumably to thwart some obscure child labor law—we put our lack of seasoning and absence of other marketable skills to work reporting, writing editorials, hashing out photo captions, puzzling out the Associated Press style guide, and, God help us, laying out newspaper pages in a computer system called Quark, on which none of was formally (or informally) trained.

The Sun had a six year run before its doors were shuttered in 2008, and I like to think we struck more than a few blows in that time for our ideals—education reform, free markets, free immigration, and low taxes. At the very least, I got thrown out of a senator’s office for asking him a question he found particularly annoying. (It was Chuck Schumer’s office.) I also met my wife, Emily, whom I’ve been known to annoy on occasion as well.

After stints at the New York Post, quitting to write a book about the disintegration of the Republican Party, and blogging about cognitive science at a start-up blog network that ended up being sold to Forbes, I’ve most recently landed at what’s been something of a dream job at the Wall Street Journal. Brought in to help revamp their Saturday essays in December 2009, I got the opportunity last year, when the paper was re-launching its weekend section, to design the prototype of what is now the Saturday Review section of the WSJ Weekend—a newspaper section devoted to essays, books, humor, science, and culture.

Designing a newspaper section or magazine was something of a nerdy dream realized. But how might one go about the exact mechanics of it? There’s not an off-the-shelf piece of software to sketch out where this bell or that whistle might go on a newspaper page or where a page might go in the section’s page plan. So I folded over a bunch of 11”X17” pieces of paper into a mock/miniature “newspaper” and sketched everything out in pencil. Honestly, I felt like an idiot when this wad of papers eventually made its way before the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal. “Are you sure he should see this? It looks like a kindergartener did it,” I beseeched the various editors between me and the top. “There must be some more formal, non-stupid-looking way.”

But there wasn’t. And those ridiculous wadded papers eventually became page designs in the hands of our skilled designers. Those page designs became a prototype. And that prototype, with the hard work of our small staff and fabulous contributions from outside writers, became a new section of the Wall Street Journal.

When I wadded up those papers and started drawing—that was Montessori. Knowing how to move forward, when there’s not an off-the-shelf solution, when there’s not a roadmap, is what a school like Montessori teaches kids. When I designed a newspaper page over Chicken Makhani, almost 10 years ago now, figuring out the difference between leading and kerning on the fly, that was Montessori. When I got kicked out of a senator’s office…well, that one’s on me.