The First-Person Project

Jesse Stenbak ’98

Westbrook, ME

Associate Publisher, Portland Magazine

Major: Journalism

Minor: Film Studies

My brother Saul took a photography class in high school, and he seemed to really enjoy it, so when I got to high school, I took the class too. I really got into it, and I joined the school paper to take pictures. This was in Nashua, New Hampshire, where I grew up. I followed aul to Keene State, and because of my high school experience I showed up in Elliot Hall for the first meeting of the year of the Equinox, the student newspaper. It became evident in short order that the person they had hired to be their photo editor did not know how to process film, which was very important in those days. So within the first couple weeks of freshman year, I was the photo editor of the Equinox, because I knew how to develop film. The next year, the Equinox office moved to the new student center, and I became the first person to use the new darkroom there – and the only person, it turned out, because within a couple of years we were transitioning to digital.

I initially thought I’d be a history major, but I was hanging out all the time with the Equinox writers and editors, so I decided to go into journalism.

I spent probably 50 hours a week at the paper. I shot one or two sports events every weekend, and all the big concerts, and did a variety of pickup assignments. We got to do a lot of things up close and personal. Bill Clinton came right after he was elected, and it was cold and I had to stand outside on a press podium for four hours. But that’s part of the job. Another time three or four of us went down to Washington, DC, to cover a march for women’s rights. We got on a bus with a bunch of people from Keene State and rode all night. When we got there we covered the event, the writers wrote about it and I took photos, and we came back and put it in the next issue.

I minored in film because my girlfriend, now my wife, was a film major. I met Tori (Horr) the first day of classes my sophomore year, which was her freshman year.

I got a job at the Monadnock Ledger down the road in Peterborough right after graduation. My first assignment was a Memorial Day photo shoot. I remember it particularly well because the photo lab we used had processed my slide film as negative film, so my very first professional experience did not turn out so well. I managed to salvage one photo, though. My job was to take pictures and to scan developed negatives and slides and digitally tone them. I saw a digital camera for the very first time on New Year’s Day in 1999, when the marionette theater in Peterborough burned down. A guy from the Boston Globe came up to shoot photos, and he came into our offices to upload the files back to Boston. It was a very exciting time, with production and photography switching over to digital. At the time, I didn’t want to make the change to digital photography, because it seemed like we were losing so much quality. But then I realized that with digital I could shoot 400 pictures as opposed to 32. At the Ledger I had an assignment or two that didn’t turn out quite right, and I had to go back and reshoot. But you don’t realize it’s not quite right until you go to the darkroom and process the film. And if it’s production night, you’re really in a pickle. Now you can look at the photo instantly and know if it’s a keeper.

After nine months at the Ledger, I moved to Seattle with my brother, and Tori joined us after she finished up at Keene State. While I was out there, I finished a one-year diploma program in print production at the Art Institute of Seattle. Tori and I came back to New England after a year, and we got married.

We were living at her parents’ house south of Bangor, Maine, and coming in to Portland every day to look for jobs. I ended up working for about four weeks at a print shop, and then I saw a listing for an opening at Portland Magazine in Sunday’s paper. I sent my resume in on the way to work on Monday, and Tuesday I got a call from the publisher asking me to come in for an interview in an hour. He hired me on the spot. I was production manager from 2000 to 2009, and I’ve been associate publisher since then.

My job has evolved over the years. When I first started, we had to collect for output all the files, and then put them on double-sided DVDs. Each DVD took an hour and a half to copy. So I’d start a disk then I’d go home, come back two hours later, in the middle of the night, flip it, start to reburn it. Nowadays when I send a file, my computer automatically connects all the pdfs for me, and that takes about 30 minutes, and I upload the files to the printer, and that takes 40 minutes.

I slowly took on more duties, assigning more stories, managing some staff members. Now my average day may start with an editorial meeting, making sure we’ve assigned stories and brainstorming ideas for stories, and then I might talk to the designer about graphics, and then to the ad department, making sure they’ve met their goals. Then changing lightbulbs. I even personally once a month go out and deliver magazines to hotels and visitors centers.

We’ve gotten bigger. Our big issue last summer was 272 pages. That’s a big magazine. And we still produce it with a staff of eight people. We’re a small, nimble publication. If we want to change a story at the last minute or add a story before we go to press, we can do that. Our readers are both locals and tourists. The locals really love our profiles of people who live around town and discovering new restaurants. The tourists are looking for things to do when they visit. The tag line of the magazine is ‘Extraordinary Perspectives,’ so we try to find neat, weird, strange facts about things that you didn’t necessarily know, but as soon as our readers read them, they’re like, Oh! We go to extraordinary lengths to find out even the smallest facts to make the story so much better.

A couple of years ago, the city of Portland voted to elect its mayor rather than have the council appoint one of its own members. People knew about the vote, but no one understood that the reason Portland did not have an elected mayor was the Ku Klux Klan, back in the ’30s, didn’t want the Irish and Italians to run the city. The newspapers were writing about the ballot initiative itself, but we gave the story historical context.

We ran a fun story a while back about the Elliotts, the family of comedians. One of our interns spotted Abby Elliot, who was on Saturday Night Live, in Portland. Her dad, Chris Elliot, was in the movie Something about Mary, and his dad, Bob Elliot, is from the Bob and Ray Show.. So we Googled and found out the whole family summers in Maine. But how could we get in touch with them? We went through the press office of Saturday Night Live and that didn’t work. We tried to reach Chris Elliot and that didn’t work. We couldn’t find Bob’s phone number – it was unlisted – but we did figure out what road he lived on. So I said, Find out what businesses are on that road. Antique shop a quarter mile from his house? Call the shop. So we called the antique shop, they said, Oh, I know Bob, he lives next door. Can you tell Bob to call us? And Bob called us, and that led to an interview with the whole family. It turned out to be a great story.

Most of my time is spent either at work or with the family. Tori and I have a son, Eli, he’s eight. Then we have five-year-old twins, Iris and Esme. They’re a handful. We love living in the Portland area. There are concerts and restaurants and all sorts of plays and ballet – it’s a cultural hub for Maine. And close to Boston. Tori is the volunteer manager for Preble Street, which is a homeless shelter, teen shelter, women’s shelter, food pantry, and soup kitchen.

At Portland Magazine, we provide a service to the community, too. We sell an ad, we try to make sure it’s going to work for the client. We write a story, we try to make sure it’s actually interesting to people. We want to say something that’s interesting, and we try to do what we better than anyone else.