The Man behind the Layout

Leaven production manager Todd Habiger is responsible for the layout and design of The Leaven. In his 20-plus years at the paper, he’s won multiple awards from the Catholic Press Association for Best Front Page. Photo by Lori Wood Habiger

By Jill Ragar Esfeld

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. If that’s true, then Leaven production manager Todd Habiger must be a daily source of amusement in heaven

Habiger is a planner in a field where nothing is predictable.

“I like to work in peace and quiet,” he said. “And I like to plan things out.

“It doesn’t always work that way here.”

Take, for example, Sept. 11, 2001, when Habiger was ready to launch a major redesign of The Leaven with a feel-good story on the front page.

“The terrorists attacked that day,” he recalled. “And we had some very fluffy cover story.

“And we were like ‘We can’t run that!’

“We didn’t know what was going on; so we just went with what we knew.”

Archbishop James P. Keleher held a prayer service that day, which became the new cover story.

“We put that on the front page along with one of the towers coming down,” said Habiger. “And we launched the redesign that way.”

In the following weeks, staff writers worked tirelessly to do extensive follow-up stories to 9/11, many of them centering on concerns in the Midwest.

And Habiger worked equally hard at designing a venue that would invite readers into the lives of those impacted by the tragedy.

What started out in chaos, turned into one of The Leaven’s proudest moments.

“We actually won first place for our coverage of 9/11,” said Habiger.

“We had New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore — right out there,” he said. “And The Leaven, in Kansas City, more than a thousand miles away, won first place.”

Award-winning success

Thanks in part to Habiger, the archdiocesan newspaper is no stranger to awards.

“One of the first things people notice about The Leaven when comparing it to other diocesan newspapers is how different it looks,” said managing editor Anita McSorley. “And that difference is due to Todd.

“Even if people around here don’t know his name, I can assure you the people in the national Catholic press do.

“They hear it called year after year in the ‘Best Front Page’ category at our national convention.”

Habiger has been with The Leaven for 20 years — and in that time he’s become proficient in every aspect of newspaper production. But his expertise is design, said McSorley.

“Although he wears many hats — he writes, he shoots [photos], he’s the production manager and the network administrator, among other things — it is his design skills that help distinguish The Leaven from its competition,” she added.

Habiger insists his success is buoyed by the people he works with.

“I am very proud to be part of this staff,” he said. “Any success I have is because I have good editors, good photographers, good writers.

“This is all a team effort; no one person shines above the other.”

And though he wishes production would always run smoothly according to his meticulous plans, Habiger is always up for a challenge.

“I think what we put in the paper is important,” he said. “And my job is to help people want to read that whether it’s through a photo I choose or through design.”

McSorley agrees.

“The Leaven has stories to tell that only The Leaven is telling,” she said. “And so Todd, week after week, uses every trick he knows to showcase the work of the writers and photographers who are telling those stories.

“It is that contribution that I believe is critical to the paper’s success.”

“I look at every subject as a challenge,” said Habiger. “Somehow to make it interesting; to make it say, ‘Read me, read me now!’”

It started with a plan

Perhaps Habiger’s affinity for organization stems from his atypical start in life — by the time he was in third grade, he’d been adopted twice.

“I was adopted when I was two weeks old by my mother and her first husband,” he explained. “He committed suicide when I was in first grade.

“My mom remarried about a year or so later, and her new husband adopted me — my second adoption.”

Habiger’s new father brought welcomed stability into his life.

He also brought the Catholic faith.

“When Mom and Dad married, my [younger] brother and I started the process of becoming Catholic,” he said. “My mom became Catholic at the same time.

“We always went to church together.”

Growing up, Habiger had an unlikely combination of interests — art and sports.

He loved to doodle and draw and gravitated toward art classes at school. But he also had a heart for athletics, enjoying every sport and excelling in football.

By the time he reached junior high, he found another love in journalism.

“I was painfully shy,” he said. “Being on the journalism staff was a way for me to talk to people and get to know people.

“I enjoyed the writing part, the reporting part of it.”

After working on school newspapers in junior high and high school, it was clear to Habiger what career path he would take.

“I was going to be a big-time sports reporter,” he said. “That was my dream. I was a big sports geek. I followed all the major sports.

“And so that’s what I wanted to do.”

Habiger pursued his dream through college. He was a sports writer and then editor of his junior college newspaper; he went on to complete his degree in journalism at the University of Kansas.

But along the way, something happened to make him rethink his plans to be a renowned sports reporter.

And her name was Lori.

Revising the dream

Habiger met his future wife during junior college.

“I met her the first day of my sophomore year when I came into class,” he said — or, ‘strutted into class’ as she likes to say.”

Lori lived in Westphalia, and Habiger lived in Iola, about 20 minutes apart.

Both eventually went to the University of Kansas, earned degrees in journalism and were married within weeks of graduating.

Oddly enough, Lori’s first job out of college was with The Leaven.

And Habiger took a position at The Catholic Key, the newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri.

But not before he did some soul-searching.

“By that time in my life,” he said, “I had become disillusioned with being a sports writer because I’d met a lot of sports writers and every single one seemed to be divorced.

“They talked about how much they were gone and how difficult a life it was.”

Habiger was told if he wanted a successful career as a sports reporter, he had to give up everything else.

“I didn’t want to give up my family life,” he said. “That was important to me.

“I wanted to spend time with Lori.”

Eventually, the two would switch places — Habiger would take over production responsibilities at The Leaven, and Lori would work for The Catholic Key.

While Habiger continues to work for The Leaven, Lori has started her own business as a professional photographer.

Along the way, the two have had a daughter, Paige, now 16; and a son, Connor, 11.

The right choice

As production manager for The Leaven, Habiger has been able to combine his journalism background with the passion for art he had in his youth.

“Being a designer seemed to come pretty naturally to me,” he said. “It was the best decision I’ve made.

“I enjoy coming to work every day here. Every week there’s a new challenge.”

He’s also enjoyed learning more about his Catholic faith — the gift that came with his second adoption.

“Working here, I’ve learned a lot about the church,” he said. “My knowledge has grown a thousandfold and so I’m thankful for that.”

Habiger is especially grateful to be a cog in the wheel of Catholic social justice and charity.

“The church really does good work,” he said. “And I’m very proud to be a part of that.

“Anytime an organization comes back to us and says, ‘After the story ran, we got money, we got people signing up, something positive happened’ — that makes me happy.”


About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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