2007 was an interesting year for newspapers. And I mean interesting like this: Imagine you’re parachuting into an orchard of spears. That’s how the future of newspaper journalism sometimes looks to those of us drifting slowly down, trapped in gravity’s pull.
A few months ago, a longtime friend called to say farewell. He said I probably wouldn’t see him again. He had developed a time machine and was going to return himself to 1989, a simpler year when he was much happier. (Fact: there are no time machines.)
This friend is a photographer who worked at a small daily newspaper in a small town. If you’ve ever worked on a small paper, you know how it is: several assignments per day and everyone in town knows you’re the “Camera Guy.”
My friend served as Camera Guy for over a decade. It’s what he always wanted to do. It’s what he loved. But one day the word “multimedia” blew into town and was heralded as the future and savior of his newspaper. After that, going to work became something to be nervous about. With photo-graph-video-tography pushed on him, he was facing the task of mastering a new medium and learning complex software without any training.
And you know what? I find it hard to blame him. In fact, I give him a lot of credit for stepping away. If his heart wasn’t in it, better to leave than to slog along half-heartedly at something he didn’t believe in. Newspapers are in desperate need of believers and dreamers right now, people with passion for storytelling and loads of creative energy. Without them newspaper readers will drift away to more interesting sites. (ratemycorpsepaint.com, for example.) If you’re not up for the fight we face, you’ll be happier elsewhere. No shame in that.
I think what my friend saw in the future of his newspaper was a shift from quality to quantity. I think he was concerned about doing quick, shallow multimedia pieces. And that spending his time on labor-intensive multimedia would limit the time he could spend making great in-depth photographs of his community.
It could be said that many newspaper photographers are wanna-be artists. I’ll gladly put myself in that category, even if you won’t. Working at a newspaper provides me with equipment, an audience, and a never-ending stream of assignments to visually riff on. Not every assignment provides the best canvas for my artistic attempts, but there is always another one coming up in a couple hours that might expose me to a beautiful moment or story.
I guess the question my friend had to ask himself was related to that. Is the newspaper of the future a place where he could satisfy his passion for creating something beautiful? Or would it become a lifeless production center, filled with 24-7 deadlines and weekly multimedia quotas?
With everything up in the air, who knows? Every newspaper seems to be scrambling for the answers and reaching wildly differing conclusions. I’ve got no answers for you and your particular situation, other than to say that you need to find your own answer.
Back to the time machine. Why is my friend going back to 1989, you ask? It isn’t for the hair metal. It was a great year for photojournalism. Nikon released their flagship pro SLR, the F4. The Canon F-1 was still seeing action on the frontlines. Kodak’s new T-Max 3200 black and white film let you see in the dark. The first Eddie Adams workshop was held.
It was a different time then. Better and worse than today. In 1989 I attended a photojournalism conference in San Jose where the topic was the future of newspapers— People were saying that people would one day read the newspaper on the TV set. They were showing their prototypes for the newspaper of the future. I remember one front page was simply a list of ten headlines, nothing more.
Nineteen years later, the printed edition of the paper still slams hard into my front door every morning. I’ll leave the predictions on its future to Dr. Robotnik and his ten-headline front page.
You know that old rule- always have your camera with you? Big reminder yesterday.
Walking to my car after a routine assignment, I saw a police car race through the parking lot. The officer stopped maybe thirty feet away. He (Riverdale police officer Casey Warren) jumped out, gun drawn, and started yelling at a suspect to freeze and get on the ground.
I couldn’t see the suspect, but looking at the shot above you see he’s got his hands down on the ground. But a second later he got up and started running.
As he ran across the empty parking lot, he looked my way. Great time for the autofocus to hiccup.
As officer Warren took off after him on foot, at least five police cars converged on the scene. They caught the guy at Burger King.
2007 has been a hectic year for the Tribune photographers. Trolley Square shooting, Jazz going all the way to the Western Conference Finals, most of the state burning up in summer wildfires, the Crandall Canyon coal mine disaster, the Warren Jeffs trial. I can’t remember a busier year.
We hired two new photo editors. We lost two photographers. Ryan Galbraith left the Tribune after 17 years. And now Danny Chan La has stepped away after a decade with the paper.
For our tight family of photographers, these were tough events. Because it doesn’t happen. Once you’ve earned a spot on our staff, you’ve earned a rare rank and people just don’t leave. In fact, the last photographer to leave before 2007 did so way back in 1995. The staff at the competing Deseret Morning News has a similar stability in their photo staff.
At the end of Danny’s last shift, we gathered at the Bayou to honor Mr. Chan La and the service he rendered to you, the readers of the Tribune. It was a small group of close friends. Even Ryan showed up, and it was good to see him. He left the paper so quick that we didn’t have time to give him a proper send off.
In the amber light of the tavern with drinks in hand (ranging from water to a bottle of the “fruity beer” Pete’s Strawberry Blonde), we smiled, laughed, made photographs, and repeatedly broke our own, “no talking about work” rule.
So BYU’s got the ball on the 11, down one point, about a minute left on the clock. I’m in perfect position for a game-winner. Put down the 600mm lens (above) and go to the 70-200. They’re that close. Check the exposure, white balance, how full my card is. It’s going to happen in a matter of seconds. I’m ready. Nothing can go wrong.
The ball goes to Harvey Unga, who runs straight through the Utah defense for the game-winning touchdown. I’m in the perfect position to capture it all. Here is my sequence:
I’ve got the perfect look at the play, until Mr. B steps in front of me. You can guess what B stands for.
I love how he’s still in front of me for the celebration. Keep in mind, there is no time to move to a better angle. This all took place in seconds.
We’re in the process of re-vamping our work schedule here in the Tribune photo department. I was talking with one of my colleagues, Al Hartmann, about things. Al said, “After twenty-five years of working Saturdays, I think I’m ready to be a Monday through Friday guy.”
I can’t get this thought out of my mind: What I wouldn’t pay to have a coffee table book of Al’s work, titled “Twenty-Five Years of Saturdays.” Any publishers out there?
You can see a small sample of Al Hartmann’s work by clicking here:
Salt Lake City Airport, 6am. Way too early to be awake, especially in an airport. Walking in a fog. Caught a flight to St. George to cover the sentencing of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs.
Went over to the courthouse and complimented one reporter on his black leather jacket. He said, “I always dress up when a man’s going to jail.”
I think he was smoking a cigarillo.