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.
So the other day I go and download maybe fifty hours of The Sound of Young America, a radio show focusing on comedy and art and stuff. Already on media overload, I’m still not through very much of it, but I came across an interesting quote on the creative process from Henry Rollins:
“Everyone who tries to be creative or whatever, you come up with that thing that works.
“I know some people, songwriters, who treat it like a 9 to 5 job. They walk into the room, sit down and do 8 hours of songwriting and then it’s 5 o’ clock and they put the guitar down or step away from the piano and go home. You know, whatever works.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to live in it, to where I didn’t know that it wasn’t anything but real life. Where you’re so deeply committed to it that you don’t know anything else.”
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.
Utah has a minute or so on the clock to run a few plays, and the photographers are all planning their post-game approach. Before the game we decided that two of the three Tribune photographers would focus on the winning team after the game and one would focus on the losing team. I’m assigned to the winners. I look around and see all these BYU security folk and cops with ropes around the field. I interpret this as meaning that no fans are going to rush the field and we’ll have a clear shot of the on-field celebration. I plan to sit tight and shoot from the sideline, rather than do a crazy run out onto the field.
I lean over to the photographer next to me, point to my super-telephoto 600mm lens, and say, “I’m going long on the postgame. Something tells me that’s the right approach.” He doesn’t say what he’s planning, but I’m feeling good about my choice.
A couple plays later the clock runs out and BYU has won the game. I start to take a couple of my long-view shots and immediately, something is blocking my view. The fans are loose:
A swarm of fans is rushing the field. Unless I do the same, I won’t be getting anything. So I get up with all my gear and start to run…shooting as I run…
In these situations, there’s always a big scrum in the middle of things. If you don’t get into the scrum as it forms, you aren’t getting a shot. As you can see, I’m not in the scrum.
After a moment I realize I need to find something else. There are two other Tribune photographers on the field and I’ll just have to assume that they are getting anything I’m missing.
To be continued…
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.