“Fresh Fish Sold Here Today:” The Slow Decline and Agonizing Death of the News Business

"Weegie" with his trusty 4x5 Speed Graphic.

“Weegie” with his trusty 4×5 Speed Graphic.

The Chicago Sun-Times has laid-off its entire photography department.

I had to take a moment to digest that idea. Photography has been an essential part of the newspaper business since the New York Daily Graphic ran the first half-tone photo reproduction (of New York’s Steinway Hall) on its front page in 1873. William Randolph Hearst apocryphally sent his photographers and illustrators to Cuba in 1898 with the message “you supply the pictures, and I’ll supply the war.” For more than a century, photography and journalism have been virtually one and the same. This was a shock!

Yet, in another breath, it is not such a shock. The photographers of the 19th century – like Alexander Gardiner and Matthew Brady – and the 20th century – Robert Capa, Weegie and many, many others – were highly-trained craftsmen in the fullest sense of the term. Photography was an enormously difficult and very costly calling. Photographers had specialist knowledge in artistic composition, optics and chemistry, and had had to make an investment in expensive equipment. A Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic – the standard-issue photojournalist camera of the time – sold for more than $300 in the mid-1930s. That would be about $5,000 in current coin.

Today, everyone has a camera. They’re part of every smart-and-dumb-phone, computer, tablet and iPod. And they’re ridiculously easy to use. You point and shoot; there’s no need focus, take a light meter reading or stand over an enlarger easel in a stuffy darkroom choking on chemical fumes. Few people, even with the priciest pro-sumer or professional equipment can produce images as striking, beautiful or illustrative as the work of Dorothea Lange, but – brace yourself for this – it doesn’t matter anymore, not even for journalism.

Typesetters at the Linotype.

Typesetters at the Linotype.

The same kind of thing happened to the craft of typesetting. There was a time when typesetters and compositors were the aristocrats of newspaper production. They served years of apprenticeship before finally being allowed to lay hands on the linotype machines that produced newspaper galleys out of hot lead. Then along came computers, laser printers and PageMaker, Quark and – gasp! – Microsoft Publisher. Any moron who could type, could set type. (In the interests of full-disclosure, I worked in a typesetting shop during the transition to desktop publishing. I’m still bitter.)

It didn’t take newspaper publishers long to realize that they could do without those annoying, uppity, typesetters and compositors who had the most powerful and assertive union in the business – the ITU – and always seemed to be threatening to strike. If reporters were typing their copy into computers anyway, and any moron could set the type, then why not just let the editors and a tiny remnant cadre of graphics professionals do the typesetting and composition? (You might detect a note of bitterness there.) Whole composition departments disappeared virtually overnight.

Newspaper text started to look like crap to those of us who knew something about type and layouts became almost universally modular, boring, and pretty much identical to every other newspaper out there. No one noticed because, as the newspaper business began to contract in earnest in the 1990s, most markets were left with a single daily and nothing to compare it to except the New York Times and USA Today. With less money to be made in the news business – which became increasingly about the business rather than the news as a result – you didn’t need your type or design to be good, just good enough.

Reporters were next. Once most of the production staff had been made redundant, journalists found themselves competing for fewer and fewer full-time jobs. Journalism schools and communications studies programs were churning out – and continue to churn out – many, many thousands of eager, under-employed graduates annually, each one with fantastical ambitions of being the next Upton Sinclair or Ida Tarbell. They provided a competitive pool of “talent” (the “reserve army of journalism,” to cop a phrase from Karl Marx) that would work for peanuts or less, for a “special to” byline. Look at your daily newspaper, the vast majority of news stories that don’t come from AP or Reuters are probably the work of freelancers.

Readers who cared about such things noticed the drop in journalistic standards, but most readers didn’t seem to care. Newspaper addicts were – and are – a dying breed, as news consumers gravitated to different sources, where the quality of the prose was much less important than the immediacy of the raw information. It doesn’t have to be good, just good enough. News consumers shifted first to radio and television in the 60s and 70s and, more recently, the Internet. Newspaper and magazine circulation figures have been in a free-fall ever since.

Photojournalists on break: Robert Capa (left) and George Rodger (right) .

Photojournalists on break: Robert Capa (left) and George Rodger (right) .

Now it’s the photographers’ turn – and why not? If anyone can snap a picture… if no one has to develop it… if most news consumers are going to see it as a 72-ppi thumbnail, anyway, then why does the Sun-Times, or any newspaper for that matter, need to keep photographers on staff? In an era of declining circulation, shrinking ad revenues and intensifying competition for consumers, full-time professional photographers – like typesetters, reporters and editors before them – have become an unnecessary extravagance. Images can be sourced from readers themselves, and there’s no reason why freelance writers can’t take their own pictures when they write their articles. For free. Like in “freelancer.”

They don’t have to be good pictures, they just have to be good enough.

Most journalists know the anecdote of the sign which reads “Fresh Fish Sold Here Today.” We heard it in journalism school, or from our editors as we were just starting out. It is an object lesson in literary economy, in which unnecessary text is whittled away to the bare essentials. The joke – and there is always a joke in journalism anecdotes – is that, shorn of inessential verbiage, the sign is ultimately left blank.

This is what has happened to the news business. Whittled to the bare essentials, newspaper newsrooms will soon be left empty.

For those of us who have worked or, in rare cases, continue to work in the newspaper business, the prospect is deeply depressing. We were drawn into the work at least in part by the romance of The Front Page and All the President’s Men and we justified the ridiculous hours and crummy pay by telling ourselves that a free press is essential to democracy, and we were essential to a free press. We were “serving the public interest!” Even those of us who left, or were pushed out of, the profession still feel connected to it. Once an ink-stained wretch, always an ink-stained wretch.

Fresh Fish

Fresh Fish

Part of that identity is tied into a powerful declension narrative. “The business,” we say, “ain’t what it used to be.” Our editors and other old-timers told us that on our first day in the newsroom, just as their editors did before them. And we have repeated the mantra ourselves… to the dwindling handful of young journalists who come after us. I’m sure Joseph Addison said it to his cousin Eustace Budgell when the latter took over The Spectator in 1714.

The profession of journalism and the news business inhabit a perpetual golden age in our imaginations. It is a time when journalists were respected, when our work mattered, when people actually read newspapers, when publishers cared about journalism and not just the bottom line – or, in any event, were restrained by the heroic efforts of reporters and editors (invariably fortified by shots of whiskey from the bottle in the lower left desk drawer). It was the time when were just starting out… or just before… or at the peak of our careers. Whatever the case, we say, that time has passed, and the news business has gone to shit.

And that’s the point. The news business has been going to shit since Pheidippides dropped dead on the steps on the Parthenon. It has changed, and continued to change throughout its history, and it will change some more. Horace Greeley could never have imagined Edward Murrow’s See it Now, and if he did, he would probably have considered it a travesty. And Murrow himself, shortly after See it Now was canceled in 1958, expressed horror at the medium he helped to shape.

Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow

“One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news,” Murrow told the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.” Indeed, the RTNDA is now the RTDNA, Radio-Television Digital News Association. “The only constant in news is change,” an editor once told me. “That’s why we called it news, shithead.”

So, while I feel nothing but sympathy for the photographers who have lost their jobs at the Sun-Times, and the ones who will probably follow at other newspapers, I can also see that this was probably inevitable. While I cringe at the pathetic quality of much of the prose I read in newspapers and online, and shudder at the thought of what newspapers will look like with amateur snapshots and video frame captures on the front page, I know I can look elsewhere. The world is full of news, it just takes more effort to find than it used to.

Part of me wonders if maybe all of this is a good thing. Maybe we are at the cusp of a new paradigm, when journalism will finally be liberated from the news business. It’s a thought that I have been musing on for years. I first addressed the question of the future of journalism with the challenge posed by new media more than a decade ago, when I was teaching journalism at Concordia University in Montreal.

I gave a talk on “Journalism in an Age of Participatory News” in January 2003. The challenges were already there – long past the horizon and already in the offing. But as much as new practices and technologies posed a threat to the news business, I saw then – and still see – a great opportunity for reporters and journalists of all kinds to better serve the public interest. “To do this, we have to readjust our understanding of the news, to see it as the protean thing that it is, a chorus of many, contradictory voices in a complex counterpoint,” I concluded. “We also have to surrender some of our control over making the news, to allow its participants to tell their own stories and news consumers to construct their own narratives. But I think we implicitly accept that idea when we argue that the public interest is best served by a multiplicity of news sources.”

In the wake of slow decline and agonizing death of the news business, I still hold great hope for the news.