“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.

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

  1. Pingback: “Fresh Fish Sold Here Today:” The Slow Decline and Agonizing Death of the News Business | silence cunning exile ... maple syrup

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  3. That was so good, thank you. When I started on Fleet Street, the place was heaving with world famous writers and photographers; the copy editors were second to none, and the printers were a force to be reckoned with. The pubs were heaving, the gossip was extraordinary and we were, as you say, all complete newspaper addicts. Now that’s all gone. One newspaper I know of recently held its Christmas party in the editor’s office, with room to spare.

  4. Yesterday’s news, indeed. Even back in the day there wouldn’t have been enough newspapers available to wrap up today’s constant and instant images as they’re replaced by the next uninspiring batch (or fish for that matter). And there’s not enough news to feed our gossip hungry souls, and like children we have to have the images that go with the gossip, so we accept second best and don’t even remember, some of us won’t even know what we’ve lost.
    That’s progress. 🙂

  5. In my local paper today, there were two photos of local politicians that were taken by reporters, and both photos were up-close badly angled headshots that were partially out of focus. The average selfie taken by a teenager in their bedroom is better quality than that. I’m not convinced that getting rid of professional newspapers photographers is a good idea, if what I saw today is an example of “good enough”.

  6. The only staff shooter at the Sun-Times this summer was a young friend of ours, Alex Wroblewski, who was hired as their summer intern — and became the only staffer left. Nice start to his journalism career! But instructive indeed.

    I am less interesting in “news” (the old definitions being stodgy, hidebound, institutional) than in how it might evolve; as a staff veteran of the Globe, Gaz and NY Daily News, I had my time in newsrooms (and miss them terribly) but also saw much to be lamented and well worth losing.

  7. I’m old enough to remember eagerly awaiting the morning paper. That’s where the details were that fleshed out the snippets on the radio news. Photographs were a lot more than filler. They were essential parts of the story. The story told readers “who, what, where, when” in short order. Then came in-depth detail. We were much better informed then even though we were a day or so behind events. The closest I find that today is with Al-Jazeera’s news service for American TV. Good graphics and straightforward facts dominate the stories, followed by relevant details without shouting, acrimony or ideological agendas.

  8. Pingback: “Fresh Fish Sold Here Today:” The Slow Decline and Agonizing Death of the News Business | yungmide

  9. I still enjoy books, I still like the feeling of the newspaper in the morning with my cup of coffee and part of that newspaper is the pictures that bring the story to life. I miss the magazines with the professional prospective of a photographer. I know everyone has a cell phone camera but many have no idea had to get the right picture. Imagine the Iwa Jima picture today with all the cell phones? That picture was viral.

  10. Pingback: “Fresh Fish Sold Here Today:” The Slow Decline and Agonizing Death of the News Business | JUST TAKING PICTURES

  11. I’m glad to see someone finally echo what I’ve been thinking for a very long time.

    I was a member of the corporate IT team at Gannett for 8+ years and was dismayed at the failure of nearly every internal effort to bring their newspaper business into the 21st century. As a result, most of the forward-looking movers and shakers moved on. Those few that remained behind watched the company nearly crater back in 2009 and then struggle to regain even a third of the value it had when I left in 2004.

    Newspapers — as we know them today — are dead. What will the replacement be? Who knows. The newspaper publishers and stockholders are largely to blame for their demise; had they made a sea-change in the way they did business back in the mid-1990s, they may have had some say in their future. But not now.

  12. News today IS characterized by ‘contradictory voices in complex counterpoint’. Unfortunately, anybody and everybody can concoct a story on Jennifer Aniston’s impending pregnancy and Instagram is a photographer’s nightmare.

    Access has become a lot more easier and obtaining photographs for news stories has become cost effective. You’d rather pay a person for the copyright he owns for a particular photo than engage a full time photographer for the feature.

    Sad but true.

  13. Sadly this mentality is not just seen in journalism, but all over. It’s all about instant gratification, quality be damned.
    I really enjoyed this piece, thank you for a decent read!

  14. “The news business has been going to shit since Pheidippides dropped dead on the steps on the Parthenon.” Baha, that’s too funny! I feel/hope you are right though about journalistic freedom from big business. Hopefully, It is now left to those who really care, really love taking photos, and communities like WordPress. Which ultimately judges by popularity measures, whether it is of value. So journalism has become Democratic!!! Now, what is most important is that the community flourishes, and that newcomers are not overlooked…

  15. As I embark on a new small news paper project, I stumbled upon this. So well written, so very true. I ask myself if I’m up for the challenge of writing again. This project will not be a news paper anymore, rather a conglomeration of information my target audience can actually use, I think I’ll call it Nuse, Thank you for the inspiration.

  16. True, the craft is writing is getting grossly neglected and ignored when bloggers can be considered credible journalists. The constant streaming of quasi-tabloid-ish stories and the demand created for easy to read bullshit has caused this. Writing is something that u so, u cannot just blog about bullshit and expect or deserve an opportunity. You had to stand behind what you wrote before and Kanye and Kim having a kid would never be considered newsworthy. Its all fluff and clutter today.

  17. I was a full career newspaper photographer, I started in 1979 as a typesetter apprentice!Still can hear the rattling of these machines in my mind.And smell developer!Thanks God I am retired now.I feared I won’t be able to last in my profession that long.

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  19. I, too, was a typesetter of the old school before that profession was sucked into a black hole. And yes, I even wrote news… those of us who worked for small newspapers did a little bit of everything. I miss those days, as gone with the wind as Tara.

  20. Good solid fact based objective journalism ,offers us a very real defense, against the manipulation of propaganda media machines. If you study the rise of the Third Reich, the only way we knew much of what was really going on in Germany, prior to WW II, was because of a cadre of Free Journalists, from other countries. In China today, the only real coverage of government actions, in the public, is captured by a growing band of courageous Citizens with smart phones. The “Free” internet is their new News pathway, to a Truth hungry public. I still rejoice in the fewer and fewer excellent Media Outlets we still have. However; the need to clearly know the facts, so we can freely make up our own minds will Never go away. In closing; maybe it’s time for our Journalism schools to incorporate all this new, and evolving communications technology, with the existing high standards of writing and news gathering integrity. The News will Never go away. Only our means of covering and presenting it will continue to change.

      • Robert, the journalism schools are incorporating the evolving technology with high standards of writing and news gathering . . . at least Missouri’s journalism school anyway. Where the j-schools are falling short of the mark may be in a realistic presentation of the current job market. And any student today finds out quickly they can’t just aspire to be good writers and reporters. They’ve got to be equally skilled in handling video and audio recording equipment, and eventually, heaven forbid, how to steer a drone.

  21. Discovered this informative post late. Reminded of days in first full-time job, as a sub-editor & journalist, when there were typesetters and we had to mark up galley proofs. Also learned to take photographs & develop them, first in B&W then colour. So ended up as freelance journalist & photographer. Lived through a lot of the changes but not as many as some. All good memories though. However, know that having a full team is better than a couple of jack-of-all-trades.

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