Romenesko republishes comedian Jason Sereno's acerbic take on the slaughter of the photojournalists. Note that they, there, and I, here, are just commenting on what happened, not doing original reporting ourselves. The Internet is great for commenting (it profoundly gives new meaning to the old phrase "another party heard from") but isn't supporting a lot of original reporting. Unless you think reporting is repeating things you hear and linking to other reports.
One way we might not be looking at this is one of the ways it might be: perhaps what we're seeing is just one newspaper sinking toward oblivion in a city that's no longer big enough for two papers. Chicago is the largest city in Illinois. I live in the largest city in Wisconsin, the state just north of Illinois, and we haven't had two major dailies for a long time.
According in part to local historian John Gurda's book Cream City Chronicles, the employee-owned Milwaukee Journal, which was published in the afternoon, bought the former Hearst paper the Milwaukee Sentinel, the city's morning paper, following a debilitating strike in 1962. Not willing to let the competition die, Journal Communications continued to operate both papers separately. In 1995, with the afternoon paper faltering, Journal Communications merged its weaker flagship into the stronger and more successful morning paper, showing favoritism toward Journal employees and laying off many Sentinel stalwarts. The Journal-Sentinel has been a morning paper since then.
In any event, it's been 18 years since Milwaukee, about one-sixth the size of Chicago, has had two major newspapers. Maybe it's just that Chicago is finally following suit, in response to more recent economic pressures. Consider that when the Milwaukee Journal was founded in 1882, it competed with four English-language daily newspapers (including the Socialist Leader), and four German-language and two Polish-language ones. Obviously all those went away too.
In a broader sense, digital electronics is laying waste to the established business model in a number of fields, because the economics were all structured around paying for wrappers: the physical carriers of various media. Booksellers sell stacks of paper bound together along one edge; music companies sold disks of black vinyl in cardboard sheaths, and, later, smaller disks of polycarbonate with a layer of aluminum covered with microscopic pits, in a plastic case cunningly designed to be frustrating to open. Watchmakers didn't sell time, exactly—they sold fantastically complex devices that kept track of time and displayed it mechanically, on a dial face that some of my son's friends now have trouble interpreting. Newspapers sold sheafs of newsprint covered with ink.
Photographers, quaintly, sold small sheets of paper with images on them. How long has that been?
If you wanted to own music, you had to buy the wrapper—the physical LP or the Compact Disc. The fact that you had to pay for it made many of the artists wealthy and justified careful production and a whole infrastructure of deliberate selection and marketing—everything from lavish record stores to careful grooming of new acts. The fact that we no longer have to pay for the wrappers is a temporary advantage but a long-term loss, just like the decline of real journalism will be.
Of course, all of these markets and, indeed, all of these human pursuits are constantly changing; change is nothing new. Certainly it isn't for photographers. Nobody's ever really written a business history of photography, but they could, and it would be a tale of opportunities constantly migrating away from practitioners, constant inroads being made against established practices and business models, and skills and expertise continually being eroded and becoming outmoded. Digital electronics have accelerated that process, but it's been going on for a long time, in our field at least. I still miss the weekly LIFE magazine, which I pored over and perused every week and which was an essential component of my photographic education. Its demise, in 1972, was also preceded by many people—hundreds, in that case—losing their jobs.
(Thanks to Tom Kwas)
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post got some facts about the history of Milwaukee's newspapers significantly wrong. —Ed.]
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Featured Comments from:
KeithB: "If Wikipedia is to be believed 8^), Los Angeles hasn't had two major newspapers since 1989 when the Herald-Examiner folded."
Chris Crawford: "My hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana, is half the size of Milwaukee (about 275,000 people) and we still have two dailies. One of them is locally owned, the other is owned by a big chain."
Mike adds: Somewhat strangely, my town, Waukesha, has its own paper. And we have something like 65,000 people. It seems to keep soldiering on. The last time I tried it, at lunch one day, I was surprised to find that I had read most of the front page articles already—on the web, that morning.
Al Patterson: "Your comment regarding having read most of page one one the web before reading the newspaper is the heart of the problem. The perception is that newspapers sell 'yesterday's news today.' I'm betting some papers only exist to publish legal notices like marriages, divorces, bankruptcy, etc. And, we don't need photographers or journalists for those. It is sad though I do understand why they are doing what they are doing."
Terry Letton: "The problem with newspapers is Craigslist. It killed the classified ads dead. Of course the response of stripping out content to save money in the face of diminishing revenue was pretty much suicide. Before the Internet, a newspaper was pretty much a license to print money, so the idea of just being profitable didn't go down well with the ownership. As you alluded to, after you have read the obituaries there isn't much there that you can't get in multiple other places more conveniently. Therefore the workers get the axe. QED."
Mark Hobson: "I live 30 miles from a small city—pop. 20,000—which has a daily newspaper (two sections, news and sports, for a total of 20 pages). It seems to be doing quite well by focusing almost exclusively on local news—rarely does a national headline make the front page. National/world news is relegated to two pages at the back of the front section. Like the news section, the sport section also focuses on local sports— high schools, university and things like bowling leagues and the like. National sports news is usually mixed in with the local stuff, major sporting events excepted, on inside pages.
"In my opinion, they're doing well because the decision was made to let people get their national news on TV and the web. By the way, they employ at least one photographer of whom I am aware."
Mike replies: A smart, well-designed strategy responsive to real trends and real needs can help an organization survive. Ironically, though, the strategy you describe probably works a lot better for a small city than a large one.
A small local paper also needs to avoid the failing of mine: political partisanship. When the audience is scarce it's tough to willfully cut off half of it.