by Dick Kraus
Staff Photographer

When I was a boy, many, many years ago, I used to go to the movies in town, on Saturday. In addition to the double feature, a bunch of cartoons and comedy shorts and a serial, I used to enjoy the newsreel. If I recall, it was Movietone News and narrated by Ed Herlihy. It started off with a full screen shot of a hand cranked movie camera on sticks and the camera panned from a side view to a shot with the lens aimed right at the audience as the cameraman cranked and the music swelled to a crescendo. "Ta tata TAH ta TAH, TAH TAHHHHH!" Then Herlihy would announce in his stentorian voice where the first news clip would take us to show the latest breaking story. It could be Tibet or the beginnings of World War II in Asia. Then to the Fascist problems in Italy and to Germany where some former corporal in the Kaiser's army was creating a stir that would bring the world to it's knees before the free world brought an end to that tyranny. The news ran for probably fifteen minutes and would cover earthquakes in Turkey, famine in Africa and mud slides in South America. They covered the explorations of the poles and disasters at sea. Newsreel cameramen always seemed to be on the scene and managed to ship their bulky reels of 35mm film back to be processed and shown in time to still be current by the standards of the day. There were no high speed microwave or satellite electronic transfer such as we enjoy today.

Years later, as a young adult already in the news business, I watched a documentary on a PBS station, that told about those daring newsmen (women hadn't gained a foothold in the field at that time) who flew around the world at a moments' notice. Some of the surviving cameramen were interviewed on camera and they told about the tremendous competition between newsreel companies, who strove to get to the scene first and get their film in the theaters before the competition. Cameramen would always have their bags packed, cameras ready and passports up to date and when they got word of a disaster or a war or battle, off they would head to the airport. Amazing! They didn't have to wait for news managers to hold strategy meetings and then discuss budgets and money issues. The first priority was to get a camera there.

When I first started at Newsday, in 1960, we were a small, suburban 6 day a week daily and certainly didn't have large travel budgets. Yet, in 1963, when we got word of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the whole newsroom was mobilized. It was my day off and I got a phone call directing me to work. And, a few hours later, I and two other photographers were on our way to Washington. That kind of response held true to form when Bobby Kennedy was killed a few years later. And photographers were sent to Mexico City to cover an earthquake and to South America to cover mud slides. A photographer went to Ethiopia for the famine and another flew to San Fransisco for yet another earthquake. It was news and we were a newspaper and that's what we did.

I would be in Albany, NY to cover state government about six or more times a year and to Washintgon, DC to do Federal Government several times a year. And, of course, other papers around the country were doing the same. TV camerapersons (women were starting to make inroads, by now) were doing even more travel. It was almost like the Movietone News crews.

But, it all starting going down the tubes a few years ago. The word "budget" reared it's ugly head. The bean counters got control and starting saying nay to the idea of running to breaking news stories. I don't know why it was possible to cover news without too many constraints in the past. You know, news is not time and cost efficient. It never was and it never will be. You can't budget news. You can't budget man power because news will always happen when you are the most short staffed. And if you change the staffing to meet the requirements of a day of the week or the time of the day, shit will happen when you are not ready for it.. That's the way of shit. It happens. But, now, if it happens after most of the news crews have gone home.......well, let the wires cover it. Or hire a freelancer. We can't handle the expense of staff coverage.

Face it, folks. The halcyon days of news coverage are over. Staffs are being cut to the bone and the remaining newspukes are required to cover more assignments in the same amount of time. I won't go into quality issues here, but I'm sure you can imagine where that goes. It's evident that it is management's plan to let the photo staffs shrivel to a small cadre of experienced shooters to cover specials and big stories, while the nitty gritty gets farmed out to freelancers. Think about it. You can pick up a freelancer in most markets for maybe $200 a day, less in smaller markets. You can shove 4 or 5 or even 6 assignments at him/her. Your staffers would have bitched like crazy with that workload but a freelancer is happy to get the work. And you don't have to pay him/her retirement/401K benefits or health insurance or supply him/her with a company car or a camera and computer or even film. And if one of them balks at that, there are hundreds of wanna-be's waiting for the opportunity.

Does that sound negative and bleak? Yep. It certainly does. But, there are few, if any, publishers, editors, station owners or managers who were brought up through the ranks and understand the dynamics of news coverage. Those with the so called "printer's ink" in their blood. Most are university trained with more economics and business degrees than journalism. They will never understand the thrill of scooping the competition with being first on the streets or on the air with the "big" story. That kind of thing costs too much so "Let the wires cover it."

And that's the way it is. Sorry about that.

Dick Kraus


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