It's Time To Go

by Greg Hubbard

"It's time to go". How many times did my mother and father utter those simple words? And now another familiar voice is saying those same simple words; and that voice belongs to me.

For fifteen years photojournalism has been my life, my passion. As a veteran of thousands upon thousands of photo assignments, I still salivate at the whiff of acidic smoke permeating the air from a forest fire, or the wail of a siren. I'm an action junkie and proud of it. There's nothing better then being where the action is with camera in hand.

But there has been something bothering me the last few years, something invading the newsroom and slowly eroding the profession I love. The change has at times come swiftly like the executioner's ax and, at other times, subtlety, like a fine mist invading the shoreline. Either way, photojournalism, my photojournalism, has lost some of its meaning and direction.

When I first started as a photographer at the Merced Sun-Star in the late 80s, it was still a family-run newspaper where the owners actually operated out of the same building where the newspaper was put together. The owners knew a good many of the workers by name and would stop and talk to them as they passed by. The
patriarch of the owning family, Dean Lesher, who, when he still was publisher the paper, had been known at times to loan money to employees when they were in a jam. By all accounts, he treated his workers fairly and was respected in return.

Reporters equipped with point-and-shoot digital cameras and
little photographic abilities, won't be able to match the photos
taken by trained, well-equipped photographers who have experience
covering fast-moving news assignments, and who are willing to
spend the time and energy to get compelling photographs for the readers.

Old-timers have told me that working at the newspaper was like working for family. In the midst of corporate buyouts in the early 90s, the Sun-Star fell victim. And so did the old family way of life. The executioner's ax fell heavily on the paper as profit over journalism sliced away at what the new task masters agreed was the main reason profits where not high enough; the workers. Replace four workers with a new machine that only takes one person to operate it and then complain if that worker needed overtime to complete the task. Do more with less became the rallying cry from management. All the workers heard was "Hey! We are increasing your workload because we're short of people and, for your extra efforts, don't expect a raise!". Welcome to a corporate newspaper. Improving news content and design, pleasing readers and getting the paper onto their front porch was now secondary to the hunt for more and more profit that was destined to be sent back to New York and the faceless investors. The very idea that supermarkets can survive making 1-2 percent profit but my newspaper, and countless other papers, unhappy with the 15-30 percent profit they were already making, can, for the sake of increasing profits, still cut deeply into an already lean workforce was an abomination. Why is it the American media can happily expose sweatshops and places where workers are taken advantage of throughout the world yet never see themselves in the faces of the sweatshop owners they write about? Is it blindness or arrogance?

Not as draconian of a change from family-owned newspapers to corporately run newspapers, but a change that I think will certainly impact most small to medium market papers in the future, is the embracement of digital cameras, especially the point-and-shoot variety. A professional digital camera in the hands of a skilled photographer who is trained in composition, who knows how to correctly expose images under a multiplicity of lighting conditions, who has access to lenses of varying focal lengths and who has a love of photography is a great tool. Being able to come back to the newsroom on deadline and download your images, size and tone in just minutes is a great advantage over film. But a digital point-and-shoot put in the hands of a reporter in order to save money by not hiring a trained photographer is a recipe for disaster for the readers of the newspaper.

What could be the rationale of forcing reporters who do not want to take photographs to play the role of photographers instead of concentrating on their job of gathering the news? Since the improvement of photographs appearing in the paper is obviously not the motive, could it be increased profit? Since management
wouldn't ever consider having a photographer write a front page story, having a reporter use a point-and-shoot digital camera equipped with a 35mm-100mm zoom lens to shoot a possible front page photograph should not be an option either. Readers have come to expect a certain level of professional images in the papers they read and the conscription of unwilling reporters with no photographic training can only hurt newspapers as readers drop their subscriptions in favor of more professional looking publications. It doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to see that once management perceives reporters carrying cameras saves money, a trained photographer or two becomes expendable. This is a scary glance into the future for photographers who love being news photographers and who take pride in always improving their craft, and a sad day for the readers.

Being a news photographer on a daily basis and the life experiences I was able to enjoy was truly the best aspect of the job. For fifteen years I interacted with the poor, the homeless, the wealthy and the famous. Working with police officers, SWAT, firemen, the average citizen who turned out to be a war hero, athletes and politicians, made coming into work a learning experience that no school could ever match. But the part of working at the Merced Sun-Star that made bearable all the changes, both good and bad, was my co-workers in the newsroom. We laughed and cried together, pulled together when someone was in trouble, became stronger when we watched co-workers fired and cheered each other on as we tried for and received new jobs. No matter how low morale plummeted during the corporate takeover years, the newsroom stayed together by finding ways to laugh at life. We were truly a family. That is what I will miss most as I transition into the life of a college instructor. Friendships, within the community I served when I was their eyes and ears, will be treasured, as they enriched me as a person and helped me mature and grow.

As journalism continues to tighten its belt to squeeze out more profit to distribute to investors, I can only hope future journalists and photojournalists are again allowed to enjoy working at a newspaper that sees itself as a newspaper, not a profit-making enterprise that has only the investors in mind. No one begrudges a newspaper
making profit, but a significant share of the profit must be re-invested in the paper if it is to grow and improve in order to attract more readers in an ever-shrinking market. Shortsightedness by management to long-term investment in a newspaper may increase the bottom-line today, but invites major capital outlays down the road
to replace or repair all-at-once equipment and software that had been previously ignored.

And now with visions of more normal work hours, regular pay raises and not working any more Christmas Days dancing in my head, the words of my mother, father and of my sub-conscience grow louder and more determined... "It's time to go".|

Greg Hubbard is Former Chief Photographer, Merced Sun-Star, Merced, CA and is now an Adjunct Photography Instructor at Fresno City College and Merced College.

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