By Mark Neuling


The news department was on life-support.  The entire network had been given 60 days notice, but it was news that took the first casualties.  The final newscast went dark on a Friday.  By the following Tuesday the staff was cut nearly in half.   There was no longer any need for the reporters, assignment producers, web producers, the Washington D.C. bureau or the managing editor.  Nearly overnight a graveyard of darkened computer screens populated our once vibrant newsroom.  The only ones left to soldier on would be nine or ten of the producers, our talent and of course the photographers.   There were still specials to produce and a weekly magazine show to get on the air.  And the shooters could now be farmed out to other shows on the network.  Why hire freelance camera crews anymore, the countdown was underway.




In a way I was lucky, I had jury duty. From May into mid-June it stretched.   It happened to be in the same courthouse that the Scott Peterson case was being tried at.  Day after day the same camera crews waited outside, getting the same shots; waiting for the same people to enter and exit the courthouse.  I was glad I didn’t have to cover an event like this.

Chris Leary, host of “Fresh Gear,” heading for the final roundup of that show.

© Mark Neuling 2004

Brendan Moran – Producer of the show “Fresh Gear.”

© Mark Neuling 2004

Chi-Lan Lieu, producer and hostess Stephanie Siemiller during the final taping of “Fresh Gear,” in San Francisco. The show is scheduled to resumed production in Los Angeles.

© Mark Neuling 2004

Jessica Corbin and Dave Koehn on a “Geek-Chic” shoot. San Francisco, California.

© Mark Neuling 2004
Now and then I would drop by work to check my emails and catch up with the latest details of the sale.  A couple of the producers envied me and my days spent in court.  Their moral couldn’t be any lower.  It was becoming tougher for them to come into work each day.  There was no help.  There was no managing editor to approve scripts, no interns to log tapes, no administrative assistant to schedule trips.  As each producer finished his or her project they too would pack their belongings into cardboard boxes, send out a goodbye email and have their exit interview.  Still on the payroll but not needed any more and each faced with an uncertain future.

But the shooters carried on.  My time as a juror ended and I returned to work.  Even though we had been told that we didn’t have to come in if we had no shoots scheduled most of us stuck to our regular morning routines and arrived for our normal shifts.  Shoots got added and shoots got canceled, just like always.   Most days we left after five or six hours.  There were no more day-of stories or last second stand ups to shoot.  No assignment editor to answer to.
My wife and I had to consider our options.  I had a job waiting but it was part-time and the start date was still unclear.  Our first decision was to find medical benefits before our coverage ended.  My wife has never in her adult life been without full medical coverage and she was worried.  COBRA was an expensive option.  So we shopped around, we found an insurance plan that was reasonable.  We could afford the monthly payments only because of the huge deductible.   Our daughter and I were approved almost immediately, but there was a delay in my wife’s approval.  For two months we bought an emergency plan good only for thirty days.  Eventually we got word that my wife had been approved and we could finally breathe a sigh of relief.  We have medical benefits now; but vision and dental will have to come entirely out of our own pockets.
The countdown at work continued.  Every week or so the IT guys would check in on those of us still working to see who was left.  The vacated desks would be stripped of their hardware.   The computers and monitors would be placed on a gurney and rolled downstairs to be stored in a morgue of sorts.  There were dozens and dozens of computers, keyboards, monitors, cables and assorted paraphernalia stacked up. 
As people left and departments closed down a garage sale of sorts happened.  Tables sprang up in several places with” FREE” signs.  There was software, books, magazines, binders, mugs, shirts, and key chains – all kinds of junk found new homes.  The promotions department had the fire sale of all time.  The most popula
r items were the martini glasses with the company logo embossed on it.  Dozens of these trinkets eventually found their way on to eBay.  One former employee was actually auctioning off his company ID card.

Word came for us to ship our camera gear to the new owners in Los Angeles.  We had to tell the three or four producers left that time was up; there would be no more shoots.   One morning we loaded our cameras, tripods, lights, monitors and audio gear into their travel cases and drove them over to the studio for shipping.  Someone commented that this amount of gear could outfit a small production company.  “All they’d need was a jib,” I said.    Scott, the youngest shooter on our staff, lingered for a few moments over the small mountain of video equipment that we were leaving behind.  We had all wanted the chance to buy some of our gear but we never got confirmation that we’d be allowed to.   It was time to just walk away.

Dave Koehn and Scott Stoneback prepare their video equipment for shipment to Los Angeles.

© Mark Neuling 2004

I had a month off.  My wife and I each had more time to exercise.  Mostly I swam and biked.  The scale never budged but my pants seemed to fit a bit looser; my shirts just a bit tighter.  I kept busy gardening or painting.  My wife was glad to have me around in the afternoons to help with chores.  We had time to talk with each other. I edited home videos and scanned old slides. I took lot of photos of my daughter with her cousins.  The severance check came sooner than planned; but the taxes ate up more of it than was expected.   I was beginning to enjoy my “retirement” a bit too much; my wife was getting anxious. I still had only had a tentative start date for my new job and I hadn’t heard much. 
At the very end of July our daughter started kindergarten, it’s a year-round school.  She’s not even five yet.  On her first day of school she sat on the bench outside her classroom, her brown eyes big with anticipation.  She wasn’t afraid; two years of pre-school have removed any trace of fear about school.  But it was a new school, a bigger playground, different rules and a new teacher.  She looked around for familiar faces from pre-school, but her classmates were all new as well.   I got to take my little girl to her first day of school.  For the parents it was a grand photo-op.  I shot ten or eleven minutes of video, and even though it was only footage of my daughter's first day at school, it will be some of the most important video I ever record.
The next day I got the call to come in and start orientation for my new job.
For me each day will mean driving in a new direction to work, to a new building with new access codes.  There will be a new vehicle to drive and maintain.  There will be a different camera and tripod each with its own unique quirks to figure out.  There will be new reporters and editors to work with; it will mean a different kind of news with a different style of shooting.  There will be live-shots again, but this time the video signal will be beamed thousands of miles to a satellite in the sky and broadcast throughout the country.  There will be computers and printers and email addresses to learn. I pay for my cell phone now.  And there will be the self-doubt to conquer once more; can I rise to the level and expectations of the new job.  It’s a lot like the first day of kindergarten…all over again.
This isn’t meant to be a rant against the system.  I’m grateful to have another opportunity to work in this industry with one of the industry leaders.  But the reality for more and more photojournalists, be they video or still, is that it is now a world of freelance work.  We will have to pay for our own insurance, Social Security and retirement plans; there will be no more paid vacations.   We may not even work for the networks or stations that we shoot for.  We’ll work for the temp-agencies or production houses that they contract out with.  We will compete with kids out of college for ever shrinking dollars. All I know is that my wife and daughter are counting on me, and this sure beats selling cameras at Wal-Mart for a living.  
© Mark Neuling 2004

The opinions expressed are still, solely those of the author.
© Mark Neuling 2004
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