I worked at several newspapers around Georgia during my short-lived (6-year) newspaper career. I started out as reporter (I miss AP style, too) for The Moultrie Observer in 2001 and was working as a staff photographer for the Griffin Daily News when I left the industry in 2007. I quit so that I could return to school and finish my bachelor’s degree. My intentions were to re-enter the newspaper world, hopefully a few rungs up the ladder, once I had degree in hand (I had already been turned down one job because I didn’t).
The problem was, as we all know, the newspaper industry collapsed and was but a shell of itself when I graduated in May 2011. Layoffs were everywhere (and still continue). My dreams of working my way up the ladder to a staff photographer position with a major metro daily newspaper were shattered. Freelance was the new way.
Working at a newspaper though, for me, was much more than a job. It was a way of life. I felt so connected with my surrounding community. I paid attention to everything around me, because it was a possible story. If I saw an ad for a summer camp, I knew that was an option for feature photos. If a new business popped up, I thought that it could possibly fit into a business trend story. The assistant coach on the sidelines at the Friday night football game with special needs? Story.
I actually enjoyed staff meetings. It was my chance to brainstorm with other folks who cared about the community and about how to best tell its stories. It was my chance to find some new way to illustrate a concept or story that had been reported on for years. It was rewarding.
I missed the little things, too. I miss talking with the pressmen about how to tone my photographs (I worked at small newspapers) so they popped off the pages. I miss carrying home the next day’s paper when I left at 1 a.m. I miss getting done early with my assignments and goofing off an entire afternoon. It’s possible to do that with freelance, but it seems that there’s always something else to do … contacting a new client, archiving photos, sending out invoices and expenses.
And don’t get me wrong, there are things about being freelance that I absolutely love, like writing this blog post at my desk with my dog Charlie lying beside me. And do that with NPR playing in the background (I don’t always miss listening to the police scanner :)).
So in no particular order, here are the top 10 things I miss most about working for a newspaper:
1. Sense of community
As I mentioned earlier, the sense of community among (good) journalists, is very strong. I felt like I owed it to the people of whatever city I was working in to give them my very best, to tell their stories in a respectable and decent manner. I wanted them to be excited to pick up the paper every day, to learn more about their surroundings.
2. Friday night football
I can obviously attend friday night football games without working for a newspaper. But there’s just something special about covering, especially photographing, high school football that runs deep with every newspaper photographer that I have ever known. Covering athletes who don’t have endorsements or contracts, kids who are just playing to win. On top of all that, I have made better photos at a high school game than I ever have at a college or professional game, simply because of the access I was granted. Friday nights were electric.
3. Having an excuse to find feature photographs
Just like No. 2, I can still ride around the community looking for feature photographs, but it’s just not the same. While working for the paper, I often was tasked with seeking a “found” moment — a kid playing with the water hose in his yard, a pedestrian silhouetted walking down a street, or a photo illustrating the weather. These assignments were sometimes begrudgingly executed, but were many times a complete joy.
Trying to do this as a freelancer could be awkward, especially trying to get a photo of a kid playing outside (what would you think if a man his 30s showed up with a camera while your children were taking turns on a Slip ‘n Slide?). A media badge takes away all (well, most) worries.
4. Taking naps in the darkroom
I know this isn’t the best use of the darkroom, but it sure came in handy when I had to work those 15 hour days. Those days when I just needed a 20-minute nap so I could make it through that baseball game double header, there was no better place. A stack of newspapers or leftover magazines worked great as a pillow.
5. Monthly clip contests
Every time I took a photo that I thought was decent, I couldn’t wait to enter it that month’s clip contest, either with the Georgia Press Association or the National Press Photographers Association. These contests created a positive sense of competition among my peers. It was a place where I could see how my work stacked up against folks at other newspapers on a monthly basis. It made me better.
6. Police scanners
Nothing could get my adrenaline going quite like hearing the signal on the scanner that something big was happening (or nothing at all). It could be a building on fire, a shooting, police chase, or simply a false alarm. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to become adept at translating Georgia 10 codes. When it sounded like the call might be the real deal, I sprinted out of that newsroom as fast as I could, camera gear dangling off each shoulder. I considered it a success when I beat the emergency vehicles to the scene. I even had a portable scanner that I would sometimes take home (did I mention that I didn’t have much of a life outside newspapers?).
7. Using a Domke bag
As you can see from the above photo, I used the hell out of my Domke bag. It was THE bag for the newspaper photojournalist. Because you never know what lens you might need, you could swap them out very easily by reaching into this beautifully built bag while slung over your shoulder. As a freelancer, I seldom have the need to have 3-4 four lenses at my disposal while on an assignment, so this bag is more burdensome than useful. The Domke bag I use now is full of grip equipment (clamps, wires, cables, Magic Arms, etc.).
8. Learning new things
The sheer range of assignments that a newspaper photographers cover exposes them to things they probably would not have encountered otherwise. City council meetings, for example, can be very boring things to attend, which is why many people don’t go (but probably should). But there’s a wealth of information there: How local government works, how not to address the council (I have seen some folks make asses of themselves while standing at the podium).
9. Seeing my work published daily
There was a big sense of pride for me in seeing my work in the paper every day (especially above the fold). To know that something I photographed or wrote was on the breakfast table of thousands of homes in the community each morning, that made me feel good. What was really special though was going to an assignment and seeing a photo I had taken pinned to someone’s wall or refrigerator. That really brought it full circle for me.
10. Working with a team
I’ve heard it said that putting out a newspaper is like publishing a small book each day. It was so amazing to work with a team of such extraordinary folks to produce this small record of history each and every day. From designers and composing room folks to news writers, sports writers, press folks, ad sales people, just to name a few. It was definitely a special thing.
I miss working at newspapers, and I’m sure I always will.