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Sunday, June 23, 2013

It's the end of journalism as we know it

Brian Powers
By Ted Slowik
I've worked with many talented people through the years, including some of the 28 photographers fired by the Chicago Sun-Times on May 30. When I saw that CNN hired former colleague Brian Powers to photograph portraits for a piece about the layoffs, I knew it was time to break my silence about my former employer.

I worked in various capacities for the Sun-Times for 10 years, from March 1998 to November 2008. I worked in a cramped office on Jackson Street in downtown Naperville, at the Fox Valley Press in Plainfield, at The Joliet Herald News office on Caterpillar Drive, at The Sun's roomy digs on Ogden Avenue and at the rented offices on Commons Drive in Aurora.

None of those places exists as a newspaper office anymore.

When I came to The Naperville Sun in 1998 as a reporter, it was part of The Copley Press, a family-run business that had acquired The Sun from Harold and Eva White, who had bought it in 1936 from Harold Moser, who founded the paper as a weekly a year earlier. In the early 2000s Copley sold its papers in Naperville, Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, Waukegan and elsewhere to Hollinger, an international company headed by Lord Conrad Black, who also owned prestigious papers like the Jerusalem Post, The Daily Telegraph in the U.K. and Canada's National Post.

Hollinger acquired more Chicago-area papers, like the Daily Southtown, the Gary Post-Tribune and the Pioneer Press group of papers. Black and others would later be convicted of looting the company by skimming hefty fees from these transactions and eventually serve time in prison. Meanwhile, Hollinger divested itself of all but its Chicago-area papers and the company tried on a series of names including Sun-Times News Group and Sun-Times Media Group.

At one time the company published more than 100 newspapers, employing hundreds of people in offices throughout the Chicago area. Now there is only one office, in Chicago. The company no longer owns a press; it contracts with the Chicago Tribune to print and deliver its papers.

Scott Strazzante
I worked with some greats. In Joliet, I used to go on assignments with Scott Strazzante, who won the National Newspaper Photographer of the Year Award in 2000, the Illinois Photographer of the Year Award nine times and shared credit for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

In Joliet I worked with Joe Hosey, who investigated the disappearance of Stacy Peterson and wrote the book about convicted murderer Drew Peterson upon which the Lifetime movie was based. Also in Joliet I worked with James Smith, who ended up designing front pages for the Sun-Times. James appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" after Barack Obama's historic presidential win in 2008, and Oprah gushed about James' covers.

In Naperville our front-page designer was Robb Montgomery, who now travels across Europe and Russia teaching Radio Free Europe reporters how to use smart phones, according to his CNN bio. And I've worked with dozens more incredibly talented writers, photographers, editors and designers, like Paul LaTour, Wendy Fox Weber, Bill Wimbiscus, Susie Carlman, Steve Buyansky, Brad Nolan, Jim Owczarski--there are just too many to possibly name but I admire and respect the work of all. (Please forgive me, friends for not mentioning you--it's a dangerous business when you start naming names.)

It must be difficult for craftsmen like Pulitzer Prize-winner John White and the other former Sun-Times photographers to comprehend the elimination of their positions. Maybe some of the shock has worn off in the month since the firings, and maybe some of them feel slightly less lost. But we, collectively, are witnessing the slow death of the art form known as journalism.

Oh, schools can still teach aspiring journalists how to write clearly and concisely, and how to tell stories through photographs, video, graphics and other visual devices. And there'll be old-timers like me around for a generation to tell what it was like in the day when youngsters riding bicycles tossed evening newspapers onto doorsteps.

But gone forever are the smoke-filled, noisy newsrooms glorified in a film like "The Front Page." A reporter working like a lone wolf in the field has no sense of camaraderie with editors. There are no peers around to bounce ideas off of. ("Hey, what do you think of this sentence?") There are no others in desks around you to debate politics, or argue about coaches and players, or relate stories about off-the-record encounters.

As a craft, journalism is changed forever. As a friend in printing says, it's gone the way of the buggy whip.

I blame stupid management and ownership. For decades owning a newspaper was a license to print money. When the Internet revolutionized the news industry the top brass were too dumb to see the business model breaking down. No one grasped how Craigslist would make reliable revenue from classified advertising quickly evaporate. Then came the crash in 2008, and revenue from real estate and other display advertising dried up overnight. As managing editor of a daily newspaper at the start of 2008 I supervised 50 people. When I left that November only 10 of those positions remained.

To this day newspapers cling to an expensive, environmentally unfriendly 19th-century distribution model that involves printing words and images on paper that requires paying people to truck copies around neighborhoods in the wee hours of the day.

Print is threatened, and not just newspapers. Have you seen how thin a Sports Illustrated is these days, and other magazines, those that still exist in print form? And what about mail delivery--how long can the Post Office lose billions a year delivering information--and mostly junk--that could be distributed electronically for practically no cost?

And these rapid changes and bygone ways of life are not limited to journalism. Audiences for television shows are rapidly shrinking as consumers increasingly watch shows on demand on mobile devices. The model for content is rapidly changing as Internet-based channels develop original shows.

We've seen how the Internet upended the music business and book publishing, and now it appears the Hollywood business model is on the brink of collapse. The times they are a' changin', friends. Who knows what it will look like when the dust settles.

Hopefully there will always be a need for good storytellers.

CNN photo of Brian Powers by Andrew Nelles.