The Newsroom Empties & Style DisappearsTuesday, February 28, 2012
Before Vancouver Sun Editor-in-Chief John Cruickshank was promoted to a publishing position with the Chicago Sun Times in the early 2000s I ran into him in the Sun newsroom. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me he wanted a word with me. He took me through the cavernous expanse of the room which was full of columnists and staffers. It was a real newsroom, at least from my now ancient point of view. It was the kind of newsroom that I saw in a recent viewing at home of Kevin Macdonald’s 2009 film State of Play with Helen Mirren, Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck. Of that newsroom NY Times A. O. Scott wrote:
I will admit that I choked up a little at the end of “State of Play.” Not because the story was especially moving — or even, ultimately, all that interesting — but because the iconography of the closing credits tugged at my ink-stained heartstrings. The images are stirring and familiar, though in a few years’ time they may look as quaint as engravings of stagecoaches and steam engines. A breaking, earthshaking story makes its way from computer screen to newsprint. The plates are set, the presses whir, sheaves of freshly printed broadsheet are collated, stacked on pallets and sent out to meet the eyes of the hungry public. Truth has been told, corruption revealed and new oxygen pumped into the civic bloodstream. All that’s missing is a paperboy yelling “extra!” to crowds of commuters in raincoats and fedoras.
Those of us who work in the newspaper business are highly susceptible to the kind of sentimental view of our trade this movie offers, especially when the sentiment masquerades as tough-minded cynicism, which makes us go all dewy and reach for the bottle of rye we keep stashed in the bottom drawer of our battered metal desk.
When I emerged from Cruickshank’s office (who had promised me lots more work and that I was going to work more with the then Saturday Review/Mix editor David Beers) I walked back to the exit. That evening I received quite a few phone calls from Sun staffers wanting to have lunch with me.
I don’t have to go to the Vancouver Sun newsroom now to know that the cavernous space has been empty and the paper is moving a floor up for more compact quarters. I don’t have to point out here, but I will, that if the five minutes max that I spend every morning reading the Sun would be my time in the Vancouver Sun Run I would be very happy to keep paying for my daily subscription. And I must also reveal here that if I were to buy a canary, budgie or a Guinea pig the Vancouver Courier would suffice.
But I will not malign any further a paper that is put together in Hamilton Ontario. It has, at least, a few columnists of note like David Baines, Vaughn Palmer and Ian Mulgrew. It is my city newspaper, after all.
Ever since I can remember I have been in love with newspapers and magazines and I can never read enough about them or read the ones that are my faves.
The reason for this is that photographers with style were the ones who were hired. It took a while but eventually I, too, worked for the many incarnations of Saturday Night until it finally died and alas, I must say that perhaps it was then when style in magazine photography became white Bimbo Bread.
By 1980 when I was the de-facto staff photographer for Vancouver Magazine I took pride in pulling all the stops when I was given assignments.
I remember vividly sometime in the late 80s that editor Malcolm Parry threw a wide-angle lens (my own) at me in fury and said, “Alex you are now only making the motion of taking pictures.” I needed that. Mac had pride in the writing and the style of his magazine. When in doubt he always put people on the cover. Those table top food shots or graphic chart covers of the present and seen in so many of our local publications would have made Mac buy the whole wide-angle inventory of Lens & Shutter to use as ammunition. And of course Vancouver Magazine had lots of content that explored areas outside kitchens and restaurant rooms. There was investigative stuff that people talked about.
It was photographer Bert Stern (a photographer with oodles and oodles of style) who pioneered the use of the perfect white background for photographic covers and layouts. This permitted in the end, when cost-cutting became an issue to assign several photographers to use the white background and with a crisp b+w photograph the pictures could look like they were taken by the same photographer who had traveled (not) to London, Paris and New York to take the pictures.
The perfect white covers have now made local magazine covers predictable and boring (from my point of view). There is little drama and of course little style.
Perhaps with no competition it is not necessary to pull the eye of the consumer to buy or even pick up, if the publication is free. Are these publications simply making the motion of publishing?
Since I am not a writer by profession I cannot surmise here with any accuracy that writing style has also gone in the direction that I perceive photography has.
The b+w photograph of body builder Carla Temple is one that I remember fondly because of the effort, a collective one, to take it. As soon as I was able to find the Roman ruin columns at the CBC warehouse in Burnaby I rented a truck and editor, Mac Parry, art director Chris Dahl and writer Les Wiseman all chipped in to lift them onto the truck and transport them to my studio.
When Chris Dahl moved to the business magazine Equity he liked to use vertical page bleeds as seen here with my portrait of Vancouver Sun columnist David Baines. The colour spread is one of mine for Saturday Night.
Would anybody in Vancouver bother? I think not. A crisp white cover with an innocuous portrait or table setting will do just fine.