Breaking Up the Dream Team

Loup Langton remembers a golden era, a brief time when extraordinary photojournalism flourished. The place was Fox Valley Press, a string of obscure daily and weekly newspapers outside of Chicago. “There was an ownership of the newspapers–Copley–that supported good visual journalism for a period of time,” says Langton. “And there was a group of people that in a kismet kind of way came together and produced some really fine work. And it’s gone. And everybody who worked there will take away a piece of what was there and take it somewhere else.”

Like many press photographers, Langton has a restless soul. He came to the Copley papers from Ecuador, where he ran the photo department of that country’s biggest newspaper and taught university classes; he stayed 18 months, left last December, and will soon be on his way to the United Arab Emirates. Could he be sentimentalizing his brief sojourn in Chicago’s suburbs? No.

Earlier this year the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism announced the winners of their Pictures of the Year awards, the most important competition in the trade. Newspaper photographer of the year was Scott Strazzante of Joliet’s Herald News, a Fox Valley Press daily. Strazzante won for a portfolio of pictures taken for the Herald News and for the Chicago in the Year 2000 project.

Second to Strazzante was Rob Finch of Aurora’s Beacon News, another Fox Valley daily. In all, 28 of this year’s Pictures of the Year awards honored work done by Fox Valley’s daily and weekly newspapers, and the Beacon News won about half of those. And consider the awards to Fox Valley alumni. Jon Lowenstein, the magazine photographer of the year, worked for Fox Valley’s Sun weeklies before joining CITY 2000 full-time. Kathy Plonka, who finished third behind Strazzante and Finch for newspaper photographer of the year, left the Beacon News for Spokane’s Spokesman-Review in 1999.

The 2001 competition wasn’t an anomaly. Finch had been named photographer of the year in 2000. In 1999 Plonka’s husband Brian–also now with the Spokesman-Review–had come in second for his work as central photographer for the Fox Valley dailies in Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, and Waukegan.

What’s more, Mike Davis, director of photography and design for the Sun weeklies until he resigned to take a post in the Bush White House, will receive this year’s Joseph Sprague Award, the NPPA’s highest lifetime honor. Davis is a veteran of National Geographic.

The era’s over, says Langton. He points to the talented people who’ve moved on–and not just Davis, Lowenstein, and the Plonkas. Finch recently went to work for Portland’s Oregonian. Leigh Daughtridge, who followed Brian Plonka as central photographer and won or shared six 2001 Pictures of the Year awards, has gone to live in Spain. And Langton himself is gone.

Strazzante and some other award-winning young photographers have stayed behind, but they’re no longer at the same company. Last fall the family-owned Copley Press sold Fox Valley Press to Hollinger International, a penny-pinching corporation that already owned the Sun-Times, the Daily Southtown, and several other local papers.

“The difference,” says Mike Chapin, who quit as managing editor of the Beacon News after Hollinger bought it and is now at the Times in Hammond, Indiana, “is that with Mother Copley running the show, we were allowed to build that [pictorial] tradition. But with Hollinger, they have to look at stock prices and profit levels. They work their formula–to trim at the top.”

“I think they have different priorities,” says Langton. “My impression is that photography is not as much a priority for them as it was for Copley.” Yet even before Hollinger took over last December, he felt things changing. Copley eliminated his position as director of photography, an economy he assumes the company made to grease the sale.

Photojournalism is expensive, especially the photo essays the Fox Valley papers specialized in. “It takes time for photographers to establish relationships with their subjects,” says Langton. “Time is always money.”

The heyday dawned seven years ago, when Copley, a San Diego-based newspaper chain, sent one of its finest photographers, Greg Mellis, to Chicago as director of photography. Mellis was full of ideas. He not only centralized photography at the four dailies, but helped conceive and launch the free Sun weeklies. Today he’s their publisher. By hiring the likes of Mike Davis, Mellis established what he calls the “pipeline”–the flow of gifted photojournalists one after the other to the Fox Valley papers.

Under Copley, each daily had four photographers and one photo editor of its own, and supporting them were a director of photography and a central photographer based in Aurora. Hollinger regarded Copley’s central management as a good place to cut costs. The dailies’ vice president for editorial and the director of design were laid off, and the executive editor and central features editor quit–then all four positions were abolished. The central photographer joined the director of photography in oblivion.

The struggling Elgin and Waukegan papers had already lost their photo editors under Copley, and now Hollinger is eliminating the same position at the prosperous Beacon News–photo editor Michelle Patterson is out at the end of this month.

“Financially, they decided her position wasn’t that useful anymore,” says Finch, who’s kept in touch from Portland. How useful does he think the position is? Do photographers really need an editor to tell them when they’ve shot a good picture? “I think it’s essential,” he says. “If you want the kind of work we were doing at Copley, it’s impossible to do without photo editors who were paving the way. They were the ones sitting in all the meetings and dealing with all the crap, allowing us to do our jobs.”

“I believe in picture editing,” says Greg Mellis. “At the group I’m with [the Sun weeklies] we still have picture editors. Very talented people need editing. With the positions being gone [from the dailies] the function still has to happen, so it has to be worked out how it’s going to happen.”

When Patterson leaves, the only daily still paying a photo editor will be Joliet’s Herald News. One big reason is that the newsroom there is a Newspaper Guild shop, so publisher Randy Chapman and managing editor Lee Trigg haven’t been free to rewrite job descriptions any way they please. Besides, Trigg (who, incidentally, leaves the paper Friday to take a job in Texas) says Chapman, whose background’s in marketing, appreciates what he’s got. “You’ve got to remember that it’s an incredibly big feather in the paper’s hat to say we have the best photographer in the country working at the Herald News in little old Joliet.”

That photographer is Strazzante. “In Joliet the situation couldn’t be better–I can do whatever I want,” he says. “But the other dailies aren’t as good, especially Aurora. Aurora used to be the flagship.” So is the era over? “It’s hanging on, but I don’t think it can last much longer,” he says. “It seems so many people are leaving, and the commitment to photojournalism just isn’t the same.” He doesn’t expect to still be at the Herald News a year from now.

Jerry Strader now runs the former Copley papers, renamed Fox Valley Publications. He told me to talk to the dailies’ individual publishers about the future of photojournalism at their papers. Chapman was enthusiastic. David Harrison, publisher of the Beacon News, said, “We’re going to be doing the same as we always have.” When I asked how he squared that guarantee with laying off the photo editor, he replied that he couldn’t discuss personnel matters.

By all accounts, photojournalism is in better shape at the 14 Sun weeklies because Mellis is there to protect it. “If Hollinger gives him the finances he needs, that would be really wonderful for the Suns,” says Finch. “I don’t see that person in the daily system anymore. I don’t think there’s anyone to fight the battles.”

We Are but a Simple People

Aremarkable photo-essay spruced up the Showcase section of the Sun-Times this past Sunday. It was a full-page study of Tinsel Town anatomy borrowed from the National Post, Hollinger’s distinguished Canadian newspaper. “Real breasts, such as those of Jayne Mansfield,” a helpful photo caption informed us, “don’t conveniently stand at attention without help.”

The essay surprised the Sun-Times staff, especially the 113 (at last count) editorial employees who’d recently signed a petition calling on the paper’s editors to dial down the T & A and depict women with a little more dignity. A meeting followed between a delegation of women staffers and the paper’s two new editors from Vancouver, Michael Cooke and John Cruickshank. And genuine communication did take place–or so the women believed until last Sunday.

The previous Thursday, Cooke and Cruickshank had commented publicly on the issue, presenting themselves as more confused than contrite. They were the featured guests at a brown-bag luncheon sponsored by the Community Media Workshop at Columbia College, where they’d actually shown up toting bagged lunches.

Moderator Thom Clark asked about the petition. Cooke responded first.

“There are two things that surprised me big time living in Chicago,” he said. “One was the level of segregation in this community, which is both historic and contemporary, forced and voluntary. It probably speaks to my own naivete as a newcomer from the great white north, but I was stunned by that. I was also stunned by the level of what I think can be privately described–I’m going to say it–as a midwest prudery. We don’t understand, and we’re beginning to learn a little bit about, the midwestern scene. It’s a huge statement to make, so I don’t mean everyone–certainly not the people in this room [laughter]. Midwesterners are scared of sex, and that manifests itself all over our newspaper. I don’t understand it, and I hope you contradict me. They’re frightened of it.

“Which is to say that a photograph that might appear of Britney Spears in the New York Daily News or the New York Times would raise not a flutter of an eye and not an arch of an eyebrow in a New York newsroom. But put it in a Chicago newsroom and there’s a lot of jibber jabber and ‘Oh, my God! It’s Britney Spears’s navel!’ What I think of Britney Spears’s navel is [it’s] an American icon. [Laughter.] And in some way it needs to be celebrated.”

Now Cruickshank took over. “If we ran as editorial a picture of the sort that are now running as New York Times ads, we would have a riot in our newsroom. It’s interesting. There were Britney Spears commercials–one in very poor taste involving Dole–that I think were at the Academy Awards or maybe the Super Bowl. I don’t know–I get it all mixed up. At any rate…Lewis Lazare did a takeout on his page on those commercials, and we ran a picture of Britney Spears from a still that we got from the commercials.

“We had a delegation come to us. ‘You know, it’s terrible, this depiction of women in the Sun-Times–for example, this Britney Spears shot.’ ‘Well, it’s just from a television commercial. We felt that given the fact the piece was about the television commercial it would be legitimate to do that.’ ‘No, very bad! Very bad!’ ‘Well, what should we have done under the circumstances?’ ‘You could have run a head shot. You could have cut it off at the neck. That way you wouldn’t have shown the offending parts.’

“Ehh, this is maybe not good journalism,” Cruickshank went on, “you know, when you start covering up the table legs with the cloth because you’re afraid they’ll be offensive to people. We seem to have offended, though…far more people inside the newsroom than outside the newsroom.”

Perhaps in some way not immediately obvious to the lay mind, the Britney Spears rationale also covers “Hollywood or bust,” the Showcase picture page. Cooke tells me the photo essay examined “the reemergence of cleavage as a Hollywood force,” and he approved it. At any other newspaper he’s ever worked at–and that’s ten or more–“there would not have been one arched eyebrow in the whole newsroom.”

A reporter from the Sun-Times newsroom says women there felt “flummoxed” by the story, which hit them “almost like a slap in the face.”

The reporter adds, “Nobody knows what’s going on. This is how they’re going to get Nordstrom’s to advertise?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Sumner/Scott Strazzante.