Photographers High and Low

One of the measures of the human spirit that it’s easy to make too much of is morale. We used to ask cops how morale stood in the department, and the answer was always, “Could be better.” It took us a while to understand this response meant nothing. No cop would ever say, “Hey! Morale’s great!” If a cop ever does tell you, “Hey! Morale’s great!” it might be time to send that check off to the ACLU.

Newspapers are the same way. Ask reporters about morale in their newsrooms and they say it’s lousy. They say it’s unbelievable what’s going on. A reporter who just won the Pulitzer Prize might allow, “Well, they leave me alone.” But the impression journalists normally want to leave is of dark and obtuse forces making it next to impossible to do a decent job.

Take the Tribune. Nobody admits to being happy at the Tribune. Whether you actually like it there or not, you learn to roll your eyes when someone asks about your job and to make it clear that the bureaucratic layers and sheer soullessness of the place vex you just as much as they’re supposed to. In our 21 years in Chicago, we’ve heard one person profess otherwise. It happened years ago at Riccardo’s, where an editor at the next table was trying to seduce an out-of-town hotshot onto the staff. Jeez, we all have so much fun! the editor babbled, as minions flanking him nodded in grim joy. For shameless testimony expected to fool no one this outburst can be compared with Clarence Thomas telling a Senate committee that he had no opinion on Roe v. Wade; or Clark Clifford explaining that he’d been a silly old fool.

A year and a half ago Tribune photographer Phillip Greer wrote a famous letter to editor Jack Fuller. Morale in the photo department had hit rock bottom, and Greer gave voice to the general distress.

“I agree with the new Tribune philosophy that we must cover the suburban area better,” Greer wrote, “but we must also cover the city, state, national, and international news with as much drive and resources as we now give to the suburbs. I view with alarm what is transpiring at the Tribune.”

What was transpiring, according to Greer, was the subordination of urgent city images to trifling suburban ones. “Why do we feel a need to run a panel of photos of a high school play in Palatine on a day when a group of city high school students of multi-ethnic background stay out of school in support of their principal? Our readers deserve better.”

Greer’s candor helped get him promoted. Today he is the director of photography. But morale continues to lag. “I’m sure,” said someone on the staff, “that the public is just as sick as the photographers of seeing little kids drinking out of a drinking fountain.”

“Any large newspaper doesn’t change overnight,” Greer told us the other day. A middle manager now, he speaks like one. “I think the Tribune is becoming more and more aware of the value of good photojournalism.”

We called Greer because we’d heard that good photojournalism had just been paid a singular tribute at the Tribune: in a sharp expression of in-house frustration, someone had tacked up in the newsroom two exemplary photo displays from the Sun-Times. One was a two-page color essay, “Black cowboys ride again”; the other had been torn from the Sun-Times’s four-part series on street violence, “After the shooting stops.”

Greer understands how his people feel. “Any time they see images like that, where papers are running photo layouts, and their own paper isn’t devoting that much space to photography at a given time, there’s going to be envy on the staff.”

A spear-carrier put it more bluntly. “They’re just making us look like shit. All you see in the Trib is some kid doing something on a swing or some asshole up in a skyscraper washing windows. They just don’t want to run hard news.”

They do, of course. But Tribune photographers are victims of the paper’s bloat. Consider the Sunday Tribune. In addition to the hard news and sports that sometimes allow photojournalists to take the dramatic images they live for, you will find Womanews and Business and Tempo and Real Estate and Home and Transportation and the Arts–which don’t.

“The Sun-Times outclasses us in photography every day. Every day,” said a Tribune staffer. “They make us look sick. And the crazy thing is we have premier photographers on our staff who are wasted on crap.”

But as we were saying, low morale is not news. A staff that admits to enjoying itself is. So the real story here is not that despairing Tribune photographers are tacking up the competition. It’s the competition.

“It’s a whole different outlook–our staff from their staff,” says Bob Ringham of the Sun-Times’s photo- assignment desk. “We think the Tribune has no heart, where we do. Our photo staff is a family. We’re all pulling for each other. And over there, they hate each other.”

The Tribune ran an engaging page-one feature on the Black West Rodeo the day before it came to suburban Steger–with a dinky head shot of the smiling promoter. The Sun-Times’s Rich Chapman had been waiting months for a rodeo to photograph. The Tribune’s feature convinced him the time had come. He talked to Robin Daughtridge, the Sun-Times’s young director of photography. “I said I wanted to hang around and see if I could come up with a story. She said, whatever it takes.”

Chapman told us, “It’s pretty exciting here right now. We’ve gotten a green light to go out and pursue story ideas. We know just from our experience the last couple of months, they’re going to use the pictures.”

Good photography is so obviously a strength tabloids should play to, you may wonder why it’s worth remarking that the Sun-Times does. Well, the obvious often escapes decision makers. Photo spreads are an easy thing to get out of the habit of running.

“There’s a lot of BS we have to shoot,” conceded Daughtridge, who’s the key to her department’s high spirits. “Like a picture every day to go with the celebrity column. It’s a portrait. There’s nothing particularly challenging about it. We try to spread the good stuff around evenly so everybody gets a chance.

“Another thing we make sure of,” she went on, “is that in the editing process, the photographer is involved in everything from the initial edit to narrowing down to the four or five pictures that go in the paper.

“For example, we started out with 25 pictures on the medical examiner [for the “After the shooting stops” series]. Then the photographer and I and Rich Cahan, a photo editor, spread them all out and talked about them a long time–what we could use, what would be too gory. Dennis [Britton, the editor] looked at them. If it’s something like this, he’ll get involved. Then the layout process takes place. Everybody has a say in what’ll be the largest, most dominant image.”

That’s how they do it at the Sun-Times, where the photographers actually say they’re happy.

Banished From the Tower

The times have passed by Al Voney, better known around the Tribune as “Al the shoeshine man.” For 11 years Voney enjoyed the run of the newsroom. But the other day the Tribune Company sent him packing. Reporters tell us that Voney’s downfall was a spate of accusations that he’d practiced “serial lip licking.”

“A wiry, toothless, 57-year-old south-sider,” as he was described a couple of years ago in the Reader by contributor Barnaby Dinges, Voney had long enjoyed a certain latitude in his dealings with the staff. One reporter recalls Voney’s habitual salutation, “That must be jelly, ’cause jam don’t shake like that!” which did not offend her as much as it might have. But by several accounts, Voney could get even more familiar. An unamused staffer went to superiors with her indignation. Then other women also spoke up, sealing his fate.

A man of no known address, Voney could not be reached for comment. But remarks he made to Dinges proved eerily premonitory.

“Many of my best customers have retired or been transferred,” Voney lamented in 1989. “All they hire these days is ladies, and they get fewer shines. Ladies are taking over this place.”

Another major absence from the Tribune’s newsroom is the rented plants in white plastic buckets, which were sent back to the supplier. Company spokesmen discussed this cost-cutting measure as reluctantly as they discussed Al Voney. “I have no comment on our internal decisions,” said Joe Leonard, associate editor for operations, when pressed to explain the disappearance of the shrubbery.

The rank and file report a sense of dislocation: without the vegetation, the newsroom no longer feels like the familiar insurance office they were used to.

The Paper’s Choice

The Sun-Times picked an odd time to be modest. Last Sunday’s paper found special writer M.W. Newman writing ecstatically about the new Harold Washington Library Center–“this new Chicago colossus” that he hailed as “a ruddy block of brick and granite,” as “the biggest library anywhere,” and more ambiguously as “a memory steeped in civic chutzpah.”

Newman observed nonetheless: “The city might have saved tens of millions of dollars if it had stayed with its plan to renovate State Street’s Goldblatt’s Building.

“But that was a civic choice.”

Sure. A civic choice made in response to the most relentless editorial campaign the Sun-Times has waged in the last 20 years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.