Thursday, July 5, 2012

Goodbye Ivory Tower.

I once wrote a story about a major event happening in Philly. The city solicitor, Romy Diaz, held a press conference and afterward, I interviewed him at length.

The next day in the Daily News, my story said that the interview had been with Nelson Diaz, who had held positions within local government. I was outraged. Someone (I know exactly who) changed my story because they assumed I had goofed up the names, which I had not.

Romy Diaz's people called and complained, even suggesting that I needed cultural sensitivity training because clearly, I thought all Latino men were the same.

The Daily News butchered many of my stories and photos over the years and honestly, I butchered a fair share of my own.

There were days when I absolutely hated working at the Daily News. I punched holes in numerous walls there between 1994 and 2005, when I was a staff photographer and staff writer. But there were also days when I couldn't believe that that was actually my job. 

And nearly everyday I was there, it was like graduate studies in journalism (as well as Ph.D research on life in the big city), especially when I was a photographer.

I watched the reporters and listened to how they interviewed people. I was there when Barbara Laker asked then-governor Mark Schweiker how he responded to people who accused him of being an empty suit. That was masterful. I stalked alleged gangsters with Jim Nolan. I watched Nicki Weisensee schmooze cops. I listened as Scott Flander explained how important it is for journalists to observe everything and make notes because you never know what may be important as you gather. I watched Ted Silary turn high school athletes into superstars, mining seemingly everyday kids for interesting stories.

I entered the homes of the richest and poorest Philadelphians. I met powerful people, actors, musicians and countless other folks of various ranks in life. I witnessed tragedies and celebrations. 

As a sentimental person, I'm saddened to see the Inquirer and Daily News vacate their iconic building on Broad Street (above) for a smaller, shared office space on Market Street. But it's more than sentimentality at play here. Their move represents something larger, and I'm not sure the majority of the people in the region realizes or cares about what's happening.

The two papers have shrunk in staff and reach, and their overall reputations have been diminished - not because of lack of quality, per se, but because fewer and fewer people read them. And while the rise of the Internet is fantastic, there remains a massive gap in communication within society. Things are happening that many people do not/will not know about - even though they should. Individuals can find information they want at any time thanks to technology. But what about the information they didn't know they needed? They may never find that now.

Newspapers, while old-fashioned and completely not interactive, have historically been watchdogs for society and the shelf-stockers of the marketplace of ideas. If newspapers - and I'm speaking specifically of the DN and Inky - continue to contract and not connect with the local constituency, who will monitor power? Who will inform the public about anything other than death and destruction in the city? Who will help shape the conversation about Philadelphia and its future?

As a journalism professor, I am saddened that fewer and fewer of my students will get the experiences I had. Journalism is a magical profession - my job was (and still is) to learn about people, to experience their lives, and then tell people about that. With the exception of having a set schedule, going to work never felt like going to work. It was fun. Even when I was a reporter covering crime, seeing the impact of the awful violence, it didn't feel like a job. I felt like a person speaking with another person, who happened to be in pain. It certainly put my trivial problems into perspective.

I don't romanticize my time at the Daily News. It was (and probably still is) a fucked up place. I know reporters who routinely arrived at work an hour or two late. People left mid-shift to play softball or golf. Some folks would travel and eat at the most expensive restaurants because they were on the company dime. The nightside photo guys would watch porn all night. And when their shift ended, overnight reporter Leon "The Fly" Taylor would sleep on the photo office couches. 

I regularly took long lunches and frequently went home between assignments rather than go back to the office. It seemed that everybody at the paper had their little scams they got away with. 

The place was alive with colorful characters. I had some wonderful times there, and the friends I made there will be friends for life. 

The fact that I got paid so well was a bonus. Then in December 2005, they gave me more than a year's pay to leave as part of my buyout package (biggest check I ever received in my life ... so I took a picture, at right). I can't imagine that happens too often anymore.

I stopped at the Daily News the other day and saw the boxes packed up and the world of trash everywhere. It was sad. But the newsroom was also full of staffers doing their work, cranking out the next day's paper. 

That seemed symbolic to me as well. 

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