In his series “Deadline” photographer Will Steacy visited The Philadelphia Inquirer, where his father worked for decades. Over 5 years Steacy documented the difficult battle that daily papers wage against digital opponents. With a decline in advertising, circulation and lay-offs, The Inquirer has struggled to remain in business.
Steacy is looking to publish the photos in a book and has launched a Kickstarter campaign here.
“News is the part people don’t ask for and should know. News is what can help people govern their nation, their city, their neighborhood, their school. By definition, news does not soothe. News breaks. Those big investigative projects help people understand how and why it broke and sometimes how to put it back together.” -James Naughton, Executive Editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1991-1996.
What inspired you to pursue this project?
“My last book and long term project, Down These Mean Streets, explored the past. The consequences of thirty years of misguided social and economic policy, deregulation and the transformation of a manufacturing economy into a consumer economy. The impact of these events had a slow but devastating impact on America and this project was about explaining, in great detail, how we got to where we are today. In this new project, I look towards the future. We are amidst a massive societal transition which will have a cataclysmic impact not only on our economy, but the way we see and think and interact. I am not so sure people truly understand the magnitude of what is at stake.
“From an economic standpoint, the newspaper industry has been profoundly disrupted at a very early stage by technological advances and provides a snapshot into the future of how other industries may be upended. As the transition into an information technology economy of the future has eroded middle skill jobs and middle class wages, boosted productivity while reducing the labor force, there has been a steep human cost for the convenience and democratization of information that technological advances have provided us. The economist Robert Gordon in his influential 2012 paper believes that the benefits of this third industrial (technological) revolution have already been felt and compared to revolutions of the past in which the economic benefits of the steam engine and electricity were long lasting and gave birth to further innovations such as the telephone and air conditioning, which in turn provided long-term economic prosperity. But the information technology sector’s contribution to economic growth has plateaued and the technological innovations of the future will only create widening economic inequality as all the gains made from labor cost reductions go to a privileged few, who have already amassed great wealth…and the millionaires become billionaires. In 2012, when Instagram sold to Facebook for $1 billion, it had 30 million customers and 13 employees, while, later that same year, Kodak, which at its height once employed 145,000 people, filed for bankruptcy.
“In 2013, the combined wealth of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Oracle and Qualcomm represented more than a quarter of the total $1.7 trillion cash pile held by U.S. non-financial corporations. Reddit, which receives 70 million unique visitors and five billion page views a month, has 28 employees. Whats-App which recently sold for $18 billion has 55 employees. A recent Oxford University study predicts that in two decades 47 percent of today’s jobs will be automated. The low-wage service sector has been the source of 90% of job growth in the U.S. economy, where half of all jobs pay less than $35,000. McDonalds has 761,000 employees and Walmart has 1.4 million employees.”
What about The Philadelphia Inquirer compelled you to tell their story before other newspapers?
“The Inquirer is my hometown paper. It is the paper my father worked for and the newsroom I grew up running around in. I don’t think there was really ever any other option. So I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up turning my camera toward the newspaper industry in the same city that the daily press in America was invented and in the same city our country’s constitution was written.
“And on a personal level, I come from five generations of newspaper men. My great, great, great grandfather, Hiram Young, started The Evening Dispatch in 1876 (now York Dispatch). This family tradition was passed down from father to son for more than a century until my father, who was an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 29 years until he was laid off in 2011, and so this tradition will die with my father.
“When I began shooting the project, the Inquirer was just reemerging from bankruptcy and my original intent with this project was document a newsroom fighting through hard times while undergoing a massive transition into a digital era. The newsroom certainly has fought through and continues to fight through hard times, producing the best journalism they can with the staff and resources they have, and those efforts have been recognized with two Pulitzers in the past three years. What makes that achievement so remarkable is the fact that they have done this great work while in the middle of a David and Goliath battle.
“When I began shooting, I thought that this story would eventually become a positive one, and the storm would be weathered, but instead the the furloughs, buy outs, lay offs, and budget cuts only got worse and continued at a horrific pace. At one point in the middle of the project, the paper was loosing $50,000 a day. I never expected to watch my father get laid of in the middle of the project, I never expected 400 North Broad Street to no longer be the home of the Inquirer.”
Could you tell us a little bit more about the economic and social factors impacting contemporary newspapers?
“Newspapers are the fastest shrinking industry in America. While many credit the advent of the Internet as the origin of newspapers’ current woes, the newspaper industry has faced tremendous battles for the past quarter-century. Long before Twitter and iAnything, many newspapers were local, family owned businesses committed to quality journalism, but over the past quarter-century have been consolidated into publicly owned national media chains. With this change of ownership, high-end journalism was abandoned and interests shifted to appeasing hungry Wall Street shareholders’ appetite for profits as massive cost cutting buy-outs and lay-offs swept through newsrooms across the country. With a reduced workforce now unable to provide the quality of news coverage readers came to expect, many papers today, coupled with the democratization of information on the internet, are struggling to hold readers interests and create a profitable platform to disseminate print and online news coverage.
“Looking the challenges facing newspapers today, I think the numbers alone tell the story. 268 American newspapers have closed or stopped printing a newsprint edition since 2007. Newspaper advertising revenue has fallen 60% since its peak in 2005. Daily circulation has fallen 47% in the past decade, while Sunday circulation has fallen 40%. Since 2000 more than 75% of print classified revenue has been lost. In 2012, newspapers lost $16 in print ads for every $1 earned in digital ads. Newsroom employment has fallen 33% since 2006. The number of full time newsroom employees peaked at 56,900 in 1989 and is now 36,700. Newspapers have shed a greater percentage of jobs since 2007 than any other industry in the U.S., making it the fastest shrinking industry in America. One third of all American newspapers assign a reporter to statehouses, a 35% decline in full time statehouse reporters from 2003-2014. Facebook accounted for one of every six minutes Americans spent online in December 2013. 60% of American adults have heard little or nothing about the news industry’s financial struggles.”
Could you tell us a little bit about the relationship between newspapers and your concept of a “civic trust?”
“The newspaper is our mirror, and we might not like the image that mirror reflects back at us, but that mirror keeps the playing fields level and is what holds us all accountable: the truck driver in the highway crash that killed four whose license was suspended, the cop who tampered with evidence, the governor who accepted expensive vacations and jewelry store shopping sprees from real estate developers, a president who claims he was unaware that government security officials were spying on national leaders. The newspaper for centuries has served as a cornerstone of American society holding our country’s institutions, CEOs, politicians and big businesses accountable for their actions, upholding the values, laws and morals that our democracy was founded upon.
In the post-digital age, why is it important that we preserve the legacy of newspapers like the Inquirer? What separates newspapers from the easily accessed online information venues (Facebook, Twitter, etc)?
“Jim Naughton, the former editor of the Inquirer, once said that ‘By definition news does not soothe. News breaks.’ For all the great things social media platforms provide us and allow us to connect in ways previously unimaginable ways, I must say, a major downside that has resulted from all this, is that we now have an unhealthy and overwhelming urge to be soothed. We have grown inward, divided into small factions and groups of peers that share our same political view, went to the same school, are in the same field, from the same neighborhood, and, ultimately, we have become divided, we have become cut off from the world outside of our own. This is dangerous. In my eyes, one of the greatest functions of the newspaper, in paper or pixels, is its ability to open doors and share with readers an entirely new world. And as a result, these passages create an understanding of a human experience previously unbeknown to them, or, simply said, empathy.
“But, before one is quick to say all that ink has gone to my head and clouded my vision, yes, I suppose an abstract version of this can be possible on the internet. So, perhaps, since I imagine the majority of the people reading this are photographers (wink, wink), let me frame things another way. Technological advances have afforded us a gluttonous and seemingly infinite amount of information available at our finger tips, specifically photographs. Yet with that nouveau wealth of unlimited visual imagery continually updated and refreshed, there is a great poverty in our ability to perform serious looking and visual contemplation. The photograph has become a devalued currency and is no longer worth a thousand words. The image today is disposable, or, at best worth 16 seconds, before it is replaced with the next. There are 400 million photographs uploaded to SnapChat a day.
“As a result, the number of newspaper photographers, artists and videographers have shrunk by almost half (43%) in the decade from 2000 to 2012. That is horrific. That means that there are almost half as many visual narratives being told today than a decade ago. In-depth photographic storytelling by professionals has been replaced with a simple point-and-click, good enough snapshot. In-depth storytelling done by professionals is at risk today. A simple iPhone snap of rubble in Gaza City, blood stains in Damascus or tanks in Kiev do not provide a doorway to understanding the complete story, or any story for that matter, just a brief abstracted glimpse through the door peephole.”
“Regardless of whether it leaves ink of your fingers or a sore scrolling thumb, it is the actual content that matters most. The news is not like other industries in which you can cut costs and reduce staff during lean times and then bulk up during prosperous ones. In fact it is during the hard times, recessions and stagnant growth when we rely on accurate information and we turn to the newspapers we trust to explain to us what is happening, what a credit default swap is, what quantitative easing is, what a taper means.
“And just as the newspaper holds society accountable, the newspaper is held accountable for the information it provides readers. The newsroom staff has the expertise to be able to sort through hundreds of thousands of pages of leaked documents and to know what information is relevant and important and then explain it to the general public. It is the beat reporters who know the story, know their sources, know when someone is lying to them, who keep digging, who put all the scattered pieces of the puzzle together in one story, and who shed light on the shadowy corners of democracy, all before deadline.
“As newsrooms across the nation been stripped down to a mere skeleton of their former selves and, subsequently, as we have lost news coverage, reporters, editors, news beats and sections of our newspapers, we are left without a mirror to the world, we lose a connection to our cities and our society and, in the end, we loose ourselves.”