The End of the Golden Age

Feb 11, 2016  By Eric Baker


The message on my cellphone simply stated that I didn’t need to come into work that day.

It requested that I immediately return the call, but seeing that the message was left sometime in the pre-dawn hours, I didn’t feel an urgent need to call and confirm what I already knew.  I had just been laid-off.  By voicemail.

Management had alluded that layoffs might be coming, but wouldn’t say when.  Instead, they gave frequent pep talks intended to instill esprit de corps within the ranks, praising the newsroom staff as the paper’s most valuable asset.  Then they would remind us that payroll was their second-biggest expense, as if to imply that we were the problem.  None of this did anything for morale.  Already reduced to a skeleton crew by three previous buy-outs, the staff labored on like the walking dead.  With typical newsroom black humor everyone joked about the possibility of layoffs, a distraction from the all-too real consequences of involuntary termination.  I quietly cleaned out my desk a little each day, just in case.  After that call, I never went back.

It was the end of the golden age of newspaper photojournalism.

Because the Leica Historical Society of America is a historical organization, and Leica is synonymous with photojournalism, I felt compelled to chronicle the passing of newspaper photojournalism as I once knew it.

My career in journalism started in a manner that would be impossible today.  One day my mother noticed there was a new chief photographer at one of the two newspapers in town and suggested that I take my portfolio and “go down there and ask him for a job.”  Right Mom, like they‘d hire some kid in high school.  They did.  That initial summer internship became an extended internship; by the time I graduated college I had more on-the-job-experience than anyone else in my class.  For the next 34 years I worked at newspapers throughout the West.

That was the heyday of Nikon, and any self-respecting photojournalist had several draped around his (or her) neck.  I was no exception.  Few photographers owned a Leica and, like the others, I was busy scrimping to afford Nikon’s latest wonder.  My first Leica was a double-stroke M3, a hand-me-down from Dad’s vast collection of pawnshop “treasures.”  Because its only lens was a 90/4 Elmar of corresponding vintage, it initially saw little use.  SLRs were simply more versatile.  Besides, that M3 with its skinny little 90 looked rather absurd next to a 180/2.8 mounted on a motorized F2.

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Great article, Eric. I miss the days of talking to real newspaper photographers. I had a friend (customer) who worked at the Chicago Sun-Times in the 70’s. He now writes books. He started using digital when his editors requested it, otherwise it was 4×5 and 6×6. (I remember the 40’s and 50’s when the 4×5 Speed Graphic was the usual fare for a news photographer.)

Eric – a really interesting read. I was always fascinated by the newspaper world, especially its intersection with the photographic life. In college, I worked at a camera store – a real one, with cameras, film, developing and repair services, etc – whose manager was a former full-time then free-lance news photographer. He told lots of great stories and made it all seem fascinating – except he was broke, continually, and had resorted to wedding photography and selling his personal cameras. Mixed message, I guess. Anyway – I will look for your byline in the future, hoping to hear some more true adventures of the Golden Era.

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