DALLAS, TX – Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Leeson, an NPPA member across three decades, has decided to accept a buy-out offer and to leave The Dallas Morning News.
"I never anticipated such things could be so painful," Leeson said.
The photojournalist and filmmaker's last day at the News will be September 12, but he's teaching a video workshop in Australia until September 15. "So I'll move out of my office as soon as I return," he said.
A.H. Belo Corp., owners of The Dallas Morning News, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, CA, and The Providence Journal, announced Thursday that it will lay off employees at the three papers – this after 412 employees already accepted buy-outs at the three media properties. In Dallas, 270 picked up their "involuntary reductions" this week, 120 in California, and 22 in Providence.
Belo says the cuts could save them $29 million a year.
An NPPA member who first joined the organization in January 1978, Leeson said he wanted to share his news first with NPPA members. "NPPA is where I first came to realize that there is more to a camera than photography," he said.
"I've known for years that this chapter of my life would be the best of my entire career. I'm 50 now, and I'm eager to move forward. There is a lot of work ahead of us and, as I told the News' director of photography yesterday, 'I have never been dedicated to a newspaper; I am dedicated to truth and to the opportunity to make a difference in the world.'"
Leeson said this his plans for the future are open, but that he's already started his new career. "I was in Santa Barbara on a video assignment last weekend and I have an hour-long documentary for another organization that I plan to begin in late September. Oddly, I have had no freelance work in the last three years since the Pulitzer. That was okay, because I've been too busy anyway."
Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, Leeson has been on staff at The Dallas Morning News since 1984. Three times before winning the Pulitzer along with fellow photojournalist Cheryl Diaz Meyer for their coverage of the war in Iraq, he was a finalist for the top honor. Along the way he's also won two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. During his career Leeson also worked for the Abilene Reporter News in Texas, and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
In 2000, Leeson became what's believed to be the first full-time newspaper staff photographer to dedicated all of his time to shooting video. He's completed seven documentary films since then. "War Stories" (2003) won a National Headliners award, a national Edward R. Murrow Award, and a regional Emmy Award for best television documentary. "Dust to Dust" (2004) was picked as a finalist for best short film in the USA Film Festival. Leeson won a second Emmy in 2007 as a producer and editor of combat footage from the war in Afghanistan.
A graduate of Abilene Christian University, he's married to photojournalist Kim Ritzenthaler and they have five children. Ritzenthaler, who had been a staff photographer at The Dallas Morning news but quit in 2004 when they had their first child, is now a freelancer.
Two weeks ago, Leeson says that he wrote to a friend, "I knew the end had come when I sat in a department meeting with management and heard them speak of the changes that were coming. Suddenly my mind drifted off to the beginning of my career with all the enthusiastic hopes and dreams of a new parent. I held the child of my hopes for a better world in my arms and believed as only a parent can.
"And I thought of the 30 years of sacrifices made to rear this 'child.' In my case, I thought also of the times my very life was laid on the line, moments when I faced death and narrowly escaped – and for what reason? Because I believed in something greater. The opportunity to create a better world was always with me.
"As my thoughts rambled over the course of decades I lowered my head and the tears began to pool on the conference room table. I hoped my colleagues thought I was simply tired or bored. I slowly wiped my eyes with my fingers and smeared the tears from the table on the sleeve of my jacket. I got up and left the meeting as they spoke.
"In other words, I realized that no one has placed a name or face or emotion on these traumatic events in our industry. I think that voice needs to be heard. What echoed in my mind was that the trauma could have been avoided. As I told my father, 'The best thing management did was to hire people like me and my colleagues. The worst thing they did was to not listen to them.'"
Leeson told News Photographer magazine, "Oddly, as soon as the last tear fell, the opportunities began to arrive. In just four days I had four documentary film projects to bid on. Two bids have been accepted. I haven't found the time to bid on the other two. Hopefully I can find the time to do that in the next two days. In short, as usual, I am busy."