(November 18, 2005) – Today is a bittersweet day for staff photojournalist Elwood P. Smith of the Philadelphia Daily News. It’s his last day of work at the newspaper. After 68 years in the business. After 60 years at the Daily News. After being a charter NPPA member from the organization’s very beginning in the summer of 1946, with a membership card signed by NPPA founder Joseph Costa himself, a 50-year NPPA medallion, and a lifetime membership.
Smith is 86 years old, and with the changes in the newspaper, the industry, Knight Ridder, and the recent buyouts offered for editorial jobs at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, now seemed as good a time as any to say goodbye. Today, Friday, 25 people (including Smith) will clear out of the Daily News as a result of the buyouts. The Inquirer is supposed to lose 75 people.
Buyouts are going on at other big newsrooms too, as newspapers who are still making money – good money, by Wall Street standards – are pressured by owners and investors to make the margins even bigger. It’s a tough time for newspapers, a business Smith has watch go up and down several times, and change from family ownership to corporate suits, for more than six decades now.
So come this Friday night there will be a lot fewer people in the Daily News offices. But on Thursday night many of them were still there on Smith’s next-to-last shift on the nightside, and the staff of the Daily News had a little celebration in the newsroom to recognize him, and to honor a career that started in 1937 when he was a rookie copy boy.
The photographers set up a “prom backdrop” and took turns posing for pictures with him. DailyNews photojournalist Alejandro Alvarez kept Smith in his viewfinder as the evening unfolded. There was cake, some gifts, a late dinner, a big signed drawing, maybe even a few drinks – and, of course, hugs and a few tears.
Thursday evening at the beginning of the party, on the phone with News Photographer, he couldn’t quite recall what his NPPA membership number is, but since he was there at NPPA’s beginning the odds are pretty good that it’s a fairly low digit. “I’ve got my card here somewhere,” he said. “Oh, I can’t find it right now.”
Smith’s career started with 4x5 Speed Graphic cameras and film holders and flash bulbs and evolved to 35mm film SLR cameras before ending in the digital era. He photographed Philadelphia politicians in the 1960s like The Mayor, Frank Rizzo, and in 1970 he photographed revolutionary Black Panthers being raided and strip searched by Philly police.
He’s been working on assignments right up through this week, a man who is a product of the Depression era who survived it to go on and fight in World War II, who survived war to go on and survive a 60-plus year career in newspapers - and in big, tough Philadelphia at that.
Another photographer, his coworker David Maialetti of the Daily News, has shadowed Smith during this last week on the job. Maialetti has documented the last days of one man’s long photojournalistic career in a picture essay that followed Smith through work, his daily life, and at home, pictures we hope to see in January’s issue of News Photographer magazine.