Large Photo Staffs and the 1980s

By Katelyn Umholtz

For some, the ‘80s were the good days. The economy was thriving compared to a decade earlier, and newspapers and magazines hadn’t started drastic cutbacks like they would a decade later.

J. Kyle Keener, now the photo editor of the Pharos-Tribune of Logansport, Indiana, said the ‘80s were the time to be a photojournalist.

“It was the heyday for photojournalism in American newspapers,” Keener said. “You never, ever heard about working too much overtime or downsizing. More or less, it was a dream come true.”

For others, behind the success of newspapers there was something going on that would affect the industry later on.

Greg Smith, a photojournalist living in Colorado, refers to the ‘80s as the “beginning of the end.” Behind the scenes, he said, family-owned publications were becoming corporate organizations.

“Whether that was bad or not, I don't know. I think the results have been horrible.” Smith said.

Smith said previously, many newspapers had been owned by families, most with a certain political party and with an agenda. They owned newspapers for the purpose of getting information out about the issues they cared about. This may not have always been good practice, but he said it became much worse when corporations began buying out these newspapers. An abundance of great storytelling became a thing of the past.

“Wire stories replaced local work,” Smith said. “Fluff pieces replaced actual reporting.”

Keener began his career in 1984 and it was during that decade when he spent working on the bigger stories. When working for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper backed him to travel to do big stories. They were covering conflicts and distributing photo essays on important topics.

“We got to take as much time shooting things as we wanted,” Keener said. Fro instance, the Inquirer published “A Day in the Life of AIDS,” a special report that involved every photographer and 20 reporters around the world.

Keener said most big city newspapers like the Inquirer also had Sunday magazines that came out once a week. This was an opportunity, he said, for the photo staff to work on photo essays. The newspaper had the budget to allow them to do big-idea, big-package photo essays every week for the magazine. There were also more people in the newsroom. Around 400 people worked at the Inquirer, he said, with 20 photographers on staff.

“In the ‘80s, things were growing,” Smith agrees. “We were competing, and we were adding color. In many cases, we were in newspaper wars. There were cities with five significant newspapers.”

But the newspaper wars, Smith said, would soon put a few of the many local papers out of business. For those left, the staffs would become smaller.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” Smith said. “They were breaking their franchise with their communities. They were charging too much, and delivering each week less and less.”

Despite the changes, Keener still sees the industry in a positive light. He said it may not make as much money as it did in the ‘80s, but there’s still some great work to be shot. In fact, he said he feels he’s making a bigger impact today at his small paper than what he had been doing decades ago at the big papers.

“There's still great work to be done,” Keener said. “You just have to do it differently. If you're expecting to be a globe trotting photojournalist, backed by your newspaper, in this day and age, your chances are pretty much nil.”

Even for Smith, who aspired to be a photojournalist like the ones of the ‘60s and ‘70s — the much better decades for photojournalism in his opinion — he said he was still glad to have started in the early ‘80s when he did.

“I consider myself extremely fortunate to have come of age then,” Smith said. “We learned from people who knew newspapers when newspapers were newspapers, when everybody had ink on their hands.”