Friday, April 18, 2008

Ghost town...

EDITED Saturday evening

I’ve always been drawn to desolate places, abandoned buildings, deserted parts of a city.

I’ve never lived out west but if I did I’d probably spend a good amount of time looking for ghost towns to photograph.

As a photographer I find that the sorts of things you see when you visit places like these make for interesting pictures. Broken windows, peeling paint, faded signs, that sort of thing.

Back in the winter of 1992 I was a hired as an assistant to a photographer who was shooting an assignment in four or five cities for Fortune magazine.

Bill Clinton was challenging George Bush for the presidency and the gist of the magazine piece we were shooting photos for was: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

We visited some depressed parts of the country.

One of the places we shot at was a small town outside of Pittsburgh. The entire main street of this town was deserted. Every storefront was shuttered for blocks and blocks. There were still goods on the shelves in some of the stores. It was if everyone decided to leave on one day and never return.

That was 16 years ago.

The scene I saw on that one street in January day in 1992 is being repeated on a somewhat larger scale across the country today.

Newspaper offices are turning into ghost towns.

And it’s going to get worse.

Martin Gee, a designer for the San Jose Mercury News, saw this happening in his own building after a round of buyouts and one night picked up a camera and documented the eerie desolation. Parts of his workplace had taken on the look of a ghost town. You can also see his photos and hear him talk about them here.

From Miami to Seattle, newspapers, faced with the reality of rising costs and shrinking revenues and declining redaership are being forced to lay off dozens and sometimes hundreds of loyal and talented employees.

These are not short term or isolated events.

Newspapers will never regain the prominence they once held in American life.

Newspaper circulation for the entire country, from what I can gather is at about 55 million, higher on Sunday. People still read newspapers and newspapers will probably be around for some time in some form.

But newspapers are losing their readers who are migrating to the internet to get their news. A good percentage of people who still subscribe to newspapers do so out of habit and loyalty. But newspaper readership while still strong, will never return to the levels of 10, 20 or 30 years ago. That’s Never with a capital “N.”

Why? Because the loyal newspaper readers are dying off and being replaced by younger news consumers who find it easier and more practical to get news and information from the 'net.

What part a daily newspaper will play in American life 10 years from now remains to be seen.

Right here in Miami they are looking for ways to cut costs at The Herald. The buyouts announced 10 days ago won’t affect that many people. My sources say they are only looking for a half dozen or so editorial employees to take the buyout. And because the incentive is only six months pay probably the only people who’ll accept are people who were already contemplating leaving.

But what’s going to happen 6 months or year from now as circulation and ad revenue continues to decline?

It can’t be a very happy place to work at. Employees and resources are already stretched tissue thin.

Back at the end of February I tried to call the Herald city desk with a news tip on a Saturday night.

I called no fewer than four times. The only response I got was a constantly ringing phone that no one ever answered. I was calling about a shooting that had occurred on South Beach earlier in the broad daylight.

The Herald had nothing in the paper on Sunday but did carry a story three days later. In an e-mail to me a high ranking Herald editor admitted to me that they had blown the story.

You never know, if things keep going like that, One Herald Plaza might start taking on the look of that ghost town outside of Pittsburgh, sooner rather than later.

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