When we were kings

Twenty-five years ago, I became a British Columbian.

Of course I didn’t realize it at the time.

On May 2, 1991 I was just a young news photographer looking for work. A recession had displaced me six years into my first full-time gig at Oshawa-Whitby This Week, a large tri-weekly that was part of TorStar’s Metroland chain in Southern Ontario. I’d had a good run: I covered two Memorial Cup national junior hockey championships as well as the frenzy around a young hockey wunderkind named Eric Lindros; I shot several elections, some big fires, car racing in Toronto and Montreal, Rick Hansen’s epic roll through town.

But I felt I still had a lot of great photos in me and I was willing, and  able, to go anywhere to have the opportunity to shoot those photos.

A connection through the Canadian News Photographers Association recommended I talk to Craig Hodge, the chief photographer of the Metrovalley News Group, a burgeoning chain of community papers in Vancouver’s suburbs. I called him; there was no internet then, no email. He happened to be headed to Ontario to speak at a conference, he said. A few weeks later we met; he reviewed my portfolio and told me there was work out west, although he couldn’t make any guarantees it would lead to permanent employment.

In the early 1990s newspapers still ruled the media landscape. Getting a staff photographer gig at one was like winning a lottery; many tried but very few succeeded. Usually it was shooters with the fortitude and persistence to hang around picking up freelance or scrap shifts, or to chase ambulance in the middle of the night, who were eventually rewarded with a business card and a steady paycheque.

But the poor economy had diminished even those opportunities in Ontario. And when the occasional morsel of a newspaper shift did become available, it was immediately besieged by any number of talented, more experienced freelancers and displaced staffers hungry for work.

So at the end of April I loaded some clothes, provisions and camera gear into my trusty red Toyota Tercel, mounted my road and mountain bikes in the Thule rack on the roof and headed west. Other than a family friend who’d offered to let me couch surf for awhile, I had no idea what the future held.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator blog
Looking pensive as I wear my stylish vintage camera that didn’t really work, but looked oh so cool!

The Metrovalley News Group was comprised of papers from Burnaby to Chilliwack. Many started as independents and then came into the Hacker Press fold until the whole lot was acquired by a large British publisher, Trinity, whose flagship paper was in Liverpool. They also owned the Red Deer Advocate, a small daily in Alberta.

Trinity was a big, rich company, and the situation I walked into was on par with many small or medium dailies elsewhere in the country. Our staff of four photographers, a chief photographer and an office administrator/darkroom tech, plus an assortment of freelancers as assignments demanded, covered seven communities out of a central office.

We were connected with two-way radios and pagers (!). We had a full colour darkroom, a B&W darkroom with three enlargers, a film processing room, a studio with lights and a cove wall.

Mario Bartel storyteller communicator photographer journalist blog
When the studio wasn’t in use, it became a table hockey arena.

It was a tight crew, always pushing each other to do better as we gathered at the light table at shift’s end to review negs then shared stories of the road in the red glow of the darkroom safelight. Like the time one of our photographers, a former university football player, got into a punch up with a clown who was giving him a hard time at a routine assignment. Or when our chief was thrown into the back of an RCMP cruiser to prevent him from working the perimeter of a police takedown at the end of a car chase.

The communal coverage ensured most everything in the communities we served got attention; if assignments were light in one area, the photographer could be moved over to help out where it was busier. And when big news happened it was all hands on deck to get the story, then get film back to the darkroom so editors could start building pages.

The papers may have published only twice a week, but we operated, and thought, like a daily.

We got to travel out of town occasionally to provide coverage for the chain of regional events like high school sports championships, provincial summer and winter games, the Canada Summer Games, even the Commonwealth Games when they were in Victoria. We covered local racers participating in big time events like the Molson Indy and I was sent to cover the debut of one racer, the late Greg Moore, when he first climbed into an Indy Car in Florida.

Mario Bartel storyteller communicator journalist blog photographer
In the 90s we were able to cover some pretty big stories, including the emergence of local racer Greg Moore to Indy Car.

There was professional development. The company paid for us to attend conferences; when the National Press Photographers Association’s old Flying Short Course alighted in Spokane a group of shooters from around the chain were flown down in a chartered plane. We were the only attendees who could boast at lunch that we couldn’t stick around for happy hour because our plane was warming up on the runway!

The communities responded; the papers were thick with ads and flyers; classified ads comprised 10 or 12 pages at the back of some editions. There was space for extended photo features.

Of course there were complaints; we wouldn’t be journalists if we didn’t gripe after all. The hours were long, the volume of assignments could be overwhelming, the driving between communities was arduous, the constant blurting of instructions from the two-way radios could get annoying, destroying some few moments of peace and solitude between the fund-raising tea at the seniors centre and the high school football game across town.

We didn’t appreciate it at the time but it was a bit of a golden age.

It didn’t last.

Frustrated by Canadian media ownership laws that prevented it from acquiring even more papers, Trinity decided to get out, selling its holdings to David Black, a regional publishing baron who cut his teeth in the hinterlands of the province’s interior and on Vancouver Island. We feared his spendthrift reputation, but for the most part not much changed; the Lower Mainland was a competitive environment with rival papers in every market that demanded we at least keep pace.

The first cracks appeared when editors, tired of having to deal with a remote office to vet photo assignments, lobbied successfully to have their own photographer, assigned exclusively to their newsroom. The department was broken up, some jobs were lost, the ranks of freelancers thinned.

And while the move did improve lines of communication between the newsrooms and the photographers, the camaraderie of the team was diminished, as was the commitment to ensure everything was covered.

Meanwhile, a little thing called the Internet was starting to get some attention; imagine being able to log onto a desktop computer to get news from anywhere in the world, mostly for free!

In those early, naive days, access to the web in most newsrooms was restricted to one computer. Nobody thought it important for the papers to have a website, and when we all finally got one, they were seen as a way to build a following for the printed paper. Some editors were reluctant to post stories before they appeared in print.

Little did we know…

A quarter-century later most of the photographers who worked the community scene in the 90s are out of the business, many not by their own choice. Papers have amalgamated or closed altogether, newsrooms have been downsized. The classified ads at the back of papers now barely fill two pages.

The job of photojournalist is almost extinct; we now have to prove ourselves as “multimedia journalists,” able to shoot photos, produce video and write stories, often all at the same time. And the quality of photos we used to sweat over at the light table before presenting them to editors has been diminished to “at least it’s in focus.”

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6 thoughts on “When we were kings

  1. I remember your Toyota Tercel. Freakin’ deathtrap. Didn’t we drive that down to Washington to cover a women’s basketball game?

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    • You must be thinking of someone else’s Tercel; mine was in good shape. And I don’t think we ever went to Washington for b-ball; but we did go to Portland for the Indy.

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  2. Ahhh… memories …. our communal darkroom was a nightmare – under the stairs in the basement, and it took forever to get a print – but those were indeed some of the best days. Thank you for sharing yours …

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  3. Thank you Mario. Great memories as well.

    In the mid-80’s starting out with the weeklies in Salmon Arm you did find yourself doing it all. Writing, photography, layout, fetching late ad submissions, driving home at dawn after putting the paper to bed. It’s what you did to make it work. I still miss it, even after all the years.

    p.s. The Flying Short Course! Carolyn and I fought that night till late in the morning. Slept in and then raced like a demon in my Tercel wagon to try and make the plane. I actually made it to Chilliwack in a 1/2 hour but still missed the flight, doh!

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  4. Pingback: One year out; post journalism reflections – MARIO BARTEL

  5. Pingback: Circle of Journalism – MARIO BARTEL

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