Losing stories, losing history

Norm Friesen cut hair in New Westminster for 40 years. He likely won’t write a memoir, nor will Hollywood turn his life into a biopic. But the barber who also composed gospel music at the old piano in his one-chair shop on Mackenzie Street is just the kind of character who gives a community its soul and attracts the attention of a journalist looking for an interesting story.

A couple of years after I told Norm’s story in the NewsLeader, in words and photos, the city block that housed his shop was destroyed by a massive fire. Norm’s planned retirement was moved up a few weeks, but he lost every memento of his career. My story and photos were the last record of his life’s work, what the inside of his shop looked like, where he played his piano, the appointment book where he jotted down customers’ names.

When the NewsLeader was in its waning days I thought of Norm often, especially in the context of our responsibility as journalists to document our communities.

But as newspapers strip their resources to the bone, or close altogether, it gets harder and harder to live up to that responsibility. Stories are left untold, photos untaken. All in the name of economy.

In days of yore, before newspapers were bought up by corporations and hedge funds, publishers took their contract as a public service seriously. The ad department extracted dollars from local businesses and in return, the community was provided a daily, or weekly, chronicle of all the important, and not-so-important, news and information.

In the halcyon days of the early 1990s, it was heresy to let a community event go uncovered, to mute the volume on the police scanner. If important events conflicted, shifts were juggled, overtime authorized or freelancers hired to ensure readers wouldn’t miss a thing. And if it was a really big event, extra hands were brought in to give readers the whole story from several angles and nothing was missed. Accepting handout photos was an affront to our journalistic integrity.

But as news holes started shrinking and budgets tightened, that commitment to “be there” waned. Overtime was no longer authorized to put photographers at opposite baselines for the BC High School Basketball Championship or bring in additional help to cover all candidates on election night. More and more events went unreported; it someone provided a free handout photo, no matter the quality or source, that would suffice to at least create the illusion of coverage.

As newsrooms got even smaller, editors and reporters more harried, coverage was further compromised. Whole days were left unstaffed. The police scanners went unheeded because a call meant putting aside the 13 other things that needed to get done. Handout photos and press releases started landing on the front page, that most hallowed ground for every journalist.

The implications of this go far beyond the diminished product and overworked, dispirited journalists. They will be felt for generations to come.

Because for all their current faults, newspapers are still the first record of a community’s history. They’re the in-the-moment chronicle of events, issues and characters of a community. As depleted newsrooms pass over stories that would be too labour-intensive, time-consuming or inconvenient to cover, holes appear in that history.

Last week, the Vancouver Sun and Province laid off 54 people; 29 of them are journalists. Two are  librarians; they’re the caretakers of the papers’ archives. With them gone, who takes on that responsibility? Who will gather all the stories and photos and ensure they’re preserved and archived so future generations can access them, learn a little about the community’s evolution?

Anyone who’s ever tried to find something in an electronic database knows their fallibility. The database is only as good as the data that is put into it, and a vague or incorrect search term might yield nothing.

Without champions to ensure their integrity and continuity, it’s easy to let an archive slip, allow information to disappear forever, create gaps in a community’s story.

When the NewsLeader closed, the money guys who made that decision paid no mind to our archive of 26 years of community stories and photos. The old bound copies of the paper were destined for the garbage bin, as were the binders of cd’s and dvd’s containing our digital photo archive. The electronic archive, our websites, was simply turned off. Eventually some stories did reappear on the server of the surviving papers, but they’re sporadic; vast swaths of history have just disappeared.

Only a determined effort by one of our reporters saved our archive; the bound copies and digital photos were donated to the Burnaby and New Westminster archives, where they’ll be sorted and catalogued, a huge project because we didn’t have librarians to keep them well organized.

A Vancouver councilor, Geoff Meggs, has launched a similar initiative to preserve the archives of the Sun and Province. He recognizes that a company that jettisons the keepers of its archive has no commitment to protect the community’s “history on the run,” has no interest in keeping its part of the contract with the community it’s supposed to “serve.”

To see an example of the importance of a newspaper’s archives in action, check out the exhibition Vancouver in the Seventies, at the Museum of Vancouver until July 16; it’s comprised of 400 photos from the Vancouver Sun’s archive. Most of those images were routine assignments, likely forgotten by the photographer as soon as they handed their prints to an editor; but 40 years later they’re a remarkable record of the city’s coming of age. As the museum’s blurb says, “They capture the beauty of everyday events and chronicle the drama of pivotal moments that continue to shape the city.” You have to wonder if they’d be able to mount a similar exhibition in 2047 of Vancouver in the Twenty-tens.

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6 thoughts on “Losing stories, losing history

  1. Well said Mario, I have fond memories of my days with Black Press. The events and stories of people who made the communties enriched us all. The communty newspapers were a source to inform people of what was happening in the community that they chose to live in. The stories and pictures of the individuals who made their community strong are missed.

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  2. Good article, Mario. When I left my job at the NOW, I took it all with me and eventually donated boxes and boxes of negatives, as well as DVDs from the digital years, to the City of Coquitlam’s archive, an effort championed by fellow photographer (and now council member) Craig Hodge. The negs were all catalogued by date of publication and had names and places cross-referenced. Hopefully, it will be useful to somebody down the line.

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  3. Mario, thank you for writing this important piece which points out the impotent role community papers play in a community, as the sort of curator of its events, tragedies, politics and its people. is it ok if I share this blog on black press page?

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