Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pulitzers lost, what a cost: Third in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

The loss of thousands of jobs at American newspapers comes at a cost for society, for journalism and for journalists. This series explores the dimensions of the loss by asking journalists who have shown themselves capable of producing work of the highest caliber - winners of the Pulitzer Prize who are no longer at a newspaper - for their reflections on what happened to them, what it's meant and how they view the future.

Today's subject, Kim Komenich, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for his coverage of the fall of Ferdinand Marcos. He left the San Francisco Chronicle in April.

1. Name, age, final paper. Kim Komenich, 52, The San Francisco Chronicle.

2. What work did you winner Pulitzer for, when? The Philippine Revolution, 1987, Spot news photography.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When? I left my job as staff photographer/videographer on April 3, 2009. In 1987 Ken Light asked me to teach a documentary class at the San Francisco Academy of Art. I really enjoyed it and I decided that I'd try to dedicate one of my days off to teaching. In 1998 I took a two-year academic leave from my job at the San Francisco Examiner to work on my masters and to teach the picture story class at the University of Missouri. When I returned in 2000 I knew that when my newspaper days were over I'd probably move into teaching. I assumed that like those who had gone before me I'd put in 30-35 years shooting at the Chron before hanging 'em up. Then things started to implode. I wasn't able to finish my master's project while I was in Missouri. Looking back at it, I'm happy things worked out the way they did. Had I finished it in 2000, I would now have a masters with an emphasis on print photojournalism. Because I finished it in 2007, the emphasis is on multimedia photojournalism. I was "tapped" for a Chronicle buyout in 2007. I was over-scale and probably a bit spacey after defending my masters. Dollar for dollar, I wasn't the most productive member of the staff at that point. I called some friends, and one comment came up again and again-- "you're a fire horse. You wouldn't know what to do with yourself if you didn't have a deadline and the satisfaction of seeing your work in print the next day." This round of conversations served as a gentle wake-up call. My friends urged me to turn down the buyout, but work toward the next step in my career. I did. Over the course of the next year I began to build a current teaching portfolio. I carefully collected the evaluation forms from classes and workshops I was teaching. I kept the thank-you letters from organizers of conferences and workshops where I had taught. Until then, all of these evaluations and thank-yous hadn't mattered because I still had my day job. It all hit the fan in mid-March. The Guild voted to give back 150 jobs and eliminate seniority. It was time to go, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed every bit of it - even the bittersweet final weeks. Of course I would have loved to have finished my career at the Chronicle, but it wasn't possible. The Guild had negotiated a great buyout package and, with a couple of signatures, I agreed to go Earlier in the year I put feelers out for possible full-time teaching jobs in the Bay Area. Dr. Michael Cheers mentioned that there was a tenure-track assistant professorship in multimedia at my alma mater, San Jose State University. The same weekend of the Guild vote I emailed my CV to the chair of the search committee. They asked me to come in for an interview on April 2. On April 3, I took my last staff picture for the Chronicle- a portrait of an Oakland Raiderette. A few weeks later I was offered the job at San Jose State. I've always told students that it's healthier to think of yourself as a photographer who happens to work for a newspaper, and not a "newspaper photographer." When I first said it I was stressing the preservation of the photographer's vision and spirit in the face of daily assignments. At this point in the evolution of photojournalism it might be that photographers who value their long-term projects might consider moving way from newspapers and into academia. Universities throughout the country expect their professors to "publish or perish," but some schools offer "creative research" as an alternative to publishing traditional scholarly articles. This means that at some schools you're teaching for nine months and producing documentary books films and exhibitions the rest of the year.

4. What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers? I gave myself the summer off from assignment photojournalism. In addition to teaching a video storytelling class, I worked as a sound recordist on a movie, I wrapped up the shooting on a basketball documentary, I shot a crowd-funded piece on childhood asthma for and did my best to wear out a pair of Tevas. I'm gearing up to teach classes in multimedia and visual journalism and I'm spending a fair amount of time preparing 30 hours of lectures for each class. I'm teaching workshops and I'm taking workshops. That's the one constant.

5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?
Until now, I've founded my career on a circle of three things: practice journalism professionally, then teach what I know, then go to schools and workshops to learn more so that I can practice journalism more effectively. This summer has differed in that it's more of a blur without the 40-hour-a-week journalism job, but I am finding that I'm still doing, teaching and learning. I suspect the journalism I do now won't be driven by assignments and "problem solving" for an editor. For the first time in my life I won't be making a living as a photojournalist. I'll be able to fund my work through my teaching and in the process, I hope, I'll be able to move more sincerely into documentary photography and filmmaking.

6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.
When you think about it, newspapers are a lot like any industrial-age industry. In our case, the "factory" is the newspaper and the printing plant. For a long time, newspapers were the information technology. Then came radio, then television, then the internet, the Web and now social media. It's possible that the idea of a daily newspaper has run its course - I hope not, but what if it has? Will there come a day when ink-on-paper delivery will actually be considered an obstacle to getting the highest quality journalism into the hands of the greatest number of people? Every newspaper journalist has to be mourning their own golden era of journalism, a time when they really hit their stride. In my case it was a time when the readership, and by extension, the advertising base, would support the time and the travel for the stories I would pitch that would put me in a zone where I could put the puzzle together in a way that I could surprise myself. This era coincided with a time when newspapers were thought of as a community institution - a part of daily life. Not only would they inform and entertain us, they would sponsor community events and charities. They would show us the way, or get us mad enough that we would find our own way. Newspapers were a daily source of motivation. I think they still serve that purpose, but with smaller news holes and fewer reporters and photographers in the field, they can't be as thorough or as thought-provoking.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job? I came into the business at the height of the "offset revolution." I was a disciple of W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who thought he had missed the boat when Life Magazine ceased publication. My generation channeled our energy and our vision into newspapers at a time when new offset printing technology allowed newspapers to publish brilliant color advertising. This expansion created a hunger for a new photojournalism, a bigger way of telling stories, in color as well as black-and-white, that became my Life Magazine. A confluence of things - the economy, an exploding cable TV market, a shifting reader demographic and internet news - formed a perfect storm that began unraveling the newspaper's role as town crier. To those of us in the trenches it was a matter of applying new technologies to our storytelling with the hope that we'd help save our papers. This doesn't really address the question. Of course there were missteps. The news has to pay for itself. The idea of a wire service is industrial-age, print-era thinking. In the digital age, as we have seen, such a service can be used by competitors who will use your own stories to drive you out of business. My experience is that downsizing was inevitable, and that at the point I left the Guild and the Chronicle had came up with the most compassionate way to reduce the staff. With time I've come to see that my experience with the downsizing at the Chronicle wasn't traumatic. If anything, it was the kick in the pants I needed to move on to my other passion. In looking back at it, I realize I've been preparing to teach for nearly two decades and through the buyout, I've been able to move on.

8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today? I'm shifting professions so that I can be of service to those who know they must be journalists. As a student, I found there were always two kinds of "veteran" journalists - those who wanted to share everything with you and those who wanted to discourage you in the hope it would save you some pain. I found that it was valuable to listen to both sides of the argument and then to spend additional time with those who expected you to stand on their shoulders. Will the next generation of journalists go to work at a "factory" like I did? A few will. I expect that many of them will become much more self-sufficient than I ever was. I think the era of sustainable journalism is here. The stories will be told in more dimensions than ever before thanks to emerging technology. New ways of paying for journalism are being invented every day. It's a matter of entrepreneurship from here on.

Final note: If you know of others who should be interviewed for this series, please let me know. Thank you.


  1. Hey, John-

    If I may, a word of advice from a long-time newspaper man who moved online/solo in 2006:

    This was a great, albeit very difficult Q&A to read. In the same way that you forced green reporters to learn the AP Stylebook, you have to learn at least enough HTML coding to make this legible.

    Barely changing fonts between the questions and answers -- without so much as a CR between the Q and the A is not nearly sufficient.

    Take a moment and learn to use basic tags, such as font size, ital, bold, etc. Your readers, many of whom no longer have young eyes, will appreciate it.

    Many thanks,
    David Hobby

  2. Great stuff here. As a former high school journalism teacher who is now an editor thinking about my own future, I was all ears -- and eyes!

    I do agree with David on format however, and while you are at it, please correct the typo in the second graph. Add the "s" after "New" so it reads "Spot News Photography."


  3. Thanks for both comments. You're right about improving readability. I'll work on it. If you have any suggestions about the best place to learn the basics, please let me know. I'll fix the typo right away.

  4. I don't know what the problem is, but I couldn't see any of Kominich's answers to the questions. I'm reading this on Firefox. Help!

  5. This is a thought-provoking and often inspiring series. Thanks, John -- Alan Gathright

  6. Hi Guy's,
    I couldn't see any of Kominich's answers to the questions. I'm reading this on Firefox. Help!

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