On a warm Friday evening in the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer, national/foreign editor Tom Steacy was asked to leave his desk. He was led to a conference room, where he found the paper’s executive editor waiting.
“The realisation began to dawn as I made that walk,” the 66-year-old says in a slow, halting voice from his home in Philadelphia. “Everyone was nervous. We all knew there was a great shining axe hovering in the sky somewhere. There had been for quite a while.”
The editor, Stan Wischnowski, told Steacy that after 29 years on staff the paper was letting him go. “I kept shouting to myself: ‘Silence, silence. Gosh, please don’t let me hear what I’m about to hear,’” Steacy says. “Stan gave me his 10-minute spiel about why it was necessary and why I had been chosen. Then I made him repeat the whole thing. I was in so much shock. When it was over, I left the building and went home,” he continues. “I went back to the newsroom once to sign papers – that newsroom was my life for 30 years.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Steacy struggled to come to terms with his enforced retirement. “I’m still not over it,” he says. “My colleagues tell me it was a numbers thing and not reflective of my ability and so forth, but there’s this private, secret gnaw that you didn’t cut the mustard in the end.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is the third-oldest daily newspaper in the US; the recipient of 19 Pulitzer Prizes and three Gold Medals for Public Service, it employed just under 700 people in the late 1990s. But by 21 February 2009, after a succession of disastrous corporate takeovers, a steadily declining print circulation and falling advertising revenues, it had filed for bankruptcy and registered a debt of $390m. Merciless rounds of staff cuts ensued and by the time Tom Steacy left in October 2011 The Inquirer’s payroll comprised fewer than half the number of people it had in its heyday.
But if Tom Steacy was soon a forgotten man, his son Will was not. The 33-year-old photographer had been given unrestricted access to the paper in 2009, documenting the newsroom as it struggled to keep afloat in the financial crisis. His father’s departure changed that. “I never expected to see my father get laid off,” the photographer says from his New York home.
“It was a long and incredibly painful process – for him, and for the family as well. He went through a lot of anger and denial. He wouldn’t talk about it or have anyone mention The Inquirer for a long time. He had just had a triple-bypass [when he was made redundant], so he wasn’t exactly an attractive employee. But he was dismissed through no fault of his own.”
Steacy’s last pictures were taken in July 2012, when the paper moved out of the 49,000m2 Elverson Building – known locally as ‘the Tower of Truth’ – and into the third floor of a department store a few blocks away. Steacy shows a reporter’s desk once covered in leaning towers of paper, then the same desk shorn of everything but a computer, then the shadow on the carpet where the desk used to be. “Half of the people I photographed are not there now,” Steacy says.
“I watched a slow and steady evisceration of the news staff. I photographed the newsroom until it was just an empty room. My dad wasn’t there to say goodbye to that newsroom, and neither were a lot of his colleagues and friends. So it was on me to do it for them.”
Deadline, as he named the series, is a love song – both to his father and to the five generations of his family who worked in the newspaper business after his great, great, great grandfather Hiram Young founded The Evening Dispatch, a small local in York County, Pennsylvania, in 1876. “My father is in every one of those photographs; his spirit, our relationship,” he says.
“This project has allowed me to grow closer to him than ever before. And I now have a deeper connection to my family lineage. I feel like I understand who my descendants were, and what they devoted their lives to. To see so much of myself in them and the things they believed in – it’s like looking in the mirror.”
But Deadline is not just a personal story, it is also a visual representation of a seismic shift in American culture. Since the Great Recession in the 1920s and ’30s, the US media industry has lost a greater share of jobs than any other sector in society, and the process is only quickening – since 2000, newsrooms across the country have shed nearly 30 percent of their workforce as the industry migrates to the internet.
“There are lies, damned lies and newspaper circulation figures,” reads a gallows’ humour sign in one of Steacy’s pictures. In another, a swelling cardboard box stacked high with folders has two loaded words scrawled on it: “Buy-Outs”. This shift, Steacy posits, is profoundly impacting America’s public discourse. As The Inquirer’s former editor James Naughton wrote: “News is the part people don’t ask for and should know.”
“As we lose reporters, editors, newsbeats and sections of local papers, we lose coverage, information, and a connection to our cities and our society. In the end, we lose ourselves,” Steacy says.
The Inquirer’s newsroom acts as a microcosm for this journalistic bloodletting, he continues. “In the Elverson Building, where The Inquirer was based, you can see the recent macroeconomic history of America. It was once the symbol of a city, employing a diversity of workers – from the delivery, press and plate men on the first and second floors who had a union job and a middle-class wage, and up several floors to the newsroom where the reporters, editors and copy editors worked, most of whom had a college education, pensions and benefits.” The building now stands empty, waiting to be turned into a parade of shops, a casino and a hotel. “We can expect an army of low-wage service industry workers to replace the union wage, middle-class jobs of the past,” says Steacy.
He juxtaposes hundreds of blue wires running from a server, or stacks of iPhones ready to be given to ageing reporters, with pictures of the old printing press, or a reporter’s contacts carefully arranged in a dog-eared Rolodex. “Democracy Depends on Journalism,” reads a bumper sticker in one picture; the unspoken question is what happens to democracy when journalism reorientates itself so furiously.
“News is not born on the internet,” says Steacy. “It does not start there – it ends there, just as it ended on ink and paper. A media outlet can have 100 blogs. It can spit status updates by the minute. It can reorder the stories on the auto-refreshed breaking news app. But without the information, without the content and – most importantly – without the human investment to provide that news, it becomes a zero-sum game. The fibres of the paper and the clicks of the mouse are worthless unless the words that are presented have value.”
His worry is that the new media firms that have sprung up in this new landscape are not making this human investment, and a quick look at the figures affirms this. Reddit, which receives 70 million unique visitors and five billion page views a month, has 28 employees; the chatroom WhatsApp employed 55 people before Facebook bought it for $18bn. When Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1bn in 2012, it had 30 million customers and 13 employees. These companies excel at disseminating content, but where that content comes from, what it is and how reliable it is, are different questions. “When you look back over your career, you tend to focus on where you screwed up, and I think that’s partly because I was laid off,” says Steacy senior. “But I had some successes as an editor, and when I look at Will’s pictures, they put me back in that time. I’m reminded of how we covered stories, of how we managed to get an accurate story printed on a 30-minute deadline when the reporter hadn’t written a word. It all happened; somehow it got done, because we knew what we were doing.”
He apologises for mumbling, for not making sense. Then, after a pause, he adds: “Journalism has gone through a lot of changes, but change is part of life. I’m the bridge, I guess, between two worlds.”
See more of Will Steacy’s Deadline here.