Earlier this week, I marked the 25th anniversary of my move to Philadelphia. Twenty-five years ago tonight I started working at the Philadelphia Daily News, where I spent most of the following 17.
My first assignment was to go with three other photographers to Veterans Stadium to cover a Monday Night Football game between the Eagles and Giants. Philadelphia quarterback Jim MacMahon worked over Lawrence Taylor and the Giants defense for 30 points while Reggie White and the Eagles D held New York to a touchdown. I got a few pictures on inside sports pages, which was a pretty solid win for the new kid. (I’ve got that paper somewhere and I’m heartbroken that I can’t find it today.)
But my new colleagues also told me about upcoming layoff threats which soon materialized but I survived when enough people took voluntary buyouts. The economic pressure in those days was often attributed to the cost of newsprint, but both the local company and the corporation that owned us were always very profitable, according the annual reports most of us received due to participating in a discounted employee stock purchase plan. At least one such report also revealed that the corporation also owned the paper mill that was charging newspapers so much.
On my second night on the job, I covered the celebration for US Sen. Harris Wofford, winning a special election to replace John Heinz, who was killed in a plane crash earlier that year. My picture got a nice wall-to-wall ride on page three but the front was taken by coverage of the celebration for newly-elected mayor Ed Rendell.
By the end of my first week, the guy who hired me got fired and management tried to convince me that I had never been hired. I plead that I probably would not have quit my previous job, moved to Philadelphia, rented an apartment and bought a new car had I not been offered a job, which by the way I had been doing all week. They sent me home but invited me back to work a week later, although I was suddenly reporting to people I had never met and saw very few top stories again before for a couple of years.
Those days really sucked but I eventually proved myself to everyone enough times to work my way back toward the top. Over the next ten years we made a bunch of great hires and by 9/11 I think we may have had the best newspaper photo staff anywhere.
Most importantly, the folks I worked with in those days still make up most of my best friends and I feel indescribably fortunate that I got a nice run before things went to pieces. I still respect the fine work and people who remain but when I tell a young person about my career, I also feel like I have to explain that newspapers were a much bigger deal before digital news and smartphones took over.
Back then, the threat of a newspaper strike — and we had a few close calls — felt almost as serious as a transit strike, because even while there would still be TV and radio news, a lot of their content originated with newspaper reporting.
I shot the picture above 20 years ago last month, moments before a hostage (center) wrested the gun away and kept a murder suspect from killing himself when surround by police after a high-speed pursuit ended with a crash near Rittenhouse Square.
By 2001 I was working self-assigned as a photo columnist covering mostly breaking news on the street every day. Here are some photos from that period: Street Level Philadelphia