What can you learn about a community through the eyes of its newspaper? Can you see into its soul?
That’s was I was trying to figure out on visits to the exhibition “Above the Fold: The Photographers of the ‘Gloucester Daily Times,’ 1973-2005,” curated by Trenton Carls, at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester from Dec. 2, 2023, to March 17, 2024. It showcases the work of more than 15 photographers for the Massachusetts newspaper. The whole thing felt sort of like a class reunion for me, with all the usual messy complicated feelings, as, years ago, I interned at the Cape Ann Museum and then reported for the Gloucester Times.
Communities tend to have hate-love relationships with their newspapers—belittling them by calling them a rag or the GD Times (as in God Damned), but also craving validation like the thrill of the first time you appear in its pages (hopefully not in the police log).
News outlets, imperfect as they may be, are essential for communities to have a baseline understanding of what’s going on—particularly with its government and most powerful businesses—to be able to make the informed decisions that are our responsibility in the community decision-making of our democracies.
My complicated feelings were due in part to the fact that these days are a dire time for newspapers. Readership has declined over the past 50 years, but the real deadly problem is that advertising income boomed in the 1980s and ’90s, before falling off a cliff with the rise of the internet. Lucrative apartment rental and job ads moved to Craigslist, social media, and elsewhere online. Other business advertising shrank as companies built their own online presences. Simultaneously, newspapers’ online ads sold for a fraction of the cost of ads in print. People are still reading, but newspapers struggle to navigate the shattered economics.
“Since 2005, the U.S. has lost nearly 2,900 newspapers,” Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University in Illinois reported in November 2023. “The nation is on pace to lose one-third of all its newspapers by the end of next year. There are about 6,000 newspapers remaining, the vast majority of which are weeklies. The country has lost almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists, or 43,000, during that same time.”
Personally, three newspapers that I loved working for have died. I’m still grieving.
So those newspapers remaining are precarious and precious.
The Gloucester Daily Times was founded in 1888 (the exhibition is supplemented by a display of early editions of Cape Ann papers) and added its first staff photographer in 1957. That was Gloucester native Charlie Lowe, who arrived at age 25, and covered the city until a few months before his death from lung cancer in 1981. He set a standard of journalistic and aesthetic ambition for all who followed. Lowe’s was an era of big fires and he diligently documented the nighttime blazes (not seen in this exhibition). But Lowe also photographed a smiling girl arriving for her first day of school, bands playing at Stage Fort Park, annual celebrations, the charm of everyday life. And that’s what this exhibition is really about.
The exhibition came about because of two gifts to the museum from the Gloucester Daily Times, Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company, and North of Boston Media Group—more than 30,000 photographs by Charlie Lowe in 2004 and 1 million photographs by numerous Gloucester Times photographers that were donated in 2021.
The exhibition reminds me of an essential truth of this kind of photojournalism. There are newsy photos here—striking workers, a woman wailing as her house burns, a politician taking a call to receive election night results, a house flattened by 1991’s “Perfect Storm,” a funeral for men lost at sea, a peace rally against the 1991 Iraq War, an apartment house collapsed into the harbor, a protest against fishing restrictions, town meeting, a water main break, one of the very first same-sex marriages in the state (I wrote the 2004 article the accompanied that photo).
But often the news isn’t readily illustratable—debates over new school construction plans, the hospital maybe getting people sick, a police sex scandal, last night’s city council vote. So photographers at this kind of community newspaper always have to have a photo in their back pocket to fill the next day’s front page—usually some delightful slice of life, “human interest.”
I don’t know why I was sort of surprised to realize that that’s the heart of this exhibition. What I found is lots of the beautiful everyday life of the city—waves crashing along the shore, a dragger (fishing boat) cutting through winter sea smoke, a man digging clams, folks trying to buy Cabbage Patch Kids in 1984, the city’s iconic Man at the Wheel statue, parades, snowstorms, a woman painting a mural, guys shooting the breeze outside the St. Peter’s Club, little league games, whale watching, factory workers shucking clams, high school prom, boys catching minnows, a man feeding gulls, kids enjoying a puppet show, the annual St. Peter’s Fiesta, a policeman trying to herd swans, a lemonade stand, a dog seeming to drive a Jeep, a dog seeming to drive a four-wheeler.
For me personally, seeing the city through the eyes of these photographers is tinged with happy nostalgia—as well as sadness. The staff of the Gloucester Times is about half the number of what it was when I worked there. And the majority of the photographers in the exhibition are no longer in journalism. Most who aren’t dead or retired are still working in photography, but they’re not chasing news. It’s a depressing sign of how the industry has collapsed—and how the economics often doesn’t work for those left.
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