Thursday, March 4, 2010

Working for the National Enquirer

Perhaps it is a sign of an impending journalistic apocalypse, maybe not, but the National Enquirer is being considered for a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative and national news reporting for its coverage of Sen. John Edwards and his carrying on with Rielle Hunter.

So as the grocery store tabloid basks in a new-found legitimacy of being considered for what in this business is the Holy Grail of journalistic recognition, let me share a secret: Over the decades, I have accepted a few freelance assignments for the grocery store tabloid.

No, it didn't involve hiding in the bushes, hoping to catch some politician or celebrity in some misdeed or illicit tryst.

Instead, the assignments were to photograph mundane, odd, little slices of life _ the day-brightening photographs the publication frequently printed on the inside pages to supplement their cover stories about sightings of Elvis or JFK.

One assignment that comes to mind was one I completed while working for a paper in Lawrence, Kansas, shortly after I graduated from the University of Minnesota. The photo assignment was passed down to me from our chief photographer who took the call and felt such an assignment was beneath his dignity. For a fresh-out-of-college journalist, however, there is not much that is below one's dignity when money is involved.

And say what you will about the Enquirer, but at least in those days, they paid handsomely. In this case, it was more than twice what I was making in a week for what essentially was a few hours work.

The assignment was to shoot photographs of a duck who had adopted a family's Labrador retriever. I expected a little reluctance on the family's part when I called to arrange a time to make photographs, particularly when I mentioned as briefly as I could, that all of this was for the Enquirer. That they were so delighted at this suggested that the address they gave me would lead me to the rougher part of Kansas City.

Instead, I was amazed to find myself outside an iron gate in a wealthy part of the city, talking into an speaker, announcing myself as John Cross, the fellow here to take photographs for the, uh, National Enquirer. The gates slowly swung open and I followed the winding drive through a hundred yards of manicured gardens and lawn to a sprawling mansion.

To make a long story short, the family was absolutely delighted to have the Enquirer at their home. I spent an hour or two making photographs or the duck and Labrador cavorting, thanked them for their time (thought not nearly as much as they thanked me), and headed back to Lawrence.

I developed the film, made a half-dozen prints and sent them off to their offices down in Florida. Several weeks later, a nice check arrived in the mail. I'm assuming they eventually ran the photographs, though I never actually saw them.

Not that it mattered. Back in those days, photographs weren't routinely credited to the photographer anyway.

For those of us working for "legitimate" papers, that was just fine. The only place we really wanted to see our name associated with the National Enquirer was on one of their checks.

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