1989: TWTYTW (That Was The Year That Was)

By Jim Colton

We are starting to see a lot of 25th anniversary commemorative pieces for news events from the calendar year 1989. The first to get some air time was the 25th Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. And now, we are seeing remembrances of the massacre in Tianamen Square which occurred on June 4th, 1989.

All of this got me thinking about what a remarkable news year 1989 truly was; perhaps of the like that we will never see again.  For those of us who were fortunate to be involved in the journalism business during that year and for those who are just curious, here’s an abridged list of events that many of us covered in some manner:

  • January 4: The US shoots down two Libyan planes
  • January 20: George H.W. Bush inaugurated as US President
  • February 2: The last Soviet forces leave Afghanistan after 10 years of occupation
  • February 14: Ayatollah Khomeini issues a death warrant on Salman Rushdie for "Satanic Verses"
  • March 24: Exxon Valdez oil spill
  • April 19 - June 4: Uprising in Tianamen Square, China
  • May 4: US Jury convicts Oliver North for his role in the Iran-Contra affair
  • May 25: Michael Gorbachev named Soviet President
  • June 3: Ayatollah Khomeini dies
  • June 4: Massacre at Tianamen Square
  • August 9: General Colin Powell named first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • August 14: P.W. Botha resigns as President of South Africa
  • September 17 – 25: A Category 5 Hurricane Hugo strikes the Caribbean and the US
  • October 17:  A 7.1 magnitude earthquake strikes San Francisco
  • November 9: Deng Xiaoping resigns from Chinese Leadership
  • November 11: The fall of the Berlin Wall
  • November 30: Czech Parliament ends Communist rule
  • December 15: Romanian uprising overthrows Communist government
  • December 20: US troops invade Panama and capture General Manuel Noriega
  • December 25: Romanian President Ceausescu and wife are executed

It was a transition year for me. I had just left Newsweek magazine after an 11 year stint as the senior photo editor for International news to head up the New York office of a French photo agency called SipaPress as their Executive Vice President and General Manager.

Many of my brethren in the business said I was nuts to leave Newsweek specifically because of the terrible reputation that SipaPress had at the time. (Delinquent payments to photographers, banned from use by the New York Times Sunday Magazine…and much more that I won’t bother to list.)

But I saw it as a challenge. There was no place but UP to go from where they were. And frankly, it was an opportunity for me to get some “managerial” experience that an un-named editor at Newsweek thought I was lacking to be considered for the top position in the photo department for their magazine at that time.

By the end of 1989, sixteen months into my tenure at SipaPress, and primarily because of this extraordinary news year, we had managed not only to pay off their entire debt (The dollar amount had six digits in it….without pennies) but the credit Photographer/Sipa appeared on the cover of almost every major domestic magazine…and in newspapers nationwide.

Of course I am deeply proud of this fact….but even prouder of the photographers and staff who worked with me and the editors and clients who trusted me. I will forever be indebted for their confidence as Sipa struggled to get back into the good graces of ALL publications. (PS: We even managed to get the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine…a shot of Boris Yeltsin…so a personal shout out to Kathy Ryan for having faith!)

After three years at Sipa, the un-named editor at Newsweek asked me to come back as their Director of Photography…which I gladly accepted. And looking back, it was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me. It did in fact give me the managerial experience I was lacking, but it also allowed me to broaden my horizons outside of Newsweek and work with new photographers and clients all around the world….many who remain friends today.

So as we hear of more 25th anniversary look-backs, I too will look back at a historic time in our industry…pre-cell phones, pre emails and pre digital images…where we put our best out there and delivered…time and again.

Here’s looking forward to another 1989….should it ever happen!