For Photojournos, A Post-Newspaper World
Sitting in the audience at a photojournalism workshop in Ft. Worth, Texas, a speaker said, “There’s opportunity in chaos.” That seems exactly the state of photojournalism right now: To some it’s a free fall of jobs and wages. Others see a chance to make great work and share it with an even larger audience.
The very same disruptive technologies that are cutting into the bottom lines of large media companies are allowing many people to flourish and tell stories that they care about without the bureaucracy and hierarchy that frustrate so many in journalism.
I know firsthand. I was one of the 28 photojournalists to get worldwide attention when the Chicago Sun-Times laid us off in May 2013. At the time, we were held up as an anomaly and frightening precursor to more cuts in the industry.
Inspired by this, I’d like to speak to my fellow photojournalists with words of inspiration and apprehension. But first, I want to offer publishers some commiseration and lots of caution.
Those publishers looking at profit and loss statements and seeing photography staffs as a big and questionable expense should think about what they bring to the organization before going the road of the Sun-Times. We know we’re expensive. But I would have much rather sat down with my publishers and given them 15 ideas to increase revenue and build audience. I would even have conceded that some downsizing can make sense, though publishers should be wary of making it at the expense of content.
Study after study concurs that a great image will get a story read with more frequency. A story shared on social media will get more eyeballs with an attached, attention-grabbing image. Images provoke an emotional, visceral connection with text content. These images are often what make a reader decide whether to consider reading or staying with a story.
Publishers, beware forsaking those images. They have vital, intangible benefits. They might cost you more, but your photographers are people who spend their entire lives out in the community. When a photographer shows up at an event, people on the scene suddenly feel elevated in importance. And they clip or print out the photograph, where it stays a long fixture of the refrigerator or scrapbook.
Now, to any working news photographer: If you work at an old media company and don’t think your job is vulnerable, then you’re lying to yourself.
Plenty of photojournalists like me on the lower end of the pay scale at the Sun-Times thought the cuts would never be bottom up. We certainly never conceived of the prospect that the entire photojournalism staff would be cut. When that very thing happened, those who had other ventures going seemed to easily shift to freelance life. Others have not.
Photography jobs are now almost always listed as multimedia in nature. A broader skill set is required of the photojournalist to compete in the media today. Consider it this way: Many reporters are out shooting photos and video to go with their text. So shouldn’t photographers also be able to write basic stories?
The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago has trained its photography staff in news writing and sometimes needs them to file a story with their photos. It makes sense to take a newsroom’s existing talent, the people who it has trusted for years, and let them develop another skill set to augment the reader experience. During a recent snowstorm, for instance, photojournalist Joe Lewnard rode with a snowplow driver, shot stills, wrote a short story and produced a one-minute video. It was a small change to his workflow, but it added a much deeper dimension for the reader.
Will such moves erode the quality of the news product? Possibly. These new “super journalists” that one hears about may be able to do everything, but none of it is likely to stand out. And how many readers are going to follow a publication that devolves into “good enough”?
Many became photojournalists because they wanted a front seat to history, being “visual servants to humanity,” as the patriarch of the former Sun-Times staff (as well as teacher and mentor to many) John H. White would say.
“This is the great thing about photojournalism,” he said. “We're out there every single day … The hottest day. The coldest day. When you can't drive you walk. For others … to have that front seat to history and to the lives of people, and tell the story of humanity. Feeling the heartbeat of humanity. The heart of the world, the soul of the world. And capturing that from the cameras of our hearts. I always consider it a privilege.”
That privilege has now been abridged. Often these days the colleague standing next to me on a sideline is doing another job to support his or her photography or has a spouse with a more lucrative job. The market simply cannot support most people who think they are only a newspaper photographer.