photojournalism: “a dying field”


Official Deadline Clock, St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom, St. Louis, Missouri. Photograph copyright Erik M. Lunsford

The NY Times published a bleak article on the state of photojournalism, and you would think the walls were crashing down after finishing page 2 of the online article. Take for example this quote:

“Newspapers and magazines are cutting back sharply on picture budgets or going out of business altogether, and television stations have cut back on news coverage in favor of less-costly fare. Pictures and video snapped by amateurs on cellphones are posted to Web sites minutes after events have occurred. Photographers trying to make a living from shooting the news call it a crisis.”

A crisis? Yes, a crisis! Layoffs for staff photographers, shrinking print space and budget (and time!), an apathetic attitude for quality and accuracy, and a horrible economic climate all contribute to the perfect storm of a struggling field. We’re pretty much at the brink of do-or-die, and the view down below is the quintessential dark abyss.

“The problem is that news photography is finished,” Ms. Riant said. “Gamma wants to go back to magazines and newsmagazines. We will stop covering daily news events to more deeply cover issues.”

That’s a mixed bag. It’s obvious that news organizations either produce the daily news content or distribute it to someone else. If the industry goes to an online pay model, then moving to cover deeper issues with intelligent storytelling gives readers a reason to pay for access. Think about this NYT article I’m writing about. It applies to me, interests me, and with that my willingness to pay. We are used to paying for a print subscription, and we’re used to free online access. Why should we receive free online access for the same information in the paid printed material? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Moreover, I can get the daily news anywhere (think AP), but it’s the in-depth, local, and specialized information that matters to me. That I will pay for because it helps me as a citizen and a consumer make better choices and stay informed.

“The business model is not working today,” she said. “So without some changes, it won’t work tomorrow.”

See above.

“Photographers are producing plenty of great stuff, but now the media seem interested only in celebrities,” he said. When Michael Jackson died, it wasn’t part of the news, it was the news. How many photographs of his funeral did we really need?”

Give that man a Blue Moon beer for getting it right. Moreover, I know even my colleagues in the industry feel the same. It’s one thing to cover the event properly, it’s another thing to squeeze the last bit of blood from the turnips. The question remains — how many newspaper web clicks or television rating increases were directly tied to the MJ news? The inherent double-edged sword lies in the fact that those web clicks do equate into real dollars that pay real salaries — so how does that balance? Rob wrote on Aphotoeditor about the tyranny of click-counting via an article by Andrew Sullivan. Here’s a direct quote:

“It’s possible to post stories that make people who come to a web site more likely to click, yet may make them less likely to come back to the site, and certainly less likely to pay for it.”

And then as if a homage to the daily news content argument above, Andrew adds:

“For much of the weekend the top story on the Journal’s site was that a helicopter and a plane had collided over the Hudson River. No kidding! Why would I pay for a home page that crams that story down my throat when every other news site is doing the cramming for free? There’s a lesson here about the tyranny of click-counting. “

Yep, give me a slow website that requires ten clicks for every piece of information that you find everywhere else and you’ll dial in a lot of clicks. However, you may also dial in many visitors who won’t return because the site practically begs them to leave and never come back. It’s unfortunate, but those clicks are crucial. Maybe it’s about creating sites that are easy to navigate and applauds design rather than shoving clicks and ads down peoples’ throats. In addition, that specialized content that you can’t get anywhere else? That’s the Golden Goose, right?

Some more from the NYT:

“Ten years ago, Dirck Halstead, who spent 29 years as a White House photographer for Time magazine, wrote in Digital Journalist: “When I speak of photojournalism as being dead, I am talking only about the concept of capturing a single image on a nitrate film plane, for publication in mass media.” Visual storytelling has itself been around since the Stone Age, he noted, and “will only be enhanced” by the changes now taking place.

Revisiting that column last month, Mr. Halstead wrote that, if anything, conditions today were worse than he had predicted. To be a photojournalist today, he wrote, “You have to be crazy.”

Think about the markets for a moment. Fear and greed drives markets. Often we lose hope and cash out in the market when our dollars drop faster than a Six Flags ride. It’s the opposite on the way up — everyone wants in long after the real money has been made. I have a rule-of-thumb that I’ve learned the hard way over the years. When all hope is completely lost, the bottom has passed and things head north. Have you noticed your portfolio a few months after the financial breaking point? It is most likely higher now. In my opinion, the same rule-of-thumb applies for our profession. When you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel due to a hopeless myopia, then it’s a possible push for the turning point in how we do business. The ones that invest now will reap their rewards later. It’s easy to jump off the same cliff that everyone else is doing, but it’s a lot more difficult (and far more rewarding) to stay on the positive track. We have to do something different, and maybe this is the catalyst for change.

How about this thought? Think less about layoffs, budgets, and space crunches. As the article said, we have zillions of web pages in need of filling. The opportunity to present work in new ways is richer than ever before. Sure, we’re going to have to one-man-band it at times, and we may not like that idea one bit. Try shooting a video, writing a story, shooting photos, and creating a gallery all from one assignment. Sounds horrible, right? Surprisingly, it’s richly satisfying, because you’re in control of the content. You don’t have to dump b-roll and go and see how it turns out in the video player later. You can be in charge of that. Hate that one editor’s editing choices? Fughetaboutit! Here is your chance to drive the presentation. You are the only limitation and obstacle standing in the way, and once you realize how truly gifted we are as visual journalists and storytellers, then it could be the bottom of something heading wonderfully up.

Taken from here.

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