Portions of this column were originally written for the June 2013 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
June 2013, Volume 120
By Mark Loundy
"I will not allow yesterday's success to lull me into today's complacency, for this is the great foundation of failure."
There arose a great cry among journalists across the country when the Chicago Sun-Times eliminated its photo department at the end of May. "How could they do this?" "What about all of the awards they won?" "You can't shoot pictures with iPhones!"
In fact, it took a great deal of courage for the Sun-Times managers to attempt such a thing. They saw their bottom line falling and they knew that they couldn't stave-off a total collapse unless they took major action. The problem is that they took the wrong action. They did improve their short-term bottom line by eliminating 28 FTEs (fulltime employees, aka "people.") But they did so by destroying much of the value of their product, thereby assuring their eventual failure.
As Sally Kalson wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Eliminating the entire photo department has to be the dumbest, most wrongheaded move any news organization has made in recent memory. Worse than when the Times-Picayune of New Orleans cut its print edition to three days a week, only to reverse course a year later due to ferocious backlash."
Indeed, the Times-Picayune tried to go the "digital first" route, but they did it so poorly, by cutting back their print edition, slashing editorial staff and presenting a mediocre website, that competing outlets almost immediately filled the vacuum. Poynter's Andrew Beaujon quoted New Orleans-based The Lens managing editor as saying that the site's traffic and audience have tripled since the T-P's changes, "We saw a bump last summer where I think people started to look around. Last fall they really started to go way up when we started to be a little more disciplined about keeping the site fresh."
It's certainly been no secret that readers notice and respond to good content. More specifically, they want good images. Garcia's and Stark's Eye Track studies in 1991 showed that readers respond profoundly to images.
But you can't just use any old images. Readers and viewers have become extraordinarily visually sophisticated and unforgiving. The demand on their attention to look at "amazing" imagery leaves no room for the pedestrian (unless it's of their kid.) The image quality bar for success is very high.
Even in a world of user generated content (UGC,) that leaves a gaping managerial weakness in most newspapers. Traditional mangers don't have the experiential perspective to think strategically.
Digital First Media's Digital Transformation Editor Steve Buttry blogged, "Most top editors come up through the writing and editing ranks, not from the photo staff, so our default settings favor paragraphs over photographs. But our users engage more deeply with visual images. They always have." He further wrote, "Newsrooms need to experiment with their approaches to photo coverage. But I can't imagine how the best approach would be to fire your whole photo staff."
With monumental irony, the Sun-Times released a statement recognizing the importance of visual content.
"The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network."
Uh, who better to handle photography than photographers? Even the most dedicated still photographer has fundamentally useful skills and talents that are transferable to video production. Buttry's take on using UGC and reporter-shot photos is more enlightened than that of most news managers, "We should use that content to free professional photojournalists from doing routine assignments and spend their time heavily, if not exclusively, in chronicling major breaking news stories and producing photo galleries, videos and interactive multimedia projects."
To "free," not to replace. To think otherwise is to diminish the quality of the product. The Sun-Times old-school managers desperately hope that the viewers won't notice when the photographers are gone. Doh! They notice.
Industry pundit and university professor Jeff Jarvis sees expanded roles for photographers, "It should be their job to get the best photos for their news organizations however they can do that. They've long done that, but now they have more ways to do it. They should become expert in culling the public's photos to find the work of witnesses to news. They should cultivate amateurs who can shoot well. They should train every member of an editorial department and every amateur who wants it in how to capture news to the best of their ability."
Jarvis shows how photographers can enhance user value, "But then the photographers — the experienced, the pros, the artists — should go where they can add the greatest value, capturing the images that amateurs and reporters can't and pushing the standards of their publication higher."
At the same time, writers do need to enhance their visual skills, because most of the time, they will be working alone. And photographers need to enhance their writing skills because most of the time, they too will be working alone.
Are you feeling me? Most stories will be solo jobs, regardless of your first love. Writers gotta shoot and shooters gotta write and everybody has to do audio. Get used to it. Jarvis' students characterize it as a sort of octopus journalism, "But we may have hit the limit of expecting journalists to be — in the words of one of my former students — eight-armed monsters, doing all that a reporter should do plus taking pictures plus taking video plus capturing audio plus begging for data plus thinking of graphics. Yes, they need to be able to do each of those things, that's why we teach them those skills. But all those things? At once? Not without help. Not without the experienced, the pros, the artists."
But where does print fall into this mix? It doesn't. It's dead. Its last job will be to publish its own obit.
As I posted on NPPA-L in June, "The major challenge for print publishers is the word, 'eventually.' The longer they wait, the more they'll be playing chicken with the event horizon of the drain they're currently circling. If they kill print too early, they risk ceding what remains of the print market to a nearby competitor. If they move too late, they will have their lunch eaten by local digital start-ups.
"The sweet spot is for companies that do not have geographically adjacent competition. Those are the folks who need to plan to pull the print plug soon — like next month."
Last year, I sent a proposal to a newspaper company outlining how to go about killing print. The following is selected from that proposal:
"There are two primary obstacles preventing "Digital Only." Both are psychological.
"The first is the human impulse to cling to the familiar. As long as print is available as an alternative to digital, prudent businesspeople will buy print ads. It's what they're used to. Removing the comfortable print alternative will unlock digital's value and lift its depressed rates compared to print.
"Many current readers are similarly manacled. They just like holding a comfortable old print newspaper.
"The second obstacle is pure fear. No company wants to jump first.
"One of the misconceptions about the technological advances of the past couple of decades is that journalism has fundamentally changed. It hasn't. Although distribution and tools have changed radically, the basic goals and principles of the past century have not.
"What is changing is a journalist's typical day. No longer will they be using the same tool for every task. Some projects will still call for specialists, but all journalists need to be conversant in most of the tools on the shelf.
"It should not be news that full-time professional photojournalism is dying. Shooters have become the custom cabinetmakers of visual journalism. The new name for them will be 'journalist.' The term multimedia will vanish because multi will be the standard way to get the job done. A photographer rolling to a routine spot-news assignment will understand that they will be responsible for both words and visual/audio media.
"Columnists won't be able to file their piece and then hand-in a photo assignment. Most of the time, they'll be expected to make a good image or shoot good video on their own. Reporters will conduct interviews with the understanding that they'll be editing the audio for publication.
"Even in situations that allow specializing, everybody is going to have to step-up their game. Reporters now have to think not only in long form and short form, but also in traditionally edited pieces and in real-time publication (tweeting, etc.) Because of the revolution in the ease of creating video, photographers now have to think more as filmmakers. Because of the two-way nature of the Internet, journalists must be accustomed to collaboration with the public from the beginning of the process.
"And it is a process. It's important to stop thinking of journalism as a series of one- off projects. Stories are updated, corrected and discussed — essentially forever. Journalists create an ongoing relationship with their stories and their readers."
Part of the process of change comes from the mindsets of its practitioners. The nature of the business will change as the students of today become whatever we call journalists in the future.
In short — nobody is going to allow themselves to starve. They will remake their world to accommodate their needs and they will remake themselves to fit into that world.
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