Processing, Second Post

I know I already posted that the Chicago Sun-Times has decided to layoff what appears to be their entire photo staff, but I’ve been processing this for another hour or so.

And, still, I’m dumbfounded.

It goes against everything we know about delivering the news, that you need to have as many channels as possible for your audience to choose from – words, graphics, photos and video.

And I’m not a video hater – I think, I know, it’s a tremendously valuable and powerful tool. But it has some significant limitations. If I want to consume my news on the L, video is out unless I have a set of noise-canceling headphones. Want to catch up on the news in the library? Doctor’s office?

The social contract says some places need you to be attentive and quiet – video, even with headphones, doesn’t work in those situations. (And this ignores this continuing emphasis on checking-out of whatever place you’re in and the societal implications of that.)

Beyond the technical/audio limitations, you still have the issue that a still photograph communicates something completely different than video, words or graphics do. It takes a narrow moment, a single angle of view, and forces you to deal with it. Forces you to confront it, forces you to process it.

Yet it lets you do that at your own pace. You can spend three seconds or three hours studying Eddie Adams’ Streetside Execution photo, but the video is only 15 seconds long. (Did you even know there was footage of that scene?) Yeah, you can rewind, but that’s a re-experiencing of the moment, not a deeper look into it.

Let’s go further, into the ethical implications of this. I’ll start by admitting that ethical transgressions have happened with staff photojournalists at numerous publications, but if you’re relying on independent contractors for the bulk of your images, how do you verify their authenticity? Heck, The New York Times has a hard time verifying whether the images it chooses to run in a special section of their web site are accurate and truthful – is the Sun-Times going to employ an army of picture editors and forensic analysts to check the authenticity of every image planned for publication?

There’s a legitimate argument that the need for staff photographers to cover breaking news no longer exists. And I agree with that – there are enough people on the street with cell phone cameras that we will rarely get those intense, early moments as quickly as they will.

But for general assignment news, sports, features, entertainment, etc. – your photo staff is the only part of the newsroom that is always, ALWAYS on the street, working with the public. You can take a picture with a phone, but you can’t take a picture on a phone.

How will you find stories if you don’t have people on the street? Is an independent photographer hired for a day going to have any institutional memory? Are they going to be fully invested in your organization as a staffer should be? Are they going to see the slight changes in the fabric of your community that indicate deeper issues?

This isn’t a knock on independent photographers – there’s a definite need for them to cover special topics. But never, never for general news assignments – that’s insane.

If you want to be your community’s main source of news, if you value being a part of that community, then you put the resources into being a major part of that community – you put YOUR people on the streets. You train them, you coach them, you support them, you encourage them, you get them to drink your Kool-Aid and believe in your brand.

I can’t process this any more. It makes no sense.

Mark E. Johnson

5 Responses

  1. Video has no place at a print newspaper. If video was going to save newspapers, it would have done so years ago.

    How long will it be until the physical paper goes?

  2. I’m afraid this is another clueless HR move by a news company. Rather than think through a staff reduction, they hear an HR person say, “If you lay off ALL the photographers no one can claim discrimination.” Presto, no hard work required. And maybe they think they’ll look radical and forward-thinking. The reality is that they’ll end up reassigning survivors to do stills — it just won’t be done as well.

  3. Mark, of course it makes no sense to us. But consider who is making these decisions. Frankly, I’m not really shocked. This has been happening at smaller newspapers all over the country. Heck, even CNN is guilty of the same, flawed thinking when they laid off dozens of employees, a large contingent of those being photojournalists, back in 2011. This was their statement:

    “We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company.”

    And I remember reading a blog by a journalism educator who applauded New York University for excluding still photography from a list of prerequisite knowledge necessary to be admitted for a multimedia journalism program. “… it is not a sufficiently advanced digital skill to qualify you for this program,” she said.

    That attitude is common, too. Those people only see the technical aspects – camera operation and editing. Anyone can push a button and anyone can pick a picture. Right? They simply don’t, can’t or won’t understand that it takes a special talent and unique intelligence to tell stories – stories that matter – with the medium of photography. Being able to anticipate the convergence of visual elements and a decisive, story-telling moment and then present it in a compelling, meaningful way – on a consistent basis – is an uncommon talent. One that is clearly recognized but taken for granted.

    Part of the problem is that “word” people are in still in charge of most newsrooms. People who equate quality journalism with primarily verbal (written or spoken) communication. Despite all the studies that keep confirming that visuals are the key connection point with audiences, these folks simply can’t seem to understand that being even a competent photojournalist is much more than being a camera operator.

    And let’s face it, many of these decision-makers are nothing more than bean counters. They have no interest in the mission of journalism other than the bottom line.

    The answer, to these folks, seems to be putting cheap cameras in the hands of people that have little-to-no aptitude as visual thinkers. Or trying to hire freelancers for fees they won’t be able to make a living on.

    I told someone today that the problem is that the many (most) of the people in charge simply don’t know what they don’t know.

    I don’t know what this means for the future, but I honestly believe that this trend of trying to create super Renaissance journalists who can all write, shoot still and videos and edit them, work with audio, and create interactive web graphics is folly. Fact is, most people can only do one of these disciplines at a high level. We’re lowering the bar. The only thing that makes professional journalism relevant is, well, professionalism. And that means operating at a high level of competency, with higher standards than the average person, gaining access that the average citizen can’t, and using tools that the average person doesn’t have access to. Otherwise, there’s simply no incentive to choosing professional news outlets as a source of information over the scads of do-it-yourself bloggers. Why should anyone pay for a subscription to view work they can produce themselves?

    I still believe the best works of journalism tend to be a collaborative in nature, when multiple masters of their mediums work together to produce great collective work that resonates at multiple levels with the audience. We’re losing that. It’s being driven by economics, but the news media companies are only hastening their own demise by making themselves less and less relevant.

    Journalism is going to be saved by journalists. I don’t know how, yet. But journalists are going to have to re-establish their own value to society because the media companies who have traditionally employed them have little interest in doing that.

    Any ideas, folks?

  4. I agree, it makes so sense. But this is becoming the new norm. Encourage your students to take a business class, befriend an accountant, and a lawyer. Encourage them to collaborate with a web developer and a graphic designer.

    At the very least, they need to know their cost of doing business. There’s a thread on Sportsshooter right now ( where a Sun-Times freelance photographer says that freelancers make $90 for a sports assignment and $60 for a news assignment.

    Thomas Witte breaks it down, but the simple fact is that you will starve to death at those rates.

    • I agree they need to take a business course. We do some of that in the intro and advanced PJ classes, but it’s not enough.

      One of the big issues we have at Grady is we don’t get the kids early enough – I would love to have them admitted as sophomores or freshmen (instead of juniors) so we could encourage them to seek out classes that would actually help them. As it is, they take a lot of easy classes to boost their GPA to get into the college without knowing what they really need.

      It’s a broken system and there are a handful of us in the Department of Journalism who desperately want to fix this. Hopefully, with a new dean, new department chair and the probable merging of Journalism and Telecomm, we can get this done.

      Given where the industry is and is heading, it’s a must-do thing. You’re absolutely right on this, Dylan.

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