More Thoughts on Chicago

I have been reading a lot of stories and posts about the elimination of the Chicago Sun-Times' photo staff this week, the most recent by Vincent Laforet.

A few more random thoughts to fill up a Saturday morning from me …

One of the great challenges of staff photojournalists is getting the newsroom to understand and, by extension, respect what it is we do. There is a huge difference in the workflow of a word-based journalists to a photo-based journalist.

Reporters go out into the field (or get on the phone) and collect information. They then process that information, sitting at their desk, and struggle to craft it into a viable, valuable narrative. All that strain is done there in the newsroom where everyone can see how hard they are working.

Photojournalists almost work in reverse. The collecting of information (which, for a traditional reporter, can almost appear casual) is combined with the presentation into a viable, valuable narrative for the photojournalist. All of the really hard work is done in the field for a photojournalist – figuring out what the story is as well as how to present it to an audience that was not there so it will make sense. All in 1/500th of a second.

By the time the photojournalist gets back to the office, the stressful part of their job is mostly over. This is not to denigrate or ignore the importance of picture editing, but unless something has gone horribly wrong, the in-office work is mostly workflow.

So, in the newsroom, you have reporters straining and stressing over their keyboards, trying to coax notes into the first draft of history while, ove on the other side of the newsroom, you have photographers happily processing images, occasionally laughing at inappropriately dark jokes.

Over here, serious journalists. Over there, relaxed picture takers.

Now look at the newsroom and management structure – it's all word people. People who have spent years stressing at keyboards, in full view of their colleagues, who can see them as hard workers. People who have come to feel that photojournalism is pretty easy and laid back, something anyone with a camera can handle.

I mean, after all, everyone takes photos, right?

Laforet, in that piece linked above, talks about how we are in an increasingly visual time period. Which is true, and I'll go one step further: This is the most visual time in history since the move from using symbols to letter forms in writing.

I was laughed at when I said this many years ago, but I believe it to be true: We are visual creatures trapped in a verbal world.

So, what do we do? How to we stop, or at least slow, the decimation of the one cohort of journalists who can't work from an office? Who must, with every news assignment, actually go meet people and experience their situations?

I think part of it comes from our newsroom demeanor. Part of it comes from our newsroom geography. At my last paper, before heading into this Ivory Tower, I sketched a plan to move the photo department out of the old, nicely remodeled dark room spaces and into the middle of the newsroom. I had worked out, with the help of my newsroom colleagues, how we would rearrange the desks, how we would run the electrical, how we would rewire the network – everything was in place, with the blessing of those above and around me.

And then my staff revolted.

We don't want to be out there. They don't understand us. The light is bad, it's too noisy, the reporters will bug us. They'll see what we do!

I haven't been in that newsroom in a dozen years, so I don't know what happened, geographically, after I left. But I do know I was the editor over a staff of four shooters, and now there are two people in the whole department.

Did geography and newsroom attitude play a part in that 60% staff reduction? I don't know for sure, but it seems pretty plausible, doesn't it?

Maybe we have a PR problem.


Mark E. Johnson

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