I’ve known about this one for a few weeks as one of my friends was involved – Southern Community Newspapers decided last month to let their photography staffs go at all of their papers. One was converted to a videographer, but that’s it.

With a few poorly phrased keystrokes, the vision of several communities was wiped out. Blinded by a corporate inability to see.

In May, it was the Chicago Sun-Times. In June, the Gwinnett Daily Post and other papers around Georgia. Where next?

Both publications used the same terminology, the same logic: reporters can shoot photos while they are out reporting, why send two people when the technology exists to let one do an adequate job at both?

And that word – adequate – may be too strong. It’s a different skill, a different talent, to tell a story than it is to show a story. Can one person be strong at both? Of course and there are examples of some journalists who craft words as well as they can visualize a story.

But those people are rare, very, very rare. I say this because, across the table from me, sits my wife – an excellent wordsmith, recently named one of the top female bloggers by the largest organization for women bloggers extant, BlogHer. But even she, a consummate professional at the top of her craft, admits she doesn’t see stories.

There’s a difference. A big difference.

I’ve spent more than three decades telling stories about my communities through images. The technical skills needed now are nowhere near as complex as they were when I started. And, you know what? That makes me happy. I’m happy that I don’t have to spend time in a darkroom, rolling film onto stainless steel reels and watching a glow in the dark clock to make sure I don’t cook the film. I’m glad I don’t have to rock a tray of Dektol back and forth under a safe light.

Because none of that had anything to do with journalism.

That work – much like the ingesting, toning and archiving we do today – is process. It isn’t journalism any more than the type setting, HTML coding or physical delivering of a printed product is journalism.

To lay claim to the idea that your photo staff’s value lay in, “dark room skills to develop film and make prints,” as SCNI’s Michal Gebhart infers, is pretty abhorrent and shows a total lack of understanding of what is happening in his own newsrooms, in his own communities.

Can a reporter shoot a quick and simple mug shot at the completion of an interview?* Yes, they probably can. Can a reporter shoot a high school football game, looking for the key moment of a game that conveys the passion and commitment of the players while taking accurate stats? In the rain? On a poorly lit field?


Now, those who have blinded their communities will say they can hire a stringer to shoot the game, getting the same images at a much lower cost. Similar? Perhaps, but not the same. That stringer isn’t going to care beyond the $50 you’re probably going to offer them.

Imagine this – you’re a stringer, and not a very professional one if you’re working for $50 an assignment, and a parent walks up to you and says, “I’ll give you an extra $100 to get my kid in the paper …”

You can triple your pay with a simple editing decision.

Another question: How are all those reporter-generated images going to be archived? Keyworded? Stored so they can be found later? What about the outtakes?

If journalism is the first draft of history, you just ripped its eyes out.

*That’s assuming the journalist is actually going to meet the subject and not conducting the interview by phone.

Mark E. Johnson

6 Responses

  1. The organizations that once prided themselves to be the watchdogs and whistle blowers of American greed and corruption are slowly becoming the exact cancerous greed and corruption they would have advocated against at an earlier time.

  2. So well said. Do you think that it is a matter of these decisions made by former writers who are now editors and who just don’t get that visual journalists just might be better suited to write than reporters are to shooting and editing? Or might it be that there is no one in management who advocates on behalf of the photo staff or who can articulate all that compelling images do for a publication?

    • I do think this has a lot to do with the lack of visual folks in the management regimes. The number of photojournalists who make their way up that chain is very, very small and that has always had an impact on how visuals are treated in newsrooms.

      Even with all the studies over the years that show how important the visual presentation of information is, the words always come first. Part of this does fall on us – the number of visual editors who desire to move up into newsroom roles is severely limited. How many can you think of?

      Now, I’m not saying this is our fault, but we have contributed to it. We have had a culture of being the outcasts in the newsroom, first physically because of the need for our darkroom spaces, then attitudinally because we have felt we’re different.

      We have never done a great job of communicating what’s different about what we do – and what’s the same. The basic workflow for a photojournalist is radically different than for a reporter – all of our pressure happens in the field, the need to get that one moment. By the time we return to the office, the hard part is (mostly) done.

      For a word journalist, the reporting in the field is difficult but there’s a significant level of effort that goes into crafting the collected elements into a cohesive story – and that strain is done, and seen, in the newsroom. The photo department has always been a little light hearted, because by the time we get back to the office, it’s mostly process, not essence (to steal and repurpose some lines from Prof. David Sutherland).

      So what do we do now? I think we, as an industry, need to strengthen our management training. We need to find those visual journalist who have the ability and desire to lead beyond the photo, video and graphic teams. We need visual journalists who are Journalists. Period. Full stop.

      • that comment was another blog post in and of itself … the problem is that visual management positions are at least as endangered as the photographers themselves don’t you think? That upper management mindset that you suggest exists is just as prone to see a photo manager as expendable as the photographers he/she manages.

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