Continuing a discussion of how newsrooms and photojournalists need to respond to changes in journalism and photography:
After I blogged my criticism of the Chicago Sun-Times for firing its photo staff, I followed with a guest post from someone who had emailed me privately. A comment on that post deserved greater attention and a response, so I am posting it here with permission or the commenter, Scott Bryant, a photojournalist at the Statesboro Herald in Georgia.
I’ve experienced some of the resistance from still photographers that some are describing, both personally and through conversations with colleagues. I’m not quite buying your “guest’s” general characterization of what’s going on with many still photojournalists, though.
First, the decision NOT to identify your “veteran visual journalist” is, well, just a little cowardly, if you ask me. If this person is such a veteran and cares about what’s happening to colleagues, then he/she should stand up, identify him/herself, and sing it from the mountains! Be a leader, not a sniping critic in the shadows.
I disagree with the characterization of the guest poster as cowardly. I frequently receive emails from people wanting to discuss a matter with me directly. I asked if I could use this email as a guest post. The writer agreed, on the condition that I not use the name. This person is a leader, but in a context where we’re discussing people getting fired, I respect a person’s wish to communicate privately. I pushed to make the post public and I’m comfortable withholding the name. Back to Scott:
I would not deny that there might be a large degree of passive-aggressive resistance from still photographers in regard to video and the directions that many in news media management are pushing for. But it is not motivated by a sense of “entitlement,” in my opinion. I really, honestly believe it’s more a matter of conscience. It’s been my experience that most writers and word editors seem to have little idea about just how bad most of the video they are producing really is. Generally speaking, photographers, on the other hand, are painfully aware of what the results are likely to be when asked to produce video with inferior, amateur equipment while juggling still photography duties at the same time.
Honestly, I don’t think most photographers are afraid of making videos as much as they are afraid of making crappy, irrelevant videos like the majority of those being foisted on the public in the name of a “digital first” approach. I simply want to scream every time I see another talking head video on a newspaper website. Those types of videos are useless and disrespectful of our audiences’ time.
I think the still photograph is being woefully undervalued in the role it plays in communication – especially online. On the surface, it seems like such a simple thing. Simple to produce. Simple to appreciate. But no other medium of communication resonates like a still image. No other medium is capable of producing understanding and making emotional connections between a subject and an audience as quickly and profoundly as a still photograph. And despite being in the age of unethical digital manipulation, nothing else offers instant credibility to a story like an honest, powerful photograph does.
Photographs are still the front porch for the news. They are calling cards. The first invitation to be engaged by a variety of content. And the quality of the photographic content is an announcement to the audience about how serious we are about engaging them.
Those who actually practice photojournalism know full and well that producing photographs which resonate and inform and teach are HARD to produce on a consistent basis. It takes experience and persistence and commitment and unending practice. There is a craft and a process that needs to be learned, and not everyone has the aptitude to communicate effectively with visuals.
I think a large problem in many, many newsrooms is that photographers’ unending efforts to educate their word-plying brethren are perceived as resistance and bellyaching.
What a photojournalist does – determining what a story is, then deciding which parts of it are emotional and visual, then figuring out the best way to present it to an audience in a compelling way and anticipating what those storytelling moments might be before they even happen – in the field as stories unfold – is an uncommon gift and a unique way of thinking. It’s a talent that’s often recognized – you know it when you see it. But it’s a woefully under-appreciated talent, apparently. Great photography produces tremendous value, but it’s taken for granted by both news management and the public at large. You don’t miss it until it’s gone.
I understand the necessity of the “digital first” approach. But I’m not buying the “video first” approach. I have yet to see compelling evidence that “sophisticated” audiences seek out video over still photography when they need visual confirmation of conditions, events, and issues.
I’m not naive, though, and what happened at the Sun-Times should be a very instructive warning to photographers not willing to take the lead in producing quality video news content online.
Video is a powerful medium for storytelling, too. But newspapers trying to transition (and survive) in a digital world probably need to re-evaluate their approach to video. If newspapers, and entrepreneurial journalists, for that matter, really want to connect with new audiences using video online, then they need to RAISE the bar with visual storytelling instead of trying to copy TV style reporting on the cheap.
Your guest, more than once, emphasized the “teamwork” part of producing multimedia content. On that, I agree 100%. However, that is not what’s being fostered by the news industry. What’s being fostered are barebones newsrooms where everyone is expected to be a super-Renaissance, one-man/woman reporting team who’s a master of every medium. It’s folly. And that approach is doomed to failure, in the long run. Even if someone is gifted and lucky enough to possess the aptitude to master all of those different mediums, it is STILL physically impossible to juggle all of those newsgathering activities at the same time and produce quality work – on a consistent basis. The profession is suffering, and the public is noticing.
There’s no feeling of “entitlement” that comes with a reluctance to dumb down journalism to the point where it has little actual value to the average information-consuming citizen. Why in the world should advertisers, sponsors, or readers fork over any money for multimedia content that can be produced by Joe Blogger, or just about any citizen, for that matter?
At some point, curators and aggregators will have nothing to do but sift through work produced by amateurs and hobbyists and hope they can verify its authenticity and define its relevance to their audience. Is that the future of journalism?
How we will fund quality journalism in the future and convince the public of its necessity, well, that’s the REAL problem to be solved, in my opinion.
Thanks for this comment, Scott, and for allowing me to post it on its own.
I agree with much of what Scott has said here. I agree fully that building a successful business model for journalism is the most pressing issue in the news business. That’s why I’ve blogged about business issues so extensively here.
I won’t respond to most of Scott’s points, but I will make a few points myself: Right now we have better ways of generating revenue from videos than from still photos, so I think that justifies an emphasis on video.
I’ll even stick up briefly for the talking-head video, though I agree that it’s overused. I also agree that it’s not a high form of journalism, but we publish lots of content — meeting stories and mug shots — that aren’t our highest forms of journalism. I don’t think a visual journalist should be wasting time on these. But if a sports writer covering a high school sporting event produces a series of Tout videos during the event, featuring several plays, it’s probably a good idea to end with a few talking-head Touts after the game from the coaches and/or star players.
We do too many talking-head videos, just like we overuse quotes in text stories, but we still should use quotes in stories, and a tightly edited talking-head video is just a quote using the person’s own voice and face. Also, the talking-head video is a predictable first step by a journalist learning video skills. We need to teach those journalists better video skills, but we publish stories and photographs by reporters and photojournalists who need to improve and we should publish videos by journalists learning video skills.
Visual journalists need to strive for quality while working to maintain high productivity. They need to make tough and quick decisions about which stories present the best opportunities for video, single stills, photo galleries and multimedia projects. I know lots of visual journalists who are doing all this well and seem to be enjoying the challenge, even if its frustrating at times.
I also know journalists of all specialties — photography, reporting, copy editing, design, management, you name it — who move beyond the valid criticism and questions about this difficult transition journalism. We are battling resistance and failure to innovate in some newsrooms, and I’m glad my unnamed contributor criticized that resistance.
I welcome both that contributor’s challenge to visual journalists and Scott’s response. We need lots of thoughtful discussion and lots of varied perspectives as we seek the right path to a prosperous future for journalism.