No matter how no-nonsense and business-oriented publications are today, many journalists (and readers) couldn’t help but feel like they’d been punched in the gut earlier this year when the Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire photo staff, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning John H. White. The move felt like an abrupt and ungraceful end to an era, and a way to increase website revenue, possibly at the expense of quality.
Adding to the sense that something fundamental had changed were statements by Sun-Times managers that they would now get news photos from reporters with iPhones, or straight off the web. The Sun-Times wasn’t the only paper that got rid of photo staffs this year, and more such downsizing efforts are likely to come.
Besides the entire upending of the newspaper revenue model, other factors have pummeled legacy print media, including two important realities:
- Millions of people have digital cameras on their person at all times and in all places.
- People are enthusiastic about sharing images, including with news publications, whether or not they are financially compensated for their photos.
Furthermore, every editor worth his salt knows that powerful images can increase website traffic like nothing else.
How Photography Has Changed
Before the advent of powerful, small digital cameras, photography involved not only being where the action was, but having the right kind of film and the right lens, knowing the proper shutter speed based on lighting conditions, actually taking the photos, developing the film, and then using negatives to create prints. Photography is now easy enough that just about anyone can get a decent picture. Most of them will never create work of the quality that White and other professionals obtained, but in a world where 530 million photos are put on the web every single day, journalism is becoming more about finding the right image than taking the right image in order to increase website traffic.
How the News Business Has Changed
Today, the Associated Press has access to NowPublic.com, which is a repository of ”citizen journalism” that includes photos. This relationship and others like it ensure that photos and videos flow into mainstream news at an accelerated rate. Citizen journalist photographers are everywhere, all the time, and increasing numbers of them are learning how to submit their photos for publication. The sheer numbers dictate that these people will scoop professionals on an increasing percentage of breaking news photos. Furthermore, many such photographers don’t seek compensation for their images, and publishers can often assert that use of newsworthy citizen photos fall under ”fair use” provisions of copyright laws.
Is ”Good Enough” Good Enough?
Will a citizen journalist eventually submit a photo as iconic as the Marines and Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima? It’s possible, but for most everyday news, that level of impact is not necessary. The photo a reporter managed to capture on her iPhone is often sufficient for tomorrow’s edition.
Think about it: How often do you compare dailies and choose your newspaper based on a comparison of the images above the fold? Probably not very often. So in this sense, ”good enough” citizen photography is good enough. However, publishers cannot afford to become complacent and think that mediocre citizen journalist photos can sustain the value of their brand for the long term. There’s simply too much competition for attention, and you can’t increase website traffic long term with a stream of mediocre images.
Today, like it or not, news imagery is much more a matter of curation than of creation, even for news organizations that still employ photographers. Today’s digital cameras simply provide so much more product than film cameras did. For news organizations without staff photographers, curation is an even bigger part of publishing the news, and journalists have to know how to separate photographic ”signal” from the noise of those 530 million photos uploaded to the web every day. It’s easy to think that there will always be a strong flow of images suitable for news stories, and in many cases there are. However, content quality cannot be allowed to slip, because readers still appreciate high quality, and won’t remain loyal to news sites that forgo quality in search of page hits.
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