Portions of this column were originally written for the September 2014 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
September 2014, Volume 131
By Mark Loundy
"If we work upon marble, it will perish; if we work on brass, time will efface it. If we rear temples, they will crumble to dust. But if we work on men's immortal minds, if we impress on them high principles, the just fear of God, and love for their fellow-men, we engrave on those tablets something which no time can efface, and which will brighten and brighten to all eternity."
It can be horrifying to those who make their living taking pictures to see an ad in a print or broadcast outlet asking, "Hey, did you go to that big event? Send us your pictures!" Rather than send a staffer or call a freelancer, an editor's first stop is often Twitter or Facebook. The universe has shifted and crowdsourcing is part of the new reality.
Photojournalists are rarely the first to arrive at spot news events any more. Even if somebody with a phone isn't there, there's likely to be surveillance cameras covering the scene. Even high-angle scene-setters can be grabbed from Google Earth. At concerts, smartphones are held aloft in place of cigarette lighters with images posted online before the first song is over. Parents don't care that the picture of little Johnnie's baseball game is a clip contest winner, they just care that his face is showing in the paper.
So what is the value of a professional photojournalist? We're rarely needed, any longer, to show the "who," "what," or "when" of a story. But we still have a value that can't be crowdsourced. That's the skill and talent to go deeper into the story, down to the "how" and "why." As Olivier Laurent wrote in Time Magazine, "...the challenge is to produce images that will contextualize that particular event and add more layers to the initial photograph."
Some blame new technology and amateur photographers. But inexpensive DSLRs do not come with insight. There is no Instagram filter for empathy. Siri doesn't know how to tell a compelling story about your hometown.
This higher form of photojournalism has always been a small part of the daily job — the one toward which publishers allocate the fewest number of worker-hours. Unless newspaper owners suddenly gain insight and vision they've never shown before, the financial numbers will eventually compel a reduction of photojournalist hours to support only this more sophisticated type of work and fill the rest from free sources. And that's if they even perceive it as a value. If they don't, the number of professional PJ hours will simply be eliminated.
There are two ways to balance this equation. Either eliminate the "excess" hours, as above, or build a larger demand for the type of work that photojournalists do best by supporting it and marketing the heck out of it. This will also make the news organization as a whole more valuable to the community.
It seems obvious, but the greatest value of a local news organization is local news. The days of people living in a small town being cut-off from international news ended decades ago. But how often have you seen national or international stories played up-front in local publications? The scores of news outlets carried around in everybody's pockets tell that news faster and better.
It's hard-wired into the brains of many local editors that every newspaper is a smaller version of the New York Times. When the Penn State child abuse story broke, a small daily in Palo Alto, California played it on the front page. As we all know, people in Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University and headquarters to scores of digital start-ups, really need to see national news in their small-town local paper.
New York Times wannabeism is a waste of newsprint and shows ignorance of the value of local journalism. It also demonstrates a lack of understanding of how most people get their news. Even elderly readers with landlines watch television.
Local news will survive whether through the companies currently underwriting it, or through the more insightful organizations that will take their places. It will survive by being an even more intimate part of its communities. One significant tool to accomplish that is professional photojournalism.
Phablets and print-emulating apps are not going to save journalism. Clickbait headlines will prove unfulfilling for readers over the long run. But compelling stories will endure as necessary parts of our lives just as they have since cave dwellers sat around ancient campfires.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly will return next month. Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I particularly need Good submissions. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.
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