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Photojournalism impacted as use of photography changes

By Peter Weinberger

There have been many odd things newspapers have done over the past several years when addressing the changes in reader habits, advertising and the bottom line. The most popular approach is to cut their way to profits, hoping subscribers won’t notice the impact on quality.

The result has been significantly smaller staffs to cover the news. And I have no doubt readers really do see the difference.

With all this focus on budget-cutting, none seem as strange as when the Chicago Sun-Times decided to lay off their entire 25-member photography staff in one fell swoop. The reasoning was news reporting is changing, with a greater focus on the Internet. In a statement they said:

“The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news,” the Sun-Times explained. “We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”

Maybe I have read too many of these company statements, but does anyone really believe this is good for readers? So I have decided to decode this statement on what it really means, just for COURIER readers. What they should have said is:

“The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and we need to cut costs immediately. Since our website design really doesn’t focus on photography, we figure firing our entire photo staff is a win-win for us. Reporters will now take pictures and video on iPhones, in addition to writing. We’re betting readers will look at our video and photography no matter how bad it is. Our editors say this will hurt our writing, too. But we know we are all just lucky to have jobs.”

I’m not against multitasking, but as someone who has personally tried to take videos and pictures on assignment, it’s really difficult. Shooting video is a different way of thinking, and you are bound to miss the “moment” that makes still images so compelling. I realize shooting both will occur in certain situations, but when you throw in writing a story as well, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Or, as in the Sun-Times case, a drop in quality of all published content…in print and online.

This decision is also a result of how the Internet has changed photojournalism. As our COURIER newspaper readers know, page design is critical in the display of good photography. Editors take time to choose only the best images from a shoot. During the page design process, photos are sized differently for greater emphasis on key images, and then mixed with typography on the page. It’s a real art to do this well, and takes teamwork from photographer, to editor, to designer.

With online slideshows, you have no limits on space, which leads most websites to include so many photos from an event that the repetition can be unbearable. When you include everything, nothing is really emphasized for impact. The days of getting more clicks have replaced the style of photo usage in Life magazine.

Don’t get me wrong, I look at online photo slideshows all the time. But the nature of how photography is displayed online does impact photojournalism and storytelling.

As for management at the Sun-Times? They could have just as easily trained part or all of the photo staff to shoot video. Many newspapers already do that. This would not only be a relief to the writing staff, but would keep the integrity and quality of their visuals at a much higher level.

Here’s hoping this decision doesn’t start a trend in the newspaper industry.

 

 

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