Photojournalism Upheaval Heralds Multimedia’s Rise

January 15, 2014

Feature

By ROGER ARCHIBALD

Exactly two months after the massive layoff of photographers at the Chicago Sun-Times, a number of the departed photojournalists returned with some of their classic images to hold a silent protest outside their former workplace. They were accompanied by reporter Kathy Routliffe (2nd from left, front).
                                                                                                                        Photo: © Rob Hart, RobHartPhoto.com

Newspaper photographers these days feel like the last defenders of the Alamo, grimly holding out against yet another assault of layoffs, while still shooting. And the attrition is starting to indirectly impact environmental journalists, a number of whom shared with SEJournal their experiences in the shifting world of multimedia news production.

Job cuts for professional photojournalists are starting to approach epidemic proportions. The most audacious came last spring and took out the entire staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, twenty-eight photojournalists whose cumulative experience picturing the world for that paper in America’s “Second City” exceeded 600 years. Seven had served over 30 years each, and two since 1969, including 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White. All that abruptly came to an end in May, after a brief statement that reporters would now be producing multimedia content for the paper’s “rapidly changing platforms.”

At press time, the Chicago Newspaper Guild reported it had reached agreement with the Sun-Times to rehire four of the laid-off photographers, requiring them to produce multimedia content, and pay $2,000 in severance to the others.

But the job losses continue. This past fall alone, GateHouse Media eliminated the last four photographers at the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record, while Cox Media Group announced plans to cut its photography staff of ten in half at the Atlanta Constitution, and eliminate other photo jobs at the Austin American-Statesman and the Palm Beach Post. Even National Geographic, which once supported a staff of photographers upwards of twenty or more, now lists only a few on its masthead.

The trend was quantified in the recent annual newsroom census by the American Society of News Editors, which confirmed that full-time photographers, artists and videographers on newspaper staffs are taking the biggest hit. Between 2000 and 2012, their numbers fell 43%, compared to a 32% decline in reporters and writers, and a 27% decrease in copy editors, layout and production staff. And during the last two years of that period, the disparity accelerated, with the visual journalists suffering an 18% reduction in full-time jobs compared to a 6% loss for reporters and writers, and only a negligible reduction in copy editors, layout and production staff.

Job cuts in wake of years of change

The decline is the final result of a trifecta of body blows that photographers have suffered in rapid succession over the last 10 to15 years.

First, digital technology eliminated the necessity of darkroom chemistry and ultimately hooked up cameras with mobile phones. Then, the downturn in the economy not only slashed demand for published photography, but also led to plummeting prices in a market saturated by the overabundant supply of images made available by broad distribution of affordable, easy-to-understand, digital point & shoot cameras. Finally, the blending of still photography with video and sound formed an internet-compatible amalgam – known in the journalism business as multimedia – that fed the voracious appetite of publications newly embarked upon an online presence.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, editors, owners and publishers had an epiphany of their own: If technology had eased the complexity of multimedia to the point where it can be easily understood and accomplished by the masses, then what are we keeping all these photographers around for? Let’s just have reporters do their jobs.

If the new paradigm does succeed, it will owe a huge debt to the creation of the smart phone – that easily portable device that can record photos, video and sound at minimal publishable resolution and broadcast-quality fidelity, then effectively transmit multiple wireless streams of content to a distant internet terminus. In today’s ongoing 24/7 news cycle, a journalist is considerably handicapped without one.

But by jettisoning the photojournalism specialist, publishers are heaping responsibility for the continued creation of most of that media content on the backs of reporters for whom the move into multimedia means heavier workloads under tighter deadlines for no additional compensation.

Can anyone do it all well?

Over the last six months, a number of different environmental journalists – both within SEJ’s ranks and beyond – have shared their experiences with multimedia as it has encroached and enveloped their personal workspaces and work lives, portending significant challenges for journalism’s future.

One common conclusion from virtually everyone who’s tried the new approach: Nobody can do it all well. Upon commencing a multimedia assignment, the prevailing tendency is to go with one’s strongest suit.

Environment freelancer Karen Schaefer, a reporter from northern Ohio with a background in both public radio and television, has been dealing with the challenges of multimedia since 2003. “No one excels at doing all the parts,” she argued. “However, I have learned how to shoot photos one-handed while holding a mic in front of someone’s face. . . With new cameras and smart phones, anyone can learn the basics of taking a good, if not signature, photo. But doing good video is a lot more time-consuming than doing audio, which in turn is a lot more time-consuming than print.”

Concluded Shaefer: “Doing all three on deadline is an impossibility, if you want to do them all well. But I generally manage at least two media for most of my reports.”

Environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein was once strictly print at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Now employed by that paper’s NOLA.com, he explains a typical assignment: “When I cover a meeting, I’ll set up my laptop, using my cell phone as the hot spot, and sometimes I’ll be tweeting, basically using that as my note-taking process, keeping my notes to 140 characters, and also taking general notes, while at the same time trying to get up and take a picture of the speaker, or I may actually do some video.”

Constant mental leaps required

Many come to realize that multimedia requires them to keep juggling roles in a clumsy sort of multi-tasking, time-sharing choreography that always leaves one or another of the functions (or more) up in the air. Thus, if a subject says something worth noting while you’re taking photos of them, it’s hard to drop the camera and pick up the notebook. Conversely, if you’re conducting an interview and the light on your subject suddenly turns ideal, dropping your notebook to grab your camera completely interrupts the interview.

The challenges of multimedia can be quite daunting, leading some to limit their participation. “I have yet to figure out how to report a story all three ways (video, audio, print) at once,” says Stephanie Paige Ogburn of ClimateWire. “I have basically dealt with the multimedia challenges I encountered by deciding not to report video while also reporting written pieces. I did do some photography for stories, but shooting video, at least at my low skill level, became obviously impractical when trying to report for a long-form written journalism piece.”

Like Ogburn, many journalists reach a similar conclusion after giving multimedia a try: depending upon which medium you’re engaged in, it requires you to make constant mental leaps. Erik Olsen,a Berlin-based video journalist with the New York Times who frequently reports on nature and environment, describes it this way, “There is a definite right brain vs. left brain dynamic going on. That said, … both sides of your brain are often feverishly at work, since you are constantly trying to see through the camera, and listen for interview material for your story” at the same time.

Nevertheless, Olsen relishes the opportunity to be a “one man band,” a term used by many multimedia journalists to describe what they do. “It’s just a different dynamic in dealing with a subject to be one guy versus a whole bunch of people,” he says, in contrasting his approach to that of a film crew. “It’s harder, and maybe something on certain occasions is lost. But something is gained too, in greater intimacy with the subject and control of the work.”

Journalism educators see higher expectations

Journalism education is also responding to the demands of the industry to produce more multimedia journalists. Former SEJ academic board member Bill Kovarik teaches an introductory reporting course at Radford University in southwest Virginia which requires students not only to immediately start posting stories to a WordPress website, but also to upload photos and videos to illustrate their work, then promote it on Twitter and Facebook.

But Kovarik is concerned about the stress graduates of his program will almost immediately encounter on the job. “The expectations are higher, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “A lot of people tell me, if they’re working, they’re working like crazy. It’s so hard. It’s like you’re in, or you’re out of the pool. There’s no shallow end anymore. It’s all the deep end.”

The possibility of burnout is something “we need to deal with more in journalism education,” he observes. “That’s going to be part of what we need to give students as they cope with these new demands for multiple technical skills.”

Navigating differing skill sets

Perhaps the biggest challenge of weaving multimedia into the fabric of journalism is history itself. Like human development, organizational growth always proceeds toward greater complexity and specialization. As new tools and technologies evolved to serve journalism’s needs – photography, radio, television – practitioners especially skilled in those media evolved with them, and along the way, became substantially different people with altogether different behaviors.

“There are very few instances where writers have also been effective image makers – different skill sets are required,” Fred Ritchin, NYU professor and author of “Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary and the Citizen,” told Jeremy Lybarger of Mother Jones magazine. “I do not expect this experiment to be very successful, unless these reporters can be trained to evolve into multimedia journalists; word, image, and sound all must have primacy in the development of the narrative.”

For example, at a press conference, a reporter seeks to be noticed, to engage, interact, probe, ask follow-ups, generally get the subject’s attention and have specific inquiries addressed. In contrast, a photographer (or videographer or sound recordist) remains completely unseen and unheard, intent only on recording the event to the best extent possible in their particular medium.

Thus, one of the toughest nuts for a single individual to crack when attempting to do quality multimedia is the need to switch personalities and behaviors when transitioning from one medium to another. Can you imagine any reporter successfully doing his or her job without ever being seen or heard? Conversely, have you ever seen or heard a news video camera operator at work? They’re both journalists, but coming from entirely different places, taking entirely different approaches and practicing completely different skills.

Various media specialties long ago diverged to become substantially different professions. Yet, the implementation of the multimedia model in contemporary journalism would somehow manage to bring all these divergent branches back together again.

Whether or not journalism’s bold, but risky, new experiment with this new multimedia strategy succeeds may well be central to determining if it can make the news pay for itself again. Meanwhile, a door is closing on the traditional practice of newspaper journalism. How well will what takes its place work?

Roger Archibald is photo editor of the SEJournal.

 


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.