Publishers Need Better Photography to Stay Relevant on the Web


Magazine and newspaper stories have traditionally revolved around the writer. A writer would pitch stories and was almost always the architect of the piece. When the story needed visuals, a photographer or illustrator would be brought in, often after the story was finished. This order of operations placed the writer in the driver’s seat.

The primacy of the writer was reflected in the leadership of the publication where editors, responsible for direction and content, rose from the ranks of authors. During the nineteenth century, when publications were gray tomes celebrating the written word, this was a perfect arrangement. Artwork accompanied the story, augmented it, clarified it, attracted attention to it, but always served a subordinate role. Photography was the appetizer to the article’s main course — the words.

During the twentieth century a few notable publications like Life and National Geographic challenged this arrangement by brilliantly placing photography on even footing with the written word, but they have been the exception.

Today a sluggish economy and tectonic changes in the media landscape are squeezing editorial outlets. Publications understand that they need to compete on the web and in social media, and to compete they need to maintain a hyperactive content cycle. A handful of long articles every month won’t cut it. With a requirement for daily content, hiring two creatives for every story is an unaffordable luxury.


Since, through a sort of institutional inertia, the writers have remained the prime movers for most media outlets, publications have addressed this problem by asking authors to take up photography on the side. The results: predictably poor.

The irony of this situation is that it is happening at a time when the visual image is achieving ascendancy.

An Example

Last September, USA Today unveiled a new website design devoting prime real estate to photography. Somebody in the design process understood the visual nature of the web — photos sell stories and increase click-through rates. The layout highlights photography and dedicates the entire area above the fold to images on many pages. The design is smart and attractive, but although the designers understood the value of the image, the editorial staff has yet to catch on. USA Today doesn’t seem to be commissioning photos to fill this space. Instead they are relying on writer-supplied images with the occasional wire or stock photo.

I noticed this yesterday when USA Today ran a piece about one of my favorite restaurants in Anchorage, Sacks Cafe. Take a look:

Photo-centric stories with minimal text like this are becoming the norm for many publications because they perform well in social media and on the web. But without good photography there’s little reason to pay attention. If the audience is anything like me, they never make it to the third photo let alone to the text.

At a time when visuals are more important than ever, why are publications depending on writers who know how to operate camera rather than photographers who know how to write a caption? Wouldn’t it be in USA Today’s best interest to have exquisite photos in this space even if it meant text from a less experienced writer?

USA Today isn’t alone. Many publications are pushing mediocre images on the web created by writers during the course of their ‘real’ work. Here’s an example from Condé Naste Traveler, famous for world-class photography in its magazine, explicitly calling attention to photography:

Did you read any of it or did you just look at the photos and move on? Did the photos leaving you wanting more? And keep in mind: this is one of the most photogenic places in the country.

An on-the-road-style photo-blog is a great idea for a print publication that wants to attract readers on the web. But the photos need to be good. They need to engage the reader. Billy Cohen is a fine writer, but this blog begs for a photographer.

Finally, a real treat from last year: Fox News covers Alaska. Don’t miss the last image in the slideshow where a relatively large hill is captioned: “Mt. McKinley (Denali) is the highest mountain in North America.” (The photo recently ran again in this story about Denali.)

An Opportunity

We can kevetch about this all day, but here’s a better idea for photographers: start working on your writing and pitch yourself to editors. Sooner or later publications are going to realize that a photographer with writing skills is a better investment than a writer with a camera for many situations. There is no reason photographers can’t instigate and lead stories, especially on the web.

The often-heard opinion that camera technology has improved enough to make photographers irrelevant is being refuted every day on the websites of national publications. And these publications are going to find it harder and harder to attract an audience with sub-par images. Institutional change is slow but inevitable, and the visual image becomes more important every day.

About the author: Mark Meyer is a photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska who specializes in commercial and editorial assignments. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Craig Hartley Photojournalist by eschipul, Newsroom by victoriapeckham

  • Lars Blackmore

    Yes! Great story, Mark, hopefully your prediction will come true and those of us who can write as well as take pictures will start seeing more business from publications fed up with writers who have a hard time delivering the visuals that make their otherwise excellent stories work in a hyper-visual world (whether those same editors will be willing to pay us a decent rate for the work is a different matter, of course…)

  • John Kantor

    The two worst run businesses on the planet are the Airlines Industry and the online News Media. They aren’t going to either learn or change.

  • jorepuusa

    As a Finnish photojournalist and teacher I agree with You 100%
    The only problem is that the harvesting is going on and the death of press is near and I´m very pessimistic about writing photographers.

    In my country photographers usually do not write and no wonder, when they go through 4 years of education to become a pro, they seldom get any advice about decent writing. On the contrary it seems, that all other students are getting information about photography, editors, amateurs etc.
    For some reason photographers are thought to be some kind of subhuman — capable only to press the button and look astonished when all others steal their jobs.

    What to do. Reading a bad quality language with lots of mistakes and no deeper idea is terrible, its like watching a perfect video with very bad and amateurish sound.
    Again, new writers must be educated -but as You said – this time they should be young photographers who can make world class pictures and after education write like Ernst Hemingway.

    I`m interested in teaching such a class of Young people, but no-one seems to care.
    At least here in Finland where bad pictures seem normal.

  • itsallfreeyeah?

    there is already plenty of work for photographers who can shoot and write. work that actually pays however is another story

  • Tim Lingley

    From the Daily Traveler: “…which I’ve helpfully instagrammed so that you can more easily imagine that you’re in the Old West.” WOW. Just…wow….How does the editor sleep at night?

  • Dewdle

    I’m a lifelong independent journalistic photographer whose seen 95 percent of his business evaporate in the last five years or so, as media outlets default to using free photos, really cheap photos, or images taken by reporters who are asked to do double duty. With the free and cheap pix, you get what you pay for. I find myself in actual competition with total amateurs and their cellphone cameras, or hopeless novices with point and shoot cameras that have lots of bells and whistles and truth be told are a lot smarter than their operators. By asking writers to be lensmen, both the writing and the photography are compromised in most cases. Rare is the reporter who can do both skills well, and do justice to the assignment in equal measure. We all suffer the results. As a result, real vibrant incisive photojournalism has been degraded since entering the digital age.
    But what is the real cause of the decline of photojournalism here ? For Profit Journalism, that’s what. When the big newspapers and magazines were bought up and told they must make handsome profits for their owners/stockholders, it became the expedient thing to do to cut costs and trim payrolls to pad the bottom line. The first and worst cuts always came in the newsroom and photo staffs. The Publishers and their accountants forgot why they w ere doing journalism in the first place in order to make budget and perform with less resources. Digital Photography created the wholly erroneous belief that images could be done better, faster, and tell more story with less money invested in them, even by people who had little or no photographic training. So photographers got heaved over the rails and their jobs given to the 2nd and 3rd to reporter types, which burdened them , or given to outsiders who were willing to give the stuff away in exchange for a credit line. Publishers quickly realized they could ask for freebies. The best example of this can be found at the iReport swamp at CNN. YouTube has not been helpful either.

    For Profit Journalism is a self fullfilling prophecy: FAIL. One other very important concept the stockholders and publishers forgot: nobody owns the news. If the goal is to provide top quality journalism and illustration to depth on topic, the good stuff still costs good money and requires good people with lots of experieince. Where is all that ?

  • Donald Giannatti

    Holy crap… this is one damn straight talk. And it is absolutely dead on.

    But the dead tree media morons who are in charge of the online channels will never relinquish the power of their writing. Most of these channels are run by former urinalists who disparage photography.

    I hope they get it someday, but if they don’t – screw ‘em. Let ‘em die, and get their rotting carcasses out of the way for those who actually have a clue. Good riddance and hastalavista… babeeee.

  • Choen Lee

    Mostly spot on.

  • Courtney Platt

    As a fellow pro photog I wholeheartedly agree with you Mark. I have to suspect that writers are less expensive than photographers though and that as this new media becomes more competitive we will indeed become “the go to” solution for the successful publications. They’ll evolve while the slow to adapt shall perish. I think you’ve described the prescription for their current ailment perfectly. I predict change at the speed of the internet!