PetaPixel

How the Internet Killed Photojournalism

chicagosuntimes

The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. 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.

The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff today (including Pulitzer Prize Winner John White) as a part of what is being described as a shift in consumption towards video content. I suppose there could be a kernel of truth in this statement, but it doesn’t really speak to the whole truth about how photojournalism has suffered because of the Internet.

The Sun-Times, like its crosstown rival The Chicago Tribune, has suffered from falling print subscriptions. Average weekday distribution fell to just a tad over 184,000 this year, while digital subscriptions rose to 77,660. In the heyday of the daily newspaper, images that required six columns got the ink. But look at how photography is used on the Sun-Times website today.

suntimes

In their current three column design, the largest image gets one column. A thumbnail from Getty Images is used in the second column, and then of course, the entire right column is reserved for ads, which are undoubtedly selling for a pittance relative to their ancestral print counterparts.

Part of this particular issue is just bad design, but the other reality of web design is that we have vertically constrained screens, and so we need to fit as much important material “above the fold” as possible or risk losing eyeballs. The only website that I can think of that uses full column imagery on their homepage is The Huffington Post, and well, I have many negative feelings about their aggregation-for-money business model. That issue aside, the crop is problematic, but alas, at least they seem to realize the value of an image in drawing an audience.

huffpo

Let’s hypothesize and say the average photojournalist salary for all 20 photographers is $70,000. With benefits (15%), we’ll call it $80,500. With 20 photographers, that’s a cost savings of $1.6 million per year, not to mention the relief of long term obligations like pensions. International news, politics and sports are already covered by the wires, so the only loss is covering local stories, and well, no one seems to care about that any more.

If you’re a newspaper with declining print subscriptions, and your website is being updated constantly throughout the day, one could argue that no single image has much value if we look at “impressions.” This isn’t the fault of the newspaper — this is the reality of how we consume information in the Internet age.

I canceled my New York Times print edition in the 90′s. I subscribe to a handful of magazines, but find myself reading the same articles online more often than not. The glory of a beautiful image printed as a double truck has been decimated by the online slideshow, which never seems to have the same impact in most news websites.

sportsillustratedIconic images like John Tlumacki’s Boston bombing photo might land on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that image would be hard pressed to get more than 6 hours on the homepage of a news website.

It’s not that the images don’t matter, it’s just that they matter for shorter durations of time.

Glut of imagery + short attention span = the demise of an industry. Laying off the entire Sun-Times staff probably isn’t necessary, but it’s convenient. Now you have 20 starving photographers who are desperate for freelance work earning a low day rate with no benefits.

Blaming the situation solely on the increased demand for video content is a ruse by management to wipe the slate clean. The truth is that they are reacting to the harsh realities of the journalism business nowadays, where profits trump newsmaking.

But let me be clear. Even with the change in consumption habits, the Sun-Times didn’t necessarily make the right choice in dismantling its photography department. The belief that a print journalist with an iPhone will suddenly understand how to use photography to tell a story, not to mention comprehending the ethics of photojournalism, is naive at best.

Getting rid of a photo department won’t solve endemic design problems that cause poor reader engagement (i.e. high bounce rates) in the first place. Producing more video might give you more inventory to sell pre-roll advertisement, but high quality video requires staff. You can’t just slap ads on a Harlem Shake video and call it a day.

emphasis

On a similar note, LENS blog editor James Estrin reports that the photojournalism crowdfunding site, Emphas.is, is seeking to crowdfund itself. Emphas.is was founded to help finance personal, long form photojournalism projects and to date has helped over 60 photographers. But without a sustainable business model/volume, they are faced with the reality of trying to raise money for themselves.

It’s a sign of the times that the Veronica Mars movie can raise $5.7M on Kickstarter, but Emphas.is struggles.

veronica

This is the golden age of photography. More people are taking and consuming images than ever before, and it is truly a cause of celebration. But journalism (be it written or photos) has suffered immeasurably by the serialization of moments brought to you courtesy of “the crawl,” Twitter, Instagram and the like.

The benefits of instant communication has led to a glut of information where photos go viral and grumpy cats get agents, while “hard” news has been relegated to and become synonymous with “disaster,” rather than a discourse of often complex issues that affect the public.

We should bemoan the day that important stories are no longer funded by news organizations, and instead are shouldered by individuals and their own prerogative. I’m confident that great work will always be produced, but the burden of funding important storytelling isn’t the responsibility of the storyteller. It’s an obligation of a democratic society to itself. Here’s to better days ahead.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen authors PhotoShelter’s free business guides for photographers and marketing professionals, including topics like email marketing, search engine optimization, and starting a photography business. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.


Image credit: welcome to the Chicago Sun-Times by mod as hell


 
  • http://profiles.google.com/bogorad bogorad

    How is Veronica Mars reference relevant here??

  • http://www.purseblog.com/ Vlad Dusil

    I think it’s safe to say that the incredibly fast-moving onslaught of information has caused ADD in most consumers and video will probably be the solution to keep the attention span on the news source and hence pinned to the ads flanking the content.

    At the same time I don’t see how there will be big savings by replacing photo journalists with videographers. Good video is hard to do and costs a boatload.

  • pvbella

    First, and foremost, news is a business. They must earn a profit. In order to do that in the Internet age, they must provide compelling content. Unfortunately the Sun Times does not provide compelling content. They do not even edit copy. Their stories are riddled with misspellings, grammatical and usage errors, and inaccurate story telling. After reading stories that are so poorly written a first grader could edit them, why would anyone subscribe. Oh, and anyone who claims journalists have ethics better get their heads examined. Ethical journalism became an oxymoron decades ago.

  • Gimmeabreak

    Don’t forget the role that the wire services, and Getty in particular, has had in decimating the staffs of newspapers, and that was starting 25 years ago with the advent of digital. One staff photographer and the wire services has replaced a staff of 8 or more at many publications.

  • Dan C

    You are correct. Actually, several years ago many newspapers (including one I work for) had their photo staff produce videos as well as still content. The extra time for making even an acceptably professional video was very large, and shooting video took away from time to shoot good stills. The video hits and profits never came, and many papers have abandoned the idea. Good photo galleries, however, are hugely popular at news sites.

    This asinine video excuse by the Sun-Times managers is either incredibly out of date and misguided, or a total ruse to come off as having a plan rather than simply executing a crass and short term salary dump. I suspect the latter.

  • http://twitter.com/DslrVideoStudio DSLR VIDEO STUDIO™

    It’s not that the images don’t matter, it’s just that they matter for shorter durations of time. How true!

  • Rob S

    You cost estimates are way off. The basic rule of thumb is that an employee costs twice their pay. Remember half of Social Security is paid by the employer. Same with unemployment and workman’s comp. Then there is the cost of administering an employee – payroll, required records – the cost for their operations – desk, phone, etc – and then benefits. 20 photographers at 70K each is $2.8 million.

  • Derek

    The Sun-Times’ statement is a bunch of malarkey. The executives involved here are the worst kind of short-sighted cheapskates and they spent more time coming up with this lie about “bolstering” multimedia than they did deciding to fire their photo staff. They knew it’s much cheaper to just use wire images, but they had to find an excuse that readers wouldn’t interpret as: ‘We don’t care enough about you or covering this city to employ professional visual journalists to do it.’ What’s all this mind-blowing multimedia coverage the Sun-Times wants to “bolster?” Cat slide shows? Wire photos to accompany national wire coverage in what’s supposed to be a metro newspaper? What a travesty. The Internet didn’t kill the Sun-Times’ photojournalism — its idiot managers did.

  • RLamkey

    The fact that you ask this question is evidence of the problem. Sure, “movies” like Veronica Mars have their place, but in-depth stories or documentaries that shed light on social issues seem to be more of a nuisance. I mean who cares about breast cancer or mental health care or poverty when we can watch videos about celebrities and TMZ type video clips?

  • Jim Colton

    Allen, again, is spot on. During the “analog” years, subscriptions to newspapers and magazines depended on consumer appetite. Somewhere in the 90’s, news was overtaken by entertainment (Lady Di vs. Bosnia) so magazines like People and EW became hugely popular and profitable. Newspapers have tried to reinvent themselves but sadly, have been on a steady decline. Consumers will drive the product and the internet will facilitate the ride. But no one will ever be able to convince me that a smart phone will be the tableau of choice to display great photography….or the weapon of choice to take one.

  • Michael D

    Someone on another forum put it well: the sound we’re hearing isn’t the cry of the death of photojournalism–it’s the sound of the big flush, as the Sun-Times desperately tries desperate measures and fails to save itself from going down the drain.

    Reporters shooting video? (One story is reporting that the reporters were told a couple of days ago they’d be shooting video with their iPhones from now on.) Really? And they think that will give them something worth watching? This is not the way a successful business tuning itself up to run slimmer thinks.

  • hdc77494

    The (UK) Daily Mail uses an amazing number of large photos in many if not most of their stories, and they do a pretty good job covering US stories as well. They’re worth a look.

  • hdc77494

    The biggest changes are the loss of classified ads and the loss of value to syndication. It used to be a writer, photographer, or comic creator could sell the same content to hundreds if not thousands of publications. Many local papers got lazy and never bothered to deeply cover the local scene, and multiple papers in the same region could be virtually identical and still sell papers. Now readers can access national publications for national news, and only need the local paper for local news, even in large cities, Sadly suburban papers or alternative weeklies still do a better job than their bigger rivals., I believe there’s a place for a city newspaper, they’re just going to have to develop a better business model.

  • hdc77494

    Maybe if newspapers didn’t go out of their way to ignore and insult half their potential readers they wouldn’t be in this mess. The NYTimes preaches to a bubble and daily insults millions of potential readers, other papers do the same. And then they whine about nobody buying their propaganda pieces. Please.

  • DeadFormat?

    Tv killed radio, Movies killed both books and theatre, so radio, books and theatre are dead? no! they all still exist, they are just smaller businesses than they were in their heyday, and so it will be for newspapers. The papers DO need to downsize and adapt to survive, but firing all the photographers? bad call if you ask me.

  • http://www.thisisjoe.net YJawhar

    Lovely article.

  • Delta Bravo

    Dude, shes really hot.

  • Mantis

    I think the point flew way the hell over your head.

  • Matt

    Ya, still images don’t matter. Just look at facebook, no photots there right?

  • 45SURF

    they could have saved their jobs by innovating and changing and learning how to shoot stills and video at the same time like we do: http://45surfer.wordpress.com/

  • derekdj

    I would say it’s not the internet that is only at fault. If you look at the imaging industry as a whole, the innovations in camera technology has also allowed everyone to document reportage at a very professional level. If you look at the prevalence of high quality digital cameras (this includes dslrs, P&S and cellphone cameras) you don’t need teams of photographers on staff, running around the city with police scanners capturing events. In day-to-day news gathering you don’t need Robert Capa level professionals on call.

    That being said, it does create opportunities for real professional photojournalists in the realm of monthlies and magazines, National Geographic, NYTimes Magazine, Vanity Fair will always need high quality professions shooting editorial and covers.

  • k_w_images

    Do photojournalists typically make $70,000? That seems a bit bloated. Maybe super experienced ones would, but I think it’s more like $30,000 for most entry level or so. I was never offered close to that much as a photojournalist (though I never entered the field after college, preferring marketing instead.) $30,000 seemed like a great offer at that time (4 years ago.) In my experience, video/multimedia positions paid more.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    The Daily Fail also has a reputation for using photographer’s work without bothering with trivialities like paying the photographer.

  • Adam Gasson

    Are you trolling? Or do you really have no idea what professional photographers do? If it’s the former, well done, if it’s the latter you should probably stop commenting on posts like this. In a nutshell what you’re saying is that the vast majority of professional photographers have a career based on being able to press a button on a really good camera.

  • Adam Gasson

    That might work for you shooting surfers but that doesn’t mean it can be applied across all fields of photography. If you’re running around a protest with two cameras knocking around, shooting for a few seconds with each, how much usable video will you be left with? What happens when you turn to shoot a portrait orientation shot with a video camera mounted for landscape shots? I’ve seen plenty of press photographers trying your method (years ago, in fact) and it never works due to the issues above.

  • http://45surfer.wordpresss.com/ Johnny Ranger McCoy

    dear adam, could you please provide one link to (or photo/video of/from) one other photographer trying our method of shooting stills & video @ the same time “years ago?” you can’t and you won’t. we have researched shooting simultaneous stills + video thoroughly and have invented a superior method for shooting stills and video @ the same time. remember–pics or it didn’t happen. also, had you read our methodology, you would realize that the video runs continuously, leveraging moore’s law. please read before opining. thanks! j.r. mccoy

  • http://45surfer.wordpresss.com/ Johnny Ranger McCoy

    p.s. and while we use the method to quite successfully shoot stills and videos of surfers @ the same time, we use it far more often to shoot stills & videos of models @ the same time, as well as concerts/etc. please read the article published in the 2013 Winter Resource Magazine. http://45surfer.wordpress.com/ thanks!

  • derekdj

    I’m not trolling, just expressing my professional opinion having worked in the field for 25 years. I know far too well all aspects of the creative profession from the low, mid to high tiers. This same argument has been made about computers and the design profession. Art directors bemoaned Quark and Illustrator, calling desktop publishing the death of design, while it killed off a whole category of jobs it opened up new realms within the field. I suggest instead of bashing technology and the inevitability of change within a profession, “professionals” need to look for new and emerging opportunities.

    It was Jack Welch who rightly wrote in Who Stole My Cheese, you can sit around and bemoan the loss of your cheese or you can go and chase it down in other areas.

  • Richard P. McDonough

    I hate videos of stories that should be written/reported, i love the LATimes photography and find that in print it is more satisfying and integral to story than online.

  • T. Rob Brown

    My
    own thoughts I am still pondering — I’m not sure if “killed” is the
    appropriate word but it has definitely hurt it in ways beyond what most
    people realize, even those in the field.

    Online photos are
    used so tiny on the majority of websites today because most corporations
    use template websites that don’t allow for design flexibility (not to
    mention, most online newspapers have no individuality when it comes to
    design — they appear as cookie-cutter websites). Great photos are not
    displayed big with pride while lesser photos run at the sizes they’re
    currently running at. Just as larger photos in the print edition draw
    eyes to a story and increase its readership, so would larger photos in
    the online editions. Why must we relearn all that we have learned?

    In addition, the newspaper industry has grown into a culture of “more
    is better” instead of “better is better.” I was trained with “quality is
    never an accident.” You have to put forth the effort, time, setting the
    ethical bar, and reaching for higher quality if you want your work to
    be respected and trusted as a news source — EVEN MORE SO in a time of
    wanna-be journalist bloggers with no official journalism education,
    training, or tradition. It’s as if the everyday Joe doesn’t care about
    the source of its alleged news: this attitude sets aside the trusted
    quality traditional media and instead gives credibility to sources that
    have not yet earned that credibility.

  • T. Rob Brown

    I’m a daily newspaper photojournalist and I have ethics. All of the quality reporters I know are ethical. Any reporter we’ve ever had who tried something unethical, was fired for it. You are entitled to your opinion, but saying that no journalists have ethics is just as inaccurate as saying we all have ethics. People in my community trust my newsgathering and photography because they know what I report is the truth and as accurate and unbiased as possible.

  • T. Rob Brown

    Who are these photojournalists that are making $70,000?????? I don’t even know any photo editors who make more than $50,000 (and those are only at major metros in the Midwest). The average photojournalist salary in the Midwest is $27,000-37,0000.

  • David

    You are certainly right when talking about freelancers, but staff photographers who have been on staff for some time fair a bit better. I was a staffer only once in my career and after 4 years i was earning $40,000 + benefits. That was 2009. If you look at the time on the job for many of the fired Sun-Times shooters many where around for more 15 years and some for 30. At that point i am sure that their pay was higher. But really, $70,000 still isn’t a lot for what we do.

  • Tom Kane

    Low interest in quality news reporting is the real demon. The American mind is being dumbed down at a terrifying rate. Entertainment is king.