Guardian Writer Says Newspaper Photogs are Like 19th Century Weavers, Redundant


Yesterday we featured a far too common headline that went something like “*insert newspaper here* fires all photographers.” This time, it was an entire chain of local UK papers, and like the Chicago Sun Times before it, the chain is planning to replace these pros with freelancers, submitted photos and reporters with smartphones.

These kinds of headlines and stories make us sad, because we believe that the newspapers are making a grave mistake in undervaluing photography and the professionals who call it their vocation, but one Guardian writer has caused an uproar by holding to the exact opposite opinion.

In a blog post that incited so much negativity as to warrant a followup, The Guardian‘s Roy Greenslade sparked a firestorm yesterday when he called newspaper photographers ‘redundant,’ claiming that the move by the Johnston Press to fire their entire photo staff was economically savvy.

In fact, with the exception of the occasional difficult assignment — for which Greenslade would call in a professional freelancer — he believes that “anyone” can cover “the general run of the news diary” for a weekly local newspaper.

Commenters, to put it kindly, disagreed:


In response to comments that called his opinion everything from “drivel” to “rubbish” to “moronic,” Greenslade published another post, asserting that he was still right:

With so many commenters and emailers arguing from the perspective of national titles or, in the case of the United States, regional daily papers, it is blindingly obvious that they failed to understand what I wrote and the context

So look back please. I restate that I referred only to British local weekly newspapers. I restate that I accept the need for papers to use skilled professional photographers, but as freelancers rather than on staff.

The thing is, even the British Press Photographers’ Association went after him, calling his opinion “an insult to the skilled photographers,” and claiming that, “it really doesn’t help the case for… quality journalism when one of the highest profile commentators on the industry has given up on any notion of defending the simple idea that quality products have longevity and cheap ones don’t.”

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As you can tell, the feud has turned rather nasty (as Internet feuds are prone to doing) with each side entrenched in their own opinion and refusing to give ground.

We, obviously, side with the Press Photographer’s Association. Professional work, be it in a local weekly newspaper or on the national scale, is still professional work. Using images captured by reporters with smartphones will only hasten the demise that these papers are so desperately trying to avoid by slashing salaried photographers in the first place.

Mr. Greenslade, on the other hand, sees the move into the digital age as akin to industrialization in the 19th century. Photographers, he explains, are like home-working weavers and knitters who were being replaced by machines.

“At the time, those workers would have [said] that the quality of the yarns initially produced by the new machinery was inferior to their own efforts,” writes Greenslade. “But it would not have been a case of me talking down their work nor of talking them down personally. It would have been a description of reality. Economics and technology dictated what happened, as now with the fate of newspapers.”

You can read both the original and followup posts in full by following the corresponding links. But before you do, let us know what you think in the comments. Are we shooting the messenger here, or is Mr. Greenslade the one missing the point?

(via Reddit)

  • Fuzztographer

    Oooh, I can play this game, too!

    Writers are redundant. Just aggregate some Twitter feeds, there’s your story! Surely, quality will improve!

  • pvbella

    Fire the reporters and rely on freelancers and anyone who can write simple declarative sentences. Reporters and journalists are ancient goat herders. Anyone can cover or write a story. Who needs these overpaid under worked so called professionals?

  • Ryan

    Well, clearly this is someone who doesn’t understand the first thing about what goes into a good picture – composition, exposure, lighting, depth of field… just to name a few. The last step in taking a picture used to be activating the shutter, and this is the only part he thinks is necessary. Nowadays, though, with digital imaging, post-processing may be equally as time consuming and critical, if not more so.

    I don’t know anyone who would trust a random stranger on the street with capturing their wedding, for example. Why? Because, beyond capturing photons on a sensor, a photographer captures the emotion of a scene. Any monkey can take the tourist “I was here” shot. Only a photographer can make the viewer feel HE was there too.

  • Matthew Tully McGurk

    If staff photographers at local papers put in the effort to produce better photos then a journalist with a smartphone could, then they would have nothing to worry about!


  • Matthew Tully McGurk

    unfortunetly, staff photographers at local papers often dont understand the firstt thing about what goes into a good picture either.

  • darylcheshire

    Is it just the flailing about by a fading newspaper?
    Firing photographers might be step 17 of the 50 step race to the bottom?

    How is that Chicago newspaper going now? I understand they have been hiring freelancers. Is it still going down the gurgler?

  • ISO640

    I suspect the reason Greenslade is taking this tack is because it saves his job for a brief time–or he’s an ass or both. He really isn’t thinking long-term, he isn’t considering that he too will be redundant in the future and will be out on his own petard when the newspaper industry stops printing actual papers.

  • Dave Wilson

    I think the problem here is that he didn’t write his article in Txt Lolz.

  • Stuart

    It’s a matter of quality, their content is already dyer, a hastily taken image on a phone will only lead to customer dissatisfaction and a reducing readership. If he wanted to drive customers he needed images, good ones. In the end I will be proved right and he won’t care!

  • Doug Hoke

    bean counters and word herders

  • Jonathan Maniago

    You could go even cheaper with monkeys on typewriters since they won’t even ask for credit or recognition.

  • Kristopher Singleton

    So why did you ask us to make a comment BEFORE actually reading what he said?

  • Renato Murakami

    What Greenslade is doing with his comparison/analogy there is equating artisanal work that evolved to machine work with photojournalism.

    That’s the entire problem in his argument right there.
    Professional photographers can’t be replaced by staff with iPhones and whatnot because it’s not about the equipment and technique that evolved – it’s about art, creativity, and dedication to a particular and very important part of newsmaking.
    You can’t replace them for the exact same reason you can’t replace writers for a computer AI that aggregates news and composes articles by itself.

    If all those publications were getting from hired photographers was mechanically generated photos, then I can’t argue with him.
    You could just make a deal with a TV news network, hire someone to check videos and use some selected frames for your unoriginal news pieces.
    That says much about the quality of journalism on said publications itself.

    Like I said on a previous comment, if all your newspaper do is to republish stuff from agencies and from freelancers, then it really doesn’t need professional photographers – they are not needed to do a piss poor excuse of journalist work.

    Professional photographers will be needed if your newspaper strives to properly write and illustrate, with a team that works together well, real unique journalistic pieces that goes after the news and doesn’t limit itself to republish stories that tens of other publications will also cover.

    Of course, lots of newspapers are guilty of not doing that. And this is one of the reasons why I don’t buy them anymore. What’s the use of a newspaper if everything it does is printing stuff that I can already read from reliable sources on the internet? – and yes, contrary to popular belief, there are reliable news sources on the internet, arguably more reliable than several printed newspapers out there.

    This is why I’m always arguing that this phenomena of newsrooms getting rid of photographers has nothing to do with the market not needing professional photographers anymore, or that journalism has no need for photojournalists because of tech advances and whatever excuses they are willing to use.

    It has to do with the kind of crap print media has been doing these days, and how low newsmaking has become in some fronts. Some newspapers just limits themselves to being a middleman of sorts to news agencies, republishing stuff that everyone can read elsewhere.

    See that news famous/big/respectable agencies themselves (like Associated Press, Reuters, among others) would never just fire their photojournalists replacing them for writters with iPhones simply because they are needed.

    So, if Greenslade is saying that in his publication professional photography work isn’t needed anymore, I’ll perhaps say that it’s his publication that is not needed anymore, as it doesn’t do any relevant work for it’s clients.

  • Morgan Glassco

    In an age of video/youtube/streaming aren’t both photographers and writers redundant?

  • Eugene Chok

    is it harder for a photographer to write or a writer to photograph?

  • Andy

    I remember once being at a press conference at some wetlands preservation. A politician who was dealing with a scandal didn’t really want to talk to the press. Everyone was two meters away from him with him at a podium with various officials.

    Everyone dutifully took the grip-and-grin and politician-at-the-mic shots.

    We looked to the right and one photographer in fisherman’s hip waders had wandered out to take shot of all of the reporters on the dock with the politician at the end. He was perpendicular to the action and the 20mm (I remember) lens underlined the awkward situation.

    Lovely. In fact, none of our papers ran a shot the next day from that event because we knew it could not compete with our colleague’s wide horizontal shot of the dock that was run above the fold. THAT’S what you get when you have a dedicated professional looking for the great image.

  • Mack

    Oh, good, Biff and Muffin hangin’ out with their MeMeMephones. Rockin’, dude.
    Whoever made this very short-sighted and ultimately disastrous decision must be the same fellow who told Nikon not to bother with customer service.

  • YS

    Just remember to feed them.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Polishing the brass on the titanic…

  • 写真家

    It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.

  • Martin Nilsson

    Well, he has a point. Skill equals quality and of course comes with a cost. A school newspaper can be run with 2 guys and an iPhone. Even less if we are talking about a pre-school, I guess crayons will suffice then.

    Today two things are a fact, it’s easy for amateurs to take decent photos. And it’s easy to get photos quickly from stock agencies (or maybe it has a different name for news, I don’t know). So if you need to cut back on money in a local paper you can settle with mediocre iPhone photos for local news, buy great photos for the occasional national/international news and in case something big happens locally – hire a free lance.

    And before everyone gets all worked up about photographers, I’m sure they are also cutting back on writers. As an example, the very local (covers a town of 50 000, printed once a week) paper here has a lot of user submitted text, many of the “journalists” are bloggers with out an actually journalist degree and the print quality would make even a superb photo look like crap. But it gets the news out!

  • Keithbg

    It’ll be all “selfies” now. “Me” with the president. “Me” with the local glee club….

  • David Vaughn

    Good freelancers charge what they’re worth, which is a lot, especially if they were previously staff PJs at a paper.

    This is because they have experience navigating the journalistic landscape, getting the most relevant and telling photo and also knowing how to adhere to AP standards in their cutlines.

    Citizen photojournalists are just…No…Let’s not go there.

    There’s more to PJ than just taking “good” pictures, which is why there are staff photographers in the first place.

    Also; how are you an authority on local papers or journalism when you can’t even use apostrophes?

  • CdL Creative

    You have to understand that the Guardian is one of the more hypocritical newspapers in the UK. Although, of course, they will claim the opposite.
    They rage against companies using legal schemes to reduce the amount of tax they pay. While using a trust fund to, err, reduce the amount of tax they pay.
    They ran a think piece about how traditional photojournalism is in decline. Having, err, slashed the rates they pay photographers.
    Then there’s their new “cities” initiative. Which appears to be bankrolled by a charitable foundation (I wonder why they didn’t mention that). And wants people to give them content for free.
    And the real humdinger. Try to post a critical comment on their site. I once pointed out that one of their star columnists probably didn’t really understand how the other half lived because they were a Chablis drinking socialist in Islington. The site moderators deleted it within minutes. For which read: “We believe in free speech. But only if you don’t disagree with us.”
    I really don’t understand why anybody gives Woy Greenslade credence as a media commentator. According to him, everything his employers do is wonderful. And anything any rival media group does is evil.
    Let’s not forget this is the same person who once cosied up to Robert Maxwell.

  • Scott M.

    I remember back in the early 90s, when all the graphic artists on staff were converted to freelancers almost overnight. It was the age of the “Mac” and the typesetting business changed as well. Quality went to hell and no one really cared. Photography as a business is in trouble. Everyone has a camera and a printer. The only ones working seem to be paps and sports, with wedding photogs getting beaten up everywhere. I use my photos to make artwork, which is another shaky business. You just have to keep at it and do good work.

  • flightofbooks

    What a maroon.

    He thinks the only thing that makes a professional photographer is the skill in operating a professional camera. By this calculus, the rise of better and better quality smartphone cameras will render the professional camera obsolete. On this, he may well be right. But it doesn’t matter what camera they’re using, an untrained, untalented person is not going to make the same quality image that a professional will make with the same tool. Not in a million years.

  • flightofbooks

    So hire better photographers. There’s no shortage of them.

  • flightofbooks

    They rehired some of their old staff on some kind of basis. Probably got tired of being shamed by the Tribune on every major local news story.

  • Richard Ford

    He has a point. Forget about photogs or attacking writers. Many people fail to accurately see just how economically un important they are in the face of continuing technological change. The question is – how does one identify that for themselves and then put in place medium and long term plans that take such change into account?