Dropping Photojournalists Also Drops Photo Quality, Study Finds

A number of prominent newspapers and magazines have laid off some or all of their photojournalists in recent years, but these moves are not without their consequences. A new study has found that switching from a photojournalist staff to non-professional photos causes, to no one’s surprise, a significant drop in photo quality.

Professors Tara Mortensen and Peter Gade of the University of South Carolina and the University of Oklahoma, respectively, recently published the results of the study in an article titled, “Does Photojournalism Matter? News Image Content and Presentation in the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record Before and After Layoffs of the Photojournalism Staff.”

The Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, is a newspaper that laid off its entire photography staff in 2013. The researchers analyzed news photos published in the paper before and after the layoffs, with 488 photos credited to professionals and 409 credited to non-professionals. While the paper continued to use pro photos from wire services after the layoffs, the use of non-pro photos increased from 19% to 33% in the 6 months before and after.

The researchers then analyzed each photo and scored them on a scale of four categories:

  1. Informational: Photos that “lack emotion or creativity”
  2. Graphically appealing: Photos that are “taken at angles or perspectives that make them aesthetically interesting”
  3. Emotionally appealing: Photos that capture “the human element of subjects”
  4. Intimate: Photos that create a “private connection with the viewer.”

What the researchers found was that 82.2% of non-professional photos were simply information and lacked visual aesthetics and emotional connection. On the contrary, over 50% of the professional photos were at least graphically appealing.

The results of sorting pro and non-pro photos by quality. Chart by American Press Institute.

“Following the layoff, the paper published fewer images, and presented less prominently,” the researchers write. “Professional images captured significantly more elements of photojournalism than non-professionals, including emotion, action, conflict, and graphic appeal. Professional images were presented larger and more prominently.

“Results of this case study provide evidence that—despite clear differences in image content—photojournalists are struggling to assert their professional legitimacy in the digital age.”

Publications that have dropped many or all of their photojournalists in the past decade include CNN, the NY Daily News, Sports Illustrated, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

After the World Series in 2016, photographers pointed out the quality difference between the cover photos of the Chicago Tribune (which still employed its photojournalists) and the Chicago Sun-Times (which let its photographers go three years prior):

As examples like this one and the new research study show, newspapers should carefully consider the cost and the drop in news reporting quality they may bring on themselves before picking their photography departments for cost cuts.

(via American Press Institute via Fstoppers)

Image credits: Header photo by Giorgio Montersino and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0