How the Internet Killed Photojournalism

How the Internet Killed Photojournalism

“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 it’s 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.

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.

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 $1.6m 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. Iconic 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.

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.

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.

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There are 21 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: De cómo el internet mató al fotoperiodismo (inglés) @ Diego Reynoso
  2. Pingback: "How the Internet Killed Photojournalism" - Digital cameras, SLR, lenses, printing, processing, colors, black-and-white, wedding... - City-Data Forum
  3. AlexG at 4:59 pm

    I am assuming “writers” are next?

    What a shame…

    We should all send a big “thanks” to Joe with a DSLR that has destroyed the very business he wants to be part of so badly!

  4. Susan at 5:01 pm

    “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.” This is total corporate-speak for maximizing profits. Yes, journalism has changed, but that is not the reason for these layoffs. Own it, Chicago Sun-Times. Admit that you’re doing this for profit reasons, not some bull about the CST customer base. I would venture to bet that most of those laid off had already made the transition. I would also bet they weren’t supplied with the digital environment that is necessary in order to produce effective MM pieces. Of course, that’s simply conjecture. However, by switching to freelancers, who are wholly responsibly for maintaining every piece of equipment/software (hello monthly fees for Adobe Creative Suite)/computers/web sites (e.g. Photoshelter)/and on-and-on, NOT to mention the elimination of the “benefits” of regular paychecks and health insurance, the CST can potentially save millions of dollars by chucking the lot onto the streets. It’s infuriating that they mask the reality of what they are doing to their employees in this manner. Bean counters seem to be winning on this one, lowering the visual bar and killing the photographers/journalists along the way. This goes beyond the notion that we are in transition from print to digital. We have long passed that point. This is about profit margins, the corporate news delivery structure and not about “us” as “content providers” having to “evolve.” This is also a double whammy for Mr. White – he had his journalism class cancelled due to lack of enrollment for the upcoming year, according to the NPPA story. These are some seriously challenging times. It appears the only major growth in this industry at the moment is, “teaching workshops to photographers about how to adjust to the changing environment.”

  5. Richard Uhlhorn at 5:11 pm

    While I decry the laying off of an entire photo staff, I don’t believe photojournalism is dead and neither do I believe that the Internet has killed it. What is happening is a fundamental shift in how people consume the news. It is my belief that excellent photography has a place on the Internet.

    Is multimedia including video the future? Maybe, but it will take trained photojournalists to make it relevant. Video is time consuming. Our local daily wanted its photo staff to each produce one video each week for its I-Net site. They had to give it up because of how time consuming it was.

    I believe that photojournalism will find a niche on the Internet. In-depth stories with great imagery, including short video clips will eventually find its place on the new media and it will demand excellence and real journalism to make it relevant.

    As an example, check out the travel site designed like a magazine with crisp writing and beautiful photography and video clips that is specifically for the tablet/smartphone platform. It can be downloaded for free. It is TRVL.

    I see this as the wave of photojournalists future.

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  7. Peter at 2:13 am

    Perhaps the title should be: How changing times change the times!
    I searched the whole article for the message this piece of news screams at those of us who use cameras & images as our livelihood – GET INTO VIDEO, DUDE! Seriously photogs, you can live in the old days and wish it was still like that, or you can switch your expensive DSLR over to video mode, learn a few new skills, and get back into making a livelihood.
    Or not. If stills are your passion, then this is merely yet another wake-up call that the world, its economics, its people’s ways of consuming info, etc, are all changing (was it ever not?). So if you don’t change too, expect to suffer lay-offs and disappointment. Easier said than done, sure, but the writing is on the wall for all of us to evolve…

  8. HeruLS at 6:24 am

    It’s pathetic, but true. I have to realize those current condition. The competition is become more tight. I don’t know, I’m freelance, and suffer for assignment

  9. John Vink at 6:30 am

    Being a member of a democratic society, I have a moral obligation of contribution. I therefore will not wait for the democratic society to fund my (important?) storytelling, but I will continue doing that myself… It is not a burden. It is a pleasure.

  10. Benjamin Hiller at 6:48 am

    Great reflection on the topic – and it reflects also my own experience as a photojournalist, mainly into conflict photography, and the nowadays problems of financing the stories and getting them out properly…

  11. Anthony C at 8:02 am

    @ Peter:

    Horrible assumption you are making, DUDE, that these professionals who were unceremoniously dumped from their jobs weren’t adept at video. Don’t make them look like dinosaurs unwilling to change with the times. Just a couple weeks ago a guy named Sall was tossed from his job there—and you know what he did? He started the online video department in 2007 and trains the photogs in using video. Pieces he has produced have won awards for the paper!

    Let’s say you may be right, and that the staff photogs were in desperate need of changing with the times and updating their skills. Now they’re out and the paper is going to train reporters how to shoot their own pics and video. So, the photogs themselves, these experienced and willing visual story tellers already on staff couldn’t have been trained to do the same thing?!?

    How utterly sad you don’t see the forrest for the trees. They were dumped by the paper for no other reason than the company is going to try to get by with cheaper and almost undoubtedly younger people plus “freelancers”–whatever that means these days. I do not personally know a single one of these canned people, but like Bob Dylan sang “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

    You owe those people an apology.

  12. angger bondan at 1:46 pm

    Internet??

    Intresting fact.

    http://www.insidejapantours.com/japan-news/2220/japanese-newspaper-circulation-defies-western-trends/

    Figures from the World Association of Newspapers reported by the AFP reveal that after Iceland, Japan has the second-largest newspaper readership in the world, with a staggering 92 per cent of the population picking up a paid-for daily newspaper.

    What’s more, the world’s three top-selling newspapers are all based in the country, with the Yomiuri circulating a staggering 13.5 million copies every day when the circulation of its morning and evening editions are combined.

  13. Ryan Williams at 4:02 pm

    @AlexG I was not aware that any amateur photographers were in the room when Wrapports Michael Ferro (chairman), Tim Knight (CEO), and Jim Kirk (Senior VP, Editor-in-Chief) made the decision to fire 28 photographers.

    You can’t blame “Joe with his DSLR” for the demise of professional photojournalism. It’s the ultimate false equivalency, and one that is happily perpetrated by corporate executives looking to boost their bottom line. They’d be happy to have you eat that nonsense right out of their hand when they tell you that “the market” or “their customers” are no longer interested in high quality, paid, professional photojournalism. They are lying, and you are believing it.

    Amateur photographers and people like myself, with a four year degree in journalism who couldn’t find a job and were RELEGATED to blogs and freelance work because we couldn’t afford to work for free, are not responsible for the failure of major media organizations to compete. The photographers who were laid off yesterday are also not responsible for the layoffs that will follow, even though they will directly be adding to the already overcrowded freelance space in Chicago.

    In short, the creative hobbyists and professionals in Chicago ARE SURE AS HELL NOT responsible for the failure of editors everywhere to incorporate the most basic visual design into their work, and find a way to market their product to customers.

  14. Peter at 4:30 pm

    Go, John Vink! Right on.

    Anthony, good luck with where that’s taking you. The Bob Dylan quote is great. Were there cameras around when he was president? ;-)

  15. Pingback: “It was if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photo-journalism” – former Chicago Sun-Times Photographer John White « Blog Archive « Vagabond Photography
  16. Jon Asher at 11:47 am

    The elimination, if you will, of photographers isn’t limited to news gathering publications and sites. I work in motorsports and can assure you that the comments I hear from my commercial shooting cohorts as well as from numerous clients are nothing short of depressing. Clients who once paid significant four figure prices for a single image are now content (and I am not making this up) using something their intern shot on a cell phone in a national ad. Why pay a photographer when there’s a wanna be right there in the office so desperate to be out there that he or she will “add” photography to their job descriptions. I have had this conversation a half dozen times in the last four years.

    “Do you have a shot of So-And-So?”

    “Sure. Thousands. What do you want it for?”

    “A USA Today ad.”

    “Okay, that’s a $4,500 photo.”

    “W-h-a-a-a-a-t? I talked to Photographer X and he’ll get it for me for $250.”

    “Better call him, ’cause I’m not working for that kind of money. I’d rather starve.”

    So, that’s what most of us are doing. Slowly and agonizingly.

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  18. Andrew at 4:04 pm

    The photojournalism business model is dead, partly because the newspaper model that photojournalism got a ‘free ride’ from is also dead.

    I sympathise, but necessity is the mother of invention and people need to keep coming up with new ideas. Innovate, but don’t try to re-create the ‘old business model’ on the internet, as that will most likely die too. Create something organic, something from a new viewpoint that is going to work differently – i have ideas, but whether they work, i dont know.

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