Happy 2014 photogs! A couple weeks in and we're still…
“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.