Middle-aged, financial journalist Felix Salmon stirred the pot on Monday with the following tweet:
— Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) February 9, 2015
His longer post states that although we are living in a golden age of journalism, the future for young journalists is a bleak one, and they would be smart to avoid it for the following reasons:
- There is an explosion of talented writers online, many more from non-traditional journalism paths, which thereby makes the industry incredibly competitive for not much pay.
- The “Platform” problem which makes every human a replaceable cog in the publishing machine’s formula (think the ubiquity of BuzzFeed listicles by no-name authors). He points out that Capital has the advantage over Labor.
- Luck has played a huge role in his own success, but it’s not replicable.
Now replace journalism with photojournalism (or “photography” for that matter) and you’ll see immediate parallels.
But wait, young person! Not so fast. Younger journalists have offered well-reasoned rebuttals that deserve attention.
32-year old Slate staff writer, Will Oremus, points out that the traditional paths to journalism success are indeed harder for the “traditional” candidate – that upper middle class, liberal arts educated, white male. The counterpoint is that many more non-traditional (but representative) journalists have a means to success (e.g. women, people of color, etc), and the criteria for success isn’t confined to tenure. Oremus writes:
No longer do experience, age, and the respect of your colleagues guarantee a succession of promotions and raises over the years. What media organizations pay for now is productivity, and they’ll happily trade a well-compensated veteran with a weighty résumé for a cheap, tireless newbie with a Twitter following.
30-year old Vox Editor-in-Chief, Ezra Klein, weighs in with a glass half full argument as well:
…the transition to more digital journalism means that young journalists have more opportunity to show their stuff, as they’re not competing for a scarce number of pages with older journalists. The Death of Journalism is really a kind of disruptive change in journalism, and that’s bad for incumbents, but you’re not an incumbent.
Given the continued mass elimination of staff photojournalist jobs (here, here, and here), it’s arguable that the prospect for photojournalists is worse than for journalists. On the other hand, I’ve always contended that the compression of the traditional industry has given rise to a myriad of job opportunities that never existed before. Cheap content creation (via DSLRs, Photoshop, iPads, etc) combined with cheap distribution (e.g. the Internet, Flickr, PhotoShelter) means that there are more entrants into the field than ever before. Five years ago, it was difficult to produce and sell your own high definition educational broadcasts, but now a single person (with the right skill set) can accomplish this. Humans of New York, CreativeLive, David Hobby, PetaPixel, DigitalRev – all represent jobs and real income that couldn’t have existed before the seismic shifts in the industry (granted not all of these qualify as photojournalism jobs).
If we’re going to get very specific, there will always be a need for photojournalists – particularly for national and global issues – and the photo editors that I know would never use untested talent (or lack thereof) to cover a moment in history. Individual freelancers in certain sub-disciplines (e.g. sports photography) will always feel the squeeze from wire services, but real storytelling requires real talent and trust (on the part of the photo editor and subject), and that type of photographer will never be a cog in the Platform. (A true victim of the compression of the industry is local news coverage, but that’s another topic).
So, should aspiring photojournalists get into the business without the intent to become educators or personalities? Assuming you’re willing to freelance, the question is really one of introspection on the part of the photographer: 1) Are you a strong visual storyteller, or just average, 2) Do you have a burning passion to produce imagery, 3) Are you willing to simultaneously build your social media presence as a core part of your business? Like any occupation with an uncertain path, you need to feel passionate about the cause or you’ll inevitably run into the only guaranteed outcome: Failure.