In the wake of Poynter’s… let’s call it naive piece on how writers can source cheap or free images for their words, here’s a quick guide for those who still don’t get how editorial photography and photojournalism works.
The first newsroom I worked in didn’t have a single photo person in it. Not a photo desk, not even a photo chair. This was in 1982, so not all that long ago. At this newspaper, photographers were considered part of the service industry. Like a sandwich shop. Reporters (not even editors) would place their order, and photographers — regardless of their experience or journalistic chops — would deliver, freaky fast.
This is where the Poynter article first goes off the rails. It suggests, once again, that photographs are just there to serve the wordsmith and their needs. They aren’t a real part of the journalistic process, just a necessary evil to attract eyeballs and generate clicks. The difference now is the person making and delivering the sandwich doesn’t get paid.
If you go back a few more decades, you’ll learn that as soon as it was possible to reproduce photographs on the pages of newspapers and magazines, it became essential for publishers who wished to stay in business to do so.
It wasn’t a question of want, it was a question of need. National Geographic, Life, Vogue, and countless more newspapers and magazines got into the editorial photography business overnight. Since the beginning, photography has been the most expensive element of the editorial process. Publishers didn’t want to spend this money, but it wasn’t an option. The marketplace demanded it.
Now, almost a century later, this historic truth has been forgotten. Photography was and continues to be the ingredient that is most readily skimped on, or cut from the proven recipe used to deliver a satisfying meal to the reader. Publications today are trying to sell chicken soup without the chicken. Meanwhile, the chefs can’t quite figure out why there are so many empty tables in their restaurants.
Evidently it’s the customer’s fault. Diners no longer have the time, inclination, or desire to sit down for a good meal. Somehow, they figure, human nature has changed so drastically in the last twenty years that they only want to get their nourishment in pill form, like the Jetsons, dispensed by a machine, 144 characters at a time. So instead of delivering a hearty, well-balanced, and tasty meal, they decided to compete with the robots.
This is the underlying problem when you’re talking about journalism today. Nobody knows anything. They’re all trying to reinvent the wheel just because the delivery system of their product, and it is a product, has changed.
It’s not the customer’s fault when they abandon you. You can’t blame the marketplace while at the same time ignoring economic laws.
The customer has left, and you aren’t giving them a reason to return. Instead of competing and paying for the services of the best photographers and writers, like the publishers of yesteryear, you’ve abandoned them. It wasn’t your logo or brand that attracted readers, it’s what you offered them on your pages. You simply can’t produce eye-worthy content with lesser talents. Talents that, if they worked really hard, had great mentors, great editors, and an institutional knowledge supporting them (which they don’t), could someday become medium talents.
Yet that’s what you’ve tried to do. In your arrogance, you discarded the people who are responsible for creating your product, your brand that you’re so proud of. You thought your customers wouldn’t notice you’re serving them canned soup.
It’s unlikely those talents will be returning. They’ve gone on to (hopefully) better things, or they’ve died. The young talents with great potential have gone away, too. These young talents (normally) aren’t stupid. They can read the writing on the wall. Why would they slave away for you, when you are essentially offering them less money and security than they could get working in the fast-food industry?
Desire and talent are two different things; both are needed to become great, but only having one (regardless of the amount) will not make up for the other.
To become a player in journalism today, you need a couple of things that don’t have much to do with creating great content. You need desire, which is good. You need a social media following, which can be both good and bad, depending on how much pandering you do to accumulate these followers. And most importantly, you need money. That’s how you really become a player today. With money, you can fly around to different gatherings and make yourself known. You can afford to work for a publication without having to get paid properly. You can create your own cause and use it to build your personal brand. Money gives someone with desire the ability to make a name for themselves, without having to actually create any good work or spend time honing their craft.
Lesser and would-be medium talents have inherited the business. They’ve infiltrated every institution, workshop, contest, grant and organization that once was the protector and standard-bearer of institutional knowledge.
This could change of course. All it would take is a tiny bit of money. There’s nothing keeping that money from flowing back into the pockets of the creators. You’ve got the richest person in the world running one of the biggest papers in the country. The biggest paper in the country just boasted about making a billion in revenue. We’re talking fractions of a penny on the dollar. The kind of money that doesn’t even amount to an accounting error.
If one talented person — a publisher who desires to publish great work — realizes this and breaks herd, they could reverse this trend. Market forces work both ways. Quality, greatness, things that aren’t found in a Happy Meal, there’s a market for that. There might even be some people who remember how it’s done.
The Poynter piece is well-meaning, flawed, and it points (unwittingly, I think) to the real issue.
The writers are attempting to address a real problem that is facing them today. Fair enough. But it’s flawed because it’s looking to help journalists survive in a broken system that doesn’t deserve to survive. At the same time, it accepts that system as the new normal.
There’s nothing normal about how journalism is practiced today.
The real issue is that in looking to survive in this deeply flawed marketplace, you’re actually subsidizing the system that is marginalizing you. To deliver clicks (such a losing proposition, this clicks scam) to a publisher who cares very little (just look at the various contract negotiations happening at newspapers) about your financial well-being, is allowing that publisher to continue without changing their ways. Both of you are ignoring the marketplace. And sooner or later that sandwich delivery person, who you don’t even bother to tip, is going to spit in your sandwich.