Sunday, June 28, 2009

What local newspapers should do: A final thought on the importance of photojournalism

My series on 10 steps local newspapers should take to survive and thrive in the face of the economic meltdown and the societal shift to the Internet raised a good question from a former colleague, Jay Small.

Here's what he wrote:

"I wanted to ask about something I don't see mentioned much: the role and value of photography and photojournalism in the future of content strategy. Most discussion I see zeroes in on the local public service/watchdog/Fourth Estate archetypes of journalism. Meanwhile, at street level, we keep seeing how powerful photographs and galleries can be as drivers of traffic and engagement. I, for one, do not believe video supplants still photography even online.

Is great photography strategic, or just another tool in the box?"

I'll share part of my response and elaborate:

"I think a news organization has to put at its center a public service mission because it elevates the work to a higher standard and a higher calling. That said, photo is very much a part of that watchdog mission. Think about the great documentary photojournalism that has changed the world because it's shown people things they haven't known about or wanted to see. So maybe this is a bad answer, but it's probably both strategic and a tool in the box...One thing I've been thinking about is how most news sites look pretty much the same and that means they're text driven. Yet you see Microsoft's Steve Ballmer talking about the differences between media having disappeared in 10 years. Why aren't Web sites more visual? What if I could wake up in the morning and instead of watching the Today show have a web aggregation of great news photos (perhaps with narration and certainly with captions available) floating across my screen, with me being able to stop the flow of images any time I want with my remote?"

Most people running newsrooms - and that includes digital newsrooms - came up on the "word" side. It always bugged me to be called a "word person." But it is true that the perspective of most top editors is text first. That said, we've moved into a much more visual world and readers both expect and appreciate a much richer visual experience. Jay Small is right that still photography can play a huge role in making local newspapers more central to their communities. Watching events unfold in Iran reconfirms the significance and impact of photographs from people armed with cell phones. This is probably the most significant way that the public will contribute content, if newspapers make it easy for them to do so and reward contributors by treating their work with respect. To me, photography (by staff and others) should be the lifeblood of any good news organization because it forces journalists to concentrate on what is actually happening, and not on telephone interviews or reconstructions after the fact. It puts an organization into the position of always trying to show, not tell. That approach is central to good watchdog journalism. Good photojournalism creates a sense of urgency and wonder, depth and intimacy - all things that would draw people back day after day because the experience is something they'll remember. Newspapers have been, in my view, too dry for too long. Good photojournalism makes any publication come alive, makes its readers connect and feel, puts them into the shoes of others. Good photojournalism opens the world, which is what local newspapers should be doing. I can't be everywhere in my city every day, or everywhere in the world, but people are taking pictures across the city and globe every day, and if they're put together in the right way it will make the reader feel part of something larger, make the reader care about his or her community, make the reader an engaged citizen - and at the same time give pleasure.

So, yes, Jay Small is correct. Photo is a powerful tool, but it can also be strategic, because handled well it positions a news organization in reality, in a real place in real time, a place readers can relate to, a place where they don't just see, but also feel. And if they feel, they'll remember the experience, and come back for more. That's why photojournalism is so important, but it's also why local newspapers should embrace the work of all the people in their communities with eyes - and cameras - on the street.


  1. I don't usually pimp my blog posts in comments, but I've recently written two posts based wholly on interviews with five photojournalists:

    Visual journalism: Many ways to tell the story

    The new visual journalist

    I think they complement what you have written here, John.

  2. Well said sir.

    The phrase "if you can't focus you can't see, if you can't see you can't feel" comes to mind. I like your ideas suggesting that newspapers should show rather than tell as well. I think that people would be interested in picking up that newspaper if they knew they could have the news shown to them rather than told, which is why the marriage of word and photo is so important. And I think you're right, 95% of editors come up on the 'word' side and so that becomes their priority.

    I think we should get working on the scrolling news images idea, sounds good to me.

    Just 2¢ from a student photojournalist.

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