Wednesday, September 9, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Cheryl Diaz Meyer, 10th in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

Cheryl Diaz Meyer and David Leeson won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2004 for their coverage of the Iraq war for the Dallas Morning News. Today, Diaz Meyer no longer works at the paper. Neither does Leeson. And it's questionable whether the paper would assign photojournalists to do the same type of courageous work overseas again.

That says a lot about why I'm publishing this series, "Pulitzers Lost, What a Cost." It's an attempt to get at what it means for society, journalism and journalists that so many talented people have been spun out, bought out or shut out of newspaper newsrooms in the past few years.

The Pulitzer board cited Diaz Meyer and Leeson for "their eloquent photographs depicting both the violence and poignancy of the war with Iraq." What happens when eloquence is silenced at major news organizations? Diaz Meyer and Leeson are still working. (You can see her work on her personal web site and read more about her latest project in her comments below.) But there's no question in reading her reflections on the state of the newspaper industry that we're paying a price for what's happening in newsrooms across the country.

1. Name, age, final paper.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, 41, The Dallas Morning News

2. What work did you win Pulitzer for, when?

I won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2004 with my colleague David Leeson for our coverage of the Iraq invasion.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

I was part of a company downsizing in April, 2009.

4. What are you doing now?

I am currently editing a story that I photographed on the native and mystic healing arts of the Philippines, specifically how these beliefs marry with Christianity. The story drew me from one side of the country to the other as I interviewed, photographed and audio-recorded subjects for a photo story, written story and multimedia piece.

Any reflections on life after newspapers?

The problem with the catastrophic condition of the newspaper and magazine industry today is that as journalists leave the business in droves, those who are truly passionate about journalism and care to continue working at their craft are now seeking alternative ways to make a living. Some of the most talented journalists in our industry are biding time, trying to make a living doing commercial work, non-profit work, teaching—the journalism skills they have spent years honing are squandered by an economy that cannot support them. This is a loss to our society; and in the larger sense, it’s a loss to our democracy because ultimately the press acts as our country’s watchdog.

In photojournalism particularly, the conversations turn to “monetizing photographs.” Photojournalists increasingly are creating alliances with their subjects who then finance the work. Some say this is not journalism, but public relations. The question does arise, what happens to the journalism if the subject is paying for it?

The paradigm for freelance photojournalism doesn’t exist anymore and yet all who care deeply about the value of journalism want desperately to redefine it, fix it, make it work again.

5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?

I am passionate about telling stories through photography and I will continue to do so regardless of how the format changes. I will build on the affiliations I already have with media organizations and seek out other kinds of clients who are interested in storytelling images.

I’ve always viewed journalism as an honorable calling, but now we also have to be entrepreneurs. This skill, and one’s ability to adjust to the new technological environment, will probably distinguish who will come out of this crisis still standing.

6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.

The photojournalism at The Dallas Morning News has been renowned as some of the best in the world. For many years, the company leaders saw themselves as competitors with the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and other news behemoths. They were aggressive in their coverage, reporting stories that were of international, national and local importance.

Yet after two Pulitzer Prizes for photography in 2004 and 2006, the publisher stated that he would not support the coverage of stories like the Iraq invasion or Hurricane Katrina, for which those Pulitzers were awarded, if they happened today.

So the paper’s readers on the local level, and the web audience nationally and internationally, will not likely see this type of award-winning storytelling—and some of the best photojournalism is not going to happen at The Dallas Morning News because there is no support for it. The good thing is that the company does continue its focus on hard-hitting local stories, and they have not given up on quality journalism. But I sincerely hope that their turn away from national and international news stories is a response to the economic downturn and not a permanent philosophical change in the company’s vision.

In the meanwhile, my fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, David Leeson, took a buyout almost a year ago, and many other acclaimed photojournalists who joined the staff of the DMN over the past 20 years are no longer with the paper. When I began covering wars in 2001, I tapped Leeson for his knowledge of such dangerous assignments. The loss of institutional knowledge caused by the collective departure of so many seasoned journalists is, in the long term, a crisis for our profession.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?

The Dallas Morning News could not and cannot save itself on its own—the changes that need to happen are industry wide. Giving away content for free, as most media organizations do on the web, is an unsustainable business model. But few have the gumption to charge for it. If all media organizations charged for content, it would become the norm. A year ago, airlines announced that checked bags would incur a fee; most fliers balked, but now it is an accepted cost of flying because almost all airline companies charge.

I’m a fan of micropayments for the web. In the Philippines where an average teacher’s salary is $350 per month, even those earning much less will carry a cell phone, if not two. They easily accrue $10 to $20 in texting fees each month, which is considered palatable because they pay incrementally for the usage. Apple successfully uses a similar business model with iTunes.
Viewers will not balk to pay pennies for a story online, especially if there is no free lunch out there.

The Financial Times has been charging a subscription fee for online content since 2002 and is about to add the option of a micropayment system. As most news organizations struggle to find a solution to falling ad revenue, I think they would benefit from a little solidarity.

8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?

Journalism is a calling, and if you truly feel the call, follow your heart. Because although these are painfully challenging times, you will know no other job more fulfilling and adventuresome.

To read previous installments: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich, Janet Reeves, Jerry Kammer, Paul Giblin, Tamara Jones, Glenn Frankel and Joe Demma.


  1. I worked with Cheryl for years and while we had philosophical differences of opinion on some aspects of the craft I always had and still have the utmost respect and admiration for her work and as a person.

    I do, however, beg to differ with this: "So the paper’s readers on the local level, and the web audience nationally and internationally, will not likely see this type of award-winning storytelling—and some of the best photojournalism is not going to happen at The Dallas Morning News because there is no support for it."

    I have always maintained that the most important journalism is done right in one's own back (and front) yard. When one wins the big awards for something at home then I'm more impressed. And we're still doing it, right here, right now.

    Guy Reynolds
    Photo Editor
    The Dallas Morning News

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