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News & Insight

NPPA’s Research On The Value Of Professional Photojournalism | But How Is That Measured?

By Kishore Sawh on February 4th 2015

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Where, oh where, is photojournalism going, and what does this mean for the rest of us photographers? This is not a new question, but the answers are always changing. The concerning part for many, is that so far, the answers seem to be leading those in the hiring positions, to firing. When the Chicago Tribune ‘broke bread’ so to speak, and let go of their entire roster of staff photographers, it created what seems like a domino effect with major publications doing the same, the nation and world over. Sports Illustrated, as we’ve recently wrote about, just did the same thing.

The Chicago Tribune caught a Battle Of Britain-worth of flack for their decision, more so than anyone else, but then again, the first guy through the wall always gets bloodied. It must’ve been a relief for those who simply hopped on board. The National Press Photographers Association has been fighting “to promote and protect integrity and excellence in visual journalism” for six decades, and have released a video that hopes to highlight the value of professional photojournalism. Not a photojournalist and have no desire to be? Keep reading because what’s going on here will have ramifications for the industry on a whole.

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The video covers the topics through the eyes and opinions of publishers, editors, photographers, and the public via a study, and the information is a mix of opinion and fact. The consensus of all in the video, if somewhat predictably, is that there is a tremendous value in having on-staff photographers, but that seems in direct conflict with the 43% of photojournalists that lost their jobs between 2000-2012. It seems like when a publication is looking for money, they view the photo department increasingly as the department to cut first.

One small news publication is highlighted in the video for having 2 staff photographers and a full time intern with only a circulation of 10,000, and there seems to be an effort on the part of the video to nudge you into thinking that this is a beacon. Their publisher says their viewership loves the images, and those images he feels are what pulls people into a title. In the same breath though, he admits his system works for them now, but it’s a struggle.

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The study done in the video hoped to get feedback from a paltry audience of 50 people at a university on how they view images by pros versus amateurs. Unanimously, the pro images were preferred, voted more shareable, and memorable. This isn’t hard to believe. So, what is it that sets the pros apart?

Pros are more technically trained, they have much more experience typically, and have a greater understanding, apparently, of what makes up a good image. A photographer famous for his images of the Boston Marathon tragedy does a good job explaining this as he photographs a grieving brother, captures the emotional moment, and background points that give a broad story in one image. Could an amateur do that? That seems to be the question inferred here, but again it is, in my opinion, the wrong question.

[REWIND: “No Future In Photojournalism”? – DPReview Interview with…]

Better Questions

I may completely ruin any chances of recognition from the NPPA for this, but I think the video does more harm than good, and misses the boat. For one, the way it was edited comes across awfully dated, and therefore feels like the appeal was to the older generation, and to please their own members with a bit of pride and ego stroking. The problem is that they aren’t the target market, nor the future or current decision makers, and thus aren’t the ones to appeal to.

There also seems to be a lack of distinction between a professional staff photographer and a professional photographer. The only difference, if I may be so bold, is one is on-staff payroll. There was a recurring comparison to professional photographers who should be hired as staff versus amateur and user generated content. The notion that without staff photographers news writers will supply all images via cell phone is ludicrous. It’s also hard to knock the bean counters and publishers when even those in the video keep saying it’s hard to measure the value of staff photographers’ images versus others. The times we are in are metric based, and until there are ways to prove the value, I don’t see the change near the horizon. This applies to all photographers.

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The whole study of students seemed based off this value comparison of pro-staffers versus non. Of course, they were going to like the pro shots better, but the question is, would they have noticed if they weren’t pro shots, and would they care? And we didn’t see the quality of images being used. Keep in mind even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, so this comes across as self serving.

This is problematic for more than one reason. Due to digital giving people steep and fast learning curves, many amateurs do very well, and then on top of that many publications who have laid off their photo staff haven’t said they are hiring amateurs, just that they are using freelancers – pro freelancers likely. It’s still typically cheaper than keeping staff photographers. 43% of photographers lost their staff positions, but the photos are still there, possibly better than ever, so the work is being done. The factors of production have changed, and business model with it – they must accept this and change too.

Source: NPPA, imaegs are screen caps from featured video

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Jason Boa

    A lot of media outfits are really promoting the public to upload their images of news etc – for nothing more than a byline. You can’t blame the submitters but sadly it is costing photographers their jobs

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      But in some ways the value of photos in some situations has diminished. I have a lot of photos of the Ferguson protests, but so do a lot of other photographers. Ferguson protest photos are everywhere. Pro photojournalists aren’t the only people on the scene anymore.

      Thinking of the Jeff Widener photo of the guy standing in front of the tanks in Beijing in 1989, it’s a powerful photo because of what it symbolizes. However if that took place today, there would be several hundred other photographers who took that exact photo. Widener was there and he caught the moment, on film. But today any big event is going to have many photographers, pro and amateur, on the scene taking the same photos.

      Access is no longer a precious commodity. All of us now have access to great gear and outlets to publish our photos. There are times when being part of mainstream media helps because you have an outlet that people know and are willing to open up to you. For example in the video they showed a Boston Globe photojournalist introducing himself to the brother of a victim who was about to be interviewed. That person is probably more willing to open up to a newspaper photographer rather than just anyone with a camera who comes along. So the pro is more likely to get a memorable photo in that story. But protests and other public events, unless you have something truly unique to offer, aren’t valuable to publishers because there are so many others who have taken the same photos you did.

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  2. Basit Zargar

    great

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  3. Steven Pellegrino

    Interesting video and article that does not have easy answers. The bigger picture is the definition of media is changing. For better or for worse how we get our information is changing and pro-quality imagery isn’t the standard any longer. Look at what just happened today with a plane going down in Taipei. Mediocre video of it going down was captured on what looks like someone’s dash cam. Not having a professional crew with top quality gear didn’t lessen the impact of that.

    But that’s not all because where many people, including myself, first heard about it wasn’t from mainstream media, we saw it on Twitter. You can have an active following of 50,000 people on Twitter and you’re 40,000 ahead of the newspaper featured in the video. I think the challenge for photojournalists is long-term employment because many of the companies they’re working for today may not be in business 5 -10 years from now. If you’re in your 20’s looking to do that as a 40 year career, it doesn’t look like a promising future.

    Here in St. Louis we have one major newspaper, a few free community papers, and a couple of magazines. They all have a staff of photographers, so what do you do? Wait years until there’s an opening, if that day ever comes? I think the sentiment in the video is nice, but where are the realistic money making opportunities to continue in that direction?

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