THE BLOG

Why Newspapers Are Wrong To Get Rid Of Photographers

11/10/2016 16:48

It was a fairly easy job for the chief photographer of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph. Rowland Hobson was standing in the city centre, taking a picture of several volunteers for a charity that was collecting towards an on-going campaign. The people were smiling and happy, they held up their buckets and their leaflets, and the job was in the bag.

Suddenly, a noise from elsewhere. Rowland turned around and saw something as far away from charity as is possible: two men wrestling outside a jewellers' shop, one brandishing a gun. After a scuffle the main aggressor sprinted off through the nearby cathedral grounds. Rowland had everything on camera - from the initial skirmish between a would-be robber and a have-a-go hero, to the weapon, to the escape, to the shocked faces of others who had seen it. Old as it was, Rowland's Nikon DSLR was good enough. The full page picture obviously made the front page of the next day's newspaper and then many nationals. Rowland picked up a host of awards and a story to tell everyone, all from being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to capitalise.

Now let's rewind to that afternoon in 2011 in Cambridgeshire, and swap Rowland and his 30 years of photographic experience for a newbie reporter with a mobile phone. The initial charity picture is functional but uninspiring.

But the attempted robbery is lost. Blurred because of a lack of shutter speed, with only a digital zoom rather than an optical one (meaning one can only make the picture 'blockier' rather than bigger) the pictures are hideous and barely useable if, in fact, the reporter doesn't 'freeze' and actually takes them in the first place. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gone.

This is the reality of newspapers in 2016. Because at least two-thirds of all adults have smartphones newspaper bosses see this as an opportunity to save money in a tempestuous and some would say terminal environment. The ads team bring in money, so they can't be made redundant; instead, editorial and secretarial roles are being shed, such as writers, editors, and photographers. One of those, by the way, was Rowland, who took redundancy in 2014 alongside hundreds of others from the Johnston Press newsgroup. Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and others have followed suit.

The example described above is one of many examples of pictures that can only be gained from someone with a knowledge of real photography. The technical aspects of using flash correctly, aperture size, shutter speed and white balance are learned through theoretical study and practice, while the actual knowledge of angles and composition and using natural light are learned through experience and advice and experimentation. Just as one would not expect a photographer to write a 2,000-word lead article or column, one also would not believe that a reporter can grab a stunning front page picture on an iPhone.

That hasn't stopped them trying, or at least trying to gather a photograph from non-photographers. Many reporters now will ask for a supplied photograph from the subject of any story, to be emailed to them. The quality is of less importance than getting something, anything, to fill a template gap on a page. If that doesn't work either another, picture-less template will be used, or the reporter will go out with a phone. While they're there, they'll be expected to get some video as well. Subsequently, even the most die-hard newspaper fan will probably concede that the quality of pictures used has dropped and many seem to be repeated, even when the usage is inappropriate.

For those who have grown up through the glory years of print, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, it's hard to stomach. Decades ago it was not uncommon for national newspapers to have 25+ photographer staffers on their employee roll, alongside a vast network of freelancers.
The most famous photographs of all time were captured by those 'proper', dyed in the wool photographers; think Che Guevara. Tiananmen Square, Obama watching Osama. Vietnam War. These are hard news, powerful and poignant captured by experts in their field in extreme circumstances or through a trusted relationship between subject and 'snapper'.

Nowadays ex-photographers are now making money from freelancing work, or concentrating on promotional work/weddings/babies and other offshoots. The high volume of professional photographs of A-level results day, fetes, fairs, local sports that you'd order from a newspaper has gone - now you'd rely on your own photographs instead, and then perhaps turn them into a print or collage on sites such as Photobox, which might sometimes actually be just as good.

Other ex-photographers are trying to learn new skills such as design or videography, but the grim truth is that many others have moved completely into other spheres, from teaching to writing to dog walking to bar work, while their Nikons sadly gather dust in a cupboard.

What's more, newspapers are steadily dying out, faster than some would have predicted just a couple of years ago. The recent 'New Day' experiment, misguided and fairly abject in its delivery, crashed and burned at the 50th edition. No-one will miss it. The New European - a new weekly designed for the disillusioned 48% in the wake of Brexit and conceived in just nine days - is only so far earmarked for four issues.

Publishing figures continue to show a drop in circulation for national and regional newspapers globally. The ABC figures from last year for dailies and weeklies are an array of horror stories, with online hits and ad revenues rising but actual purchase of the physical copies dropping by frightening amounts - in excess of 20% for some publications. With a circulation fall comes a drop in ad revenues, which leads to cuts, which leads to staff leaving, and a degradation of quality... and so the circle turns. Those that are benefitting from an appetite for online news are, unsurprisingly, tech companies - predominantly Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Twitter. Incidentally Johnston Press, one of the biggest publishers in the country, long since stopped submitting many of its figures.

What's next for the newspaper photographer? A few will continue to grasp short-term contracts until retirement, or feed upon freelance scraps. Newspapers will use fewer pictures or bigger pictures, and continue to look antiquated or amateurish depending on the mix of pictures used. Meanwhile, those who can diversify to write as well as take photographs well might find themselves in a dazzling position for the many hyperlocal websites that will proliferate, telling a story simply and very quickly with text and picture, anywhere from a warzone to a cookery class to a regional sports match. They'll be able to capture drama and humour and pathos. They'll also be far more alert in creating their own features, rather than waiting for assignments. For those that don't widen their skill set the trajectory is already set - we're all photographers now.

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