Could photojournalists have avoided the newsroom purges?

Graflex Speed Graphic (Photo by Adam Rose via Flickr)

Graflex Speed Graphic (Photo by Adam Rose via Flickr)

Let’s start with a basic fact, now confirmed: Visual journalists, particularly photographers, are suffering disproportionately as the industry retrenches.

Move on to a conclusion that a lot of us have reached: This is not a good thing. I said that myself back in October; someone far more qualified to judge, Mario Garcia, said so today.

It is tempting to next focus on the why: Because newsrooms can get photos from their own reporters or the public that are “good enough,” because it can be cheaper to pay free-lancers as needed for major assignments, or because the text-focused folks atop most newspaper newsrooms just don’t understand the value of photography, or at least of photojournalists. Actually, I’d argue that the first two items on that list are just part of the last. Wherever you see photojournalists losing jobs en masse while the overall newsroom suffers less or not at all, some boss obviously has decided she can get along without visual specialists more easily than without word spinners.

Rather than beat up on those text-focused editors, though, I want to ask: Is there anything photojournalists could have done that would have made them more likely to survive?

That question’s important because it’s not just of interest to photojournalists. Many of the new newsroom positions — social media specialists, data journalists, site managers, coders, among others — could end up in the same squeeze in the future. Being part of the online staff at The Plain Dealer the last several years felt a lot like being a page designer and picture editor did back in the ’80s. We started out as a service department, with all the disrespect that can imply. We were only informed of major projects when they were ready to drop. We had to work around print deadlines. What we did was treated as cosmetics, to be applied after the print people constructed the real story. All that was reminiscent of the battles photojournalists (and other visual journalists) were fighting when I first got into the business. So if we can figure out what photojournalists could have done differently decades ago, maybe today’s specialists could apply those lessons and protect their careers.

SPOILER ALERT: I haven’t come up with a good answer yet. I thought I had a couple, but the veteran photojournalists I consulted persuaded me that my theories had deep flaws. So this post is not a solution; it’s a status report on the search.

Fight the right battles

One part of my theory was that too much of visual journalists’ energy for battle was dissipated on issues that could have been postponed. Arguing against “grip-and-grin” photos, I suggested, made it look to word editors as if photographers were just concerned about what the text side would see as artistic issues.

Marcia Prouse, Daily A-1 and Sunday Editor for the Orange County Register (and formerly my boss on the Detroit Free Press picture desk) disagreed. “It was completely about journalism and content. Photos that replace staged photos are journalistically sound and help tell the story. Rather than a “‘rip-and-grin’ photo, we replaced those photos with ones that showed more about a person.”

Ah, I thought as I read that, I don’t disagree in spirit — but my point was about how this was perceived by word editors. Evidently my point was not well made, though, because another of my consultants was equally firm. Susan Kirkman Zake, an assistant professor at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications was was formerly with the Akron Beacon-Journal in many positions from photographer up to managing editor for multimedia and special projects, wrote, “The battle to establish principles like no staged photos, etc. ,was all about making the photo department a truly journalistic one that followed a set of professional ethical standards, rather than the department where everyone’s brother-in-law was given a job and everyone just did what they were told by other departments (the service department model).”

After thinking about their responses, I thought there still may have been some skirmishes that could have been avoided. I think, for example, of photo editors who tried to insist that no designer could ever superimpose type on a news photo. But even there, one could argue that the underlying idea was that type over a photo might imply the photo was merely part of the design. And overall, yes, the big battles were being fought on journalistic and ethical grounds.

Fit into the rest of the newsroom

Still, could those battles have been postponed? The other key part of my theory was that photographers would have integrated themselves into the newsrooms betterĀ  and earned more respect and understanding from word-centric editors if they had moved into the same structure as reporters. That is, they would have been better off covering beats visually, connected to specific sections such as Business or Metro, rather than being split off alone. If photographers had made that their battle first, I thought, they would then have been in an even better position to make the journalistic and ethical arguments later on.

Prouse offered several arguments against mixing photographers into the section-based structure, including one very relevant here: “Photographers also need to be part of the photography department so that they can share ideas, and just plain talk about good photography. You can’t underestimate the need for support and discussion with your peers.” A good point, and one that suggests spreading photographers around would have weakened their ability to speak with one voice on key issues.

OC Register graphics editor (and former photographer) Cindy O’Dell expanded on that: “I can say from a graphics point of view that attaching a visuals person to a team seems like a bad idea, leads to stagnation rather than innovation, removes them from the influence and advice of peers, and generally leads to job discontentment.”

Those points made me think again about the position of online-focused staff. Until the reorganization of the whole PD/ operation a few months ago, the newspaper’s newsroom had both an online staff, reporting to me, and a handful of people who were given online responsiblities but embedded in section staffs at a deputy or assistant editor level. We all met weekly as one unit, but the embeds were in an awkward spot. They had been chosen by and reported directly to section editors. They might have responsibilities that went well beyond their online work. There was always the possibility of conflicts between what I wanted as online editor and what a section editor wanted, or between the time demands of online work and other tasks.

I had already known that there were substantial structural problems with asking photographers to cover beats. Zake pointed to the biggest one: “We tried assigning photographers to departments at one point at the Beacon. It doesn’t work, because the photographers assigned couldn’t work 18 hours a day and seven days a week to cover when the photos needed to be taken. We did have single photographers assigned to our Sunday magazine with the understanding they would often work every day, because that’s when the assignments happened. It lead to a lot of very tired photographers.”

Curt Chandler, a photographer and editor at papers including The PD and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before becoming a senior lecturer at Penn State, wrote that “a single photographer often made the cover shots for multiple section fronts on the same day. Although a photojournalist might be one of the most expensive employees to equip at a paper, hardly any writer could have the same impact on multiple section fronts doing quick-turn stories on the same day.”

I’m left with the gloomy thought that outliers in the newsroom are doomed to be misunderstood, simply because they’re outnumbered. “Photo is a relatively small department in the scheme of a newsroom, even though it’s a workhorse one,” Zake wrote. “That leads to little representation for the visual people at senior management levels. If you think about who is involved in the decision-making processes, there may be only one visually oriented voice in the room, with 15 others who are more word-oriented.”

Substitute, say, “community engagement” for “visually oriented,” and you could say the same thing about a lot of newsrooms. So the question becomes: If certain jobs are best performed outside the traditional beat structure, how can those journalists prove that they’re at least as valuable as the reporters? I’ll write about that in a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to hear any ideas you might have about what visual journalists might have done differently.