Newspaper photodesks will feel the web's sting first

At the Wire's photodesk in 2002 with Keith Matthews, who's busy showing contestants in the Miss PSA beauty competition the photographs he's taken of them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the changes that are taking place in newsrooms and considering the future of reporting, but I think that I’ve missed something.

I don’t think it will be the overall capacity and quality of the reporting resource that’s going to get hit first, the big dent will come first in newspaper photo departments.
Consider this.

Why would a young photographer have shown up in a newsroom looking for work two decades ago? It would be one of two reasons and usually a subtle mix of the two. You either wanted to learn the craft or get published.

In 2011, neither of these reasons is enough to bring a curious young photographer to a newsroom anymore.

I did my first photographs at the Express 35 years ago for a different reason. I wanted photos to go along with my stories, but I soon began ducking into the darkroom to catch a look at the process whenever I could. What began as a purely functional exercise - and I really didn’t care how the photos got done at first - became an obsession that drove me to find out more about photography and the mechanics of the process.

I was already being published, but the introduction into the arcana behind the scenes soon became almost as intriguing and I soon put together my own nighttime only darkroom.
A computer with a pirated copy of Lightroom and Photoshop packs more image adjustment horsepower than any photographer in even the finest lab had available to them as recently as a decade ago.

And as for publishing? Well I shouldn’t have to mention the power of the web, Facebook and Flickr, should I?
Getting published in a local publication still carries some potent cachet. In a single day, your work can be seen by thousands of people, but there’s little feedback, the drug that drives online participation in photography and more specifically photosharing.

It dawned on me recently that not one of the better young photographers that I’m aware of would ever consider a career as a newspaper photographer. They’re happy to pursue that day’s worth of buzz and will put their work into a print publication, but showing up for work and plugging away at photojournalism day in and day out simply isn’t on the agenda for most of today’s young photographers.

I can’t think of a single photographer of significant quality and promise who has joined a newspaper in Trinidad and Tobago in the last decade as anything other than an occasional contributor.
Part of the reason is that quality pursues quality.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on three newspaper photographic departments over the course of my career. In 1990, I was appointed the first Picture Editor of the Guardian after conducting months of training exercises and evaluation of their systems. During that volatile time, the attempts at revolution on the streets were matched by a real revolution in technology at the paper as old technologies were replaced by Macintosh systems, digital scanners and imagesetters.

This was a turbulent, emotional time for workers at the paper used to a decades-old way of doing things. Some people’s positions within the company would change and not always for the better by the rapid changes in technology.
That was when I first saw Photoshop (1.07!) and when I had the opportunity to create a hybrid workflow of film photography and digital scanning from film and prints that would become the paper’s way of doing things for ten more years.

Five years later, I’d do the same thing for the Express, eliminating the intermediary step of printing images for proofs using a Fotovix, a now defunct video capture device that allowed a user to quickly review an entire roll of film, viewing the results on a television screen.
In 1998, I returned to the Guardian and added that system to their workflow, but the next big revolution would come in 2001 when I created the all-digital capture/review/archiving procedures for The Wire, Trinidad Publishing’s brief experiment with a youth focused tabloid format and style.

A picture-driven publication, it published more than three times as many photos as any other paper daily, most of them larger than a third of the tabloid page.
The demands of publication five days a week drove the small department of four, Andrea De Silva, Curtis Chase, Karla Ramoo and Keith Matthews, the smallest staff complement of any daily paper, to deliver dramatic photos regularly.

The sheer excitement of that newsroom and the vibrancy of the work it produced made the paper very desirable to young contributors and when the paper was shut down in 2003, I had a file almost two inches thick of hopeful resumes, most of them from people younger than 30.

It’s hard to imagine a commitment to daily photographic storytelling like that happening today.
Newspapers are increasingly using cheap stock photography for features, gutting the best opportunities for creative work on the photodesk, discouraging photographer engagement with the publication process and direction (there was precious little to begin with) and relegating them to creating snaps to accompany stories and pushing the photographic resource off to the side as a support system instead of as the source of visual reporting it deserves to be.

The question posed by a photographer about today’s market might well be: Why should I contribute to this? What’s in it for me?
The response from today’s newspapers might well be: What makes you think we need you? (The same might well be said to editors looking for work.) There’s all these other folks with DSLRs who aren’t so fussy. And we can always give the reporters a good point and shoot camera. (A look at the way local newspapers display photographs on the web is all the reinforcement of this point that need be offered.)

I have the clear sense of a frog in a slowly heating pot here, and things are rapidly coming to a boil.
I’m afraid that by the time it’s agreed on that photography in local newspapers no longer aspires to excellence or even pleasant surprise, the metaphorical frog will be floating belly up and there will be nothing more to be done about it.
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