Is Photojournalism Really Dying?

Dirck Halstead, Editor and Publisher of the The Digital Journalist wrote in a recent editorial his proposals to save what he considers the dying art of photojournalism (see below)

As much as I respect him for what he’s done to advance visual journalism (he is after all the “father of The Playpus) I question some of his assertions.

Yes much of journalism is in trouble because of the current changes, but is he making things look worse than they are in order to make a self-serving argument? It seems to me that he’s suggesting that funds by private groups for journalism education is misdirected, and should be given to organizations like his, “online publications… [with] vast knowledge of the Internet and their experience in editorial judgment.” I agree that philanthropy is needed to help fund journalism projects that some news organizations choose not to fund; that has always been the case and it’s worse now. But education is equally vital and is in as great a need for the support of those with deep pockets. There will always be a need and a place for journalists, for good responsible storytellers to document our history and inform us. It is especially vital in some non-western countries where journalism training is developing and they are reaching out to us for financial aid. One such place is Rwanda where organizations like Rwanda Initiative that works with the National University of Rwanda school of journalism.

PC09 0527 RWANDA02

KIGALI, RWANDA. MAY 30, 2009 — Community members gather for a community meeting on Umuganda, a day of mandatory community service in Rwanda, Saturday May 30, 2009.   Umuganda is held on the last Saturday of every month, when everyone participates in some kind of community work like tree planting, street cleaning.  The tradition helps in community building because it brings everyone, genocide victims and genocidaires to work side by side.   (Phil Carpenter)

There also seem to be this idea that unless we have the capacity to do large international projects all the time then photojournalism is dead.  There obviously is a need to to international reporting; our world is very interconnected and countries have many interests outside their borders.  But we don’t all have to be “documentarians of world events” all the time to be successful photojournalists making a worthwhile contribution. The time and resources we spend sometimes on funding some of these projects could be spent on focusing on many local stories instead. I keep saying that photojournalism, visual journalism is very, very far from dead. It is changing dramatically, and we just need to understand those changes and adapt. Change doesn’t mean death; it’s just growth.

Dirk’s editorial:

“How to Start to Save Photojournalism
September 2009

In recent issues of The Digital Journalist we have been looking at the crisis in journalism in general, but photojournalism in particular.

Newspapers and magazines are experiencing precipitous drops in circulation in subscriptions and on newsstands. Advertising is plummeting.

The money used to cover news is where the accountants cut costs. This results in massive layoffs and buyouts of reporters, and especially photographers. It is not only in the U.S. but it is a worldwide phenomenon. Major international photo agencies are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Although the Great Recession has made industry woes worse, the systemic problems over the last decade make it impossible for news companies to ever regain former levels. The industry has permanently reset.

With the exception of a few newspapers and wire services, the possibility of working in journalism and being paid to do so is increasingly difficult. Those who lose their jobs will probably never return. For newcomers it is almost nonexistent. Many photojournalists, who are the prime documentarians of world events, no longer have the financial capability to fulfill this important role.

The situation has gone from critical to dire. The World Wide Web, although it is a tremendous source of information, was set up with the idea that information would be free. From its beginnings, publishers were guilty of discounting the importance of the Web as a key source of revenue.

Last month we called on the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to create pay walls around their unique content. The hour is very late. Without appreciable revenue, the newsrooms of these newspapers will shrivel and die. Important coverage of stories around the world that we depend on these papers to provide will simply disappear.

Is there a way to turn this situation around?

In our view, there is only one way: Philanthropists must come to the rescue.

Today, organizations such as the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, The John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, McCormick Tribune Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Torstar Corporation and others spend billions of dollars a year on grants for journalism, most of which currently go for worthwhile educational programs and to institutions.

The problem is that the money is being primarily spent on creating a new generation of journalists for whom there will be no jobs. Without a newsroom to work in, the most dedicated journalists cannot complete their missions.

We need to prime the pump. The emphasis must shift away from education to newsgathering. Foundation money for journalism should primarily be redirected for coverage. This means there must be places for journalists to have a home. Here the Web is vital.

We recommend that substantial amounts of funding in the form of grants from concerned foundations go to online publications such as David Alan Harvey’s Burn, Brian Storm’s MediaStorm, Bombay Flying Club, STORY4, 100Eyes, The Digital Journalist and others. Because of their vast knowledge of the Internet and their experience in editorial judgment, online publications will become the arbiters of who is deserving of these grants. They will earmark the grants for photojournalists with worldwide and local projects that deserve coverage.

Though philanthropists should make a long-term commitment to the industry, it does not have to be infinite. As photojournalists produce important new work, the penetration of the online publications into the general public will increase dramatically. With that expansion, and the efforts of the industry to generate real revenue, advertising rates will rise, benefiting the entire industry to the point where eventually these publications will be able to take back the traditional role of creating assignments without help from the philanthropists.

Until then, this is the only real way to keep this vital industry from perishing, leaving society bereft of visual information at a time when it is more crucial than ever.”

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About Phil Carpenter

Hi all. I'm a newspaper photo/video journalist at The Gazette in Montréal, Canada, and I'm just reviving my film making skills from my university days, for the online version of our paper. It's been 13years since I began shooting professionally, four years at The Gazette, and a year since I've begun shooting and producing video stories and documentary shorts. I'm enjoying it immensely. In addition I have taught photojournalism at Concordia University's school of journalism, been a guest lecturer and panelist on classes and workshops on photo and multi media journalism. View all posts by Phil Carpenter

One response to “Is Photojournalism Really Dying?

  • Michael Fox

    Whereas I would not question Halstead’s ethical standards, the philanthropic approach is simply not sustainable, in the way described, and would benefit only a few. The argument from Halstead’s side probably goes something like this: give us the money to photograph/video record worthy subject matter, and we will deliver it.

    That’s all well and good but the bigger problem is what to do with that material once it has been delivered. What difference will it make if there is nobody there to look at it, respond to it, be outraged by it etc. Time needs to be spent understanding the root causes of why journalism and photojournalism is where it is right now. Continuing to throw money at those of us who claim journalism and photojournalism as our source of income, is not the answer.

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