The Chicago Sun-Times became the latest paper to ditch professional photojournalists in favor of reporters taking photos (cringe), freelancers (hah!), and free reader photos (most likely). I cringe at the idea of reporters taking photos because I’ve seen the results of that experiment locally when The Birmingham News laid off the vast majority of its photojournalists. Watching a reporter juggle a notebook while trying to figure out a Flip video camera was laughable and sad at the same time. I was photographing the event for the host organization – they wound up emailing my pics to the paper if I remember correctly. I laugh at the idea of freelancers not because of the freelancers, but because the moment a freelancer quotes a price to the paper or balks at the work for hire nonsense they’ll want for nothing more than a byline the paper will decide freelancers are “too expensive” or “difficult to work with.” The most likely result will be “reader submitted photos.” I’ve seen this trend with large and small papers…and I’ve seen the nightmare results.
Almost any photographer can tell you of a time someone looked at a photo and said, “Oh, I have one EXACTLY like that!” and whipped out the cell phone to show you the “exact” copy…a photo you can barely make out it is so blurry and the subject is so tiny. This, I’m afraid is what is fueling this trend of “any photo is good enough if it is free.” The newspaper audience no longer cares for, and in many cases is unable to distinguish what is, high quality photography. People have become so used to cell phone photos (yes, some are wonderful but most are not) that they don’t even recognize the difference anymore or at the very least are completely unwilling to pay for it when they have “exactly the same photo” on their phone.
Now, no one is perfect and professional photographers certainly take their fair share of junk shots (I know I do) but we know better than to turn those junk shots in to an editor. Professional photojournalists aren’t just skill behind the camera either. Photojournalists cultivate relationships with officials and community members so they can get access when they need to do so. Good photojournalists are sensitive to their subjects and walk a fine line between getting the job done and respecting the privacy of subjects. Good photojournalists roll out of bed at “oh-why-am-I-up-this-early-thirty” to cover the fire down across town even though they had only been asleep for an hour after covering a late night wreck. Photojournalists know how to capture a low light scene without blinding first responders…and they care enough to try to do so. Photojournalists aren’t just good photos, they are the paper’s public face and the ones who really sell the papers with those awesome shots on A1 above the fold.