The sad demise of the monsters of the darkroom…do you really need newspaper photographers anyway?

Quietly, under the cover of darkness, newspaper photographers, those wonderful beasts who used to prowl the dark rooms, are slowly being picked off.

Even as I write this, photographers have lost their jobs at my old newspaper, The Sentinel, Stoke-on-Trent. This manoeuvre to give snappers the red card has been replicated across the country for sometime.

For Local World newspapers, like The Sentinel, once they were swallowed up by Trinity Mirror the writing was on the wall that cost-cutting was round the corner.

This was back up by TM’s chief executive Simon Fox announcing £12m would be cut from LW’s costs through synergies.

The trauma for anyone who has been through the process cannot be under-estimated, particularly as you go head-to-head with your friends and colleagues as management pull-out the much-maligned skills audit.

It is a particularly unpleasant process, relished only by those who don’t have a heart.

Then there’s the guilt felt by those who aren’t in the firing line this time, guilt that they feel relieved, but fear, that they could be next.

In this day and age when everyone has a camera and editorial departments can harvest content, do you really need fully trained photographers?

In this day and age when everyone has a camera and editorial departments can harvest content, do you really need fully trained photographers?

As I scanned the Sentinel’s latest bygone offering, I wondered whether in years to come a publication like this could be produced, with fewer and fewer snappers around to take those essential photographs, marking history, telling great stories.

I was moved by the thought that the problem was starting to emerge already with photographs which had already appeared in numerous publications reappearing again.

It’s called re-purposing content, but how long can this be maintained? There’s hardly a reader out there who have never seen the photos before and if there are fewer staff photographers, where is the content coming from for future publications?

But then again, if you are just after some quick income and a few sales, this is the way to do it.

Of course, you will argue, you don’t need photographers any longer do you? Everyone is a photographer…really?

Today, we all carry a camera via our phone and in an instant can report a story and upload it online for all to see. All journalists of the future have to be multi-skilled and that includes the ability to take photographs.

It’s easy isn’t it?  You don’t need quality photographs because there’s no need for that pinpoint focus if the pictures are going online, no artistry here, just one click and away.

Then there’s the other reason for the demise of the togs. Depending on which media empire you sit in, it’s called harvesting or curating content, which in layman’s terms means beg and borrowing pictures from elsewhere, that usually means you, me and anyone else who picks up a phone to capture a moment.

Look at the recent attacks in Belgium. How many messages did you see on Twitter with reporters pleading for pictures and video? So if everyone else is taking pictures, why do you need a professional snapper?

In a way, I can’t disagree. If you are going to make cuts to appease your shareholders, desperate times bring desperate measures.

It started with slashing and burning the editions, getting rid of those great copy takers and newsdesk secretaries and then onwards to the grey cardigan brigade in the subs department and the odd editor or two who had the nerve to stand up for his staff.

For photographers, there has been a bit of trimming around the surface over the years, some newspapers got rid of all their full-time staff and re-employed some of them as freelances while others have just cut to the flesh.

So what about photographers? Do you love or hate them? I have nothing but fond memories of these editorial heroes. I accept their deficiencies in the caption spelling department or their artistic rants when the wrong picture went in. I accept that one of my most common rants was over the quality of the pictures and that a certain photograph wasn’t good enough, I phrased it in harsher tones at the time…

However, they offered a lot more. Photographers are great story finders, better than many reporters because they were always out on the streets, listening, watching and talking.

A good photographer would be gone for a day before they would return with a clutch of great pictures and a ‘must’ for Page 1 and, by the way, here’s a great story I just picked up.

Often, as a reporter they saved my bacon. With a camera weighing a few pounds and a bag the size of a baby elephant, I always felt secure knowing that a photographer was one my shoulder riding shotgun while covering a difficult story.

Working with them was often a joy, particularly on the great snatch picture stories. As the tog hung around hidden in the bushes, I’d knock the door, wait for it to be answered, move slightly to my left or right and boom, snatch picture in the bag.

I remember going to Wolverhampton Magistrates’ Court once for a bizarre case involved a man dressed as the Lone Ranger who dropped his trousers in public.

It was going to be difficult to get a picture so the idea was that I walked in front of him as he left court to slow him down and sway left or right for the tog to get the picture. It worked a treat despite some comedian shouting out, ‘where’s Silver?’.

There was always tension between photographers and newsdesk. The news editor sitting on stories and pictures for days much to the disgust of the photo editor realising that there was a front page picture in the building, but they couldn’t use it until the news editor released the story.

This relationship worked in reverse. As a senior member of the editorial team I was sometimes presented with a half-baked front page story and needed something else to make it work.

So often, that was a brilliant photograph. I will go as far to say that my best-ever front pages were because we had great photographs.

Of the awards won by newspapers, more often than not it was the great design that won the day and the design was made by a brilliant picture.

As for the communities local papers serve, it was always a highlight when the photographer popped in, much of this is now gone. The world is a poorer place.

So I may have moaned, groaned and fought with photographers, but their diminishing presence in a newsroom is a significant blow, they will be sadly missed, but then again, we can all take pictures, can’t we?

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2 thoughts on “The sad demise of the monsters of the darkroom…do you really need newspaper photographers anyway?

  1. Anyone can take a picture but a photographer captures an image that those of us without their trained eye fail to see. Photography is an art. The loss of press photographers for cheaper citizen journos and snappers will mean that the picture will be there but will the news value and how iconic will those images be in years to come?

  2. Excellent piece and agree that the demise of regional press photography can only be partly to blame on the web revolution. The reality is that senior staff in the industry were too slow to monetarise a transition to device based journalism. The most frustrating aspect of this as a consumer is that I can’t buy a ‘single’ edition of either a regional or a national UK based paper. I don’t want to buy into your paper for a 3 month trial or an annual subscription (with added benefits that I couldn’t care about)! Whether I read my local newspaper in hand or on a device I still want to be engaged by challenging and intriguing images to hook me and embellish into a story. The Leicester Mercury also recently announced drastic cuts to their picture desk. This at a time when history is in the making with the city’s football club.

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