Between the lines: Newspapers’ huge mistake in axing their photographers

Patrick Abanathy, Co-Owner of Abanathy Photography, LLC
It would also be more “economical and efficient” for a restaurant chef to take the order and serve it as well, but is that necessarily better?

I do not pretend it is not happening. Darkroom chemicals are nearly unspoken of, I rarely peruse the film section at Walmart anymore (do they even still have a film section?), and the idea of a photographer utilizing physical negatives is going the way of tape decks. Yes, we are well into the digital age and I doubt a mass return trip is anywhere in sight when it comes to modern photographers. However, I still find it somewhat appalling, if not outright scapegoatish, that newspapers would use this transition as a means to kill jobs. Jobs that are, in my opinion, simply different, not unnecessary.

What sparked this from me this week, you might ask? Well, it was an article I read on PetaPixel (another photography blog Abanathy Photography, LLC follows on Twitter). The article, Newspaper Chain in Georgia Shutters Its Photo Department, Lays Off Photogs, discusses reasons why they decided to get rid of most of their photographers. Now, while their reasons might seem to make sense, my mother always taught me to read between the lines. And believe me, as one who worked several years as a reporter/photographer for a newspaper, I can not only read between the lines, I can outright tell you they are making a huge mistake just to save a little money.

Lets look between those lines, shall we? The article quotes the paper’s CEO, Michael Gebhart, as saying: “Journalists need to write, shoot video, post on the Internet and edit. The technological advances in the world of digital photography made this strategic move logical.”

Between the lines, he is really saying: “Picture taking has become technically easier, so why am I paying two people when I can just have one person do more work?”

I ran into similar moves a lot in my former job. One person would quit, their duties would be moved to another employee, and their position “blacked out”. The company stockholders save more money, more parking would be available, and, most notably, the staff has more work at the same pay. More for everyone! Right?! The only difference here is: Unlike my previous employer, who would wait for someone to leave, this newspaper chain’s move was much more aggressive.

Then, Mr. Gebhart goes on to say: “How many photographers need dark room skills to develop film and make prints? Furthermore, it is certainly more economical and efficient to assign one journalist to cover (an) event in words, pictures and video.”

Now, between the lines, this is spoken like a true CEO who knows nothing (or, certainly, less than he should) about his product. Being a photographer is more than just having darkroom skills. That would be like firing a music producer because digital audio recorders have made reel-to-reel tape deck skills obsolete. Darkroom skills are just some of the nitty, gritty details of old school photographers. At one time it was necessary and without alternatives and, although many, myself included, enjoy the darkroom process, if and when it dies away, it is unlikely to take photographers with it.

This brings me to one of the reasons Mr. Gebhart and other newspapers are making a huge mistake. Being a photographer also means being able to properly frame a shot, to be able to adjust the camera’s settings to accentuate an image, and being able to find visual angles others cannot see. The darkroom is only the bridge between these skills and the final print. Just because this bridge has changed from chemicals to computers, doesn’t mean the photography staff is obsolete.

A second reason I believe this to be a huge mistake is that he flat out says it is “more economical and efficient” to have the reporter take the shots instead. Well…Yeah…But at what cost? It would also be more “economical and efficient” for a restaurant chef to take the order and serve it as well, but is that necessarily better? Would adding that much more responsibility to their already-busy schedule result in a dish you want to eat? For me, the answer would be a resounding “NO!”

When I was a reporter/photographer at a subsidiary newspaper, I was always amazed at some of the shots some of our parent company’s dedicated photographers would get. They were candid, they were artsy, and they really made the article pop! Now, enter some of my photos. While I had many great ones, many were the unavoidable, traditional grip-n-grins, line-ups, and “say cheese” photos.

Now, even someone who has never picked up a camera would recognize these default shots. People shaking hands and grinning at the camera, kids lined up and smiling along a brick wall, etc. It is unlikely you will find many of these in USA Today, but for a small-town newspaper, they still work.

I couldn’t help but be disheartened from time to time because the pictures I was seeing or planning in my head were often intercepted with the teacher’s or organizational leader’s default concepts. For example, instead of a cool, half-candid picture of a kid demonstrating his science fair project, I would get all the science fair entrants lined up out in the hallway smiling and holding their ribbons. You know: “To be fair.” What I got was a boring picture for the parents and a heartbreak where the great photo would have been.

With this, I started thinking: “How do those bigger newspapers do it? How do they get the teacher interacting with her students when I can only get the lined-up smiles?” Then, one day, it dawned on me. They have dedicated photographers. While the teacher is being distracted by the reporter, the photographer is snapping candid shots all over the room. Me, on the other hand, had to get the interview, then put down the pad and pen and pick up the camera, thereby allowing the subject to be fully aware and largely in control of the forthcoming picture.
Now, once again, for a small-town newspaper, this was part of life. It is not uncommon to have one person wearing multiple hats. I wore many hats and I was fine with that. However, with this new move to get rid of newspapers’ dedicated photographers and push their duties onto the reporters, I’m afraid this type of problem is going to become the norm for many newspapers. They just don’t know it yet.

The article goes on to quote Gebhart further: “Our journalists initially recoiled from this change because of the added responsibility. However, most appear to be embracing this and are taking excellent photos.”

Between the lines once again: They are embracing it because they want to continue embracing a paycheck and secondly, anyone who would lay off their photographers simply because darkroom skills are no longer needed would likely not know an “excellent” photo if it fell into his lap. I am lucky enough to have both writing and photography skills, but not all are so lucky. And, believe me, a reporter without a photographer’s eye, armed with a camera set to “automatic” is not going to pull many awards or turn many heads toward his or her articles’ visual accents.

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