Dispatches: Contributing to The Digital Journalist

July 5th, 2009

This July I had the opportunity to contribute to the Dispatches column of the Digital Journalist, writing a somewhat behind-the-scenes piece about how I reported from Cambodia and why.

The Digital Journalist is an online trade publication for visual journalists started by Dirk Halstead, a traditional photojournalist who adopted the multimedia mindset early on and has stayed ahead of the curve in the changing news media marketplace.

As a long-time reader of Halstead’s commentary (I remember reading his visual journalism mantras while processing black and white film at my college newspaper) having something to contribute to the Digital Journalist gives me pause, and I think: “I grew up and I am doing what I only read about and imagined years ago.” Not that I consider contributing to a trade publication’s monthly column as the pinnacle of my career, but it does have some correlation to moments in the field when I am gifted with an amazing experience few will have. Solely because I’m a photojournalist.

Ironically, in this issue Halstead recalls a piece he authored ten years ago about how difficult being a photojournalist was becoming. It has only become harder. Says Halstead:

“Back when the newsmagazines were sending flocks of photographers flying around the globe, the newspapers, funded by more than 20% profit ratios, were investing heavily in their photo departments. Papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune; and The Dallas Morning News were all vying for the best photojournalists they could find and then they sent them off on long-term projects, which won countless Pulitzer Prizes.

“Of course, like all good things, this culture has been torn apart as these papers now struggle to survive. We all know about papers like the fabled Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which have folded this year. The Chicago Tribune Company is in bankruptcy.”

He goes on to note the way readers now access news is changing the market:

“…the emergence of the World Wide Web as a principal news provider, has happened beyond our wildest expectations. The problem is that the revenue in advertising has not kept up with the Web’s growth. Although a newspaper Web site’s unique views can dwarf the print edition’s circulation, the revenue derived from Web advertising is often less than 10 percent of print ads.”

And concludes with, what I feel is, a bit of a sigh:

“At the end of the day, whether Time or The New York Times survives is irrelevant. The real question is, who is going to PAY professional journalists such as [Roger Cohen, who recently reported from the streets of Tehran] to go to these news scenes? Professionals do matter. If you broke your leg and your choice would be to have your neighbor who had faithfully watched every episode of “ER” set it, or go to a hospital, there is no question what you would do.

“In a recent Platypus [Video Journalism] class, my students asked me, “Why would you be a photojournalist today?” I answered, “You have to be crazy.” I have always considered being crazy as important to a photographer as being curious. Constitutionally, we thrive on chaos and challenge. Being a photojournalist is more a calling than a trade. Those people who will do anything to come back with a story will be out there shooting for a long time.”

I’m not crazy enough to do anything for the story; I like my creature comforts and my relationships. But I do believe photojournalism is a calling, and I do believe professionals matter. I just wish the economics were there to support fair, balanced, truthful, and professional news reporting so we, the citizens of the world, can not only be informed about an issue, but be inspired to act.

Read my contribution to Dispatches at The Digital Journalist here.

Read Dirk Halstead’s full editorial here.

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