Deeper Than Paper Cuts
People who live in glass houses and all that, but really, what is going on in the minds of a newspaper management when it decides to axe its photography department? I’m talking, of course, of Fairfax Media’s recent decision to ‘let go’ a major proportion of the in-house photographers who work on The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, plus, for good measure, a number of senior journalists.
The thinking – deeply flawed though it is – is that the services of these on-the-payroll ‘content providers’ can be more cheaply sourced from outside providers. In the case of the redundant photographers, this is going to be the omnipresent Getty Images plus, without a doubt, members of the public who just happen to be on-the-spot with an iPhone.
Content is what makes a newspaper – or a magazine, for that matter – so you’re taking great risks when you start messing around with the quality. Yes, of course, the old business models by which print media, particularly newspapers, has thrived for many decades are no longer adding up, but content is the product you’re actually selling, not some sheets of paper with ink on them. There’s no doubt that good content is expensive to produce, comparatively speaking, but if it’s not up-to-scratch, you’ve got nothing. And, surely, the reason senior newspaper executives are paid very good money is for them to come up with innovative ways of keeping their businesses profitable… changing technologies are just the part of the environment (always have been in the media), not an excuse for a lack of vision.
Beyond the fact that a lot of dedicated people re losing their jobs, what are the implications of this for both press photography and, more widely, photojournalism in general? What will almost immediately suffer is local coverage at any meaningful depth. The ‘old’ routine of photographers being briefed by picture editors to get a feel for a story and then heading off to a location to find the pictures to tell that story will be a thing of the past. The days of hard-hitting photo essays being published in newspapers are largely gone anyway so what we’re going to see more of is ‘generic’ lifestyle pieces that are syndicated around the world, more so-called celebrities courtesy of the legions of social snappers, and a greater reliance on stock images. And let’s not get started on the shut-outs that have seen major sporting events suddenly become the exclusive domain of a picture agency.
The reality, then, is that some stories just won’t get told, and we’ll be the poorer for it. Possibly worse, other imperatives will influence how a story is told as ‘spin’ becomes ever more pervasive and independence is compromised. True, this is already an issue as some media companies blatantly align themselves with one political party or another, but it becomes harder to spot when commercial interests are exerting influences, often in quite subtle ways, behind-the-scenes. So, for example, coverage of a natural disaster is downplayed because somebody, somewhere doesn’t like the inference that man-made climate change is the cause.
The irony of all this is that as the quality of content declines, so will the readership and, as a direct consequence, revenues will take a bigger hit. It’s the classic cart-before-the-horse scenario, but inevitably technology or the economy or something else will be blamed.
Whether the ‘traditional’ press photographer faces extinction remains to be seen – right now, he or she looks like an endangered species. But the ugly truth is that this situation has come about because somebody is prepared to charge less for a particularly service, either as an individual or as an organisation. This practice has already decimated quite a number of areas of commercial photography and undoubtedly devalued the profession as a whole (yet ridiculous sums are still being paid for meaningless paparazzi snaps, go figure). It will indeed be a tragedy if the great heritage of press photography – epitomising that a picture is worth a thousand words and responsible for documenting the world since it was first possible to carry a camera anywhere – should be so thoughtlessly sacrificed for a fist-full of dollars.