Deeper Than Paper Cuts

ProPhoto - - FIRST FRAME - Paul Bur­rows, Edi­tor

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.

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