I was shocked in May of this year when the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photojournalism department at one stroke, effectively putting an end to a long and storied department with a rich and complex culture. Obviously, many of the photographers in the department were more shocked than I was, and the move sparked a lot of discussion in the journalism community, which is increasingly under threat. People talk about how journalism is not important, how we’re making way for new media, how we don’t need to pay for news anymore, but these beliefs are not accurate. Journalism is still important, and if we lose it now, we will come to regret it.
At the Sun-Times, the situation is particularly interesting. In addition to killing jobs for actual photographers working with actual cameras, the paper announced that it was requiring journalists to take mobile photography and video classes, and would be issuing phones and similar tools for journalists to use in the field. In other words, journalists would be required to conduct work in the field while taking photos and video, balancing very different skill sets, and packaging the results as one story.
Some journalists have that ability, and turn in beautiful, amazing, haunting work that includes stunning photography and/or video along with excellent text. But a lot of us do not. I, for example, am a great writer, and when I have the opportunity to do fieldwork or more deeply-researched articles, I can really get into it. But I am a mediocre photographer at best, with the rare really good shot, and I don’t have an eye for news photography specifically. It’s a skill that’s separate from writing, and it’s one I would love to cultivate someday, but I don’t think it’s a requirement, because I believe photojournalism as a separate art and discipline should be maintained, as it’s an important aspect of society and communication.
A lot of media outlets these days are increasingly turning to multimedia, insisting on content that will look flashy on their websites, because that’s where the money seems to be, and they want to keep up with the competition. And one of the best ways to fill a website is with content that doesn’t actually come from real journalists and photographers. Which means that a lot of media outlets are getting material for free; reader pictures, reader-submitted news and articles, polls, fluff pieces by in-house staff, reprints from other publications arranged at low cost or by exchange. The actual journalism is thinning.
Journalism is important, though. It tells stories. It provides information. It provokes conversations. Without investigative journalism, how would we know about the multitude of horrific things happening in society that need to be brought to light? Without the actions of California Watch, for example, would we have seen reforms to California’s residential institutions for disabled adults? Probably not, because what was happening in those facilities occurred behind closed doors, and few people were talking about it until it hit the media.
Without journalism, how would we know what is going on in the world? Yes, the internet provides an excellent means of communication and thanks to international contacts all over the globe I’m often kept informed about a variety of events, including those that are not covered in the media, but there’s a reason I open a pile of news sites every morning to see what’s happening. I count on journalism to make me a more informed and effective citizen; it’s not my only source of information, but it’s an important one, and I use it regularly.
As a journalist, albeit one who typically focuses more on the opinion and commentary end of news rather than on breaking news stories or investigative pieces, I inform and educate people and I encourage them to think about what is happening in society and get active. I make causes difficult to avoid by talking about them, and pushing readers to do the same, to take action, to find ways to get more involved in their society. I play an important role, but it’s not one I could play for free, because I, like everyone else, must survive, and my work has value, both intrinsically and because of the labour involved.
Journalism is important. The more people talk about how it isn’t, the more concerned I become. Not just for my job and the jobs of my colleagues, not just for the esteemed publications I love and rely upon to keep me abreast of events and open my mind with commentary exposing new perspectives on situations, but for society as a whole. Because when you fire an entire newspaper department, it sends a grim message about the value not just of the people in that department, and not just about photojournalism, but also about the value of journalism as a whole.
Obviously the media need to adapt to a shifting landscape. Clearly journalism cannot remain entrenched in past habits that are no longer functional, and journalists need to be ready to roll with the changes as well. Arguing for no change at all would be ludicrous, because part of what makes journalism so very great is the shifts that happen over time as people find new ways to distribute, talk about, and work with information.
But we need photojournalists. We need copyeditors. We need fact-checkers. We need commissioning editors. We need all the people who support great media, just as much as we need the citizen journalists on the ground who do have the time and ability to push through information without compensation, who bring the world’s eyes to situations unfolding on the ground, who force open discussions about what is happening in society, and the urgent need for action.
There’s room for everyone in a functional model.