Digital Media Push Images to the Foreground
In the midst of big changes in the working lives of photojournalists, a former news photographer looks at how journalism schools and programs should respond.
In 2001, D. Michael Cheers returned to the United States from South Africa, where he had headed up the Johnson Publishing Company’s unsuccessful efforts to produce an African edition of Ebony magazine. That five-year experience, along with 25 years he’d spent as a photographer on the staff of Ebony and Jet, provided him with enough knowledge and professional experience—he thought—to handle anything the academic world that he was about to enter had to offer.
What he wasn’t prepared for were the vast changes sweeping through journalism as a result of the Web’s demand for convergence strategies and multimedia storytelling, as well as diminishing revenues in the newspaper and magazine business. It wasn’t so much that the fundamentals of journalism were no longer valid; it was just that students’ needs seemed so much greater. They had to be taught to multitask their efforts at a time when diminishing newsroom budgets meant news organizations could no longer hire people to do a single task. Even with his considerable academic credentials—a PhD in African Studies and Research, master’s degrees in Journalism and African American History—and his professional experience, Cheers’s impending return to the journalism classroom got him thinking anew as he attended seminars and technology shows and sought out online instruction sites so he could prepare students for the jobs awaiting them.
In 2002, he joined the staff at the University of Mississippi, where he taught the basics along with as much of the new technology as he had mastered. Each semester, he found more he needed to know, and his engagement in these emerging new media arenas played an important part in reorienting the journalism program. In the spring of 2007, Cheers was hired by San Jose State in California and given a mandate to revamp the school’s photojournalism program. Working in partnership with the San Jose Mercury News, he created a program in which he will take a class to South Africa, where his students will produce stories for all of the newspaper’s platforms—providing a workshop environment with genuine expectations but also the promise of mentoring as they learn. The paper agreed to also pay the expenses of a staff photographer who will work with them as an instructor.
Lessons in Visual Storytelling
Like other journalists, photographers are being asked to take on greater responsibilities as storytellers—providing pictures, both still and moving, along with capturing sound to use with the images on different media platforms. In assuming their new role, photographers now threaten the entrenched hierarchy of the newsroom. Greater responsibility warrants greater respect, which might point to the end of expressions like “my photographer” being used so often by reporters.
According to Dirck Halstead, a former staff photographer for Time magazine, a journalist working today is seen as a “producer” and not identified as a photographer, writer or editor. Ten years ago, Halstead put his still camera aside and became an advocate of video as the medium best suited to addressing the needs of the profession today. And he started a program called The Platypus Workshop to teach the skills of video shooting and the editing of tape and sound. His is a short-course taught in a mobile classroom.
As the years went by, more and more newsrooms began sending their photographers to his two-week seminars. In assessing why journalism schools have been much slower to respond to these kinds of changes in the craft, Halstead is blunt: “They didn’t get it. Most journalism schools are populated by reporters who haven’t been in a newsroom in the last 10 or 15 years.” Steve Shepard, dean of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) School of Journalism, is more charitable: “We’re creatures of habit. It was the same with television’s arrival. But these were profound and revolutionary changes.”
Shepard, who was editor of Business Week for 20 years and a senior editor at Newsweek, heads up CUNY’s start-up degree program, one he describes as being a “new model in journalism.” He believes mistakes have been made—at news organizations and at journalism schools. “The newspaper industry was trying to ‘repurpose’ what the print product was and that was a mistake. They were not taking advantage of the new medium, which is interactive and multimedia.” Schools, he said, weren’t striking a proper balance between teaching journalism’s principles and practices and applying them to the new demands of the new media.
Cheers stresses the need to help future visual journalists develop storytelling abilities with whatever technology they have to use. He agrees with Halstead that video works well as a medium since it forces its user to think in terms of a beginning, middle and an end. For photographers, this is not a giant step to take, especially for those who have done photo essays in which they’ve researched and developed a story from beginning to end. This past summer Cheers, as a fellow at National Geographic, used his time to develop his skills in this direction so he can pass on both his missteps and successes to his students. One inescapable challenge visual journalists will have is to simply keep up with not only the rapidly changing tools of their craft but also the demands of the industry. No longer can a photojournalist’s job be described as “go fetch;” now it is as much the job of the visual journalist to “tell the story” as it is the one who does so with words.
In its essence, the job of being a journalist has less to do with tools that we use and more to do with the breadth of knowledge that we bring to each story. History, economics, sociology and the arts are as important for photographers to absorb as they are for reporters. The Spanish artist Goya was one of the first visual journalists; familiarity with his work can inform how to visually report stories today. Every story is enveloped in history. While it’s not always possible with breaking news to convey its broader context, there’s a better chance of doing so when we are not simply reacting to the moment.
News organizations should work more closely with journalism schools and programs. Cheers’s partnership with the San Jose Mercury News offers a promising model. And he is hoping to establish a similar working relationship with National Geographic. At a time when we have an amazing array of tools to gather information—and we encourage nonjournalists to send us photos and video via cell phones and other digital devices—what will distinguish the trained photojournalist from the amateur is the knowledge we bring to the moment and the preparation we have to seize it.
Lester Sloan, a 1976 Nieman Fellow, was a staff photographer for Newsweek for 25 years. Prior to that he worked as cameraman/reporter for the CBS affiliate in Detroit. For a period, he was a contributing editor to Emerge magazine and an essayist with NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” He is a freelance photographer and writer based in Los Angeles.