The Digital Journalist

Big Questions,
Few Answers

Commentary by Dirck Halstead

As I write this, I'm winging eastward across the Pacific from Hong Kong.

In the past six weeks, I have been in the Mideast, at Sharm El Sheikh, with President Clinton; then Europe, to attend the World Press Photo Master Class; and finally, to Vietnam and Brunei, again covering one of President Clinton's last diplomatic trips.

I was struck by how the people I talked with in these areas of the world were amazed and concerned with the technological and political changes around them. The challenges and questions we will face in the years immediately ahead are beginning to emerge.

Hopefully, by the time you read this, we will know who the 43rd president of the United States is going to be. I have no doubt that regardless of the election outcome--dimpled chads et al-- that our people, our constitution, our system are strong enough to move beyond this situation intact.

With regard to countries in regions like the Mideast, for instance, I am not so sanguine. I fear that years of hatred and mistrust will lead to regional war.

For those of us who are photojournalists, in print or broadcast, there have emerged some compelling concerns.

Whether you live in Harrisburg or Hanoi, the World Wide Web and broadband is coming to your hometown. The Digital Journalist is being read as avidly in Jakarta as it is in Chicago. People hunger for faster connections. The problem is, infrastructure and governments are getting in the way.

In Vietnam, there is an automatic timer that disconnects the user from the Internet after 15 minutes.

In Thailand, rival branches of the government are squabbling over who controls the Web. One branch wants to limit broadband access to corporations who will pay exorbitant rates for downloads. While the other is determined to make it available to millions of ordinary citizens. They are now suing each other to see who wins the prize.

In the Netherlands, a World Press Photo official told me "broadband is Dead." A year ago he was getting high-speed Internet connections, but as the demand increased, the speed flow dropped to a trickle.

In the nation's capital, Washington, DC, Bell Atlantic's highly touted DSL goes down almost every other weekend, and often remains down for days. It's clear there is not the manpower nor the expertise to cope with what they're selling.

In broadcast, High Definition Television is a promise broken. Greedy network and station owners have hijacked the frequencies given to them by the FCC and reserved for the creation of HDTV. There is not even an agreement on standards to govern this new medium.

Meanwhile, Sony and Panasonic continue to battle over formats that will be used in the years to come--will it be Beta SX, Mini DV, DVCAM, DVCPro, or WDigital discs? Even companies like Sony battle within their ranks over which division will supply the hardware for the future.

The big story for still photojournalists this year has been the takeover of the major picture agencies, Sygma, Gamma, Saba, and Liaison, by mega-corporations. Getty and Corbis have wreaked havoc as they try to "professionalize" a cottage industry. It is clear that their focus is on maximizing return from the library sales, and not on sponsoring the creation of new content, which costs money.

And yet last week, Corbis pulled out a credit card and underwrote election coverage for a Florida newspaper which had gone over its budget. What, I wonder, happened to the freelancers who normally would have been assigned by Sygma to cover the story?

Wire services, newspapers, and magazines are all doing their best to see who can steal more photographer's rights. They are intent on owning the pictures that are produced, without having to pay needlessly wasteful expenditures such as salaries and benefits. At the newsmagazines--which used to lead in the coverage of worldwide events--the accountants and lawyers have taken control.

Technology, though, is not necessarily going to make it all that easy for these institutions. Ownership of photographs has traditionally been predicated on physical possession of the film. This month, I shot my first major story for Time, the visit of President Clinton to Vietnam, digitally. Tight deadlines did not allow for film shipment. I used my new Canon D30. Now, I'm able to send pictures simultaneously to Time, and my agency Liaison. My pictures never leave me at all. They're still on my hard drive. So how does one own them? And who owns what?

Still other questions spring from the newfound ability of photographers in the field to do their own edits with their laptops, and send their selections directly to department editors at the publications they're working with. So what do you need picture editors for? Well, the original answer to this question was to provide leadership and inspiration for the photographer out covering a story. Unfortunately, that concept has long since given way to the more mundane task of administration. Last year, we talked about picture editors becoming an endangered species. This may be the year hunting season opens.

The Confucian curse comes to mind: May you live in interesting times; or, possibly more apt: Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy year!

Dirck Halstead