See the RealVideo Interview
with Margaret O'Connor

On August 23, 2001, New York Times Picture Editor Margaret O'Connor sat down with The Digital Journalist in her office in Manhattan, and discussed some of the issues facing the industry today. O'Connor, who oversees a staff of 30 photographers, and the publication of 1,000 photographs every week, acknowledges that photojournalism can no longer be defined by the standards of Life Magazine, but sees positive changes ahead for the Times. She talks about the frustrations of the daily last minute assignment and the need for
the photo department to become more a part of the discovery process as stories are assigned.

The Times underwent major changes in October of 1997 when the paper switched over to color and became a six section daily. Times' photographers are fully digital now, something which O'Connor says enabled them to produce timely campaign and inauguration coverage last year. We invite you to read excerpts from the interview as she speaks of the challenges and rewards of her job and her hopes for the photo department as a new executive editor takes the reins on September 6.

Susan B. Markisz
September 1, 2001

MOC: I’m Margaret O’Connor, and I am Picture Editor for the New York Times. Prior to this, I was Deputy Design Director for the Art Department. Before that I worked briefly for the Wall Street Journal of all places, before that for the San Francisco Examiner…and before that, it was another lifetime…

TDJ: A lot of people are saying photojournalism is dead, that it is a wasteland. What do you say to that? How are things at the New York Times?

MOC: Things are moving ahead at the NY Times. I don’t believe that photojournalism is dead, because I see too many people who are really passionate about photojournalism. If we are defining it according to Life Magazine a long time ago that really isn’t appropriate anymore. I think our world has changed, and we are using pictures differently. It’s not easy to define now.

TDJ: The term photojournalism almost seems dated. You think of Life, Look, and National Geographic. Today, assignments are generally completed in a few hours’ time or less. Is that photojournalism, or is it something else?

MOC: Sure, it’s photojournalism. It might not be our favorite kind, or the kind we most aspire to, but it’s our daily bread and butter.

TDJ: What’s happened to the concept of extended projects? Are there such projects going on at the Times?

MOC: Yes, there are. Again, they’re not happening as quickly as we would like. At the Times, what makes us different is our size. We take our marching orders from the top, and the present administration certainly cares about where the paper should go. I see a new period coming, a change in leadership. Things will probably change for pictures in a lot of ways. I think we have come a long way in the last few years, and we certainly have come a long way since I first came to the Times in what pictures were like in the photo department, and the paper’s relationship with pictures.

TDJ: You mention hopeful changes coming. What would those changes mean for photographers and editors?

MOC: In a perfect world, there are many things we would be doing more of. We have had to deal with a recession, and there are money issues that every big company has had to deal with. But we have increased our photo staff and development.

TDJ: Let’s talk a little bit about nationalization of the newspaper, How has affected the way you use photographers nationally?

MOC: We publish a thousand pictures a week; I don’t think anybody in the print world does that, so we use a lot of freelancers in our national and foreign stories. We only have 30 staff photographers but we have been trying more and more to use our staff for national assignments. I am really proud of what we did with our election coverage.

TDJ: You mentioned a little earlier about the budget, the recession, and editorial coverage seems to have diminished. What is going on? Has the budget or the changing economy affected your ability to promote the shooting of stories by your staff?

MOC: I think everyone has been affected by this. We have lost some space in the paper, but we have still made great progress. I’m optimistic. When the economy comes back, we are geared up to set the world on fire.

TDJ: The Times recently devoted some full pages in the city section to some beautiful geometric/aerial feature photographs by Vince [Laforet] a couple of weeks ago, and recently Fred [Conrad] has been doing some wonderful black and white medium format photographs...Is this something new? These full-page picture layouts are well presented. Can these be expanded to other in-depth projects?

MOC: I’m hoping that those kinds of things will be expanded. We were doing full-page layouts in the late 80s when I came here, then we sort of stopped doing them for a while, as the paper went in a different direction. Space is a premium, but lately we’ve found some places to do it. And that is what I am hoping for...more space for these kind of things, more in-depth and longer, ongoing projects.

TDJ: Besides the immediacy of photographic transmission, how has digital transformed coverage at the Times?

MOC: We are bullish on digital. We started early, and a lot of people deserve credit…Dave Frank, Keith Meyers, Jim Wilson and many others. We just outfitted our final four photographers, so everybody has digital equipment. I can’t think of what last year would have been like without it, during the campaigns, the inauguration, and the Olympics.

TDJ: Let’s talk about the internet. How are you supporting the web site? Is this a separate department for you?

MOC: The web is a wonderful and curious place. It is a separate department at this time. There are never enough photo producers. We don’t have enough people with enough time to give them our full attention, but we’re working on it, and I am pleased with what we have done. There is a wonderful piece about Chechnya, by James Hill, who is our contract photographer in Rome, and that is an example of what we can do, once we get more staff. There is a TV group, so expect this to be a place where our staff can be seen a little more so than they are now.

TDJ: You mentioned, “when we get more staff” Is that a possibility?

MOC: No, I was speaking of the photo producers for the web. There is a lot of work, but not enough people right now, but they still manage to do some wonderful pieces.

TDJ: Is there a downside to digital coverage? With digital, photographers go out to an assignment, transmit, and don’t come back to the newsroom. Is there a dialog going on between editors and photographers?

MOC: The downside is keeping in touch. Because it is so easy now…you don’t have to come into the office if you are a photographer, but I think our staff is pretty good about it. Everybody needs a coach, and an editor. We have a lot of editors…not enough photographers, and the editors get so busy it becomes difficult to stay in touch. We are working on that, and in some ways communication improves, because photographers have to edit their own pictures. There are lots of interesting conversations, but it makes you much more aware of your communication duties.

TDJ: What are some of the things you love about your job?

MOC: Well, it depends on the day you ask! Because there are so many people to communicate with here, it’s very challenging, and that can be as frustrating as it is thrilling. What I love about my job is when I look at the paper on Inauguration Day or when I see Vince Laforet’s page of aerial photos that he went up to shoot of a marsh, and came back with a whole portfolio of wonderful pictures that we were able to quickly put into the city section in a very nice page design. When I see those things, I feel like we are making progress. When things work here it’s exhilarating and thrilling but when they don’t work it’s very difficult and frustrating.

TDJ: We can’t end the interview without addressing some industry concerns. The industry seems to be going toward a model of reducing staff positions, using more contract photographers and freelancers. Has this been your experience? Have you felt any pressures to reduce your staff, or reduce photo coverage, or the numbers of freelancers you use?

MOC: Yes, I think there has been a lot of tightening up, and we’ve been having to do that for a few years now, however we still publish a 1,000 pictures a week and we have hundreds of freelancers. We couldn’t put out the paper without them. We also have four contract photographers who are great, and I think of them partly as staff. That is how we have solved the problems so far with the coverage we have to do, which is enormous. The budget restrictions seem enormous, but we have waded through.

TDJ: The budget….is that a major concern?

MOC: Yes, it is ongoing. This paper grew by leaps and bounds in October of 1997, when we went to a six section daily paper, with six section fronts, which have to be designed, which includes extra pressure on photography, and the daily and weekly picture count went up. It took a while to adjust to because you can never quite plan correctly for that, but I think we’ve figured it out, and we’ve tried to be smart about assigning.

TDJ: What kind of impact do you think the Tasini decision will have on photojournalism, in general, and in particular at the Times?

MOC: I really don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows what the impact will be. I do know that we have been working on a contract for a long time and have tried to come to some sort of happy solution, as I think a lot of people have, who are under pressure from their companies, and we are in the middle. We depend on our freelance photographers. We have tried very hard to look out for them and to offer the complete picture in negotiations. Tasini mostly impacts writers, in the strictest way, and so I am not sure exactly what the impact will be on photographers. There are a lot of people working on contracts right now, so we will see. It is a very complicated world we live in right now.

TDJ: Where do you think photojournalism is headed? In general and at the Times? Do you think we are headed back to a time when editors give a little more free reign to photographers on stories? If we are not headed back to the days of Life Magazine, where are we headed?

MOC: I know you have just visited the Newark Star Ledger, and they have a very clear idea where they are headed. I worked with Jim Willse a long time ago at the San Francisco Examiner, and we both got our interest in the same place, and that was there. Two of the people I worked with there, are on our staff here, Lee Romero, and Nicole Bengiveno. I think what they are doing at the Star-Ledger is great. We are a different place, and we have to do things differently, but my goal is to do just as remarkable a thing here in whatever way that has to be, in whatever the Times version of that will be. I really think we have built a strong staff over the last few years but we need to fight the battles in the newsroom that everybody has to fight for: more space, or maybe a smarter attitude about pictures.

TDJ: Tell us a little more about the care and feeding of photographers. Photographers have big egos….but we need support, encouragement and feedback. We need to feel part of the team. As a freelance photographer it is hard to feel part of a team when you are working for a lot of different folks. Your staffers need it, freelancers need it. How do you address that…when you are digital and away from the newsroom? We think it is more imperative now to have a dialogue, how are you addressing that?

MOC: Because of our size, it’s harder to address the issues of taking care of everybody and making sure that people get the kind of attention and coaching they need. We have to do things sometimes in big groups. We had what I consider to be a remarkable staff meeting yesterday, where our new Executive Editor met with us. He is not officially here till September 6th, but I was very pleased he came to the meeting. He wanted to hear what we thought. We told him what we would like to see happen…we would like to see a staffer in every bureau, and so forth, and I think he is on the same page. But those things have to do with money. I would have twice as many photographers and people in every bureau, but there are limitations. But he understands the issues, and sees our challenges as his. I think everybody came out of that meeting feeling very good. Another way is to ask everybody to come to monthly meetings and other smaller meetings. We have a new enterprise editor, Nancy Weinstock, who is wonderful, and photographers love to work with her. She was the editor on the race project. I think people felt like they got a lot of attention from her, and from Mike [Smith] and me on that. We have a Page 1 editor who worries about nothing but Page 1: Phillip Gefter. Jim Wilson is chief assignment editor, and he is a wonderful photo coach…he needs more time to do that. Merrill Oliver, who is our weekend editor is a wonderful photo coach. We have many good editors, and again, nothing is perfect…people fall through the cracks, but people tend to choose their favorite editor.

TDJ: Ruth (Fremson) came to the Times having covered events in the Middle East, and it seems like a lot of staff photographers don’t travel as much any more except on major national stories or sporting events, like the campaigns where you did extensive coverage. Wouldn’t it seem prudent to send somebody like Ruth, whose knowledge and expertise in that area is what brought her to the Times in the first place, to cover stories in the Middle East?

MOC: I knew Ruth Fremson before she ever went to Israel. With perfect timing it would probably have worked better if she had come to the Times a little later; on the other hand, this is her hometown, and she had never covered New York. Ruth has a lot of experience for someone as young as she is. She was in Washington a long time with AP, so that experience was a big part of our success last year covering the campaign. But Ruth keeps her bag packed. We are well aware of what we have in Ruth, when we need it she will be there.

MOC: I feel really good about the staff we have put together, people who still care after 20 years, who still do a fabulous job, who are great photojournalists. And our editors who work extremely hard, and who have to do everything, from being idea people to being production people, to being photo coaches, and to the huge number of loyal freelancers, who we absolutely couldn’t put the paper out without. It’s hard to let everybody know that, but I think we have a great thing here, and we certainly have a great vehicle for photos, and although I often think the paper doesn’t always reflect the way I wish it did with the wonderful photos that we have…

TDJ: Newspaper editors will often give you a vague assignment, sometimes without all the details, and they trust us to go out and make some sort of miracle. Newspaper work is challenging. But sometimes an assignment comes to us after the story has been written and the event has happened, and we are asked to make an environmental portrait… Can you address that a little bit…about the line of communication between editor and photographer. It’s often frustrating as a photographer to be sitting with a bunch of PR people in a room talking about this “wonderful thing that has just happened.” Please talk a little bit about that.

MOC: The daily last minute assignment is a big problem. We talked about this yesterday at our staff meeting. Assignments come from all over the place, --- we have a huge staff. It is a matter of educating other editors in the newsroom. I do a lot of screaming about this, and so do others, and we will keep screaming until it sinks in. Some will tell us the minute they are thinking of writing a story, other people of course, don’t think about pictures until the very last minute and that never makes for a very satisfactory result. And it certainly results in frustration for the photographer. Our metro desk has helped us to address this. We have to be part of the discovery process. The race project last year was actually a good learning experience…a somewhat painful learning experience in some ways, but I think the story editors learned something about the way we work, and we are making progress.

TDJ: What are some of the most important things you look for in a photographer?

MOC: When you are looking to hire someone, which is way too rare these days, it depends on whom you are missing at the moment. It’s like you have this orchestra, with a limited number of seats, and there are ten terrific trombones available, and you only need one. That sounds sort of corny, but there are so many wonderful photographers out there, and I am thankful that a lot of them want to work here. That just tells me more than anything about where I think we are going. I look first, of course for talent, someone who is interested in journalism, in telling the story, someone who can make a beautiful image, but also tell the story, do the reporting…That part is really important. It’s good if they have experience at other places, because this place is different. It’s harder and bigger, and you have to be prepared for that. Personality is very important, because if you want to work here, you have to be able to go with the flow. When it works here it is thrilling, and a lot of photographers have experienced that, and that is why they are here.

View the Photo Gallery of
New York Times pictures

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist