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: Im Margaret OConnor, 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
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 dont
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 isnt
appropriate anymore. I think our world has changed, and we are using
pictures differently. Its 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, its photojournalism. It might not be our favorite
kind, or the kind we most aspire to, but its our daily bread
TDJ: Whats happened to the concept of extended projects?
Are there such projects going on at the Times?
MOC: Yes, there are. Again, theyre 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 papers 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: Lets 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 dont 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. Im
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: Im 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 weve
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
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 cant think of what last year
would have been like without it, during the campaigns, the inauguration,
and the Olympics.
TDJ: Lets 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
dont have enough people with enough time to give them our full
attention, but were 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
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 dont come
back to the newsroom. Is there a dialog going on between editors and
MOC: The downside is keeping in touch. Because it is so easy
you dont 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
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, its 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 Laforets 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 its exhilarating and thrilling but when
they dont work its very difficult and frustrating.
TDJ: We cant 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
MOC: Yes, I think there has been a lot of tightening up, and
weve 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 couldnt 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 weve figured it out, and weve
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 dont know. I dont 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
MOC: Because of our size, its 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
fall through the cracks, but people tend to choose their favorite
TDJ: Ruth (Fremson) came to the Times having covered events
in the Middle East, and it seems like a lot of staff photographers
dont travel as much any more except on major national stories
or sporting events, like the campaigns where you did extensive coverage.
Wouldnt 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 couldnt put the paper
out without. Its 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 doesnt 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. Its 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, dont 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
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.
Its 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.
Its good if they have experience at other places, because this
place is different. Its 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.
the Photo Gallery of
New York Times pictures