Reinventing Photojournalism
by Tom Kennedy

The Internet offers us the chance to reinvent photojournalism by enabling us to blend the best practices from still photojournalism, broadcasting, and independent films. Now unfortunately, most print products use still photography primarily as iconography intended to hook readers into reading text. Still photography is not enabled to be the powerful story-telling device I know it to be from my time as director of photography at National Geographic. Ironically, most broadcasting also relegates video images to the realm of "wallpaper" existing primarily as background eye candy to the underlying audio or narrative supplied by on-air talent.

Happily though, the Internet permits us to blend still photographs with audio, text, video, and databases to make compelling content that is far richer than print or broadcasting typically deliver. This new world of visual story telling gives us a chance to reinvent the form and to adapt integration of various media types to tell the most compelling possible story.

Visual journalism on the web offers the chance to tell narrative stories that speak powerfully to underlying truths of the human condition. Independent films and lessons I learned earlier in my career have influenced our feature videos most profoundly. We work to present a subject directly to the viewer without the complicating and often distracting intermediation of on-air talent. Rather than "telling" a story, we are always trying to "show" the story, directly encountering the subject's life. Often the audio narration is a mixture of natural sound and on-going commentary by the main subject. The photojournalist engages a subject and starts to observe and then document the subject, using a "fly-on-the wall" approach enabled by small, highly portable video cameras, microphones etc. The photographer often works alone, assuming full responsibility for the journalistic reporting, the story's narrative arc, and the aesthetic choices on both imagery and sound. In our world, the photojournalist observes, understands, and documents with empathy, trying to create an accurate portrayal of the story's main themes. Story development requires time as a crucial ingredient. The photojournalist needs time to understand the subject and establish rapport that facilitates honest, intimate documentation. As the photojournalist comes to understand the subject more fully, he or she is more able to identify the meaningful moments that must be recorded to express the crucial themes.

I expect photojournalists to do their own pre-story research to establish the basic parameters for a story. This research usually yields a rough storyboard and basic agreement between me and the photojournalist about the editorial intentions as well as our likely aesthetic approach. In-field flexibility is essential, and the photojournalist is free to modify original premises if some more compelling developments lead the story arc down a different path. Ultimately, the photojournalist is responsible for moving with changing circumstances. I expect the personal stamp of authorship and a specific point of view to continue the final editing process. While the editing may be a collaborative enterprise, particularly on tight deadline pieces, I want the photojournalist fully engaged until the story is ready for publication to insure the script, video, and editing mesh to fully express the photojournalist's point of view.

I believe we're just beginning to scratch the surface of the web's potential as a story-telling device. We're in our infancy, not unlike Hollywood in the 1920's, radio in the 1930's, or television in the 1950's. It is a time for experimentation and creative ferment as we seek new ways to provide information and stories that enrich the lives of our audience.

It is exciting to consider new ways of blending still photos, text, video and audio to tell stories. The availability of databases as a source of information enables interesting choices for alternative interactive paths through stories. In the same way, new software offers interesting ways to edit and "animate" still photo galleries.

However, we also face tremendous challenges right now. For starters, we have to serve content simultaneously across a wide range of delivery platforms. Each delivery device differs in its ability to deliver a "rich media" story experience. Further, the lack of "absolute" technical standards, even within a specific delivery platform, makes it difficult to standardize the story presentation.

In addition, our content must serve at least two distinctly different journalistic aims simultaneously. On the one hand, we seek to be competitive with other news web sites and other forms of media in reporting incremental developments of breaking news stories. On the other hand, we also need to provide strong, contextual background pieces that help facilitate fuller understanding of complex issues in the day's headlines.

Our content generally is developed by professional journalists, either working within the Post Company or as freelance contributors. However, the web also enables contributions to be made more readily by amateurs who possess the equipment and interest to document certain kinds of experiences and stories. We need to develop the facility to integrate that kind of contribution as a part of our range of story telling.

Content challenges are matched by the technical challenges of creating a flexible, supple content management and publishing system capable of integrating various media types and then publishing and distributing them in any form necessary to satisfy consumer demand. Often the "middleware" required to join content creation and distribution streams may involve many component pieces of software which were not originally designed to work together smoothly.

Finally, content creation may turn on the development of story planning and execution processes involving two different mediums with completely different rhythms and responses to the news. Newsroom culture used to the rhythms of print with limited specific deadlines has shown great trouble in adapting to the "deadline every minute" world of the web, much more akin to 24-hour all news radio or 24 hour cable news television shows. It is hard sometimes to convince newspaper editors used to tinkering with copy and layouts until the last possible minute to appreciate the technically more difficult processes of the web that may require a week's lead time to arrive at the same place.

Ultimately, all these challenges remind me of complex algebraic equations that must be resolved to arrive at a specific correct answer. The algebra contains the seeds of paradox always. We are just beginning to understand the elements of the equation while also glimpsing the inherent creative potential of the medium.

Our work today is a deliberate attempt to circumvent the limitations of previous forms of media with respect to visual storytelling. The responses to our work, post-September 11, have been overwhelming, both in terms of traffic and emotions expressed by viewers in anecdotal e-mails. Clearly, there is a tremendous appetite for well crafted, honest, direct, empathetic story telling. Eschewing marketing glitz and celebrity news presenters, we are focusing instead on a refinement of distinctive technical and aesthetic approaches that were recently recognized so strongly in the White House News Photographers Association 2002 competition in the video category.

Click here to view the award winning videos.

It is our belief that we must transport our users beyond their own personal boundaries with our story telling. We need to put them in direct contact with the large social, economic, cultural, political and environmental forces reshaping our world on a daily basis. We also need to bring them stories of ordinary people living lives of dignity and courage as a means of encouraging appreciation of each other's gifts and diversity.

If we do our jobs well, people are enriched and enabled to lead lives with a greater understanding of the world around them. In doing so, we can help produce life-changing experiences for all our audience and forums for personal growth.

Tom Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Multimedia for

Video Interview with
Tom Kennedy

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Intro, "The Web is a place where there's
a real opportunity to develop stories..."
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Moving from National Geographic to the Post.
Developing the Camera Works section.
"Viewer reaction has been extremely positive."
On generating revenue to pay for content, and
"creating a community of photographers."
"The web is like radio in the 1920's."
Finding important stories to tell.
On the skills needed by modern photojournalists.
On the economic disparities between the web and print.
"I was very surprised by the White House NPA awards."
Looking towards the future.

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