Are Picture Editors an Endangered Species?
Editorial by Dirck Halstead

Recently, I received a call from a writer at PHOTO DISTRICT NEWS. She was working on a story with a theme that has been talked about a lot on this site in the past month: "Is photojournalism dead?" 

Her particular take on this question is: "Are photo editors irrelevant?" 

The writer said many people had told her that photo editors seemed powerless...that Art Directors were now running their departments. 

The past month I've been on the road, talking about the Platypus. I have had many conversations with photo editors, especially from newspapers. 

The picture they paint is quite bleak. Award winning photo departments find themselves in a daily struggle to retain a modicum of respect in the newsroom. Their opinions are increasingly disregarded by the top editors, and they find their job primarily concerned with how they can provide visual information at less and less cost to the company. 

The classic role of the photo editor has been to conceive assignments, inspire and challenge the photographer, and protect him or her while they are doing their job. 

Several years ago, I was offered a photo editor's position. I was told that what the publication needed was not so much an editor, but a "manager." I passed on the job without blinking an eye. However, more and more, that is exactly what a publication expects from its photo editor. It needs someone to manage those unruly photographers, who constantly want to spend the publication's money on outrageous expenses. After all, reporters only need a pencil and paper, but those photo guys buy hundreds of dollars worth of FILM! When they travel, there is all that overweight from all the STUFF they carry!! Then, if that isn't enough, they want ASSISTANTS to serve as bearers to carry it all!!! 

These misconceptions about photographers were fueled in the late seventies during a brief heyday for photojournalism. This was when the national newsmagazines found themselves in competition to get, as TIME's  Managing Editor Ray Cave put it, "ALL THE PICTURES!" Photography became the key for advertising. Whole slogan campaigns were built around magazines' picture coverage: "Time, the Most Colorful Coverage of the Week." 

The word people resented all these resources and credit going to the photo side. They sulked, and waited for their turn. 

Their turn came once "run of press color" (ROP) was instituted. In the seventies, newsmagazines were printed in sections. The color pages were printed early in the week. Late breaking news known as "the front of the book" was printed on Friday night and Saturday. The main purpose of color pages was to provide space for advertisers. Because color pages are printed in "forms," page 6 is one half of a run with page 48 (on the opposite side) the magazines needed color editorial content on the other side of the form. More advertising pages, meant the need for more color stories. 

When I first joined TIME, I would get at least six pages of color photographs for a story.  Anything less would be a disappointment. 

However, once ROP was employed, it was possible to print color on any page. The multi-page color spreads disappeared, and photography became principally an illustrative tool that could be incorporated into the WORDS. 

At this point, TIME and NEWSWEEK, the last bastions of photojournalism, started to dismantle their list of contract photographers. These two magazines had featured some of the best in the business. The powers that be, however, simply did not think photographers were a luxury they could afford anymore. 

As the contract pool was taken apart, the main job of the photo editor became managing the budget. Some editors did a heroic job of trying to hold together their stable of photographers. It became an increasingly difficult challenge. 

We are now approaching the profession's nadir. Photo editors are exhausted, photographers are demoralized. 

The penetration of digital photography is threatening to reduce the power of the photo editor even further. If the photographer can take the picture and transmit his or her selections to the publication, what need is there for a photo editor? 

These are valid questions, and in the next few months we will be exploring some of these issues, trying to discern some pattern of survival not only for photojournalists, but for the editors who can make us all that we can be. 

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