New Ideas for Photojournalism Today, Part II

by Tom Hubbard

The newspaper photojournalism assignment process magnifies the weakness of everyone involved. Reporters design photo coverage. Photographers must repair non-visual ideas. Information that should be shared is isolated. Every time a reporter and photographer spend an hour together in a car going to an assignment, they invent a new newspaper. Let's try some of these ideas. Don't skim this article. Read each point like you read assembly instructions packed with self-assemble toys or furniture. Read a point and reflect before going on. Thanks.

The current definition of news and how it's covered worked when the initial dynamic came from the newsroom. That is, the newsroom decided, without outside prompting, what was important. That dynamic has left the newsroom. The newsroom is now led by the nose by anyone with a cause or a product. Clever people have figured out what the newsroom is looking for. They write a script and allow journalists to find it. In May 1998, Jerry Springer is getting tons of free publicity by inventing a story a day about fights on his show. News has become a reaction to someone else's script.

Let's Try Something Different

This article outlines a chance for a small group of journalists to write their own script, from concept to content. You may be ready to try it. A better system must go beyond tinkering. In the spirit of the modern organization, everyone involved should be in on photo assignments from the beginning. Everyone will widen their subject repertory beyond news and features.

The assignment system is weak because it's linear. Everyone contributes a part, but no one looks at the whole assignment, from concept to publication. Let's make it a circle with everyone involved in planning at the same time. We will form this small group to experimentally create assignments that integrate words and photos. An editor, reporter, photographer and display editor will get together. Each contributes their expertise, to add to but not detract from the others.

These people come together as equals searching for new ways. Beware, don't invent a new system if you are just going to bring old habits to it. Pretend you are inventing the very first story assignment.  This is not a lock-step plan. It's a plan to complement each other's thinking.  You each engage in multi-mode thinking.

Drop Ego Protection

Leave your ego back in the newsroom where it's a necessary body armor. Enter these meetings with less ego protection and follow through when you work your stories in the field. Find what's out there, not convenient coverage your ego invents. If journalism is getting easy, you may be forcing everything into a convenient pattern you repeat for each story. This is not a touchy feely group, but if you trust each other, you can present ideas before they are fully formed. Ordinarily, meetings are boring because they alternate between bluster and target practice. Take a chance.

Throw something out BEFORE you know all the answers.

Regular newsroom transactions should be genuine meetings of colleagues. In practice, they are defensive/critical confrontations. Discussions are masked with a polite veneer but the defensive/critical is obvious. If the story is invented mutually by this group, the defensive/critical phrase is avoided. Editors are usually looking for zingers in pictures. Life is not that simple. Here, you can show more and sell it because the group has invested in the work of each member.

"Better Assignments" Is Not The Answer

We started this article to plan better photo assignments, but that's divisive thinking.  We've got to think beyond "news" and "features." You can snicker, but let's call them "cultural reports." They use words, pictures and graphic presentation. ("Package" would be a good word, but its false promise has brought it into disfavor.)

"We" and "they" are powerful and destructive words in the newsroom. We need equally powerful new words and new working methods to overcome this. Start the group activities with a discussion. Forget news, forget procedure. Forget handy concepts, invent new ones. Allow yourself to do your own interior thinking while cooperating with the group. Introduce your interior thinking when the time is right. What do you find interesting or confounding in this world? Does the group share your curiosity? Later, your participation will differentiate. Right now, you are equally exploring a fresh way to come up with content. Make it a rule that each must contribute to other's ideas and all must be receptive to any new ideas. As you invent new ways, you are adjusting your interpersonal and organizational relationships. Be open. Reflect and discuss. You are off the deadline clock.

Continue one of those reporter/photographer car conversations. Talk about subjects, people, places or concepts. Ask, what can we collectively add to understanding of these subjects? When do key reporter moments happen? When do photographer moments happen?

Try Lots Of Approaches

At some point, concentrate on likely options for stories. Don't just find another approach and work it to death. You will achieve a new synthesis based on your thinking and the particulars of the assignment you design. On the scene, you are inventing but you are applying ideas you collectively devised during preparation. Experiment with some new techniques as you tackle each new report.

I suggest everyone abandon some of their style, or do the opposite. If you carefully compose, shoot so quickly you can't compose. Both techniques are valid. Expand your repertory. Convince yourself temporarily that style is just a convenient way to gather clichés.  This is risk but it's a more humanistic, organic way, than shorthand-news gathering techniques. A style is predictability. You need style to fall back on, but you need less as the subject becomes important to you. Important because of discovered concepts, not important because thousands are already watching. It's easy to find the action at a football or baseball game. It's not easy to arrive at a concept that explains the popularity of two such opposite sports.

In this project, each person contributes, the group contributes. Take time to consider when individuals working alone contributes best and when group synergy takes over. These individual versus group dynamics have always affected journalists. It helps to bring them out, consider them and understand them. Have periodic meetings to exchange progress reports. Get feedback from the group.

The photo assignment is a many part transaction. Communication specialists know it's difficult for two people to communicate very well, even face to face. The chances of a photo assignment holding its integrity through originator, editor, photographer, layout editor are nil. Each step tends to mutilate the previous step.

Abandon Your Style

As the photojournalists in this experiment, try shooting more free form, with abandon. You can risk this because you did your thinking with the group. It's kind of like loading psychic energy into a flywheel. You draw upon it effortlessly when shooting. You will achieve a new synthesis between you and the subject, based on being creatively prepared. This is mutually achieved creativity, not directed photography. It is a synthesis of you and the subject, rising out of the group. Creativity needs stimulus to accomplish. The group helps everyone. The group considers form, process and content in due course.

As a photojournalist, your new work will be given ample consideration beyond, "I like it," or "I need it," or "Go away." But, you can expect creative reversals. You are raising the bar beyond spitting out familiar examples of your style. Soon, your work will reach a higher style. Renew the cycle and start over. You don't have to renew your clichés, because you have a continuing source of new subjects and subject treatments.  You will end with the purist form of creativity, because imagination will become recognized as a legitimate news gathering tool. This doesn't have to be a leap. The group will quietly, in small ways, introduce new ideas. The newsroom can't accommodate leaps. Leaps wear out. Leapers get tired and give up. This is a small group, a mutual move.

It's a weakness of journalism that style and content are repeated endlessly. This new procedure depends on finding new content within the routine world, not with jazzing up personal style. As you work with the group, new style will evolve from synthesis of group discussion and new content. If you are lucky, you could invent a new style that may last a generation.  The secret is to remain open to adding new elements and abandoning worn out elements of this new style.

The Old Way May Be Safe But There's No Future In It

Your group may draw some snide remarks. That's the mark of something new. Journalists cover controversy all the time, but they have little tolerance for it in newsroom procedures. It won't wreck the newsroom to have a little controversy on home turf. When you finally succeed, your job will be to train the rest of the newsroom.

Actually, the newsroom process filters out too much of the outside world. Newsrooms have missed the flowering of an entirely new management philosophy devised to meet the information economy. Newsroom management  is fairly close to that of Caesar's army. Take heart, controversy is a prelude to genuine new thinking. Those who fight new ideas are the best prospects to implement them.

If you use this plan to form an elite group, you are missing its spirit. Help train others, even if it's for selfish reasons. If you persuade others, you will be a pioneer in a better way. If you become an elite group, others will figure out a way to destroy the group.

Adapt A Role That Fits Today

This new assignment system will essentially redefine the roles of participants. This may be traumatic, but these roles were designed long before today's information world. Present roles are an antiquated, unrealistic mesh with today's world.

The photojournalist's role was defined when newspaper photographers were not educated to news. They were mostly self-taught photographers, not photojournalists. They knew how to operate the camera like a mechanic knows tools. These early photographers needed direction on content. Today, photojournalists are college trained journalists. They are more than camera mechanics, they are journalists. They must be allowed to use their training.

Actually, the reporter's job and the photojournalist's job were defined at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when workers were ignorant farmers. Work was segmented, allowing a minimally trained person to function. Today, knowledge workers want to be involved in every phase. Journalists are crying for inclusion every time they cite "they" for ruining their stories or photos.

"They" Is "Us"

To paraphrase Pogo, let "they" become "us." It's the way the world is going. Journalists see this change when they roam their community. Neighborhood groups are part of the urban decision making process. Industrial workers work in small, democratic groups. Some journalists wonder, why doesn't this happen in the newsroom? It's ironic that the very entity that chronicles change is so resistant to non-technological change.

© Tom Hubbard, 1998

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