Looking Ahead to Photojournalism 2001
As we celebrate the first anniversary of The Digital Journalist, we thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at the direction and progress of visual storytelling as we near the millennium.
For the past year, we have been traveling around the country videotaping interviews with photojournalists, editors, publishers, television executives and visionaries who have been observing and participating in the dramatic changes that are taking place. Their views form the focus of our documentary on the future of photojournalism: "PJ2001."
The major question in the minds of many: Is film finished? In general, the answer is no. For capturing visual images on an archival medium, no one has come up with a better idea. Film will continue to dominate in advertising, fashion, landscape and fine art photography.
As far as print photojournalism is concerned, however, we are entering the last days of film as the primary acquisition medium. Major newspapers and wire services have already made the conversion to digital. Newsmagazines are fighting a rearguard action to continue the use of film, but it is inevitable that the issues of time and immediacy, in all media, will eventually force them to make the move to digital. Soon, the only photographers who will be using film are those working on long-term essays, or on assignment in remote areas of the world.
Photojournalism is not the only profession undergoing dramatic change. In American television, the FCC's Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandates the shift to digital programming in all major markets and networks by 1999, is saddling broadcasters with billions of dollars in expenses. In order to pay these costs, in many cases, television is opting to subdivide present spectrum allocations into multiple channels capable of delivering many more hours of programming. One of the main ways broadcasters will be able to generate new cash flow will be to use these new frequencies to start 24-hour local news channels.
Michael Rosenblum, the President of NYT-TV, a New York Times company, observes that in the traditional world, formerly dominated by the three major networks as little as ten years ago, American TV generated 64,000-hours of programming a year---which they could easily fill. In today's cable channel world, TV now generates 2.5 million hours, on which they can put only so many hours of "Gilligan's Island" reruns without driving people crazy. In the coming world of Web TV, there will be limitless hours of programming, the content dictated only by how many people will want to watch. These developments will create fertile ground to grow new visual storytellers.
Dan Okrent, the head of Time Inc. New Media, foresees that as frequency bandwidth increases on the Web, there will be an inevitable migration of print assets to this new form. As he points out, last year Time Inc. spent 900 million dollars on paper, printing and trucks to offer their magazines to the public. With the Web, it will be possible to save that money. This is a savings that Time Inc. will be able to pass on to its customers, and increase it's own profit margin. It is an economic imperative that will greatly expand the space available for content.
When the "pipe" enlarges, with speeds of delivery hundreds-of-times faster than today's 56K modems, television will start to be subsumed by the Web. In the digital future, my guess is that a weekly magazine like Time, will primarily publish on the Web, and it will become a 24-hour-a-day daily, of which a major part will be video.
While the speed of delivery increases, the cost of tools necessary to provide this new content is continuing to drop. As KAKE's anchor, Larry Hatteberg, wrote in his article last month, it used to cost $50,000 for a broadcast TV camera, and $100,000 for the editing system necessary in the creation of a product for TV. This high cost made it almost impossible for the average person to work in this medium. However, today, as Michael Rosenblum observes: with a $3,500 camera and a simple lap-top editing system, it is possible for an individual storyteller to shoot and prepare a product for sale to this new medium.
One of the primary differences between print and television, as Rosenblum points out, is that "print has always enjoyed a rich environment that ranges from comic books to Shakespeare. The words have come from millions of writers with pens, and typewriters and word processors, and the best have risen to the surface. This is where we got the Philip Roths and the Dean Kuntzes. Television, on the other hand, has always flowed from the top down. A network executive conceives a project, assigns it to a producer, who assigns it to a team of professionals who use equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete the production. This is a very expensive process, which makes the executives very nervous and fearful.
"Print and photojournalism, on the other hand, begins with an individual with a pen or a camera. Their work bubbles up to the top." Rosenblum continues, "No executive told Henri Cartier-Bresson: 'Today's assignment is to go to Paris and photograph three guys on a bench!' These mediums were driven by many, many people who simply had a vision and wanted to tell stories. Now, with affordable video equipment, television is going to have to go through the same evolution. This will make great TV and great Web content which today doesn't exist."
In the past decade, photojournalists have found that on the magazine level, with very few exceptions, primarily in Europe, neither the space nor the need exists anymore for the kind of photo essays W. Eugene Smith created.
In the case of newspapers, business office concerns are constantly threatening to reduce the size of the "news hole," and the respect for the photo department is rapidly eroding.
So, what are photojournalists going to do?
Dan Okrent points to the eventual migration of magazines to the Web. New online publications, such as The Digital Journalist, will provide venues for visual storytellers who want to work in this new medium.
Many of the world's television channels are owned by major newspapers and publishing companies. In Florida alone, the Orlando Sentinel and the Sarasota Herald Tribune, both of which own 24-hour television news stations, plus online editions, are already multitasking their photographers to cover stories in both still and video.
In our opinion, the smartest and most dedicated of this new breed--- we call the "Platypus"--- will start to migrate to multimedia storytelling. They will learn the basic language of television, which is quite different from still photojournalism. Still photography is about capturing decisive moments, television is about sequences. TV is also about audio and writing. The process of learning these techniques takes time and a lot of hard work, but once mastered, along with an instinctive eye and the hunger to tell a story, a new kind of visual journalist and storyteller will emerge.
As our contributing editor Marianne Fulton observes: "Photography has changed, frequently, decade by decade, as technology changes, as people get smarter, and the world gets smaller, and that is just what is going to happen now, everything accelerates...and that could be fabulous."
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