Keeping the Faith

During the summer of 1974, while the country was still reeling from the ravages of Watergate, MGM brought out a spectacular compilation of movie clips titled "That's Entertainment," featuring the great Hollywood musicals. The line at the top of the advertisements for the film was "Boy, Do We Need It Now!"

The Digital Journalist has been quite pessimistic about the future of photojournalism in the digital age. Frequently, we have uttered the words "photojournalism, as we know it is dead." Freelance photojournalism in particular is in a state of crisis.

As we wrote in our editorial last month, the decline in magazine advertising revenue, shifting tastes among readers away from news to personality journalism, and an overabundance of eager photographers ready to take an assignment at any price have created an atmosphere of gloom. Technological changes in television are resulting in truncated coverage and the shift away from professional standards which were always rigorous.
Media conglomerates that view stockholder's share performance as more important than the public service provided - of which they were once so proud - have gobbled newspapers up.

As we planned this two-part series on assessing the state of photojournalism today, we started to search for some good news. We wanted to find people and institutions that were still carrying the torch for visual journalism, and nourishing its flame.

We found them in Newark, New Jersey.

In late fall of 1999, Newark Star Ledger Editor Jim Willse and Publisher Donald Newhouse made a decision to create a new photo department for the paper. Previously, an outside sub-contractor, New Jersey News Photos, had done all photo assignments. Contact between photographers, editors, and writers was minimal. In deciding to create their own in-house department, Willse and Photo Editor Pim Van Hemmen consulted leading experts in the field, including John Davidson of the Dallas Morning News and Ken Irby of the Poynter Institute.

They drafted a blueprint for creating a photo department responsive to the challenges of the 21st Century, a department devoted to inspiring and motivating its photographers to create award-winning photojournalism. They set the goal of winning a Pulitzer within three years. One year later, Newark Star Ledger photographer Matt Rainey won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

The Star Ledger has gone out of its way to make sure that its staff has everything they need - from new digital cameras to company cars - in order to produce good work. They have also provided the editorial support that counts. Long-term projects are encouraged, and most important, the photographers are considered equal members of the news team. Director of Photography Pim Van Hemmen carries the rank of an Assistant Managing Editor, reflecting the photo department's equality with other departments within the newsroom. The spirit and quality the staff reflects translates into coverage that brings faithful readers to the paper.

The Star Ledger is rediscovering a very old fashioned truism. Publishing good journalism is good business. Photographer Matt Rainey spent eight months, day and night, living through the trauma experienced by two survivors from the Seaton Hall University fire as they recovered in the St. Barnabas Burn Unit. He shot over 18,000 frames.

When the 115-picture story was published, it was over a seven-day period. The first installment was on a Sunday. The story continued until Friday, dropped Saturday, then concluded on the following Sunday. According to editor Jim Willse, in the first day of publication the paper received a lot of phone calls, almost all of which were negative. The pictures were not pretty - they were hard to take - and the readers objected. But, by Tuesday the phones stopped ringing. For the next four days there was an eerie silence from the public. On Saturday, though, when the story did not run, the calls began again. Where was the next installment, the readers wanted to know."

After running the concluding part on the following Sunday, Willse received more than 1,000 phone calls from grateful readers who had been moved to tears by the story. One reader said, "I changed my life to make time for that story. I got up early, I took it to work, I read it at lunch. I called my sister, I gave it to my kids." Readers were, in
fact, changing their lives because the story had grabbed them.

The lesson for the Star Ledger was clear, and it should be clear to any other paper that will recognize it. A newspaper is a treasured part of the community. When the paper takes its public responsibility seriously - and is willing to make the commitment both editorially and financially - its readers will notice and repay the paper with loyal and ever-growing readership.

There is a video clip in our cover story showing the moment when the assembled staff of the Ledger, including the two burn victims and their families, hear the news about being awarded the Pulitzer - the first in the history of the Ledger. Editor Willse toasted photographer Matt Rainey, the rest of the editorial staff, and Publisher Donald Newhouse for bringing the prize home.

We offer our own toast to them as well. Thank you for honoring this craft, and serving as a model by showing what can be done when you keep the faith.

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