How to Start to Save Photojournalism
September 2009

In recent issues of The Digital Journalist we have been looking at the crisis in journalism in general, but photojournalism in particular.

Newspapers and magazines are experiencing precipitous drops in circulation in subscriptions and on newsstands. Advertising is plummeting.

The money used to cover news is where the accountants cut costs. This results in massive layoffs and buyouts of reporters, and especially photographers. It is not only in the U.S. but it is a worldwide phenomenon. Major international photo agencies are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Although the Great Recession has made industry woes worse, the systemic problems over the last decade make it impossible for news companies to ever regain former levels. The industry has permanently reset.

With the exception of a few newspapers and wire services, the possibility of working in journalism and being paid to do so is increasingly difficult. Those who lose their jobs will probably never return. For newcomers it is almost nonexistent. Many photojournalists, who are the prime documentarians of world events, no longer have the financial capability to fulfill this important role.

The situation has gone from critical to dire. The World Wide Web, although it is a tremendous source of information, was set up with the idea that information would be free. From its beginnings, publishers were guilty of discounting the importance of the Web as a key source of revenue. 

Last month we called on the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to create pay walls around their unique content. The hour is very late. Without appreciable revenue, the newsrooms of these newspapers will shrivel and die. Important coverage of stories around the world that we depend on these papers to provide will simply disappear.

Is there a way to turn this situation around?

In our view, there is only one way: Philanthropists must come to the rescue.

Today, organizations such as the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, The John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, McCormick Tribune Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Torstar Corporation and others spend billions of dollars a year on grants for journalism, most of which currently go for worthwhile educational programs and to institutions.

The problem is that the money is being primarily spent on creating a new generation of journalists for whom there will be no jobs. Without a newsroom to work in, the most dedicated journalists cannot complete their missions.

We need to prime the pump. The emphasis must shift away from education to newsgathering. Foundation money for journalism should primarily be redirected for coverage. This means there must be places for journalists to have a home. Here the Web is vital.

We recommend that substantial amounts of funding in the form of grants from concerned foundations go to online publications such as David Alan Harvey's Burn, Brian Storm's MediaStorm, Bombay Flying Club, STORY4, 100Eyes, The Digital Journalist and others. Because of their vast knowledge of the Internet and their experience in editorial judgment, online publications will become the arbiters of who is deserving of these grants. They will earmark the grants for photojournalists with worldwide and local projects that deserve coverage.

Though philanthropists should make a long-term commitment to the industry, it does not have to be infinite. As photojournalists produce important new work, the penetration of the online publications into the general public will increase dramatically. With that expansion, and the efforts of the industry to generate real revenue, advertising rates will rise, benefiting the entire industry to the point where eventually these publications will be able to take back the traditional role of creating assignments without help from the philanthropists.

Until then, this is the only real way to keep this vital industry from perishing, leaving society bereft of visual information at a time when it is more crucial than ever.

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