Rest in Peace:
Photojournalism Is Dead
December 2009

by Dick Kraus
[Reprint from 1999]

EDITOR'S NOTE: A decade ago, in 1999, Dick Kraus, who was one of our original contributors to The Digital Journalist, wrote the following column while employed by Newsday. It was important then, and is even more important now.

Meanwhile, last week, The Dallas Morning News announced that henceforth most of the section editors of the papers would report to the business side, which was appointing "general managers." They proudly claimed that this new "bold strategy” of "business/news integration," which would become standard at all A. H. Belo Corp. newspapers, would be the model for the future.

God help us all.

Photojournalism is dead.

Why? Because most people don't care about meaningful, relevant photography anymore.

Who killed it? The bean counters who run the media who were never journalists. I work for Newsday, a large newspaper (last I heard, I believe it was the 7th largest daily in the U.S.) in the New York metropolitan area. It was started in 1941 by Alicia Patterson. The Patterson family published large, successful papers in New York City and Chicago. Miss Patterson, or Miss P. as she was known around the paper, became involved in every aspect of her venture and her fine hand was felt from the Editorial Board, through the City Room (and Photo Dept.) into the back shop where the presses spewed out the final product. She insisted on quality and relevance. The result was a paper that grew in size and respect. Money was spent to ensure that we had the tools that we needed to do a good job and money was spent to get writers and photographers to where the news was.

The director of photography then was a man who had been a fine photographer in his own right and he knew all of the lame excuses that we proffered when our work didn't live up to his standards. He was an innovator and Newsday became one of the first newspapers in the country to switch from the large 4x5 press cameras to the small, versatile 35mm cameras. He insisted on good lighting and we became proficient in the use of multiple lighting. Members of our photo staff became winners in clip contests and Pictures of the Year competitions. And we were much sought after to speak and give demonstrations in our various winning techniques at press photographers' seminars around the country.

That director of photography was the late Harvey Weber and he taught me many things that helped me in my 40 years as a staffer on this paper.

"The sole reason for photographs to appear on the pages of a newspaper is to grab the reader's attention and lead him to the story."

"If you don't want your shitty pictures to appear in the paper, don't show them shit."

"You aren't photojournalists. The term 'photojournalism' implies telling a story with your photos. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We don't have that luxury. We jump into a story somewhere in the middle or the end; take some pictures of whatever is happening at the moment, and then we are on to our next two assignments where we repeat the process. We take slices of life and hold them up for inspection. That is news photography. Take pride in being a 'News Photographer.'"

I am paraphrasing some of Weber's wisdom and it has held me in good stead lo these many years. And by following his dictum, I have been privileged to accomplish some wonderful things. But, those days are gone. There is no longer a concern for quality or news relevance. That costs too much. Now we do press conferences because it is easier to schedule a photographer to cover one of these "dog and pony shows" rather than go out into the field and photograph the reason for the press conference. Coverage. That's what it's all about. I've said this before and it bears repeating. No one seems to care if we get a relevant photo. No one seems to care if we get a good photo. In fact, most assigning editors don't really care if you get anything at all. As long as they can go to the news meeting and when the news editor says, "We have a county budget hearing at the legislature ...", if the photo editor can say, "Check. We've got a photographer on the way there," then his ass is covered. Never mind that this might be the third of five assignments in two counties that the photographer has been given. And, he/she is only in the third hour of a seven-hour shift. Relevance? Quality? Give me a break.

So what happened, here? When did it fall apart? At Newsday, I believe that it happened when owners, publishers and editors who had never been journalists came into power.

Miss P. had worked in print journalism long before she pushed the button to start Newsday's first press run. When she died, her non-journalist husband tried to keep her dream alive and he hired experienced and talented men to take over as publisher. The paper was eventually sold to the Times-Mirror Company (of Los Angeles Times fame) and the CEO of Times-Mirror was Otis Chandler, who came from a long line of media publishers. And he pumped money into Newsday and we were able to expand our influence and the Chandlers and their stockholders made a lot of money.

But, Otis and his associates grew older and left the operations to family members who didn't know about journalism. But they did know about profit and loss. And they brought in a CEO who had never worked at a newspaper, but who did know about profit and loss from his tenure as CEO of General Mills.

But newspapers aren't boxes of cereal and the new boss saw the huge expenditures in staff salaries, travel, equipment and started cutting budgets. The first thing he did was to shut down New York Newsday. This was an operation begun in Manhattan and some of the surrounding boroughs and it was almost a separate entity. It was a fresh, lively operation with a good display of photos and it reminded me of what Newsday had been 20 years earlier. But the New York Newsday paper was competing with The New York Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. For the first few years New York Newsday bled money like a major artery that had been severed. But, the main paper absorbed the losses and everyone knew that, given the financial straits that the News and Post were in, one of them would fold and New York Newsday would inherit their readers. Unfortunately for New York Newsday, new publishers took over the ailing tabloids and they had deep pockets. In spite of that, New York Newsday slowly gained ground. Until the new CEO came out to look things over. In three days, New York Newsday was history and with it went a huge number of very talented staffers. In addition to the jobs lost in New York, a lot of cuts were made in the Long Island operation. There were some layoffs and a lot of buyouts. Like many other departments, the Photo Dept. took a major hit. And, even though we lost staffers, there was no lessening of the workload. So, instead of a photographer having one or two assignments a day, with time to work the job to the utmost, photographers were getting four and five and even six assignments a day. That doesn't give a shooter much time to look for relevance and angles and set up lights. No way. It became shoot and run and try to get to your next couple of jobs. The editors didn't care. You were just a "check-off."

"Check. That job is covered."

Head shots and real estate. All of a sudden we are shooting three or four Business Page head shots to every one news assignment. We take pictures of houses on a street for the Real Estate section. Head shots and real estate. And the few news jobs that we do cover are mostly press conferences. More head shots.

One of our photo editors coined a new phrase. He gave me four assignments in the first two hours of my shift. I told him that whenever he had done that to me in the past, I immediately knew that there was no thought given to quality. Just coverage. He said, "Come on, Kraus. These assignments are all within a few miles of each other. It's Cluster Journalism."

"Cluster Journalism." Jeeze! I've been told that I have a bad attitude these days. It's true. I do have a bad attitude. Because what I see at my own newspaper, I see in too many other papers across the country, and perhaps even around the world. I hear friends at The New York Times and the News and the Post voicing the same concerns. And my friends from TV news all say the same thing. There is no time for relevance. There is no money for quality. Cameramen/women leave and aren't replaced. But, the workload goes up. When it gets bad enough, editors hire freelancers. And that, too, is a sign of the decline of the industry. As staffers leave the profession, their places are taken by freelancers. That suits the bean counters. They don't have to pay benefits like health insurance, retirement and 401K's and they don't give them company cars or supply them with the equipment they need to do the job. Hell! They don't even give them film, anymore. And the freelance rates haven't gone up in years. Why should they? There are so many freelancers fighting for the few assignments, that supply and demand precludes higher day or assignment rates. And there will always be some kid who will shoot for $10 less than the next guy.

I have always thought of myself as an optimist. As things slipped from bad to worse, I always felt that it would turn around. Hell, it used to be considered that the advent of TV news would sound the death knell of the daily newspaper. Some papers fell by the wayside, but the good ones changed the way they covered the news and went in for a more magazine-like approach. And, since TV was such a visual medium, it became incumbent upon the newspaper to challenge TV with even better pictures and graphics. And it worked. Now, both newspapers and TV are concerned with the inroads being made by World Wide Web publishers. So, what is the answer of the new media moguls of TV and newspapers? Give their readers head shots and real estate.

Bear with me while I repeat what Harvey Weber taught me, years ago.

"The sole reason for photographs to appear on the pages of a newspaper is to grab the reader's attention and lead him to the story."

Well, I know that I am preaching to the choir, here. This needs to be published on a Web page read by publishers and news directors.

Folks, ya ain't gonna grab anybody's attention with head shots and real estate. I'm about ready to pack it in. I could've retired two years ago with full bennies. But, I still thought that I liked what I was doing. I still love being a news photographer. I just don't like the way that I have to do it. It ain't fun anymore.

I would like to suggest that you link to Dirck Halstead's Digital Journalist and read his editorial, "The End of History and Photojournalism." Here's a URL that will take you there. Dirck has some interesting things to say on this topic.

And while you are there, I suggest you check on this URL and look at David Alan Harvey's photographic essay called "Cuban Soul." There are 33 of the most exciting photographs that I have seen in a long, long time. Harvey's use of light and shade and his tight crops emphasize what he is trying to say. Please take the time to study his work.

I think that this kind of work is the last bastion of true photojournalism. But, it also serves to point out what I have been saying. Outside of National Geographic, there isn't an outlet that could publish 33 photographs. So what we have left is the Web. And that's fantastic for our egos. I get to have a lot of my unpublished photos appear on [my] "Behind the Viewfinder" pages and that serves my ego, to have people see my work. But, it doesn't put food on my table and when I no longer have Newsday's salary to count on, I suppose that I could always shoot some stuff on my own to be shown here. And then I could go to my next paying job where I ask people if they want fries with their order. I still have to eat, you see.

I wish you all luck. I'll be praying for you. 

Dick Kraus retired from Newsday last year.

© Dick Kraus

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