More than photos: The changing role of photojournalists in Canada

By John Packman, NPAC.ca

 

“There will never be another still-only photographer job in Canada, anywhere,” says Moe Doiron, Deputy Managing Editor for Photography at The Globe and Mail. “It’s dead.”

Newspapers are now expecting photographers to be able to produce multimedia projects – non-traditional visual journalism pieces – that many newspapers started publishing on their web sites about four years ago. Photographers who don’t have these skills won’t be able to find jobs, says Doiron.

Last year, he started requiring multimedia pieces as part of a photographer’s job application at The Globe.

In September 2008, Doiron hired two new employees to work specifically on video. He says their multimedia skills pushed them ahead of a number of more experienced photographers.

“If I get a job application now and it doesn’t include a multimedia component, then that sends me a message that this person doesn’t really know what the hell’s going on,” Doiron says. “They could be the best still photographer in the world but if they’re not embracing this new technology, there’s no place for them in the next five years.”

 

Moe Doiron, Deputy Managing Editor for Photography, The Globe and Mail. (Photo by Charla Jones)

 

Multimedia pieces range from traditional TV-news-style voice-overs, which many newspapers syndicate from The Canadian Press and Associated Press, to documentary-style slideshows with audio components, to video pieces incorporating still photography.

More experimental journalism, such as interactive projects and animation using still photography, are also defined as multimedia.

 

The new photojournalist

Frank O’Connor, co-ordinator of the two-year photojournalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, says he trains students to be “journalists of the future.”

“It’s not enough anymore just to be a good writer or to be a good photographer,” says O’Connor. “That journalist of the future is someone who can write a story, edit, shoot still pictures, shoot video and put it all together. In fact, what they are is a storyteller.”

 

Frank O’Connor, coordinator of the photojournalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville. (Photo by Greg Yapp)

 

But many experienced photojournalists aren’t happy with the change.

Scott Gardner is the visuals editor at The Hamilton Spectator. He says that many of his photographers are wary of doing multimedia because in the newsroom, it’s assumed that multimedia generally means just shooting video.

“But it doesn’t. It means different types of media,” says Gardner. “The whole concept is that it could be anything.”

He says photographers at The Spectator have an easier time dealing with audio slideshows since they’re continuing to work with still photos. But he says they have trouble shooting video since it pushes them out of their comfort zones.

“They might make a mistake, they might look foolish,” he says, “which they haven’t had for 15 years.”

 

Shrinking resources

Another obstacle of doing multimedia work is the amount of time it takes to edit pieces involving multiple pictures, sound and video. And time is increasingly scarce in every newsroom.

There is a similar push for multimedia at The Ottawa Citizen but it doesn’t have the resources of papers such as The Globe and Mail.

Canwest Global, the owner of the capital’s oldest newspaper, bought out the photo editor last year and hasn’t hired a new one. In three years, the photo desk has shrunk from six to three people.

“We’re straining under the amount of people we now have on the desk,” says Howard Fagen, now assistant director of photography at The Citizen. “The one person I have who’s a tech, I’ve been tending to send him out to do video assignments as well so I often work with no (technical) support at all.”

The union representing The Citizen’s newsroom signed a contract on Sept. 21, 2008, but Fagen says they came very close to striking.

He says a nagging issue for the photographers is the lack of video equipment and training – something they’ve been asking about for more than a year.

While the physical newspaper is shrinking, Fagen says his staff shoots an increasing number of photo and video assignments showcased only on the web as part of an industry-wide push for exclusive online content.

According to the Canadian Internet Project, more and more people are accessing newspapers and other traditional media online.

The Canadian Media Research Consortium, at the University of British Columbia, began studying the Internet activities of Canadians in 2004. Its 2007 report found 79 per cent of regular Internet users in Canada look for local, national and international news online.

The report, released in September, found that Internet users between 18 and 29 years old spend less time reading printed newspapers than older readers but visit news sites more frequently than people 30 and older.

This is pushing newspaper photojournalists to file their assignments more frequently.

 

Left: Photographer Ron Scheffler shoots video of a high school football game which was then posted to the Hamilton Spectator web site. (Photo By John Rennison, The Hamilton Spectator)

Right: Scott Gardner, Visuals Editor for The Hamilton Spectator. (Photo by Ron Scheffler, Hamilton Spectator)

 

“It’s like working at a wire service all of a sudden and you never signed up to do that,” says Scott Gardner. “So it’s deadline, deadline, deadline for online.”

Gardner says he’s very aware of the public’s expectations of news web sites. He says he has a quote from online media guru Rob Curley on his wall saying, “If readers see smoke and they log onto your web site and don’t see it there, they don’t think you are holding it for tomorrow’s paper, they think you suck.”

The Spectator also lost staff over the last five years despite the higher demand for video and multimedia.

Two photographers retired. The company hired only one part-time photographer to fill the gap. The imaging department, formerly in charge of readying images for printing, bumped a part-time staffer to full-time and the department is now in charge of multimedia content.

These cutbacks have been industry-wide, particularly at papers owned by Canwest and Quebecor.

The independently-owned Halifax Chronicle Herald hasn’t had any layoffs but staff photographer Tim Krochak says resources are tighter.

While he says the still photo is the most powerful visual medium, he knows he’ll eventually have to shoot video.

“It’s a form of job security,” Krochak says. “If it takes me having to shoot video so that I can still do stills, no problem. I’ll do whatever you want.”

He and another staff photographer at The Herald are now taking a digital movie-making course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He says when he does end up shooting video, he wants the videos to add something to a story photos can’t.

“Video’s got to be done right,” he says.

Fred Kuntz, editor-in-chief at the Toronto Star when this article was written, says his visual department focuses on good multimedia work. The Star now has a five-person staff dedicated to multimedia, aside from the paper’s 19 staff photographers. Kuntz says five years ago there was only one more photographer but no multimedia staff.

“We have an assistant managing editor of photos and multimedia,” says Kuntz.
“Five years ago we would have called him the photo editor.”

 

Hard news versus feature multimedia

Kuntz says there is considerable debate in the newsroom whether multimedia work should be quick news hits that people will only watch once, or things with a “long tail.” He says long-tail pieces, less-time sensitive and well-produced documentary work, will bring repeat viewers over time, something quick news hits can’t do.

“Like old movies. Casablanca still has value,” says Kuntz. “I’ve seen Casablanca a dozen times.”

Much of the Star’s writing staff was trained with video before the photographers. Kuntz says the paper tried to start off photographers doing slideshows so they can still work in a medium they’re comfortable with.

“Then, when photographers get comfortable with that, they may be more interested about learning video too,” says Kuntz. “But it’s not just a means to get there because the audio slideshows can be excellent work.”

This expansion of photographers’ jobs is now defined in the newsroom contract at the Star. New hires will fit into a broader ‘journalist’ category. Before, the Star hired either a photographer, a reporter, or a combination reporter-photographer.

Kuntz says that this move will give more freedom to younger generations of journalists who are more adapted to working with a variety of media from an early age.

“There’s a 12-year-old in my house who can shoot video and edit it,” says Kuntz. “And there’s a 19-year-old in my family that I would say is an expert video editor.”

Moe Doiron says he hopes photojournalists will take over newspaper videography jobs because video is part of the visual storytelling realm.

He says still photography at newspapers was based on limitations. The format of a paper didn’t allow photographers to use video or sound. But with the newspaper web sites, Doiron says these limitations are lifted, allowing photographers to tell more complex stories – better stories – through multimedia.

“A lot of traditional photographers are seeing this kind of as the death of photojournalism,” says Doiron. “But, in fact, it’s never been better.”

 


John Packman is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of King’s College and the photo editor of the school paper, the Dalhousie Gazette. He’s hoping to find work as a photojournalist after graduation this spring. As part of his school requirements, Packman recently finished an unpaid internship at the Hamilton Spectator.

His photoblog is johnpackman.blogspot.ca


 

Category: News & Opinion