Photojournalism Is an Afterthought in Journalism Education, and It Shouldn't Be

Photojournalism Is an Afterthought in Journalism Education, and It Shouldn't Be

It’s no secret that newspapers are letting go of photojournalists left and right. But you don’t see other newsroom jobs being lost at quite the same clip as photographers, and it’s a problem that starts at the earliest levels of journalism education.

An article in the Gateway Journalism Review by Columbia College journalism professor Jackie Spinner makes the argument that newspapers are making boneheaded decisions by firing visual journalists and forcing writers to make do with cell phone cameras.

This leads to lesser-quality visuals all around, or worse, the use of stock imagery to poorly illustrate articles in even storied publications such as the Washington Post. It’s not hard to see how this happens when young writers, fresh out of journalism school, see posts like these from respected journalism institutions such as Poynter.

As a former working journalist at newspapers (on both the visual and the words side) and now an educator who has worked with college students, it’s clear that the reason photojournalists are losing their jobs disproportionately to writers is because of the disproportionate focus of journalism education on producing writers. The problem up the chain comes from the supply side of the equation.

A Lack of Photojournalism Classes

I would often take my students out to Central Park for lighting lessons. Students have told me that they didn't know they wanted to go into photojournalism until being exposed to it in my classes.

I would often take my students out to Central Park for lighting lessons. Students have told me that they didn't know they wanted to go into photojournalism until being exposed to it in my classes.

From high school newspapers to college journalism majors, a majority of classwork and instructional time is dedicated to working on writing and reporting sans camera. For instance, take a look at the well-regarded journalism program at Arizona State University. Students going through this course get a grammar course and at least two news writing courses that are required. There’s a passing mention of photography in a multimedia journalism course, but other than that, students seem to jump straight into broadcast video production. Dedicated photojournalism courses are relegated to electives selected by students who have that interest.

I’m not saying that this path produces inadequate journalists — far from it, if their alumni list is any indication. But students don’t know what they don’t know. If they’re not forced to take some photos in their first year of student journalism, then that door isn’t being opened for them to walk through and explore. The program then inadvertently biases students to careers in writing and broadcast journalism, with photojournalism being left in-between and underrepresented in the workforce. In turn, that means as those students move up the ranks in their careers, photojournalism and photojournalists become afterthoughts in the news-producing process. Those middle-level managers become newspaper executives and continue in their careers with this line of thinking, making photographers the first ones to get the axe when their value isn’t understood. These writing- and broadcast-focused executives then move on to second careers in higher education, and the cycle repeats itself.

I’ve experienced this in places I’ve taught at well. At Stony Brook University, there were many excellent journalists to come out of the School of Journalism, but whenever the word “visual” was used in the title or description of a class, it was more often referring to broadcast journalism rather than photojournalism. A look at the curriculum here also reveals a plethora of writing and broadcast journalism courses, but no true chance for students to discover photojournalism in their career paths. Any student with an interest in photography had to find their own way about it, as is the case in many journalism schools.

Shutting Photographers out of the Classroom

Jessica Rotkiewicz, a photographer from Newsday, would often go out into the field to shoot with her students at Stony Brook University, as she is here at Occupy Wall Street.

Jessica Rotkiewicz, a photographer from Newsday, would often go out into the field to shoot with her students at Stony Brook University, as she is here at Occupy Wall Street.

While I’m singling out a couple of specific programs here, the issue isn’t at all unique in academia. It’s academia that’s part of the larger problem. Many schools require professors to publish in academic journals, which are almost exclusively writing focused. While it’s true that some recognize a photographer’s creative and professional work for continued employment, just as many do not, shutting the door to photographers entering the ranks of professors in these programs. Again, this tilts the scales towards writing-focused programs. It is possible to strike a balance between a person who can take good pictures and hold their own as writers, but academia doesn’t favor this combination, nor do newspapers, apparently.

Yes, there’s a problem here in the journalism industry. Photographers are key to driving engagement and traffic, but they’re also the first to go because management simply does not get it. If they’re indoctrinated to treat photojournalists as second-class citizens from their foundational education, why would they? If there are no photojournalists in the ranks of faculty, how are students supposed to gain that interest?

Moreover, it will be hard for the public to take the news media seriously when its photojournalism presence in the community is reduced to smartphone cameras in the hands of writers without a specialization in photography. Part of the job of the photojournalist is to transport people to places they cannot experience themselves through images. If the photograph of a football game is the same from the journalist as it is for the smartphone-wielding public in the stands, the entire publication loses credibility, photo by photo, paper by paper.

Where to Go From Here

It’s time for schools to step in and fill in the void by rethinking curriculums to introduce students to photojournalism earlier in their educational journey. It’s important to offer more required classes in the journalism curriculum to reinforce the importance of visuals and specifically photography.

This is no easy task. It costs much more for schools to invest in expensive cameras and lenses than it does for reporter’s notebooks and pens. But many schools have no problem investing in the tools to equip students for broadcast journalism, and so too must they invest in the proper tools for photojournalism. The long-term health of photojournalism is depending on this investment. It’s only in this way newsrooms down the road will be able to correct mistake they’re making by laying off photojournalists today.

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26 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

"...it’s clear that the reason photojournalists are losing their jobs disproportionately to writers is because of the disproportionate focus of journalism education on producing writers. The problem up the chain comes from the supply side of the equation."

You mean that when publications began laying off their staff PJs, it was /not/ a cost-cutting measure proposed by the bean counters?

You mean they laid off their working PJs because schools weren't producing new ones?

Wasim Ahmad's picture

When the belts needed to be tightened, the people making the decisions didn't have a visuals background, and so with that lack of understanding, PJs were by and large given the axe.

But yes, to go to the root cause of the problem, it's that journalists coming down the pipe aren't exposed to enough photojournalism in their education.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

"the reason photojournalists are losing their jobs disproportionately to writers is because of the disproportionate focus of journalism education on producing writers. The problem up the chain comes from the supply side of the equation."

Are you aware that newspaper photographers were laid off en masse across the U.S. quite a few years ago because the newspapers can't afford them anymore?

Newspapers across the country are dying or have died because the Internet long since took over as people's source of information and it took all the ad revenue, too. So newspapers can't afford photographers and, increasingly, they can't even afford journalists.

Well over a thousand newspapers have closed in the last 15 years: https://www.apnews.com/0c59cf4a09114238af55fe18e32bc454

How is more photojournalism classes going to create more photojournalism jobs when there's already an army of laid-off photojournalists?

To call this a supply side problem is to completely ignore the economic realities facing newspapers. Photojournalism classes may create photojournalists, but they don't create photojournalism jobs.

I don't say this to be mean, but this really does sound like the opinion of someone living in the world of academia versus someone out in the working world. Budget constraints are a real thing. That's why those newspaper photography jobs (and many newspapers) have disappeared.

And it's not just Newspapers either. Local TV News is now experiencing the same financial strains that Newspapers did 20 years ago. Photojournalism has lost tens of thousands of jobs and there will be more as local TV stations lose ever more revenue to the internet.

Steve Pellegrino's picture

True. What I'm seeing more often are reporters going out without a photographer. They are on-camera, operating the camera and editing on their own. 'Multimedia Journalists'.

But in the UK there is a shift to mobile journalism, sending reporters out with an iPhone, mic, and tripod.

Marc Perino's picture

I agree with you. I think another problem is the rise of mobile phones (with their cameras of course) and the false notion of editors and/or bean counters that they can replace real photojournalism due to the availability of footage shot by „citizen reporters“ or the idea that the writers could take the photos themselves. Both can have its value but it is for sure no replacement.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Lenzy, what I'm saying is that budget constraints hit photo staffs more than the writing side. You don't see newspapers laying off the entire group of writers, but they have no problem axing photographers that are paid about the same salaries as writers.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

That's because you can hand a camera to anybody and they can press the shutter button. They're not going to produce a great image or even a good one, but they will produce a set of images and one of them will be "good enough", which is what the standard becomes when money gets tight.

There is no button that a photographer can press that will yield even a poorly written article. That's why writers are kept and photographers are laid off. Writers can easily produce unskilled photography, but most non-writers (whether they're photographers or not) would need extensive training just to be able to produce mediocre or bad articles.

And to have to produce 500 or 1000 words (or whatever) each week? That's just not something that non-writers can do. Anybody who's set up their own blog will tell you that. But you can hand anybody a digital camera and get 500 pray and spray images out of them each week and something in there will be "good enough."

I'm not saying it's right. I'm saying that when it comes down to a budget crunch, if you have to choose to keep one writer and one photographer or two writers, keeping two writers probably makes more economic sense. If I had to make that decision, I would keep two writers and coach 'em up on photography if that provided the best opportunity to keep the paper alive.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

You hit it on the head with the "good enough" philosophy there. I hate that, but it seems to be the standard many editors operate by.

That said, it would be very easy to train people to write 500-1000 words a week (Look at this site! A bunch of photographers writing stuff!). You could have the photographers do the easier writing like event coverage and breaking news, and free up the writers for longer pieces. Anybody can be taught to write in the inverted pyramid to produce a basic news story.

Steve Pellegrino's picture

I was going to say the opposite - anyone can be taught to take photos. I think it takes more talent to write.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

"Anybody can be taught to write in the inverted pyramid to produce a basic news story."

Wasim, that sounds suspiciously like anybody can be taught to write "good enough."

That still leaves us in the land of "good enough" and in that land, the photographer position will always get cut before the writer position.

It's just cheaper and easier to hand somebody a camera and tell them to "bring something back that's in focus" than it is to train someone to write.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Gah. When you say it out loud it does sound like "good enough" but at least then you can have a balance of "good enough" writers who can take awesome photos, and then "good enough" photographers who can write awesome stories, either way, something's going to be "good enough" and it should at least be balanced (to say nothing of copy editors and such that are also being cut in large numbers).

Terry Manning's picture

I've been able to see this from several angles. I was a copy editor, copy desk manager, metro editor and multimedia editor, and now I work in the journalism and mass communications department at a traditionally black university.

There's a few things in this article I could quibble with that seem a little self-serving or too narrowly reflect the author's personal experiences, but his overall message is one I agree with: Even at schools that try to prepare students for careers in media it's rare to find ones that offer comprehensive training in photojournalism. And the ones that do often fail to make it a mandatory course for all their majors. As a former hiring manager, believe me when I say that proficiency with a camera can raise applicants above the crowd when being considered for potential jobs.

The best-case scenario would comprise exhaustive training in all aspects of photojournalism that would produce graduates who could step into a plethora of good-paying jobs. Those days may well be behind us. Still, the least that can be done is to put a new emphasis on the skills that a capable photojournalist would possess.

Yes, let's have schools ramp up photojournalism classes so 1 person can get hired every 30 years. The few remaining dinosaurs are old...everyone else is a stringer trying to make it work month to month so they don't have to work a job they hate. There is no future for photojournalists in this dying market outside of a few major cities.

Rob Mynard's picture

I've spoken to a couple of people high up in an Australian news room about the loss of their photographers and videographers and their argument was that it's easier to teach a writer to use a camera than teach a photographer to write.

As much as I hate to admit it, that was an observation made to me a little over 45 years ago when I was completing my degree: "Journalism (Photojournalism)".

Terry Manning's picture

I've heard the same. It reflects a consistent undervaluation of what photography contributes to a newspaper. I had a colleague say, "Photos are the only reason people buy papers" (he was a photo editor, of course). I thought he was a nutjob when he said it, but all these years later I think he was on to something. Even in an age of selfies and readily available point-and-shoot smartphones, GOOD photography still stands out.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

It's true.

It's much easier for any random person to take a flattering picture of a beautiful man or woman than it is to get them to write three or four quality paragraphs describing that person's beauty.

It's way easier, cheaper, and takes way less time to teach somebody basic camera competence than it is to teach them how to write.

If we're talking film, that's a different story. But with digital photography, raw files, and the capabilities of today's cameras on full auto, it's way more cost-effective to teach a writer to shoot photos than it is to teach a photographer to write.

I graduated from San Jose State University in 1974 with a degree in "Journalism (Photojournalism)". Apparently that option is no longer available at SJSU -- though I don't know when they stopped offering it.

My internship was at a small six-day daily, but it was more of a general tour at different desks in the newsroom, with some general reporting and a little shooting thrown in.

Side note: A classmate's mother, back in her college days, graduated from Stanford with a degree in "English (Journalism)".

It upsets me greatly. I can not understand this. I just became interested in this after being students playing games where you need to take photos of various celebrities and then place them in newspapers. You can read this article on the site http://www.tellmehow.co/video-games-popular-todays-students/. This is really interesting, especially the subject is very relevant "Video games popular todays students".

I find it odd that a journalist would want to tell a story with words, but not be interested in telling (aiding) the story with photos. For me, they go hand in hand. "A picture is worth a thousand words" - everyone has heard the saying. If I was a journalist I would also learn photography. Just look at social media - every post has to have an image.

I've written for a paper in the past and getting photos from someone else for the story always bugged me. It was more satisfying when they asked me to take photos to go along with my story when their photographer couldn't make it.

A single column inside story can otherwise become a splash/spread with a pic taken expertly by a creative photographer - never by a scribe with an iphone. The men firing the pro cameramen don't know HOW to take great pictures - so don't recognize their worth. And so mediocrity prevails.

Much of what you've written here is true, but the conclusion you make might be a little off. The reason photographers aren't hired and/or fired first is complicated. There are plenty of photojournalists out there, recently graduated and experienced, but there aren't any jobs for them. Some of this has to do with the newspaper management structure (as you say), but most of it has to do with the photographers and the cost associated with them. Reporters don't have to be there, they can always make a phone call, photographers must always be there. That's not cheap and there's no guarantee they come back with anything. Combine that with the absolute failure of colleges to educate photographers in basic economics and the huge desire of would-be photojournalists to "make it", and you've got a marketplace that's not based in reality. You've got more supply than demand and the "supply" is naive and easily taken advantage of. Photojournalism is dying because there's no way to earn a living wage for those doing it. Which means it's probably best that journalism programs don't teach it, as a photojournalism degree is a bad investment. Of course, this is totally accidental on the university's part. They'd gladly teach it if they could snag more of that student loan money, but the same people that move up into decision making positions in higher education are the same ones who move up in the journalism business, the word folks.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

All really good points. The problem has been building up for a long time.

I think what a lot of people are missing in the comments here- ironically, I might add- is that photojournalism courses aren’t solely for training photojournalists. That’s kind of the point. Photojournalists have to take writing courses, why don’t writers have to take photojournalism courses? Because we are taught to think of it as a specialization. A luxury. And then when it’s time to cinch the belt, we get rid of the “luxuries.” What people fail to realize is we sell the paper. “Good enough” is not and never has been good enough. Readers notice. If Apple fired all their product designers and stopped producing new products, we’d all say “well that’s why you stopped making money”. When newspapers lay-off their visual staff everyone looks around in wonderment when the problem keeps getting worse. “We’re charging more for a worse product, why isn’t this working? I know, make the product even worse! Raise the prices again!”

Interesting comments.

So what’s the goal here? You get to pick only one:

A. Produce more photojournalists.
B. Produce more journalism-supporting images.

More than four decades ago I was told in my classes that newspapers exist to make a profit. Further, it didn’t matter how groovy your image was; if it didn’t sell or didn’t get published you weren’t much of a photojournalist.

Echoing some other comments; in J-school I knew more reporting students who could take a good-enough news photo (decades before smart phones), but far fewer photographers who could write a good-enough story.

Some photojournalism grads in my cohort got jobs as new photographers – one landed a job at a large daily with the stipulation “no assignments”. On the “dark” side, our broadcast news graduates who were getting jobs in the smallest markets would put their 16mm camera on a tripod for the standup, make their own story shots, get the film souped (somehow), and edit the results in time for the evening news. Unfortunately my group graduated right into the middle of one of those “gas crises” when ad revenues were down. You really had to work to get a job, and that often meant traveling 1,000 or more miles and presenting yourself in person. Many photojournalism graduates drifted away from the profession.

But to focus my comments…If a writer can take a “good-enough” photo to accompany a story, is that perhaps a better starting point from which academia can address our concerns? If schools aimed at Goal B, perhaps a semester of news-oriented photography would result in more reporters who could take BETTER photos with a smart phone, or even graduate to shooting with a good compact camera (such as a Panasonic LX-100). Students who want a career in photography may need to look at curricula in visual arts programs rather than J-school. If the ambition is documentary or fine art photography, perhaps a solution is to look for work in a field that can financially support the photography habit.

If you think that Goal A is the solution, get back to us after you’ve convinced your local community college to develop a program to graduate buggy-whip technicians. (Fear not…All is not dead in that sector, but it is unlikely to require support from many educational institutions: https://www.westfieldwhip.com/.)

And one last thought: Give Diane Hagaman’s book “How I Learned Not To Be A Photojournalist” a read. Print copies can be found it you look around, or you can read it online at: http://www.diannehagaman.com/books/pj2/pj2-title.html. It should be required reading for current or aspiring photojournalists...Not so much as a “solution”, but rather as offering a perspective.