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
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
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.