Again the Profit Motive Prefers Cheap Over Craft
News Items: Chicago Sun-Times cuts entire photography staff. While the company, which has been trying to revive its profits, still will hire professional freelance photographers for coverage, it will increasingly rely on reporters to take photos and video to accompany their stories.
Chicago Sun-Times will train reporters on ‘iPhone photography basics’ … a memo from Editor Craig Newman: “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need.”
There are two major groups of repercussions to the Chicago story: What this means for journalism, especially photojournalism itself, and what this move says about the economy as a whole. In the money-jobs economy as it operates anywhere in the world, people are expected to “earn a living” at the same time that businesses lay off workers and expect those who remain employed to do the jobs of their colleagues in addition to their own, often for little or no additional pay.
In this article, I am going to focus on the first issue, because even if you are not a journalist, what is happening to journalism in the name of profitability concerns you as a citizen, whether you know it or not.
We have seen journalism go through many changes in the last several decades. Much of the attention is on recent technological changes: increases in home computer capacity and connectivity, improved graphics offerings, especially video, on the Internet, and the use of tablets, smartphones, blogs and social media that have greatly changed how people report, transmit and receive news stories.
As a journalist, I am not against new technology. I’m glad to have a computer and the Internet instead of a manual typewriter and a public library with limited and shrinking hours. I have reported on protests to a live evening news show from the field on a cell phone. I have complained that my former radio station, KPFA-FM, has not made adequate use of its website. The station only got a Twitter account after a 2012 Chevron refinery fire inRichmond,California. Reporters living near the area could have used Twitter to report on the progress of the smoke cloud and the shelter-in-place orders if they had gotten the account sooner. This community radio station lost a major opportunity to serve its community because it was not current with simple, cheap technology that people are using to tell their friends what they had for lunch.
But the use of technology to substitute for people and their skills is not good journalism. Writers who know iPhone photography basics are not photojournalists. As Chicago Tribune photojournalist Alex Garcia wrote in his paper:
[T]he best reporters use a different hemisphere of the brain to do their jobs than the best photographers. Visual and spatial thinking in three dimensions is very different than verbal and analytical thinking. Even if you don’t believe that bit of science, the reality is that visual reporting and written reporting will take you to different parts of a scene and hold you there longer. I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else’s job and also do yours well.
I have never been anywhere — and I have done a lot of temp work in my day—where you could do someone else’s job and also yours well. I can tell you that my radio stories always sound better when I have an engineer monitoring my sound levels while I am conducting an interview The quality of the interviews are better when they are focused on asking the right questions and listening to the responses rather than worrying about sound levels. Yes, the world will always have a few polymaths, people who excel in multiple, diverse activities, but that’s not the norm. Even polymaths give their full attention to each activity individually. For example, Bernie Williams, an accomplished musician who has played guitar at Carnegie Hall, used to play center field for the New York Yankees. He never took his guitar to the outfield to strum between put outs.
I have nothing against posting news video to the web; a live feed of a fire, flood or tornado is compelling. But there also needs to be a deeper context. For example, in the visual media, a broadcaster’s or writer’s “first draft of history” benefits from having a real photojournalist or videographer taking special shots of that disaster and the people affected by it. But, because of miniaturization, photojournalists, and TV camera people are becoming endangered species. Bean counters, such as the publisher of the Chicago Sun Times, figure “Let the reporter carry an iPhone.” On the idea (something true) that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, many of today’s newspapers and news websites are looking like freeze-dried television as pictures are splashed with reckless abandon across the page or screen.
We are losing context as we replace people with technology to make newsgathering cheaper. Expect young journalists, or even older ones anxious to show they are still employable, to focus primarily on learning the mechanics of the technology. Resumes will be filled with how many software applications job applicants know, how many devices they can use, and how many years they have spent “posting content” in a multi-tasking, fast-paced, deadline-driven environment. But the quality of what exactly they are posting will be a secondary concern. This is not good journalism. Sorry, Mr. McLuhan, but the medium is not the message unless it is a technology story.
“It’s a business. We gotta move with the times!” What does that really mean? Do “the times” have the power to make us move, or do we move “the times” with our ingenuity? The emphasis on speed and brevity, which I attribute to CNN’s “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world” headline news, was a business decision by one corporation that others have emulated. There is no more a “times” guiding us than there is an “invisible hand” in the marketplace. The trend of short, fast-paced news bites, with videos that are preferred to photos because you can stick ads on them, has its impact in other areas, such as politics, where 30-second attack ads rule the political discourse every election cycle.
The First Amendment’s Freedom of the Press clause means journalism is part of our constitutional system. But the “It’s a business” types who just think of a media outlet as a business like any other, don’t care about journalism’s special mission in our democratic structure. No doubt mergers and acquisitions that make media outlets subsidiaries of conglomerates have played a big role in this.
Maybe the road to journalism’s profitability should be in educating the public. In speaking about television, newscaster Edward R. Murrow said:
This medium can teach, it can illuminate, and yes, it can even influence, but it can only do so to the degree that humans are determined to use it for these purposes – otherwise it is only a box with lights and electric cords.
The same now can be said for the computer, the Internet and mobile devices. Of course, such an attitude would not reduce the citizenry to passive consumers, and that would be bad for certain businesses and their bought politicians.
The people of Chicago should reject this insult by dumping their subscriptions to the Sun-Times en masse and bringing the paper down. The publisher is expecting that the people won’t walk in very large numbers. He’s counting on their apathy, their getting accustomed to the new format and forgetting the controversy, and their not wanting to hurt the paper for fear of costing even more people their jobs. But when the news, and the people who gather it, are treated only as a profit center instead of a public service, a newspaper then best serves as just so much birdcage liner.
Kellia Ramares-Watson, a freelance journalist in Oakland, California, has recently published an e-book titled “Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health” Her blog is Kellia’s Korner and she can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.