The End of Newspapers
The eventual demise of the U.S. print newspaper has seemed inevitable since the emergence of the web in the mid 90s, but the events of recent months have confirmed just how dire the situation is, and suggest that the end may be very near. What hasn’t been discussed very much is the impact this will have on photojournalism.
The Albuquerque Tribune closed a year ago, The Rocky Mountain News a month ago, and last week the Seattle Post-Intelligencer moved to an all-web version . In these cases and many others, jobs have been lost, and communities have lost a mirror on themselves and an advocate. Gannett and Newhouse papers are requiring employees to take an unpaid furlough, and The New York Times has announced salary cuts and lay offs. Sadly, none of these measures are solutions- they are all just stop gaps to slow things down until a “new business model” can be found that will make online news profitable.
The world has indeed changed very quickly in the last fifteen years, and new technologies have seen rise to new pathways through which information is created and shared. The national and regional “imagined communities” described by newspapers are not the same shared spaces as the interest-led imagined communities created from online activity or the specific communities formed around social networks.
And, our sense of the world through which we move has changed. This is good as the world is always changing, and the possibility of change supports the possibility of action. New means of circulating news and opinions- blogs, social media- have opened up amazing possiblitiies but in their divergence from the old models, something is left behind. There is value in the daily newspaper that should be recognized as we create, choose, and use the media we want to live with going forward. Because we are able to make choices about these things, and should do so consciously and conscientiously.
Without question there are more and more flexible and inexpensive resources available now than there have ever been. Some would argue that the market has done its work here, providing a framework through which consumers are offered precisely the products that we want. However, as Nichoals Kristof wrote in his column recently , “The effect of ‘The Daily Me’,”- the super-personalized digital newspaper of the future imagined in 1994 by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte that has now been realized as the RSS feed-reader- “would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers”. The problem with getting just what we want is that we will only have the things that we think we want- if that.
Newspapers are important because they do not allow us to act as individual gatekeepers to information, but rather, despite or because of their biases, they act as objects with which we make sense of the world. They offer us information that we would not have otherwise sought out, opinions that we disagree with, as in the tradition of running an “opposition view” column on the editorial page. One argument for the obsolescence of newspapers is that a newspaper comes with too much extraneous material that a given reader will not be interested in. But it is precisely that material that makes us aware of our neighbors, our local government, the fact that our communities include people with a wide range of interests.
Which brings me to photography: there is considerable writing about the changes to the newspaper industry, but I’ve come across nothing that addresses the impact of newspapers closing or going entirely online on photojournalism and documentary photography. (If anyone knows of something, I’d be grateful for a forward).
There are at least three significant stakes here:
1) Without newspapers (and even with newspapers, if they are struggling so hard that their photo staffs are stretched thin), there is no venue for young photographers to train, to work for extended periods of time within a community, and to produce long-term projects. Not that we need more picture stories about military boot camp necessarily, but the training of photographers to work closely with their subjects on long term stories is a valuable way for photographers to learn to respect their subjects and to grapple with the ethical parameters that define and drive this practice. And living in a community teaches compassion. This is not to say that only news photographers are compassionate or that all of them are.
2) The career path leading to documentary photography has changed, partly because the track has changed (even with newspapers around, not many use photography well), and partly because the destination has change. Documentary photography is increasingly within the purview of contemporary fine art photography, and the conversations in that field determine both what is said with photography and how it is said. It’s interesting to note that documentary photographers have struggled for decades for their work to be seen as having abiding value beyond the subject matter. Now that the artist’s eye is accorded respect, the challenge is finding the world that exists outside of the photo artist’s vision of it. Documentary photographers now are more likely to be trained in fine art programs than in journalism programs. Does documentary photography have to have a journalistic aspect? No, not necessarily, but the journalistic mode is a grounding one that deserves consideration.
3) Just as a community will suffer from not having written journalism tell a story about it, it benefits from having quality visual journalism that takes it as a subject. The strengths of photojournalism apply as much if not more at the community level as they do at the national/ international level. Journalism is for the public- it creates the public.
These three stakes are not served only by newspapers, and they may not even be served best by newspapers. Newspapers have never been everything we’ve wanted the to be; they are shaped by ownership concerns, institutional traditions, the limitations of professional practice. But traditionally it has been newspapers that have made these possible. I’m not suggesting that anyone will be able to save newspapers, but I hope that as we explore the possibilities of media ahead, we take into consideration the ways in which newspapers have shaped photographers’ careers, our understanding of documentary photography, and the benefit of photojournalism for communities.
Newspaper photojournalism is only one of many anchors for documentary photography traditions. But until recently it has been one of the few professional paths for photographers that has involved a prescribed and ongoing relationship with the world. I’ll be exploring these issues and others related to photography and the end of newspapers in the coming weeks.