Cutting Corners Cuts at the Heart of What Motivates Photojournalists

There is a heaviness in the air in newsrooms today. You can feel it pressing down on you as soon as you arrive at your desk. It is as if everyone is in a constant state of grief, and I think it is because we are grieving. We are grieving for our colleagues who have left the business, by force or choice. We are grieving for the way things were just a few short years ago, when we could cover a story despite the expense of mileage or a plane ticket. But most of all, we are grieving because we are losing our profession as we know it.

Amid financial pressures, management has become schizophrenic in its demands on journalists and photojournalists. Reporters are too busy trying to keep up with blogs or cover multiple beats to make stories or photo assignments better. Photographers are too busy posting online photo galleries or shooting and editing video to make better photos.

This leaves us with many stories coming straight from press releases, stories that don’t look beyond the surface — for the story behind the story. It’s even become okay for names to be misspelled or facts to be wrong because it takes too long to check them; now we just wait for a reader to complain and then fix the online edition.

Photojournalism Requires Passion

This cutting of corners cuts at the heart of what motivates journalists. We are a passionate bunch. To find the best stories, the ones that readers want to read (and will buy the paper to do so), requires passion and a commitment to quality work. Photojournalists have long been known to spend our free time and days off to get the photos to tell a story, and we do it because we care about telling the story right.

We work crazy hours, and sometimes risk our lives to get stories that we know matter or might make a difference. We care about doing a good job not just out of pride but out of a sense of duty to our communities, to be their eyes and ears and let them know what is happening in the world around them.

Sure, we have a reputation for being a bunch of complainers, but that is precisely because we do care. We care enough to make the extra phone calls, or to arrive an hour or two early, if that will make the story better. We are not an industry where the worker bees accept “good enough.”

And yet increasingly, that is exactly what management is forcing us to do.

The Emerging Culture of “Good Enough”

Management is not rewarding a job well done or story well told. In fact, journalists today are often punished for spending too much time on a story. For photojournalists, it’s not about getting the best image, but about moving quickly so you can post more (not better) images online.

What does this mean for readers? We are no longer serving them. We are no longer upholding our duty as members of the media to report on what is happening around us. We are becoming robots.

What does this mean for photojournalists? We are depressed.

Some of us are in denial. Some of us are having trouble sleeping. Some of us have given up. But we are all unhappy in one way or another.

Personally, I wanted to continue caring about all of my assignments despite everything going on around me. I became frustrated every time I went to an assignment that I knew could be better — if only we had more time or resources. That neverending struggle was made worse by being told year after year that we needed to learn to be happy with “good enough.”

No Longer Worth the Sacrifices

I refused to accept “good enough” from myself — but ultimately management’s demands made me the robot they wanted me to be. And then I found myself questioning the long hours, low pay and hazardous conditions. If I was no longer getting professional satisfaction out of a job well done, then why make the other sacrifices that this profession required? That was when I realized I was depressed.

After leaving my newspaper job a couple of weeks ago, the heaviness has finally lifted. Every day I hear of another colleague who is leaving to be happy again, free to work outside the constraints of today’s newsroom. I hope journalism sees happier days before we lose all of our passionate storytellers — because once they’re gone, it will be a sad day for us all.


5 Responses to “Cutting Corners Cuts at the Heart of What Motivates Photojournalists”

  1. What a colorful and sad picture of what's happening in the newsroom. It does hurt to see the newsroom slip away. As it evolves on different levels, it'll be interesting to see how story tellers compete for the attention of the readers on the Internet and how they will continue to make a living in the new newsroom.

  2. Left my TV station on Friday. Feels great and sad. But I was tired of feeling disappointed. And angry that I was working for people who truly do not care about the news.

    Thanks for this terrific post Heather.

  3. Well said. I leave my paper in a week. I'm just sad.

  4. Couldn't have said it better myself - this is precisely why, after 25 years as a photojournalist, I left the newspaper business.

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