Is this the End of Press Photography in the UK?

November 13, 2013  •  Leave a Comment
Local Papers Axe Press Photographers Position

With Johnson Press recently announcing (see Hold the FrontPage) the axing of most (if not all) of their press photographers on their nearly two hundred local titles you have to ask yourself the question, is this the beginning of the end of local press photography in the UK?
Undoubtedly the newspaper industry has taken a hammering in the last decade due to falling advertising revenues, a product of dwindling circulation and also the arrival of other information streams including the online local news from television broadcasters (BBC and Sky) and the usual social media and bloggers. Even in my years as a trainee and senior press photographer with Johnson Press and Newsquest, I saw a radical amount of staff cutting and bore witness to printing presses shutting down and also many editorial and advertising staff layoffs. In addition to the reduction in staff costs, many daily publications have gone down to weekly (including my old place of work The Scarborough Evening News - Now just The Scarborough News), meaning that they shed up to half of their photographers. So you could argue that this change was organic in the sense that one's cloth must be cut to suit the current economic climate, but is this part of a larger trend towards 'people's' journalism?

What's the State of the Industry?
I'm not going to go into too much detail to defend the role of the press photographer, as it is obvious, as far as I'm concerned, that press photographers not only provide the newspapers and associated websites with high quality content (both video and photography). In addition to this, photographers provide local knowledge and are often the 'face' of the paper, which means they often get stories and build great contacts with the communities they work within. So I would say that their role is not only as a content producer but also as a news gatherer who, in both roles, can be trusted to produce accurate and truthful coverage. In the days of the phone hacking scandal it is clear that the nation's trust in journalists has come into question, but while this spotlight is being shone on the tabloid press, are we forgetting about all the 'community' good work done in the local press?
When I was a press photographer I used to photograph predominantly community subjects. Local charities receiving cheques from unusual  fundraising events, school awards and sport prizes, local shows, planning stories, weather, vox pops and the occasional 'hard news' stories were just some of the content that had to be captured. It is fair to say that most of the content was not related to any celebrity or the sort of stomach-churning 'Take A Break' pieces about pet misadventure or messy divorces. Larger pieces would focus on the local council and planning issues that affected the economy of the town and tried to reflect the 'big - but local'' issues that people were talking about. I know these things can be done by social media but it tends to be the people who have professionals handling their Twitter streams who get the message out there. I can think of many young families with housing issues, people who have lost pets, people who have lost sentimental valuables in a burglary, people wanting to place an obituary for a loved one or even thank people for their kindness following the death of a loved one who have used the local paper as a voice. Without that voice, would they get heard?
So local newspapers in a sense belong to their communities and despite losing circulation and failing to find a business model that enables them to capitalise on web traffic, they will probably close or at least remain as a sort of 'chat room' for the locals, or at least those whom shout the loudest. You think I'm being flippant about this?

Read this
Johnston Press to launch 'people's paper', with 75% of content from public

Quite often when working on local stories we would find an individual or group with a bee in their bonnet about something or someone. When they gave their story to the paper the reporters would straight away know that you couldn't print some (or occasionally all) of what they said because it was defamation or just people who had an axe to grind. If you imagine a neighbourhood dispute over a hedge boundary or parking you will get a feel for what I mean, but it could be more serious. Imagine a local teacher/policeman/vicar accused of acting inappropriately by a member of the public. The local press provides a legal and moral filter (yes indeed moral, they are not the News of the World) between subject and their readership. So now if you imagine a newspaper when it is essentially unpaid reader generated content you can start to see not only the legal issues that will occur, but the impartiality problems and hopefully also see that it will be only those who shout the loudest who will get their voices heard.

Why get rid of the Photographers?
When times are tough it is hard for the bean counters to appreciate a good picture taken from a ‘staffer’ when a reasonable submitted picture will cost nothing. As most editorial staff at these chronically understaffed titles don't leave the office it is easy to see the role of the photographer as a luxury when all the other content arrives by email. The lack of reporters on local papers has also meant a huge increase in the amount of press releases that are recycled with or without their submitted pictures, meaning that more content bypasses the photographer. You could argue that also because a lot of papers are no longer subbed on site and are basically filled-in page templates, that the general level of creativity in the offices has suffered. Gone are the days of the front page/breaking news picture or the photographer working with the sub on page layout. Finally it could be easy to see how when pictures are used online, management would see them as being less important especially if used the size of a postage stamp.

Why does it Matter?
I see the removal of press photographers from local papers as a last ditch attempt to save a format that is essentially dying. It will in the short term remove some of the running costs for these papers but ultimately mean the quality is reduced further and further. I know large companies and rich charities will have no problems getting quality freelance photographers and videographers to tell their stories and will this mean they get more prominent and better coverage in the papers they submit to? If so then what happens to the small people, the individuals, who have been neglected by the local housing association or have raised £200 with a sponsored hair cut? What happens to the local sport teams and charities that need volunteers if they cannot get a decent photo? Well I suppose if the story is good enough then any poor quality photograph will do even if it has been taken on a phone. So there we reach the crux of this whole debate. Is picture quality so important?
If newspapers follow their natural trend and become online only publications and any old picture will do then why not any old copy? We are essentially talking now about a local chat room of people submitting stories and words in a public forum. You really only have to look at any comments on pretty much any YouTube video to see what sort of hateful nonsense this would end in.
Staff press photographers represent the old school approach to journalism. They represent a creative yet unbiased approach to local news that will be hard to find from submitted content and as quality and readership spiral down, this may signify not only the death of press photography (as we know it) but sadly also the demise of the local paper.

What does this mean for the industry?
Seeing as all nearly all staff photographers are trained to a NCTJ level and have journalism qualifications, (based or an apprenticeship of sorts) it is safe to say those courses will go. Local papers would provide the feed up to regional papers and then up to nationals.

Reporters will be asked to do video and stills and ultimately time will be even tighter on those individuals. This also means that photographic reprint and archival parts of local papers will have to go as logistically it would be too involved.

For freelance photographers, generally the prospect is not looking good in the short term as the market will be suddenly flooded with professional photographers desperate for work and prepared to undercut anyone. Trust me I have seen this. The difference between charging £135 for a picture story and £75 may be the difference between not eating and eating for some people but when all the prices are being driven down it makes it an unsustainable career for everyone, including agencies.

You may think that as newspapers need more submitted content,  PR companies would have an opportunity to get more of their content used in the local press. Some may get more coverage in the short term but as more papers close it ultimately means that PR companies will have less places to get their clients' messages out to, and will have to embrace more social media where good picture quality hardly seems important.

Is it all doom and gloom?
The 'value' of professional photographers has taken a hammering over the last few decades. The advent of digital photography, excellent quality amateur equipment, and an increased interest in photography as a hobby has put the squeeze on professionals. I still believe that anyone who has had a career as a press photographer will possess the people skills and knowledge to tell any story accurately and creatively. How that story will go from the local individual to the local community in future is essentially unknown and I'm sure companies like Johnson Press would pay handsomely for a business model that was sustainable.
Although I have not talked much here about agency and national newspapers staff it can be assumed their jobs will be safe for a while but who will replace them? Will they also survive with lots of cheap freelance photographers on the market?

It maybe the case that there are some small 'start-up' papers and magazines that follow the 'free sheet' model that are created in the vacuum left behind. These would sadly have to work on a more advertorial basis as many of the more valuable community based stories would make them no money.
Local papers provide a wonderful community resource and when you see local people getting together to run a pub as a co-operative part of me hopes that a local paper could be run on similar lines, although with the current Tory government's view on press freedom, and our litigious culture, it seems doubtful.

So to all those poor souls who are about to be cast out from the industry (press photographers known to me or not) I offer to you some final thoughts. Your job is a unique combination of creativity, organisation and people management. It's those people skills that will hold you in good stead whatever path you choose to take.
Whether running your own business or working for another you will find your ability to think on your feet, adapt and create solutions to be a great asset. Like blacksmiths and weavers before us we find that our industry is being eaten away by technology and economics but for a while, we had the best jobs in the world.

Feel free to comment.. In fact I'd welcome it.


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