Daily Print and the Death of Photojournalism: Suicide by Choking

I have had an interesting week. First, I was asked to write a small “thought provoking” article for The Journalist – obviously somebody had read my post from Vancouver Olympics. Then Helsingin Sanomat asked me to make a short presentation on my views concerning the future of the media in the net and some of the approaches I’d see as part of that future.  Those of you who are not Finnish: HS is the biggest and the most influential daily in the country – sort of our  New York Times or Washington Post.

These are small things as such, but both of these I considered as a great challenge and a rare honor – and I really tried my best, really took them seriously. Jesus,  writing however small a piece to a paper read by all professional journalists in this country –  people who write for a living. And then trying to have the balls to walk infront of  guys who have won POY like ten times and bluntly state that their work is growing obsolete and it might not be appreciated anymore… Boy was I nervous – and I still am. I sincerily hope I did not offend anybody beyond repair?

The piece I wrote is short and the majority of readers will skip it I’m sure. I had a limit of 2400 characters (yes, characters – I first thought it was words and I was really rocking…) –  and that does not give you that much room to play with. But the topic is extremely important – as it is literally a matter of life and death – and I think worth repeating here.

As the subjects of these two “events” are strongly related – and very close to my heart – I thought I do this: let me rewrite  here what I wrote for The Journalist. Then,let me discuss it  further along with some of the most essential points I came up with preparing my presentation – and I will do this is the next post.

And who knows, maybe here between the posts I get some commentary/feedback which raise some other interesting questions ;-).

I suggested that they’d use Suicide by Choking (Itsemurha kuristamalla) as a headline  and I am totally shocked that they did. A very visual choice of words… but oh, so true:

(JOURNALISTI 6/2010): A SUICIDE BY CHOKING

The long term strategy for our daily print  seems to be based on cutting costs. You minimize the money you spend –  that is money spend in the production of  the news – and continue the business as usual. But, does history know a single branch of any industry which has survived using this as their main strategy? No, because the equation is totally impossible – even theoretically thinking.

Cutting production costs can be a  great help and a necessity  in a temporary crisis situation. It can be used as tactics, but not as a  strategy. You can resuscitate with it – but that’s all.

It is also a generally acknowledged fact that any modern company in order to survive uses (the order of) one third of their profits for R&D – and does not give it away as a dividend to shareholders. As all the major print medias are listed in the stock excange, their financial figures are public and they are there for all of us to see. R&D – if it exists at all and if  you can find it – is the tiny, tiny figure right at the end.

But I should be talking about images, photojournalism and the future of these two. What have they got to do with this?

Everything.

Photos are an easy and an obvious source for apparent savings. You assign less – and  you use copyright free or stock images instead. You use freelancers, carefully picking the ones with the lowest rates. You further cut the rates, offer nickel-and-dime-deals taking all the commercial rights – with no compensation, naturally. You tell the poor souls still trying to survive in this profession  “you know how many photographers would kill for this…?”. You don’t replace the overworked, still remaining staffers once they retire.

A very grim view of the future.

Someone said that cutting professional (photo)journalists is like trying to solve famine by sending smaller clothes. I could not agree more.

Yet, photojournalism could be a central element when trying to to create new  ways of telling the news  – and this could  lead to a stragegy for the traditional print publications finding their form of expression in the net. But: an essential requirement for this to happen would be  strong R&D  which presently – at least in Finland – is non-existent.

The web offers limitless possibilities – and realizing this, all the newspapers have gotten their sites set up. And yet, 95% of the sites still continue pushing their “500 digits and one horizontal photo” on nearly every page. An occasional gallery with agency images or a blurry non-informative video  with barely understandable audio here and there do not really raise the overall quality of these sites.

In front of the limitless possibilities  the web  offers the reaction is:  hyperventilation – and no action.

In Finnish,  the web is often referred to as the New Media. The English term Rich Media is much better –  and it is exactly this “richness” which I yearn for: a true reincarnation for the use of  images and photojournalism – in totally unprecedented forms and ways never experienced before. No, I do NOT mean those disgusting videoclips – usually done with a cellphone – plastered on the sites of our traditional printmedia. No, I mean real photojournalism – visual storytelling done with ambition and extreme professional attitude. Professional standards. Combining images and compelling storytelling, sound, video, animated graphics etc. into a real, meaningful journalistic content. It requires a change of attitude for the management as well as for the grassroot journalists; it requires learning and educating yourself, it requires courage to face the facts, to push forward; it requires vision, some money…

And now – if not sooner – I have reached the point where I can hear the loud  “BULLSHIT – there is no money to be made in the net…”  I disagree but no more on that here. Instead, let me answer: the compulsive, idiotic saving-as-a-strategy does not generate revenue in the long run either. That might work for a bank but not for daily  print trying to survive.


As I said: to be continued…

4 Comments

  1. Tommi
    March 26, 2010

    Striking article with bold handling of the topic. I’m not a pro photographer nor journalist, but still I find your opinions to be so true. If three top focus areas are cost, cost, and cost the business will start to decline no matter what company on what field is concerned. This has happened also in IT world, although IT companies are often considered to be so innovative. Cost cutting is clearly affecting the level of journalism, which is sometimes very low in Iltasanomat and Iltalehti.

    It requires investment in terms of money and time to do something creative. I completely agree with you that the future of story telling is in the net where different medias can be fused to create influential experiences. To be able to do this requires innovative use of technology, creative mind, and a lot of skills.

    I’m betting that small players and entrepreneurs will lead the way in this transformation. I’m just worried that we do no have any players in Finland. We got the “high tech country” reputation about ten years ago, but the truth is that we have never been in the cutting edge on the web.

    Reply
    • kkuukka
      March 31, 2010

      Tommi –

      thank you – and a good comment. I was just about to start writing “the sequel” to this and I was reading what I have said already and the commentary (here, FB, email…)

      And it is not only the two papers you mentioned, but elsewhere as well…

      Very sharp observation that we are regarded – and we regard ourselves – as the “high tech” country, but innovation is our web is totally unheard of when talking about the daily media.

      One real problem is the arrogance of the traditional media – they somehow take for granted that they have a monopoly in this field and they just have to find a way to monetize on it. Whereas, they should be concentrating on how to train the existing professionals to create content somebody would be interested to see – even pay for.

      One thing is for sure: it is not NEWS per se which will settle this competition nor the win-n-lose couple of seconds in delivering them…

      Reply
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