More than photos: The changing role of photojournalists in Canada

by John Packman
As newspapers increase online content to include audio slideshows and video, the job of news photographer is changing.

by John Packman

There are no jobs for photojournalists who can only take pictures.

“There will never be another still-only photographer job in Canada anywhere,” says Moe Doiron, photo editor of The Globe and Mail. “It’s dead.”

Newspapers are now expecting photographers to be able to produce multimedia projects — non-traditional visual journalism pieces that many newspapers started publishing on their websites about two years ago. Photographers who don’t have these skills won’t be able to find jobs, says Doiron.

Last year, he started requiring multimedia pieces as part of a photographer’s job application at The Globe.

He hired two new employees to work specifically on video in September 2008. He says their multimedia skills pushed them ahead of a number of more experienced photographers.

“If I get a job application now and it doesn’t include a multimedia component, then that sends to me a message that this person doesn’t really know what the hell’s going on,” Doiron says. “They could be the best still photographer in the world but if they’re not embracing this new technology, there’s no place for them in the next five years.”

Multimedia pieces range from traditional TV-news-style voiceovers, which many newspapers syndicate from Canadian Press and Associated Press, to documentary-style slideshows with audio components, to video pieces incorporating still photography.

More experimental journalism such as interactive projects and animation using still photography are also defined as multimedia.

The new photojournalist

Frank O’Connor, co-ordinator of the two-year photojournalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., says he trains students to be “journalists of the future.”

“It’s not enough anymore just to be a good writer or to be a good photographer,” says O’Connor. “That journalist of the future is someone that can write a story, edit, shoot still pictures, shoot video, put it all together. In fact, what they are is a storyteller.”

But many experienced photojournalists aren’t happy with the change.

Scott Gardner is the visuals editor at The Hamilton Spectator. He says that many of his photographers are wary of doing multimedia because in the newsroom, it’s understood that multimedia generally means shooting video.

“But it doesn’t. It means different types of media,” says Gardner. “The whole concept is it could be anything.”

He says photographers at The Spectator have an easier time dealing with audio slideshows since they’re continuing to work with still photos. But he says they have trouble shooting video since it pushes them out of their comfort zones.

“They might make a mistake, they might look foolish,” he says, “which they haven’t had for 15 years.”

Shrinking resources

Another obstacle to doing multimedia work is the amount of time it takes to edit pieces involving multiple pictures, sound and video. And time is increasingly scarce in every newsroom.

There is a similar push for multimedia at The Ottawa Citizen, but it doesn’t have the resources of papers such as The Globe and Mail.

Canwest Global, the owner of the capital’s oldest newspaper, bought out the photo editor last year and hasn’t hired a new one. In three years, the photo desk has shrunk from six to three people.

“We’re straining under the amount of people we now have on the desk,” says Howard Fagen, now assistant director of photography at The Citizen. “The one person I have who’s a tech, I’ve been tending to send him out to do video assignments as well so I often work with no (technical) support at all.”

The union representing The Citizen’s newsroom signed a contract on Sept. 21, 2008, but Fagen says they came very close to striking.

He says a nagging issue for the photographers is the lack of video equipment and training — something they’ve been asking about for more than a year.

While the physical newspaper is shrinking, Fagen says his staff shoots an increasing number of photo and video assignments showcased only on the web as part of an industry-wide push for exclusive online content.

According to the Canadian Internet Project, more and more people are accessing newspapers and other traditional media online.

The Canadian Media Research Consortium at the University of British Columbia began studying the Internet activities of Canadians in 2004. Its 2007 report found 79 per cent of regular Internet users in Canada look for local, national and international news online.

The report, released Sept. 24, 2008, found that Internet users between 18 and 29 years old spend less time reading printed newspapers than older readers, but visit news sites more frequently than people 30 and older.

This is pushing newspaper photojournalists to file their assignments more frequently.

“It’s like working in a wire service all of a sudden and you never signed up to do that,” says Scott Gardner. “So it’s deadline, deadline, deadline for online.”

Gardner says he’s very aware of the public’s expectations of news websites. He says he has a quote from online media guru Rob Curley on his wall saying, “If readers see smoke and they log onto your website and don’t see it there, they don’t think you are holding it for tomorrow’s paper: they think you suck.”

The Spectator also lost staff over the last five years despite the higher demand for video and multimedia.

Two photographers retired. The company hired only one part time photographer to fill the gap. The imaging department, formerly in charge of readying images for printing, bumped a part time staffer to full time and the department is now in charge of multimedia content.

These cutbacks have been industry-wide, particularly at papers owned by Canwest and Quebecor.

Halifax Chronicle Herald photographer Tim Krochak says the still photo is the most powerful visual medium, but he knows he has to shoot video.

“It’s a form of job security,” Krochak says. “If it takes me having to shoot video so that I can still do stills, no problem. I’ll do whatever you want.”

He and another staff photographer at The Herald took a digital movie-making course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He says he wants his videos to add something to a story photos can’t.

“Video’s got to be done right,” he says.

Moe Doiron says he hopes photojournalists will take over newspaper videography jobs because video is part of the visual storytelling realm.

He says still photography at newspapers was based on limitations. The format of a paper didn’t allow photographers to use video or sound. But with the newspaper websites, Doiron says these limitations are lifted, allowing photographers to tell more complex stories — better stories — through multimedia.

“A lot of traditional photographers are seeing this kind of as the death of photojournalism,” says Doiron. “But, in fact, it’s never been better.”

Links

Both The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail have been consistently winning monthly National Press Photograher’s Association awards for multimedia.

First, second and third place positions are awarded for individual audio slideshows, individual videos, multimedia projects, team audio slideshow and team videos. One requirement is NPPA members have to produce the work.

The first awards were given out in November 2006, and since then The Star won a total of 13 awards, 7 of those for first place and The Globe has won 16 with 7 first places. In some cases, they win awards ahead papers such as the New York Times and the L.A. Times.

Below are links to first place pieces by The Star and The Globe:

Air Sick

Raven and Jason

HobbemaHD

Talking to the Taliban

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