Years Later July 2009
the Death of Photojournalism
back in 1999, I wrote an editorial lamenting how
difficult it was becoming to pursue a life in
photojournalism. Budgets were being slashed at
the newsmagazines for photography, entry-level
jobs at newspapers were becoming increasingly
difficult to obtain, and once such an internship
was secured, it was hard to move up the ladder.
Compared to the glory days of photojournalism in
the 1970s, the situation was looking bleak.
I reread that article recently, I realized that
what I was talking about then were some cracks in
the dam. Today, the whole damned dam is gone. It
is difficult not to be concerned by the changes
in the industry over the past year. Newsmagazines
are not exempt from these changes. Time
and Newsweek once had an extremely heated
and competitive battle each week to get the very
best photographers on the big stories of the
week. During the 1982 siege of Beirut, I headed a
"delta team" for Time magazine
of no less than 10 photographers covering that
struggle day in and day out for more than a
month. On a major presidential international
trip, there would be at least three or four
contract photographers flying with the president,
with stringers picked up along the way. Radio
repeaters were set up to coordinate the
photographers' movements. Advance trips were made
by the photographers to chart the story.
newsmagazines were once the market of choice for
photographers and agencies. Together Time
and Newsweek provided the best places to
work. Today, as any photo agency head will tell
you, they simply no longer provide the financial
support that once kept the business going.
hopes of saving the brand, Newsweek
recently did a complete makeover. The magazine
could no longer compete with the Internet, with
decreased readership and lost advertising. The
first thing to go was the news.
to its editor, Jon Meacham, the intent was to
turn Newsweek into a watered down version
of The Economist. The magazine is now too
soft. It is no longer about news. It does not
editor of The Wall Street Journal said a
long time ago, "The great benefit of not
using pictures was you don't need
photographers." That is becoming truer all
the time. For the most part pictures are
certainly gone from the new layout at Newsweek.
Although the June 20th issue featured several
spreads of pictures from the protests in Iran to
accompany a Fareed Zakaria article, compared to Time's
coverage they seemed to be afterthoughts.
at Time, things are not really better.
Pleas by their contract photographers to be sent
to Iran in advance of the 30th anniversary of the
revolution were rebuffed.
of Time's top contract photographers
reported that last year he only had three
assignments, and that was in an election year.
things are even worse at newspapers. Back when
the newsmagazines were sending flocks of
photographers flying around the globe, the
newspapers, funded by more than 20% profit
ratios, were investing heavily in their photo
departments. Papers like The New York Times,
The Washington Post, the Chicago
Tribune; and The Dallas Morning News
were all vying for the best photojournalists they
could find and then they sent them off on
long-term projects, which won countless Pulitzer
course, like all good things, this culture has
been torn apart as these papers now struggle to
survive. We all know about papers like the fabled
Rocky Mountain News and Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, which have folded this
year. The Chicago Tribune Company is in
bankruptcy. Hundreds of photojournalists have
been thrown out of what they considered
"jobs for life."
1999, video journalism was only a ray of light on
the horizon. Ten years later, despite the
training programs by such organizations as The
Platypus Workshop and the National Press
Photographers workshops, newspapers that were
leading the march into multimedia, such as the Detroit
Free Press, are pulling back on those
initiatives as they struggle to survive. The
FREEP no longer even makes home deliveries of
their paper to the readers.
the situation is even grimmer in television.
Newsroom budgets are being slashed at networks
and affiliates. Photojournalists who had won
prizes for their stations are now pounding the
street, but minus those betacams.
what we looked forward to in 1999, the emergence
of the World Wide Web as a principal news
provider, has happened beyond our wildest
expectations. The problem is that the
revenue in advertising has not kept up with the
Web's growth. Although a newspaper Web site's
unique views can dwarf the print edition's
circulation, the revenue derived from Web
advertising is often less than 10 percent of
print ads. Yet, it is this weak stream of revenue
that publishers are turning to just to keep their
print editions in existence.
this means is that revenue available to pay
visual journalists just isn't there.
publishers realize that they must get those
advertising dollars up. There are constant
industry meetings as they try to come up with
standardization of online ad rates. But as they
sort this out, which eventually they will, many
print editions will disappear and major brands
will cease publication both in print and on the
change has come. We are in what I am afraid are
only the opening moments of an economic
adjustment that will affect everyone. Steve
Balmer, the CEO of Microsoft, recently told an
audience in Cannes, "I don't think we are in
a recession; I think we have reset," he
said. "A recession implies recovery [to
pre-recession levels] and for planning purposes I
don't think we will. We have reset and won't
rebound and re-grow."
the meantime, papers like "the old grey
lady," The New York Times, are
hanging in there. They still have the best photo
department in the world, in my estimation, and
the quality of pictures and video just keeps
getting better. Amidst all of the chatter on
Twitter and YouTube during the protests in Iran,
there was a lone professional voice reporting
from the streets, and that was the Times'
Roger Cohen. With all other Western media barred
from covering the protests, Cohen provided a
reliable window into a complex and dangerous
story. His reports were a testimony of the value
of papers like the Times. They paid for
him to be there. Without people like Cohen, the
world would be a sorry place.
the end of the day, whether Time or The
New York Times survives is irrelevant. The
real question is, who is going to pay
professional journalists such as Cohen to go to
these news scenes? Professionals do matter. If
you broke your leg and your choice would be to
have your neighbor who had faithfully watched
every episode of "ER" set it, or go to
a hospital, there is no question what you would
a recent Platypus class, my students asked me,
"Why would you be a photojournalist
today?" I answered, "You have to be
crazy." I have always considered being crazy
as important to a photographer as being curious.
Constitutionally, we thrive on chaos and
challenge. Being a photojournalist is more a
calling than a trade. Those people who will do
anything to come back with a story will be out
there shooting for a long time.
Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House
Photographer for 29 years. He now is the
Publisher and Editor of The Digital
monthly online magazine for visual journalism,
and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American
History at the University of Texas
in Austin. © Dirck Halstead Editor and Publisher
of The Digital Journalist.