Many people ask me if I miss being a still photojournalist. As I transitioned to producing multimedia full-time, it was a question I knew I would eventually face. But now, with three years of treading the online waters, I can give an equivocal “No” as my answer. Even I surprised myself with this response. I enjoyed, no, loved the craft of still photojournalism. It had been my daily passion for 18 years. I was pretty good at putting the lipstick on the pig as assignments go. But as newspapers, including mine, began to implode, I knew I had to eventfully change. Gone was the space to showcase my passion. Gone were many of the talented reporters I had worked with that helped me fulfill my vision of a good photo story. What I was faced with was a second half of a career with little professional growth potential. I could have left my paper, but that didn’t feel right to me. Go where? Another newsroom that would eventually go through the same gut-wrenching downsizing?
Years ago, a mentor of mine told me after turning down a job at The National Geographic—“Newspapers need talented people to stick with them more than ever.” A noble cause I thought at the time, but one that has come back to haunt me time and time again. “Newspapers need talented people,” plays like a looping eight-track tape in my mind. The reality is that talented people are being driven out of the newspapers in droves as publishing conglomerates squeeze every last penny out of the remaining “assets” that haven’t been laid off or bolted for greener pastures.
So what is the future of newspapers? What magic ball has that answer? I really don’t think anyone knows the time or the place when the presses will be silenced for good. Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? What I do know is what I’ve learned from observing from my 14-year-old daughter. Newspaper reading should have rubbed off on her. I have been a good role model as I tried to get her interested in reading the newspaper. I have failed miserably. What I have come to understand is that she, like the rest of her generation, is never going to read the paper product. She and her friends are screenagers. Raised in front of a computer monitor, with a universe of information and social networks just a click away. The tactile feel that newspaper readers pine for is and always will be foreign to the younger generations. Their brains are wired differently and no amount of pandering to them with niche publications is going the change that.
About four years ago, I had an eureka moment. I was at an assignment to photograph a veteran of three wars—WWII, Korea and Vietnam (two tours.) I listened as Glen Douglas, an elderly Native America chief and master storyteller recalled some of his war experiences. I was mesmerized at the stories. When the reporter finished the interview, I told Glen that I would come back the next day to video tape his war stories. Up to that point in time, my experience with a video camera had been several bouts taping my daughter’s birthday parties. As Glen sat before me, my whole universe changed. I had to be the reporter, photographer, and editor. It was an empowering moment… “Glen, tell me about the first time you had to kill someone…” That night I sat at my dining room table with my Mac laptop in front of me. I edited an hour of video into five segments with iMovie. I figured out how to compress the video with QuickTime Pro and burned them to a CD. The next morning I handed the disk to our online editor Ryan Pitts and asked him to see if he could figure out how to put video on the website. My phone rang 15 minutes later. “It’s up, looks great,” said Pitts. A couple of days later a woman called me and said she stumbled on the videos at 2 a.m. “I was crying in front of my computer monitor,” she said.
I can tell you quite honestly; in my entire career, that was probably the first person that told me I brought them to tears with my journalism. What I learned from that experience is video is powerful medium. One that can reach people in ways still photography or written words can’t always convey.
Flash forward four years. Here I sit, having surviving yet another round of layoffs. I rolled the dice and took the lead in my professional destiny. Now I am equipped to at least start making some form of impact on my paper’s digital future. Thankfully, management and the publisher invested in my vision by giving me the tools and training to be successful. Where many in my newsroom are angry about the past, I feel nothing but excitement for the future. I have embraced the idea that video will become one of the mainstays of online journalism’s future. Will video save our industry? Nope. But it is a start. At Spokesmanreview.com our online future is a wide-open palette. Our coming redesign will allow us to start fresh and create a site that will help lead us through this difficult transition. What’s important now is for the remaining smart and talented people to hold steadfast and help make the changes needed to insure the survival of the newspaper in whatever form it eventually takes.