I’m feeling lucky


harryI’m feeling lucky. I still have a job. I’ve ditched the management title and have returned to the photo department as a still shooter. My video camera sits idle on a shelf—at least for now. The couple of years away from my still cameras have left me a bit rusty, but I coming around. Still photojournalism has always been my calling. It’s really what I’m best at.

The Spokesman-Review photo department has changed dramatically in the last eight years.  S-R shooters were rockin’ in the 1990’s. It was like the golden age of photojournalism at The Spokesman-Review. We did lots long-term documentary projects that were supported by an enlightened photo-friendly management. I worked with a group of really talented photographers that made coming to work (a least most days) worthwhile.  But even then, I knew the good times could not last forever.

The first round of layoffs hit in 2001, which started a downward spiral that still never seems to end. By 2003, I knew the space devoted to documentary photojournalism was never going to return. I turned to the web and with a video camera in hand and set out to reinvent myself as a videojournalist. I was thankful for the support I received from a new team of management who seemed hell-bent on making our newsroom web-centric. Back then, talk of innovation just scared the shit out of everyone in the newsroom. But as time passed, the idea that we were scooping ourselves by publishing to the web first had started to feel kind of ridiculous. The increase of broadband penetration in 2004 gave me hope for a future where my 320 pixel wide video stories would someday be able to be seen full screen.

In the last three years, I’ve put lot of energy into sharing what I have learned with other S-R staffers and journalists from all over the country.  I’ve made it a point to not guard my gift, but instead share what learned with anybody that wanted to learn web-based video storytelling.

This last year was going to be my crescendo of sorts. I was promoted to multimedia editor. I trained and outfitted 12 reporters, photographers and web producers with top-notch video cameras and MacBook Pros loaded with Final Cut.  A new Spokemsan.com website was conceived and developed with multimedia in mind.  Within days of launching this video/web initiative, the economic house of cards came tumbling down. Seven of the twelve young journalists I trained soon joined the legions of other out-of-work reporters, web producers and photographers. Two senior managers who pushed all this web innovation also resigned.

As a much smaller organization, I am not sure what the strategic vision for my newspaper is now. Losing half the newsroom staff to layoffs and buyouts changes things. No longer can we devote as much time to stories. I’ve seen this in the few short weeks I have been back in the photo department. We used to have the luxury of hanging out with our subjects or choosing the best time to shot a documentary style photo. Now it is run and gun, just get it done. Where we used to have 13 shooters, now we have 6. Three of us are multimedia willing and able. I am putting most of my chips on us to carry on the multimedia tradition. But I got to tell you, I not feeling very creative right now. With the recent layoffs, the spirit of innovation has left the building. Retrenching is the order of the day.

What I have to remember is that the work I did this past year was important. We truly were moving toward a multi-platform, multimedia centric newsroom. That is still the recipe I believe will save newspapers. What coming challenges the new year brings is anybody’s guess. Short-term, I have to stop staring at my unused video camera and get the hell out of the building. There are too many good stories out there that aren’t being told.

8 thoughts on “I’m feeling lucky

  1. Colin,

    I understand your fear and frustration. I think a lot of people are afraid for their jobs, right to the top of the ladder — and they should be. I don’t think multimedia will save newspapers. I am not an expert by any means, but I just don’t see the business model working out at all. There is too much cost involved with the printing press. Local shops will last longer than the big print metros.

    I do, however, think multimedia will save journalism. Our readers (and advertisers) are moving online. Unless we are where our readers are, we do not serve them, nor journalism.

    A year or two ago I would not have dreamed I would eventually type these words. I would love to be wrong so I hope someone else can post their thoughts on the issue.

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  3. Colin,

    Thanks for yet another open and sharing blog post. We are all living through the economic collapse. Rough times are ahead of us. Then it’s good to read your blog phrasing how it feels at times.

    I don’t agree with Kate Martin, though. I do believe multimedia can move media business models forward. Schibsted, a European media group, build powerful media brands (such as online news sites), and use their high web traffic as a platform for channeling readers off to new sites, thus creating more views ands clicks for advertisors online at several sites. There’s a lot of money in that strategy.

    As long as advertisement is a major income for online, newspapers creating good content will trigger more readers, ultimately increasing advertising income.

    Todays web users ‘scroll and click’ to a higher degree than the reading a longer text online. People may read a long text when holding a printed newspaper in their hands. They’ll act differently online. Multimedia content is perfectly alligned with the ‘scroll and click’ web reality. Google acquired YouTube for 1 billion US dollars for a reason. For a starter it’s entertaining. I’d pay for that someday.

  4. Vegard, I am not necessarily saying multimedia won’t move the business model forward. At this time in the US, I am not sure anyone even has a business model.

    I don’t know much about Schibsted. Would it keep a smaller operation afloat?

    Do not get me wrong, I love creating multimedia. I don’t think community newspapers would get the volume of clicks to generate enough ad revenue.

    I also have a philosophical problem with valuing news based on clicks. I know it’s the reality of online advertising, but everyone knows certain types of news gets more attention than others. For instance, I’m an education reporter and my most-read story online was a breaking news item about a propane truck that rolled in the ditch.

  5. Thanks for your feedback, Kate.

    Please apologise me if I was too blunt about the click philosophy. I completely agree that one cannot build a the direction of a news organisation on the amount of clicks created by trivia stories.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make about online newspapers is that there are a myriad of ways to choose in order to attract income. Of course, journalistic production should be independent and stand on its own. That said, it’s possible to produce journalistic integrity and make money. My idea was the one about building high traffic and then channel traffic to new sights. I guess that’s only one of several paths. It has worked for startups and established news organisations in our companies.

    Best,
    Vegard

  6. I love your attitude Vegard. And, I believe, this forward-thinking, positive mentality is what will keep us all sane in these trying times. As a photojournalist for a small, family-owned newspaper/information company, I have learned that burying your head, digging your heels in and keeping a mind-set that “nothing’s worked so far, so nothing will ever work,” will get us nowhere.

    What does seem to be working, even if we are forced (by time, resources, management) to “run and gun, just get it done,” is to continue to have meaningful discussions about our goals as journalists. Not only should we discuss this newsroom-wide, but throughout the company. We (at wenatcheeworld.com) have employed our internal, company blog as a place for discussion. We share ideas, projects, issues through this blog. We don’t stop there, we have inter-departmental strategy teams that take these ideas and make decisions from them. This includes more than just management, but those of us on the ground.

    We may just continue having circular discussions about our problems and how it’s inevitable that our industry will fail, but my hope is our discussions will end up with real results. Meaning we must continue to be watchdogs for our communities and push innovation; all the while thinking like business people who want to make money and want newspapers (in whatever form) to continue. We do, don’t we?

  7. Well said Kathryn.

    I think small family-owned newspapers are going to be the ones that survive the coming industry implosion. It is really important to stay positive and continue to talk about innovation. There is a tendency to fall back into a retrench mode. The realitiy is that web isn’t going away and we a journalists must be prepared to produce content for both platforms.

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