i-07822f39f7cad79a2a17468aaa2fdc5d-photographer statue.jpg
Newspapers will die. Radio will kick the bucket. The packaged music CD is on death’s doorstep. There is an irresistible urge to declare one medium dead because of the rise of the new. And so it is when we consider the plight of photojournalists after the proliferation of cameraphones and digital cameras in the hands of the masses, who can now capture breaking news in every corner of the world.

A couple of veteran newsmen came to the same conclusion recently: Paid newspaper photojournalists may not be able to compete with amateur shutterbugs on the scene of breaking news. Alan Mutter noted that citizen photographers on Flickr outdid San Francisco Chronicle photojournalists when the Queen Mary 2 entered the San Francisco Bay for the first time. And the Center for Citizen Media’s Dan Gillmor went even further, wondering if the paid photojournalist’s days are numbered:

How can people who cover breaking news for a living begin to compete [with citizens on the scene]? They can’t possibly be everywhere at once. They can compete only on the stories where they are physically present — and, in the immediate future, by being relatively trusted sources. But the fact remains, there are far more newsworthy situations than pro picture takers. In the past, most of those situations never were captured. Not any longer.

Is it so sad that the professionals will have more trouble making a living this way in coming years? To them, it must be — and I have friends in the business, which makes this painful to write in some ways. To the rest of us, as long as we get the trustworthy news we need, the trend is more positive…The photojournalist’s job may be history before long. But photojournalism has never been more important, or more widespread.

But when I put the question to MediaShift readers, you responded overwhelmingly that there was still a place for paid photojournalists, though they might have to adapt and work more collaboratively with citizen photogs.

Media consultant Hart Van Denberg said he admired the photo-sharing power of Flickr, but took both Gillmor and Mutter to task, saying he still saw a role for professional newspaper photographers:

You need the staffers to find the stuff that’s not obvious, the vision-driven work, the crusading work, the work that takes time and dedication of a sort not available to bloggers. You need the staffers as the conversation starters. Then you have to embrace the architecture of participation and let the community turn the story into a conversation…

Owning a camera or a keyboard doesn’t automatically make you good with either or both, even though it does allow you to participate in the conversation. The business model of a news organization is based in part on the dependability of those who report the news — day in, day out dependability, week after week, year after year — to feed a dependable, trusted brand in which consumers and advertisers are invested with time and money. You simply can’t be dependable if you rely on the blogosphere.

Bloggers aren’t crusading enough? Not dependable enough? That seems like an old argument usually thrown at bloggers, while we all know there are plenty of reasons not to trust all kinds of media, from mainstream to alternative. More likely, an ecosystem of photos could evolve with the vast amount of citizen photos being sifted through by computer and human filters, and the professionals helping to sort through those photos while assigning feature photo shoots to pros.

Journalism instructor Mark Hamilton says that photojournalists overestimate their ability to shoot breaking news, but that they do have a place in an evolving photojournalism field.

“Photojournalists do something a lot of us can’t — immerse themselves in lives and issues and bring back images that are not only true and touching but, in the best cases, iconic,” he wrote. “Maybe if the citizens are willing to shoot the easy stuff, our photogs can be freed up to do the difficult, essential storytelling.”

Flickr photographer Mario says pro photographers will need to do more than just be “picture snappers,” and will need to stay on top of subjects and advanced technologies. Ryan Sholin thinks too many people are still learning the craft around the world for it to die overnight, but he also sends a warning out to lazy photojournalists: “‘F8 and be there’ won’t cut it anymore. I can do that with my sub-$300 5-megapixel point & shoot.”

Professional photojournalists might find themselves doing more than shooting pictures in the future. They might end up helping to filter the vast array of citizen photos, or help train those citizen photogs to improve their work. They could be more like team leaders helping to motivate citizen photographers to shoot better shots and get the shots that they can’t get.

What do you think? What does the future hold for newspaper photographers? And if you are a newspaper photographer, tell us how you see things happening now and in the future with the proliferation of cheap powerful cameras.

UPDATE: I heard from Tom Kennedy, managing editor for multimedia at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and a former director of photography at the National Geographic Society. Here’s Kennedy’s view on the future for spot-news photojournalists with the rise of citizen photogs:

It depends on what value the marketplace ascribes to a certain amount of professionalism being part of the equation. I agree that numerically the chances are pretty good that amateurs will outnumber professionals at breaking news events. But I’m not sure if that automatically confers the kind of value that traditionally has been associated with traditional activity. Part of what the marketplace will have to sort out is the qualitative difference in those two efforts. It’s one thing to catch something with a cell camera like the London bombing, and it’s another thing if a still photographer is at the same event capturing it with the technical quality of professional equipment — does that difference matter and will the audience give more value to that?

To me, a lot of the stuff gathered by amateurs is the ultimate expression of “F8 and be there,” although it’s not even F8. It’s possible that it’s good enough for certain circumstances and for a lot of the audience. I think the answer changes slightly in another context: Does the role of visual journalists disappear when it’s not breaking news? I’m more confident that that won’t disappear because there are things a professional is questing for in the expression that won’t be part of the calculus for an amateur, generally. There are documentary impulses that will guide a professional that are less likely to be there for an amateur.

Kennedy told me that washingtonpost.com is on the cusp of launching a broader user-submitted photo effort, and its initial forays have gone well. “We discovered, to our pleasure that there were audience members interested in participating and others who were interested in viewing what was being put up,” he said, about a call for photos related to a recent winter storm.

UPDATE 2: I just heard from Conan Gallaty, the online director for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and a pioneer in citizen photography at the Augusta Chronicle, where he helped launch the Spotted photo sites. Here are highlights from my brief email Q&A with him:

Do you think photojournalists might do more features and less breaking news because of citizen photogs?

Gallaty: I think our appetite for quantity will increase as quality decreases for breaking news photos (and video). A grainy, distant shot of the school bus on fire will become more important than a well-composed photograph of the fireman surveying the wreckage hours after the bus is extinguished.

Compare these:
Video of the bus on fire from a passenger

Images from the professional photographer

Because of this, yes, photojournalists will have to create more feature content to give their work credibility. They will also need to try and provide better aftermath coverage. A keen eye for the image and angle that may not be told through the main focus of the breaking news story.

How do you see photographers’ jobs changing over time?

Gallaty: Like most writers, I see photographers’ full-time positions being replaced by contracted correspondents. The true heart of the newsroom becomes the assignment editors who must filter the wealth of information available from hundreds of user and correspondent photos and find the most relevant ones. Making sense of the wealth of available coverage will be the challenge in our next wave of journalism.

Will photo editors rely more on citizen contributions for breaking news photos and how will they get those photos?

Gallaty: I think the distribution model will be through public Internet platforms. Just as photo editors scan the AP for the latest photos, they will need to have aggregated photo searches of Flickr, Photobucket and other image-sharing platforms to grab the latest pictures of news. I don’t believe this will happen overnight, but it will be accelerated by ongoing staff cuts and the emerging micropayments earned by well-placed citizen journalists.

Photo of photographer statue by Andy Holmes.