Monday, May 24, 2004

How to get a PJ job

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Lifeguards practice their rescue skills in preparation for the summer season at The Colony Aquatic Park in The Colony on Friday, May 21, 2004.

Newspaper work for photojournalists actually offers a wide range of possibilities and challenges. Typically, smaller newspapers take the biggest chances on new-to-the-market photographers but also pay the least. The big metro papers don't take any chances. They recruit specific photographers to A) have the best images and B) keep the competition from having those same images. There is no "nice" movement of photographers at this level. Job offers are calculated, territorial and one-way (you can never go back to a previous paper).

To get a job in the field, you need to have a portfolio, know the market and bang on some doors.

Create a CD portfolio of your best 15 to 20 images. Don't make a portfolio of what you think the newspaper might need (i.e. mug shots, pet of the week, etc.), use your best work. Select images which show your technical and tactical abilities as well as your personal style. Technical images show your ability to use light and different lenses for maximum effect. Tactical images show your ability to talk your way into difficult situations. The photo immediately makes the editor wonder how you got access.

Show your portfolio to your friends, family and any pro PJs you know. If your goal is a 15 image set, include 20 and ask which five should be eliminated. This process should cull the worst images from the set and let you know which ones are next on the chopping block as you acquire better images.

While you prepare your portfolio, research the newspapers available in the geographic area in which you wish to settle. Familiarize yourself with these publications and their editorial and graphic style (the Web made this so easy). Choose newspapers which run images similar to those you currently shoot. They will be more receptive if your style matches theirs.

Once you have found some visually like-minded newspapers (completely ignore the editorial page), find out the specific name and title of whomever hires PJs (photo editor or managing editor). Call to verify spellings and find out more about the photo department.

Two critical questions are:
How many staff photographers are employed? Do the photographers take advertising and/or real estate photos as well as editorial (a non-starter for many PJs)?

Once you're satisfied, send your portfolio CD to the specific hiring person at each newspaper you've identified. Include a hard-copy resume and an availability date along with all your contact numbers, specific Web sites and e-mail addresses. Let them know if you are willing to start as a freelance PJ (stringer) and work your way in or if you only want a full-time staff job.

Two weeks after you send your resume package, send a follow-up e-mail or call. Find out about the status of your portfolio review.

Don't take anything personal. Newspapers are businesses. They hire when they need someone. Smaller papers always spend time on their established customers before they spend time on anyone looking for a job.

The long-term goal for most photographers is to be recruited by the big metro dailies. This requires talent and tenacity. Mostly, it takes winning contests or some other means of separating yourself from competitors.

Getting "known" is the great mystery all of us must find at our own pace. Mostly, it starts with publication. The best image in the world is absolutely useless if it's sitting in a shoebox or on a CD in your office. The goal of photojournalism is publication. The terms each photographer is willing to accept sets the outlets for the photographer.

In the meantime, research magazines which report on events in your area. Try to get freelance gigs with them now. Each byline gets your name known in the community. You need to use the same method to get a foot in the door with both newspapers and magazines.

Many professional photographers must supplement their income with freelance shoots for magazines. The Photographers' Market by Writers Digest Books is an outstanding starting point for professional photographers. It lists the exact image specifications, pay rates and terms of each publisher. It also has helpful articles about the biz, interviews with working pros and business forms you'll need.

Even with this major tool, there are two ways to approach the market. You can either work on speculation (self-assigned shoots with no guarantee) or you can work on assignment. Most publications won't offer or accept the assignments unless they're familiar with a PJ's name and style. Therefore, PJs wishing to crack the market need to do some spec work.

Once a PJ has some clips, s/he can enter more competitions and refine her or his clientele. This becomes the cycle until the PJ's knees and back are too damaged to do the job anymore, the PJ moves to the editing desk, or the PJ becomes a little pink cloud on a battlefield somewhere.

Once you get a job offer, be picky. Newspaper jobs aren't like normal jobs. Many PJs change jobs and move up the chain early in their career. However, most simply don't have time to look for a new job once they start. Some newspapers offer take-it-or-leave-it $250 p/week (hint: leave it). Others may suggest the 40-hour job may include occasional non-paid overtime (hint: they abuse it).

Because it's so difficult to break into the market, I again stress the importance of internships. The right internship can save a PJ five years of financial and emotional suffering as well as avoiding the initial job hunt and some possibly humiliating freelance conditions.

If you don't have a journalism-related degree, I'd also strongly encourage a media law course or at least reading a related book. Although the right to publish is protected by the 1st Amendment, the actions of individual journalists are not. Know your rights before you go on the streets.

Enough for now,

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