Friday, May 11, 2007

Consider PJ's future

During April and early May each year I typically get a barrage of research paper requests. Most students want answers to the same 20 questions all teachers require. Occasionally, I'll get thought-provoking questions. I thought others might also benefit from the answers.

Tonight's answers went to a Harvard University senior.

How has technology changed the industry most significantly in the past 10 years?
The most obvious change is speed of delivery. Ten years ago, speed equated to horsepower in our cars and ability to avoid police. Then, speed was a matter of minutes.

Now, images are delivered via wireless broadband and FM signals at rates unimaginable 15 years ago. We can literally plop down on a mountaintop and deliver images within seconds to any location on the globe. Speed is now measured in fractions of seconds.

This is caused by two marketplace forces:   cable TV news and the Internet.

Previously, newspapers needed an entirely new product each day. Now, we need a partially new product at least each 15 minutes. Ten seconds would be better, but (thankfully) we're not there yet.

The pressure to immediately deliver news came from television and specifically cable networks such as CNN. Because they were able to deliver headline information throughout the day, the audience changed its demands.

This trend initially impacted broadcast TVPJs. Now, still PJs and VJs must deliver "on the fly" as well.

Newspaper readers still depended on newspapers to thoughtfully and methodically examine news and acquire original, authoritative content. Ironically, television outlets also depended on this process for their news. "Breaking news" has to initially come from somewhere.

Traditionally, newspapers broke the information on the wires and TV news broadcasters read the information in a stuffy studio. In the last 25 years, TV outlets have evolved into fast reaction forces to provide information for the 24-hour news broadcast networks. This also allows them to relocate and capture news as it happens.

Advertisers don't particularly care about how thoughtful or meaningful information is. They must get their message to the most people with the least effort and expense. While print media remains the most powerful advertising avenue. Cable television provides a large (semi-captive) audience and relatively low expenses per viewer.

Simultaneously, Internet throughput speeds have soared to amazing rates. The original ability to move a business document across the country at 9,000 bits per second made businesses more agile and reduced costs.

Soon, throughput will be measured in hundreds of gigabytes per second. This allows broadband delivery of high-quality audio and video at faster-than-real-time speeds.

The Internet allowed advertisers to capture a specific audience for little to no expense. This seriously damaged newspaper classified advertising. As time has been compressed from minutes to fractions of a second, classified advertising was reduced from thousands of dollars to fractions of a penny for advertisers.

Essentially, newspapers were forced to speed their delivery cycle by television while having their financial legs removed by online forces such as E-bay, Amazon and thousands of similar Web sites.

Most newspapers have reacted appropriately although slowly. To compete for advertising income against both television and online sources, newspapers have invested in online technologies. Although display advertising has been reluctant to move online, YouTube and other online audio-visual outlets are currently in the process of changing the marketplace again.

Years of financial warfare has taken its toll on the newspaper industry. Many inefficient and overburdened newspapers have failed and fallen in the last 25 years. However, news acquisition as a profession continues to attract some of the brightest and most inquisitive young minds. Intellectual resources have traditionally been the newspaper industry's strongest asset.

Now, newspapers are positioned to deliver high-definition news and advertising via video over the Internet at speeds and quality surpassing real-time television. Meanwhile they remain the primary authoritative voice for local and regional information and analysis.

Organizations with newspaper assets that have vision and tenacity are prepared and possess the technology to take back some of what has been lost over the last 25 years. However, the product itself no longer resembles its original format.

A modern journalist is individually prepared to deliver meaningful audio and video of breaking news in real-time as well as thoughtful analysis on slower-moving issues. The information determines the method of delivery (written, audio or visual).

Predictable income, traditional access and legal protections are persistent problems for individual journalists. This is good for the newspaper industry. They can provide these three assets to qualified journalists who aren't prepared to "go it alone."

Obviously, media organizations must compete for these highly-qualified, multi-media journalists.

Through the Internet, these Renaissance journalists are developing a personal audience beyond the scope of the larger media outlet. If organizations don't equip and reward these specialists appropriately, they'll lose the resources and an individual journalist's audience. Moreover, these journalists have the potential to become powerful competitors in the same market.

If this trend continues, audience share could be measured as an aggregate of the individual Renaissance journalists and their individual audiences within an organization. Fifteen or 20 such Renaissance journalists could join forces to provide legal protection, combined authority (for access), predictable income and insurance for the unit.

They could take with them their core audiences and have the ability to successfully compete directly against the organizations they feel did not support them appropriately in the past. Meanwhile, the business model for such organizations is far more profitable than traditional print media.

As PF Bentley recently warned publishers and editors, "The videographers are your future income and the only hope you have to save the "paper." I'd take very good care of them."

Can anyone be a photojournalist given these new technologies?
I won't discourage anyone from trying.

A photojournalist is a degreed professional. We tell accurate, meaningful stories with our vision. This isn't something a 4-year-old with a point-and-shoot can accomplish. Just as a butter knife doesn't make a surgeon, the recording device doesn't make a pro PJ.

It takes years of training to understand the legal, ethical and financial requirements of this job. This also requires the trust and loyalty of our readers/viewers. If anything, it's becoming more difficult to acquire such volumes of information while simultaneously delivering solid news content.

A PJ's week is packed with physically and mentally demanding news assignments, research, professional education as well as the day-to-day business requirements (meetings, paperwork, e-mails and phone calls). Many also shoot freelance assignments while seeking additional advanced degrees.

Endurance, dedication and tenacity are required skills.

If this question is meant to imply "any monkey can do it," I disagree.

Have these changes forced photojournalists to become better business people, more savvy self-promoters?
Luckily, I work for a huge, privately-owned corporation. This means real profit - rather than whimsical share prices - determine how many employees keep jobs.

Otherwise, PJs have no choice but to embrace solid business practices. The luxury of corporate security evaporated decades ago. The greed of some individuals within the publicly-traded side of the industry has lead to an industry where individual workers are seen as variables within a money-generating structure. In other words, many PJs are viewed as expendable.

This has forced PJs to diversify to such a level that we acquire our own audiences independently of any corporate structure. Instead of relaxing and recuperating after a demanding day, we seek additional freelance clients and outlets for our work.

Many PJs work on advanced degrees while exploring alternative routes for our work (editorial, art, commercial, stock, etc.). PJs must have multiple survival and exit strategies because we simply can't trust the marketplace dynamics and those who have little regard for the long-term ramifications of their short-term, greed-motivated actions.

PJs are in this business for our readers and our readers only. We do what it takes to get stories to readers while ensuring our own survival. After being treated as replaceable variables by corporations, many PJs now view these same corporations as variables rather than retirement communities.

As mentioned above. Renaissance journalists are emerging. These journalists must step away from their artistic inclinations and understand the marketplace realities or choose another industry.

Where do you see the industry in 10 years?
Basically, I see individual journalists using multiple means to deliver information to an individual audience and to the larger general audience through media interconnectivity.

Advertisers, needing to get their message to potential clients, will learn to patronize highly-qualified individual Renaissance journalists capable of creating loyal audiences.

Groups of Renaissance journalists will join forces to initially ensure survival, cut bureaucratic expenses and eventually provide a secure environment to deliver meaningful information while nurturing younger journalists capable of achieving this level of discipline and endurance.

A large part of this vision relies on interaction between journalists and their individual audiences as well as their direction of specialization. Audiences will interact directly with journalists. This two-way flow of information gets information and access to these journalists.

This trend should also expand into the larger, traditional media outlets, who will employ those not willing or capable of venturing into these independent ventures. However, these journalists will eventually realize their own value and demand adequate compensation.

The actual delivery method within 10 years is unknown. I personally thought biodegradable CDs would replace print newspapers by now. I didn't expect podcasts to exist. So I certainly didn't expect A/V podcasts 10 years ago. It's a better option than I originally considered because the entire circulation department is eliminated from the news equation while increasing journalist's contact time with viewers.

Circulation and printing departments remain at traditional newspapers as part of the overall business structure, but these departments become less dependent on the newsroom and must create new sources of revenue to survive. This is healthy for the industry.

While the current trend is toward "live" and "it'll do," I think a measured, refined approach is the hallmark of quality journalism. Information overload has increased the value of those who are able to sift through the mud and find the true diamonds. Audiences and advertisers will follow journalists with the ability to consistently deliver a quality product.

Enough for now,


Eric said...


Fantastic post! I had to read it twice to make sure that I absorbed it all.

Its obvious that speeds have exponentially increased over the years, an will certainly continue to do so. I believe that the limiting factor now is simply "being there". Reporting crews still have to physically be in the ground in order to collect the needed media. This sometimes takes time. Media outlets are working through strategies to overcome this

The most obvious solution has been to trim down the size of the reporting crews. In the past, the standard package, at least for TV, was a reporter, a cameraman, a producer, and maybe a sound engineer. It took time for them to move themselves and all of their gear to the story.

Today, the amount of gear has become significantly smaller, the cameraman is controlling both the visuals and the sound, the reporter is often acting as their own producer. On the extreme we are seeing "backpack or Bedouin journalism" where one person does it all. A good example of this is Michael Yon, currently reporting from Baghdad.

Many media outlets have embraced lay journalists; depending on a bystander with a cell phone camera or a "point and shoot" to collect usable media. This was evident during the events at Virginia Tech. CNN used its i-Reports portal to collect sound and video during the actual shootings.

I'd be interested to read your thoughts on how the media gathering process will be slimed and streamlined in the future.

Hope all's well.


Mark M. Hancock said...


The print side responded with VJs. David Leeson is an example of the corporate structure while Kevin Sites is an example of the Renaissance journalist structure.

I imagine broadcast TV outlets must observe how VJs do it if they wish to cut corners internally.

TV started as an entertainment product and is still regulated as such. Consequently, it leans more heavily toward fiction than truth.

Once enough PJs convert to VJs, there will be content available for TV as well. However, it won't be free, it won't be fiction and it won't be immediate.

The big question is whether VJs will sell their projects to mainstream TV and open themselves to TV regulation and commercial editing. Even now, most of our still images are coded "TV OUT" for a reason.

However, this post is directed at students. They must understand the marketplace to make informed decisions while they're still in school. After graduation is too late.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I enjoyed reading this. It was insightful and more informative than the entire semester I just finished in photojournalism.

I've enjoyed your blog for quite a while, and learned a lot.

Thank you


Mark M. Hancock said...

I'm glad it was helpful. It's unfortunate your course was not.

Jenny Thingshung said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for answering my question. It's the right stuff I'm looking for. Could not find better than this.