This is Michael Penvose. In April he was arrested for allegedly stealing a thermometer. He claimed he needed the thermometer for his sick baby. A police officer bought the thermometer. When I heard about it, I thought it would make for a good story. The photo became the first photo of mine to win any kind of award. In this case, an NPPA monthly clip contest third place in general news.
The award — even just third in a monthly clip contest — is important to me because I take my photography seriously. My still photography.
I want to say up front, I make no claim to be a great photographer. I’ve worked with great photographers, especially at the Ventura County Star, and I wouldn’t put myself in their class. But I think my experience with photography and the news business gives me a little perspective.
For those who don’t know or don’t remember, I was once the guy pushing the idea that every reporter should be carrying an inexpensive camera and shooting a little video.
My position pissed off a lot of NPPA members. The debate raged for a couple of years. Chuck Fadely and I debated the issue at an NPPA short course in Rochester in 2008.
As Stewart Pittman would frequently point out, I was all talk.
When I started The Batavian, it gave me a chance to put into practice a little more of what I had been preaching.
As time when on, I found readers responded more to the still photos I posted then videos. I started shooting more photos and producing fewer videos.
It should be noted, in all my pontificating I don’t believe I ever called for dumping photojournalists from the payroll. I don’t recall it ever crossing my mind that there wouldn’t be a place for highly skilled and trained and well equipped professional photojournalists.
In the early days of my ownership of The Batavian, it dawned me — duh! — I don’t have a photography staff. There’s nobody here with a DSLR.
So, I sold a domain I owned and bought a Nikon D-90.
With a better camera, my still photos garnered even more kudos from readers. It was at this point, I pretty much totally abandoned video. For the same or less time than it took to shoot and produce a video, I could write a story and post a photo gallery and get more page views and more feedback from readers (either in comments or on the street).
The positive feedback from readers gave me a feeling that maybe I had a little talent I should try to improve on. I became — and still am — obsessed with photography.
As I upgraded my lenses, I was able to do more. As I upgraded my lenses and did more, I got more positive feedback from readers.
When I upgraded my camera to a D-7000, with it’s better dynamic range, readers noticed. They didn’t know I bought a new camera. They just knew the photography improved.
When I bought a used 70-200mm 2.8 lens, again, readers noticed the pictures got better. People would stop me on the street to compliment my photos.
When I upgraded that lens to something newer, readers noticed again.
This progression of events has underscored what many already know: readers care about quality still photos. They do notice a difference in quality and do enjoy stills.
No reader has ever asked me, “why don’t you shoot video?” or “you used to do video — what happened to your video?” There seems to be no demand from my audience for video.
We’re more than five years removed from the great video debates. Technology has improved. Computers are faster. Bandwidth has increased. And — users are not flocking to video, except purely as entertainment. I still hear from people at newspapers and views on the vast majority of newspaper-produced video remain too low to really justify the effort. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.
Point-and-shoot, video, iPhone photography all has its place in the river of news, but so does the professionally produced stills and videos of those trained, skilled and properly equipped, and put in the right places, to shoot and edit.
Which brings us to the Chicago Sun-Times.
There’s an old saying in business, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”
There’s no indication that newspaper executives ever learned this fundamental rule of business.
The news business is all about content. Advertising is important (and it’s content, too), but without compelling, interesting stories and pictures, there is no news business.
There was a time I was hailed in the news industry as some sort of champion of citizen journalism. I never saw myself that way. I never saw Cit-J as anything other than a supplement to what professionals do.
Only professionals consistently and continually sit through boring meetings, develop sources, hone their skills and their knowledge, stick with the same story month-after-month, year-after-year, have the experience and knowledge that goes with proper news gathering techniques, and can repeatedly craft a torrent of information into coherent stories. And I mean on a consistent, ongoing basis.
It’s hard to fathom a news executive thinking he or she can can replace professional staff with Cit-J and/or poorly equipped writers with inexpensive cameras and still remain viable as a news business. But that seems to be what is happening.
Without audience, you will lose advertising, and readers and viewers want news that they find compelling and engaging. If they don’t get it from you, they will go elsewhere, and if there’s no satisfactory alternative, they’ll just watch laughing babies and tumbling cats on YouTube. Purposefully diminishing the quality of the news product is no way to retain your audience.
My experience on the business side of the business and on the content side of the business tells me this was a really dumb business decision.