Every good story needs a villain, not a photo


Editor’s note: This post was written by guest contributor Jessica Puente, audience development manager for The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, USA.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or at least it used to be. 

Remember when the majority of newspaper photos were taken by professional photographers with years of experience and professional equipment? Now we see amateur iPhone photos varnished with a Sierra filter on the cover of the New York Times.

That’s not to say smartphone photos are bad or lacking in quality. Plenty of professional photographers are now using their phones as another camera to capture those coveted shots without having to lug around a heavy camera body. 

Storms, riots, and elections have shown us the advantages of having a camera in every reporter’s pocket. During Hurricane Sandy, users were posting 10 pictures per second with the hashtag #Sandy. And that was just on Instagram. 

Unfortunately, this behaviour of rapidly and constantly sharing our world with others through cameras is one of the causes of the deflation of photos. And newspapers have fallen to groupthink on this one. 

I bet you can find an editor in most newsrooms calling for a photo with each story, for a “twitpic” or five-second video showing the grass where some news may or may not have taken place because readers want some sort of graphic. 

Editors know this because they’ve pored over the analytics that show more people click on stories with art elements.

They know this because Facebook just announced its redesign in which the biggest change was enlarging all the photos.

They know this because Instagram has more than a 100 million users and, while no one has quite figured out how to make money from this, newspapers everywhere are sharing their photos on the popular app. (Because giving away content for free has worked so well for the industry in the past.

One of the grossest abuses of the word “photo” I have ever seen was on a newspaper Web site. A simple image search for “crime blotter” will retrieve thousands of edited pieces of “cover art” used on stories without actual photos. 

No. 7 on the list of Principles of Journalism is: “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. For its own survival, it must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need. In short, it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.”

Newspapers are inducing digital overload in their audience by shoving these images at the top of article pages, with the hope the reader won’t be able to distinguish between clip art and photojournalism and click on the story anyway. 

Journalists have forgotten why they’re in the business.

There are so many tools for developing audience in this digital age that don’t require stock photos. Build quality content and the people will come.

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