While mentoring photojournalism students at nearby universities, a question that comes up often nowadays is: “Am I wasting my time getting a degree in a profession that is disappearing?”
To some, photojournalism, my chosen profession for the past 50 years, is headed for the dumpster. Newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times, have fired their entire photography staff and announced they will depend on reporter and reader-submitted photographs and, in some cases, free-lancers.
Other publications are paring back.
Gannett, owner of USA Today and other newspapers, is training reporters to use iPhones for photos and multimedia and a newspaper editor made headlines recently by saying, in effect, that it is easier to train a reporter to take photos than to train a photographer to write.
Sorry, I don’t buy that. I learned early on as a photographer that adding reporting skills to my portfolio increased my chances for employment. Yes, I wanted primarily to take photos for newspaper but I also found that learning to cover stories as a reporter meant the difference between getting a job or not having one.
Somewhere along the line, without realizing it, I became what the the media chains now call a “multimedia journalist” which is someone that can cover a story, write about it, illustrate it with photos and — if necessary — shoot video for the web site or broadcast use.
So I tell students: Develop your passion but also add skills that increase your chance to get a job.
Is specialization dead in journalism? No, but for those of us who work now or have worked a lot for small and medium sized newspapers throughout our lives, specialization vanished long ago.
When I went to work for The Floyd Press as a high-school student, editor and owner Pete Hallman wasn’t looking for just a photographer. He wanted someone to write stories, take photos and occasionally run the Linotype, help lay out pages and do just about anything else that came up.
In 1965, when Jim Echols, then city editor of The Roanoke Times, hired me as the paper’s youngest full-time reporter, he looked at my photos but paid more attention to my file folder of newspaper story clips.
“I’m not looking for photographers who can also write,” he said, “but I am looking for reporters who can also take pictures.”
The same was true five years later when I moved on to The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois. I became a reporter who illustrated his own stories and also produced photo features. Over an 11-year term at the paper, I also wrote columns, produced the weekend magazine, served as city editor for a while and edited the weekend edition of the paper.
So, as I look back now at a career that includes work for newspapers, magazines, wire services and broadcast outlets, I wonder if I could have survived in this profession as just a photographer or a reporter or even a video cameraman.
Probably not. There are specialized photographers much better, dedicated reporters far more skilled and videographers with a far more advanced visual style. To borrow an old stereotyped phrase, it was better in my case to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Still, as one who still today writes stories about government, courts and justice, produces photo features and puts together videos, I love what I do.
In the end, that’s what matters most.