How do you make life better at a newspaper?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t do a follow up to the post about what is a newspaper photograph, offering some thoughts about how to improve life in newsprint.

First, it astounds me how much conversation that newspaper photograph post generated. Comments here and on sportsshooter.com and elsewhere reflect, in many ways, the state of the industry. Many of you are frustrated by reduced staffs, more daily assignments, less space, a return to newsroom structures of the 1970’s, fewer visual managers, limited budgets, more demands for video, multimedia, galleries and on and on.

And some of you persevere with positive attitudes in spite of all this. Bravo.

A former newspaper co-worker said it best: “I liked it better when we did less with more.”

It's ever more difficult to maintain a positive attitude. Lee Steele sounded yet another sad note Monday when talking about photojournalism entries in this year’s Society for News Design (SND) competition, “Amid all our positive observations, we became concerned about the state of photojournalism in the pages we saw. We missed emotional photographs. Glossy magazines and newsprint pages with vast, luxurious expanses of space were largely devoid of powerful photojournalism.”

Being successful at a newspaper, regardless of its size and limitations, requires a lot of different approaches to ensuring that you’ll be able to at least get the chance to make compelling pictures. The core goal is to get the newsroom to respect you and your contribution to the newspaper.

You might think that making what you consider to be good pictures alone earns respect. Nope. Figure that many of the people in your newsroom judge your work by a different standard, mostly by how well it goes with their stories, headlines or designs or by how well you work with others or how well you can talk about what they care about. And they - people who aren’t involved in producing pictures - outnumber you about 10 to 1.

These are not bad people. They just bring their personal judgments about photography to the table in assuming that their authority over the word realm carries over equally to visuals, in spite of generally having little training, experience or acumen in the visual realm. They apply standards that work for words to photography. Yet they'd never think of doing the opposite.

Approaches to bridging this gap break into three areas: educating the newsroom, team building and things you can do for yourself. Ideas that follow are either ones that you can do as an individual - whether you’re a photographer or a manager - or ones that your photo department can execute as a group.

EDUCATING/TEAM BUILDING

  • Host gatherings to present and talk about the best work you’ve done. These can happen every other week or monthly. You should definitely do a year’s end session. Work with the design team to do this, at least some of the time. Designers should be your best allies in the newsroom. Start out by inviting just the photo and design teams, to get comfortable with the process and then start inviting the whole newsroom or specific subsets. You can use different approaches to showing work. The best ones are interactive. For instance: Spread out pages and let everyone there vote on which ones are most successful. Then ask the group why those pages work best. Let one photographer and one designer show and talk about what their best work from that period was. Ask a respected staffer from elsewhere in the newsroom to put forth what he or she thinks was most successful visually. Make whatever you do fun, not a lecture.
  • Post successful pages from elsewhere in the country in a public setting, with comments. These can be focused or general collections but the critical part is saying something about them. Don’t assume that people will get your point just by seeing the pages. Part of the point in doing this is to become an authority, a voice for strong visuals. Asking other staffers to make selections and write something will increase your throw.
  • Compliment someone outside of photography every day for the work they did. This tells them you recognize their contribution; maybe they’ll recognize your value. Tim Gallagher, the best Editor I’ve worked for, started the day with ten pennies beside his keyboard. With each compliment he gave, he’d move one penny to the other side of the keyboard - ten cents a day.
  • Connect with two or three reporters who work well with photographers. Check in with them regularly to see what stories they’re working. Be their go-to person for figuring out how to make pictures that don’t suck so their stories get elevated and you get to make better pictures. If each photographer does this, the impact is huge. Of course, the photo managers have to buy in to this approach.
  • Bend over backwards to make things happen when another department or reporter thinks it’s important, even if you know the photography won’t be great. (I know, this happens every day in most newspapers.) The critical thing is this: Let them know that you’re compromising your standards for the perceived greater good and tell them you’ll expect the same from them some of the time. Over time, neither of you will have to compromise as often because you’ll have a better understanding of each other’s needs and standards.
  • Present at least two ideas a week that make good stories for words and pictures. Pitch the ideas to your peer group - photographer to reporter, editor to editor. You’ll probably get ignored most of the time at first, but over time, more of your ideas will be taken seriously. If the writing side doesn’t bite on a particularly good idea, go ahead and make the pictures and write a piece and post them to your site or run it as a standalone in print. Someone is likely to recognize the value some of the time and question why a reporter didn’t write something. Gain momentum.
  • Post a photo of the week in a public setting. Get the whole photo staff involved in selecting the photo and let the photographer who made the picture write a piece about why the photo happened.
  • Seek feedback as a staff. How people respond to your work is telling. So ask people what they think. It’s another form of getting outside of your self. The more informed the people you ask, the more you’ll learn from them. Responding to your work is what I do.
  • Enter contests. You probably won’t win. No big deal. The value is in looking at your work from a different perspective and deciding what works and what doesn’t. Be honest about why. Ask others to respond to what you’re entering. Start conversations. Don’t moan about what wins. Whoever runs a given contest decides who will win when chosing the judges. 
  • Talk. The rest of the newsroom is about words. Use your words.

DO THESE FOR YOU

  • Grow as a person, grow as a photographer. Photographs will say no more than the person who made them is capable of saying. So expand who your are, what you know, what you’ve done. Your photography will follow. 
  • Drive to work a different way, see different things. This is just one way to keep fresh in your community. Stop when you see something interesting and find out more. Maybe there’s a picture.
  • Meet someone new outside of work every week.
  • Get involved in a new layer of photography in your community - schools, clubs, art, galleries.
  • Make pictures for yourself, every day; make pictures that are about your life.
  • Make one picture a week that you wouldn’t have the week before, in a way that is new to you.
  • Always have three stories in the works - one you can do this week, one that takes a month or more, one that takes you months or years. Add a personal essay to the mix. Find a way.
  • You get paid to make pictures. No matter how inane the subject matter, how restricted the time with subjects, how lousy the play of your photos or how little you do get paid, you get paid to make pictures. Make the best of it. Should the checks stop, you’ll be ready.
  • Once a day for two weeks, don’t put the main subject in the middle of the frame. I dare you.
  • Once a week, make a bad assignment better. At year’s end, you’ll have 50 or so photos that are better than they would have been.
  • Say no to a bad assignment once a week, but have a better idea at the ready.
  • Once a week, make a photo that is not a cliché.
  • Try to emulate a master photographer.
  • Contact a photographer or picture editor you admire and ask them to look at your work.

This is just a start. If you do a few of these things, they will make a difference in your work life, your life in print.

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