Illinois photo editors seek to tap into Instagram’s popularity

Photo: AP

Ten months ago, the Chicago Tribune simultaneously launched two accounts on Instagram, the photo-sharing social media platform: one showcasing the work of the paper’s staff photographers and another highlighting old photos from the basement archives.

In less than a year, the staff photography account has attracted a respectable 4,496 followers. But it is the vintage account—the brainchild of Robin Daughtridge, the paper’s director of photography—that has been the surprise hit, with nearly 25,000 followers.

Daughtridge and photo editor Marianne Mather post up to eight photos a day, little black-and-white flashbacks from the massive archives of the Tribune Tower. Recent photos show morning commuters on an express bus in 1981, two women at North Avenue Beach in 1960, and a late-career Babe Ruth in his Boston Braves uniform, sitting in the Wrigley Field dugout in 1935.

“We were really surprised,” Mather said. “We weren’t sure what the response would be. The vintage photos resonate with people.”

For newspaper photo desks, the experience of the Tribune—and smaller publications around Illinois—represents both the appeal and the limitations of trying to tap into Instagram’s broad popularity. The workflow can be cumbersome; the photos that followers like don’t always have much news value, and there are few opportunities to generate revenue or even link back to a news organization’s website. But it’s hard to ignore the potential to engage, and expand, an audience.

Instagram “doesn’t track back and can’t be quantified in the way Twitter and Facebook can,” said Mike Zajakowski, the Tribune’s picture editor, who manages the staff photography account with another photo editor, Andrew Johnston. That means it can be hard to measure the concrete benefits against the time invested. The format is “restrictive,” he added, and “it can be humbling or aggravating to see photos a professional photographer or editor might consider banal get 5,000 likes.”

Still, Zajakowski said, “To me, jumping headfirst into Instagram was a no-brainer because it’s millions of potential contact points for our work.”

Like other news organizations, the Tribune had been watching Instagram’s popularity soar since its launch in October 2010. The app, which allows users to share photographs and short videos from mobile devices, has more than 300 million active monthly users by its own account, surpassing Twitter late last year. One of the first to media outlets to embrace Instagram, National Geographic, has more than 17 million followers on the platform.

The Tribune actually launched its first Instagram account three years ago. A compilation of photos from readers and viewers, rather than staff-generated content, it now counts more than 21,000 followers. (At other large papers around the country, it is not uncommon for the “main” account to have many more followers than the accounts of the photo or video desks, though not all publications feature user content on the main account.)

Other newspapers around the state are experimenting with the app, too, in different ways according to their resources. The Chicago Sun-Times, which laid off its photojournalists in 2013, has about 4,400 followers. The paper posts photos from freelance photographers and its archives, images of its front page, and sometimes photos from the wire services.

“The Instagram mission changes a little when you aren’t using people you own as opposed to people you rent,” said Craig Newman, the Sun-Times’ managing editor. Recently, Newman shared a photo of a volcano erupting in Chile that was taken by a Getty photographer. “Do we have a hard and fast strategy? Not necessarily,” Newman said. “We try to be flexible on it and try to engage with how people are using it and how people are using ours… We use it as a tip engine, a resource in regards for looking for Chicago stories, newsy stuff, pretty pictures of the city.”

Smaller newspapers here in Illinois, many without dedicated social media editors, have generally found smaller audiences to date. The Daily Herald, Chicago’s largest suburban daily, has 392 followers. The photo account for the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale has 172. The State Journal-Register in Springfield just started posting regularly to its account, which has 16 posts and 15 followers. All three publications use staff photography on their accounts.

Rich Saal, the photography editor for the Journal-Register, said he knows people are interested in the work of the paper’s four staff photographers. Instagram may be a way to promote the publication’s Visual Journal website, which launched last October, he said.

But given the amount of work it takes to move images from professional photo equipment to the app—a complaint shared by other photo editors—Saal said he sometimes wonders whether it’s worth his time.

“There’s really no great way to post to Instagram from a laptop [or a] desktop,” he said. “Instagram wants to remain a totally mobile platform. They aren’t playing. It’s literally me emailing a picture to myself and a caption as well and then posting from my phone. It’s just a bit of a pain.”

For small photo desks already trying to share their work on other platforms from Facebook to Flickr, that labor-intensive workflow can be an obstacle. (See a fuller account of the workflow from the Tribune’s Zajakowski below.)

But at the Southern Illinoisan, staff photographer Rich Sitler, who manages the account, thinks it can be worthwhile. “It’s really trying to create a buzz,” he said. “We can put things up that show off what we do.”

Liz Shepherd, a spokeswoman for Instagram, said the company is looking at ways to use the mobile app from a computer.

“People are documenting the world in their communities,” she said. “We need to make it easier to find the content. We are doing this for all our users, not just news organizations. But it will make it easier for newsrooms. They live on desktops.”

At the Tribune, the photo editors who manage the accounts also spend a fair amount of time reporting and researching to create a caption that tells a fuller story—up to an hour on an individual image. Zajakowski did that recently with an image of a painter working on the clock tower at the Macy’s store in the Loop.

They track the response, monitoring the comments and likes different types of images tend to attract. “Dogs and cats get the most comments,” said Mather. The most popular, measured by likes? “It has been skyline photos, anything traditional Chicago, Al Capone, gangsters, Michael Jordan.”

On the contemporary staff account, weather images do especially well: A striking photo of an ice-enshrouded pier along Lake Michigan drew 330 likes; an image of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia preparing for a debate had 78.

“In a way, you can’t blame Instagram for not being all that for professional photographers,” Zajakowski said. “As a social network, it’s a lot bigger than us, and isn’t about photography per se anyway. It’s about making connections and sharing visual information and lightening your day.”

*****

I asked Mike Zajakowski, picture editor at the Chicago Tribune, to describe his Instagram workflow. This is what he wrote:

I take the photo from Mediaserver, our photo system, open it in Photoshop, crop it (roughly 12”x12” @72dpi) and put it on a square, white canvas. I may tone it slightly in desktop Photoshop, but Andrew [Johnston] may also tone (slightly) in Snapseed. Often, they don’t need toning or sharpening.

I drag the photo into a folder in my personal Google Drive, and then copy and paste the photographer’s caption into a Google Doc in my Drive. Then I copyedit the caption, and if there is one, I’ll get the online story and add color, detail, quotes, and even additional information I report myself. (The clock photo is an example of that). I then add Instagram and Twitter handles and hashtags at the end, after the photographer’s name. Then I read it a couple of times.

Then I go to my phone and save the photo to my phone. Then I open the Google Doc on my phone and copy the caption.

Then I go to Instagram, choose the photo from my camera roll, paste the caption (and read it again) and post.

As I write it out it seems long, but it only takes a couple of minutes. What takes time is finding, choosing and cropping the photo precisely. Plus any additional reporting or writing, of course.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.