CatchLight, a California-based nonprofit, was launched in 2015 to create opportunities and support for photojournalists; over the past several years, they’ve created project grants for photojournalists and partnered with local newsrooms to offer financial support and training for early-career photographers (in some cases, partnering with organizations like Report for America to pay photojournalist stipends). Today, CatchLight Local announced that five philanthropic organizations will invest a combined two million dollars over the next several years in an effort to address what CatchLight CEO Elodie Mailliet Storm calls “image deserts”: the decline and dearth of photojournalism at the local level.
Mailliet Storm, who worked for a decade at Getty Images, says the past few years of CatchLight’s pilot programs in local newsrooms—supported, in the past, by groups like the Lenfest Institute and Facebook— reinforced her belief that photojournalism is uniquely valuable for local communities and local publications, even as photo budgets are downsized as local publications lose financial resources. “We’re looking at the media ecosystem, saying we don’t understand why people don’t trust us,” Mailliet Storm says. “But you’re looking at practices [that are] essentially entirely disinvested from any form of visual media storytelling.” When the CatchLight team launched pilot partnership programs with local newsrooms in 2019, they hypothesized that photojournalism would increase engagement for local papers in addition to creating personal connections between a publication and its audience and even increase local newsrooms’ long term sustainability.
CatchLight has collected data from their news partners, finding that newsrooms that paired their reporting with editorial images increased their engagement, their social media followings, and donations to the publication. The newsrooms that participated in CatchLight Local’s pilot fellowship programs over the past two years have either hired their fellow full time or expanded their photojournalism budgets. And beyond those measurable benefits, Mailliet Storm believes their programs have underlined other intangible assets of localized photojournalism: the universal language of images, their emotional impact, and their possibility for building intimacy—and trust. When photojournalism is responsible and embedded in its community, “visuals are a very democratic tool,” Mailliet Storm says.
The “image deserts” that Mailliet Storm describes are similar to “news deserts” in the parallel rise of available digital content along with the decline of trustworthy content. With the popularity of social platforms like Instagram and Facebook, images are everywhere. “If you run a search by location on Instagram, it’s usually ads for belly fat, selfies, images of pretty vistas that people want to share with their friends and families, but it’s not really meant to be informational around the community that is being represented,” Mailliet Storm says. Editorial photography, on the other hand, is uniquely valuable but too often under-resourced. “Yes, there are more and more pictures of places. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s high quality information being served to the community.”
Photojournalist David Rodriguez began volunteering for CatchLight in 2018, which led to a job opportunity as a reporter and photojournalist at the Salinas Californian, his hometown paper, and a CatchLight fellowship in 2020. Amid the pandemic, Rodriguez photographed farmworkers in a five-part photo essay that documented crowded living conditions and food insecurity. “For two years, I’ve been building bridges in this community, bridging this local community that I love so much to their local newsroom,” Rodriguez says, adding that photojournalism has the benefit of immediate power: “the power to create instant connections.”
Sheyanne Romero, news editor at the Californian, says Rodriguez’s work has been “invaluable” to the paper, creating both engagement and impact. Photojournalism has a unique journalistic mandate to call attention to stories, people, and situations that may not be readily visible to all audiences, Romero says, particularly in a time of isolation and crisis. For example, she says, “you don’t necessarily see fire evacuees if you’re not personally impacted by fire.” Photojournalism confronts its audience with images of their neighbors’ reality outside their own isolated spheres.
Geographic communities, after all, are made up of people who don’t naturally see themselves as communities when self-selecting information online. Our civic networks are broader than those we might choose for ourselves. Good photojournalism can serve as a many-way mirror; at least, that’s what CatchLight and its partners hope and believe. “There’s such a value in showing a community what it looks like,” Romero says. “Since David came on, Salinas was reintroduced to itself.”
CatchLight’s California desk will fund ten photojournalist fellows, a visual editor, and an editorial and engagement director for the next few years, working with newsroom partners like CalMatters and others still to be announced. “My hope is to build a collaborative and sustainable way for visual journalism in local media,” Mailliet Storm says. Perhaps visual journalism can, in turn, help sustain local media and the communities it serves. That’s CatchLight’s bet.
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, and to foster a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us. (Click to subscribe!)
EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:
- LOCAL REPORTERS REFUSE VACCINES, WIN ATTENTION: Even though the number of local reporters resisting vaccination mandates is small, many have used their elevated access to platform their views, The Washington Post reported. “These journalists aren’t much different from other workers who have opposed employee vaccination mandates, whether in health care, law enforcement, education or any other field — except for one thing: They’re among the best-known people in their communities as a result of beaming into homes for years or even decades,” Paul Farhi writes. “Because of their high profiles, the fired journalists have captured local headlines and in some cases have become heroic figures to local vaccine resisters.”
- UNCOVERING THE LIFE OF COMMUNITY PAPERS IN SOUTH CAROLINA: For the Charleston Post and Courier series “Uncovered”—which focuses on unearthing corruption that can fester in the absence of local news coverage—Jennifer Berry Hawes and Stephen Hobbs spent months exploring the role of community newspapers across the state of South Carolina, which lost ten community papers last year. “It’s important not to just say, ‘Newspapers across the state are closing,’ or that there are small newspapers that are running small staffs,” Hobbs told CJR. “It’s important to see what that looks like in practice, and show that.”
- REUTERS INSTITUTE FINDS THAT USERS WANT “IMPARTIAL” NEWS: The Reuters Institute’s 2021 Digital News report found that survey respondents across age groups and geographic regions in Brazil, Germany, the UK, and the US valued news that they perceived to be impartial, “even if some consider it an impossible ideal.” Respondents also reported an interest in both news and opinion but indicated they often have difficulty distinguishing between the two.
- SINCLAIR HACK TIED TO RUSSIA: Last week, Sinclair broadcasting, a media conglomerate that owns nearly 300 television stations across the United States, was hacked in a cyberattack. Bloomberg reported that the hack was linked to a Russian cybergang called Evil Corp.
- AN ALTERNATIVE PATH TO JOURNALISM EDUCATION: For Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton proposed that the journalism industry offer aspiring journalists alternative certification programs to widen the employment pool and eliminate barriers to entry. Benton argues that alternative certification programs have been successful in the field of education, bringing in talented teachers from other careers and improving the field’s diversity. Journalism education needs an affordable, available, flexible option that offers networking opportunities and some level of prestige, Benton writes, and perhaps such a program can “open up possibilities for a lot of the people for whom traditional paths don’t work.” Jihii Jolly added to Benton’s point for the Time Spent newsletter, writing that investment in professional journalism assumes that it’s the only—or the most important—way to deliver news to the public. “I think traditional journalism is an important but shrinking piece of our information architecture for reasons beyond the industry’s struggle to support itself and be trusted,” Jolly writes, arguing that the industry’s boundaries around professional journalism are largely meaningless to its audience.
- HOW ONE PAPER IN FINLAND COMMUNICATES THE VALUE OF A PAYWALL: Helsingin Sanomat, the only subscription-based national newspaper in Finland, maintains high subscription rates and high levels of trust with its audience by carefully selecting the stories it places behind a paywall and labeling them with a diamond rather than a lock symbol, Nieman Lab reports. “We felt that the lock does not signal the added value of quality journalism and advanced digital storytelling,” editor-in-chief Kaius Niemi told Hanaa’ Tameez. “Rather, it had a risk of creating a negative connotation by closing the gate in front of a potential subscriber. Diamonds also illustrate the hard work behind the stories.” The publication also focuses on building future audiences with a newspaper aimed at children and a children’s television show that builds media literacy skills.
- IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: McKay Coppins profiled vulture fund and newspaper vampire Alden Global Capital for The Atlantic.