Cheap shot

March 2, 2015

Pictures are worth 1,000 words—or at least they used to be. Images come cheap in the digital news market, with iPhone snapshots saturating social media and high-quality cameras becoming more affordable for amateurs eager to get published. Many newsrooms have responded by slashing photo staffs. In 2013, the Chicago Sun-Times justified axing its entire 28-person team, including Pulitzer Prize-winner John H. White, with a supposed shift toward online video. (The newspaper has since rehired four of those photographers and laid off its video team.) Publications now rely more heavily on freelance work or wire images. “User-generated content” fills in the cracks. Quality suffers.

The danger isn’t that we’ll see fewer photos in the news—Sports Illustrated cutting its staff photographers this year won’t prevent it from shooting any Super Bowls. The real threat to photojournalism is the decline of storytelling by way of still images, whose unique impact lies in the ability to record the emotion of a specific moment that speaks to a larger truth. Staff photographers are more often afforded the resources needed to grab that fleeting nuance. With today’s news in seemingly perpetual motion—be it constant breaking news alerts on cable or bite-sized nuggets on Twitter—the power of capturing infinitely brief points in time endures.

Hope Born from the optimistic ideal of postwar urban renewal programs, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects eventually became an emblem of urban poverty and despair. Still, photographer John H. White highlighted joy amid the anguish in his acclaimed 1981 series. (John H. White)

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.