Posts Tagged Internet

Put Your Money Where Your Hopes Are

We’ve all heard pitches like this before: If you value the media, buy it.

Columns and reports around the new and old media lately have espoused a pay-for-access model on the net that reflects how the media has functioned for a few centuries. I agree, but I’m not going to repeat that sentiment.

But how many of you — students in particular — actually buy the products for which you aspire to work?

If you’re like I was as a student, your daydreams drift to National Geographic contracts, Time covers, regular newspaper paychecks, magazine spreads, museum collections (and now) online galleries shown by major URLs. We want this work. We want recognition for seeing the world intensely and making compelling images that touch our readers. And we most certainly want to get paid for it.

We lament that budgets are tight, outlets for work are small or underpaid, and jobs are disappearing. And not that our subscriptions would make even the slightest dent in the problems of the media, but I see a hypocrisy in our actions. Wish as we might to earn money from the media for doing good work, do we actually buy those products?

breakfast

Tough morning love for the Journal and the Times.

I looked down at coffee-slopped, crumb-scattered pages of the papers this morning and smirked.

While we lament, we don’t subscribe. It’s expensive to have the New York Times land on my doorstep each morning, but it’s nothing compared to the money I’ve earned from them in the last 20 years. I am one of those people who saves National Geographics and grabs Time, Newsweek and US News off the grocery store rack to browse over lunch and toss in the recycle bin a half hour later.

I even pick up the local free “shopper” rag in any town I find myself because you can learn a lot about a community from what they’re selling.

Why do that when I can get most of that stuff on the Web for free?

Because I can slop breakfast or lunch all over them without having to send hardware in for repair. I can flip through copies as the Thousand Island drips from my reuben, smearing all over the latest Nachtwey essay. I scribble notes in the margins on stories I’d like to chase. I cut out and tack up images that inspire me. I roll them up and stuff them in my back pocket while I stroll. I relish that the ads don’t pop up, flash, scroll, or shout at me. And if still I had a birdcage…

Locals partake of the local papers and a cafe cortado in one of the Buenos Aires' endless confiterias.

Partaking of the local papers and a café cortado in one of the Buenos Aires' endless confiterias.

But the reasons for you should be deeper than old-fashioned practicality. We need to be steeped in images to produce good work. We need to know what is being done out there. We need to have our mental libraries filled with ideas to use, alter or steal outright.

You can do that well on the Web too. It’s a magnificent at-your-fingertips resource with better volume of material presented in more interesting forms. There you have instant and unprecedented access to the entire world’s media. It’s a beautiful thing. But I know that many of you don’t really even look there, and fewer pay for content.

Spend time with the media no matter the form. Proudly pay what you can for the great work being done out there. Browse, explore, slop, spill, clip, print, pay a little. Consume what you hope to produce for yourself — from the scrappy local paper to Newsweek. And by doing so, your ideas and understanding of our craft grow. And you do your tiny part to help the media recover.

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I did have a bird many years ago, and we would play “Birdcage Bingo” with my clips. I’d slip them into his cage and let him tell me what of my work he liked and what he didn’t in a game that was a simple variation on cow pasture bingo. Maybe someday I’ll try that with the Web…

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“What do you tell these kids?”

That question came from a friend and accomplished photojournalist who came to guest lecture last fall. Like everyone in the business she was staring down a lot of potential bad news — disappearing jobs (her own months later), an uncertain model for how to deliver the news and significantly changing technology.

Those of us who have spent a lot of time in the profession are at crossroads we don’t relish.

For many of my colleagues it is now unfathomable that I could or would teach a profession that seems to be disappearing faster each day. Where would students find jobs? How can the profession cope with even more competition?

These aren’t new sentiments. Even before the current economic crisis and financial fall of the newspaper industry I was regularly asked how I could stand to put more “competition” out into a tight workplace.

Teaching is an act of faith. To offer a set of skills to a younger person means you assume that person can succeed and benefit from those skills. Teachers who lack that faith don’t teach as well. Students smell it on them like a rabid dog is said to smell fear.

But my optimism is not fake. After spending 13 years in front of smart, capable and inspiring individuals who ache to throw themselves into the world with a natural sense of immortality, indestructibility, and eyes on the top of the profession.

I remember those days, and so should any other seasoned pro who may be reading this. When you’re in your early 20s you assume you can and will be a member of Magnum someday, or a book-publishing documentary photographer, accomplished war reporter, National Geographic contractor, or a local news institution.

And when you’re in your early 20s you have no preconceptions about how you will get there. No patterns of working nor ladder climbing exist yet. There are a hundred possible roads to the future.

Teaching is also a selfish act. I have to confess that I get as much from my students as they hopefully do from me. Hanging around with younger people keeps you young yourself. As they absorb your experience you get to absorb their optimism, their new ideas and their boundless energy.

As they take from my experience, I take from their innovative and unprejudiced ideas.

But still, from the perspective of my generation, it is murky at best to see a future in photojournalism. All the structures of our business are collapsing and the entire economic model is in question. How then can I teach this profession?

I am certain that the boundless energy and lack of preconception about anything will carry my students forward. Unlike me they have no entrenched image of what it is to be a journalist, what journalism should do nor how to get to a dependable and profitable career.

They will recreate everything about this business, possibly for the better. They will think of ways of operating, methods of story telling and options for delivery that previous generations of journalists could not imagine.

And hopefully I too can shake my own preconceptions enough to join them on this adventure.

With change there is always opportunity.

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