In the year 2000, the gravy days of newspaper publishing had just about peaked. Many publishing companies around the country failed to recognize the gathering storm of internet technologies and the way they would affect how we get our news. “People will always need the newspaper,” they’d say.
Photographers, particularly photographers like me, tend to be more technology oriented. We saw the storm coming sooner than some. But that storm was cloudy and chaotic, and we had a difficult time seeing what it would bring. For a while I remember quite clearly that most of us thought our newspapers would merge with local television stations, and we would all be converted into videographers. We would shoot video at everything we covered, and use frame-grabs as our photos for the newspaper.
This was in the time before high-definition video. Frame-grabs in 2000 would have been 640×480 pixels, which is just 307,200 pixels, or .3 megapixels.
Don’t believe me when I say frame grabs from video weren’t enough? Here is a video capture (vidcap) from the best consumer camcorder of 2001, the Canon GL-1.
Now You See It, Now You Don't
It’s amazing what the human brain can do with sketchy information. Until HDTV came along, we watched everything at 640×480, which wasn’t enough data to really show us the scenes. Our brains filled in the rest. If you don’t believe me, fire up a YouTube video of a sitcom from before 1999, and I think you’ll be amazed at the lack of detail in the image. Even coverage from 9/11 looks visually primitive compared to today’s programming.
No one in 2000 imagined the direction photographic technology would take. In particular, no one imagined a news gathering world in which major newspapers would do away with their entire photography staffs. But in all honesty, despite my newspaper background, if I were starting a news agency today, I would make it part of a web-only media conglomerate that included selling photos and producing web sites for clients, and I would make sure everyone on my staff understood how to use the internet in the 21st century. Everyone would have a smartphone with a high-resolution camera built into it, and they would all know how to use it.
An oddly vexing twist to this is that as we are able to produce more images more cheaply, we have less and less room to publish them in the printed daily newspaper. Being a web-only product solves that problem. Also, the upward spiral of resolution in both cameras and smartphones becomes, paradoxically, less and less important to a media increasingly viewed on hand-sized screens of phones and tablets.
My own internet experience is one of interest in the issues of our lives, and curiosity about images, but more than anything else these days, I am bored and annoyed with the seemingly endless downward spiral of mediocrity the web seems to offer. You could call me naive, but I really do think there is still a place for greatness in the world. Whether or not you could get the public interested is another issue. But if you can’t get the public interested, you can’t get them to pay for it. There’s the rub, really. News organizations don’t live on their high ideals and standards; they live on their income, just like any other business.
What then, is the answer? Do we keep spinning deeper into the mill of Facebook links to one-sided propaganda? Do we continue to slide more and more toward reporting what we hear first, whether it’s true or not? Do we really want to win the web war by carpet bombing our audience with thousands of photos and hundreds of short, shallow sound bites?
This screen capture of a television station’s on-air list of prank names they received is a classic example of the public and the news media having absolutely no patience or concern for accuracy. And it is, by the way, incredibly funny to this day.
There is another trend that I happen to think is darker and more evil than hurrying or making content short and shallow, and that’t the increasing practice of making web sites sufficiently cluttered and confusing that their visitors are likely to click on advertiser’s links accidentally. It is manipulative and dishonest.
Look at this mess. Not only is it cluttered into oblivion, it is deliberately unclear where to click to see the desired content.
As the last ten years have taken shape, newspapers have tried several strategies to help them thrive. Some worked – Ada Magazine, for which I am the editor, is our organization’s prestige piece, and, I am happy to say, makes money. On the other hand, starting in about 2006, many newspaper companies, including the one that owns our small newspaper, decided that putting video on our web sites was somehow the answer. I faithfully obeyed, and found that most of the videos we posted got very few views, and a small number of them, almost exclusively videos of human tragedies like fires and car crashes, got thousands of views, plus hundreds of complaints and requests for their removal. But in neither case did these videos equate with revenue of any kind.
As I penned this piece, a Facebook friend of mine and fellow photographer Lisa Rudy Hoke shared an article on the way photos were transmitted by phone lines before the network/datastream era. As equipment matured and brought us closer to the information renaissance, it worked both for us and against us. In 1982, the day I transmitted my first photo over a phone line, it seemed pretty amazing. Few people in the world could share their pictures the way I just did. In 2015, just about anyone with a smartphone can share their pictures with everyone instantly. The technology we used as pioneers just 40 years ago now competes with us.
Not only was the interface awkward and the send time long, you had to call New York or Washington and try to get a time when they could receive your image, which meant waiting hours sometimes.