Fairfax is cutting photographers. What price will a news photo cost

Nicky Winmar, in 1993, raised his St Kilda football jumper and pointed his middle finger to his bare skin to protest racism. Who can forget Kevin Rudd’s tear-stained face when he was ousted as prime minister in 2010 after a backroom coup? Or did Damien Oliver salute his brother after winning the Melbourne Cup in 2002 by pointing his whip up to the heavens?

AAP photographer Joe Castro captured the power of a new image. Jockey Damien Oliver, after winning the Melbourne Cup. MAP

Press photographs captured the blackened faces of firefighters against a background of charred remains in a mountain village after Victoria’s Black Saturday, 2009. A new image can be a permanent image that is etched into the collective consciousness of a country.

Fairfax Media, in its third cost-cutting announcement since 2012, has now proposed to eliminate 75% of its photographers across all metropolitan mastheads. Getty Images will be hired to do the photography.

Alan Porritt, AAP. Kevin Rudd’s Tears. AAP/Alan Porritt

The news led to a 24-hour strike by editorial staff at Fairfax’s main mastheads. The journalists know the value of photography in their work. A remarkable photo can make a story stand out on page one. But does management? How far can management outsource a newspaper’s printing, distribution, and sub-editing, as well as its writing, but not the photography?

This is the dilemma facing print newspapers in the digital Age. Newspapers no longer hold a monopoly on advertising and news production. Anyone with a phone can claim to be a citizen reporter. Anyone with a popular website can attract advertising. Both have an impact on newspaper revenues.

Fairfax has recently posted a modest net profit, its first since 2010. However, this was not achieved without major cost-cutting measures, including the redundancy of 1900 employees, converting Sydney and Melbourne broadsheets into tabloids, closing printing presses, and reorganizing operations to allow for greater sharing of stories across mastheads. It now proposes to make further cuts to photography in order to save the business.

Fairfax, especially after the business reporting cuts of last year, has increased syndication among mastheads and centralized editorial into a Sydney-centric format. The changes and the decision to outsource its photography to an agency rather than producing its unique content will limit geographic and story diversity. It is a matter of quality for readers who live in a large country with concentrated media ownership. The maxim “one kitchen, multiple restaurants” could soon apply to Fairfax mastheads.

Fairfax isn’t the only media company to suffer from the digital revolution. News Corporation Australia, Australia’s biggest newspaper company, has also lost hundreds of jobs. Its editorial operations have been centralized. It is also difficult for online outlets to make their journalism profitable.

Marni Cordell, editor of New Matilda, announced in an open letter that the site will close. “Since January I’ve not been receiving a regular salary,” she admitted. The Global Mail, an online news site that was funded by philanthropy and focused on long-form journalism, has also closed down this year after losing funding.

Fairfax staff tweeted that Andrew Holden, the Age’s editor-in-chief, observed when he revealed his latest cuts:

The same fundamental change has redefined the way we read, listen to music, watch television, use videos, rent accommodation, take taxis, shop, communicate, and even gamble. It could be argued that in the face of these changes, the death and disappearance of the news photographer was inevitable.

This is not an unprecedented situation. The Orlando Sentinel, which announced its intention to shed staff photographers in February, was not the first. A group of Johnston Press papers in Britain had also done so the month prior.

Johnston Press’ spokesperson stated that the decision was taken after examining “the way photographic material is generated.” This means we can and do take photos. Twitter was used by eyewitnesses using camera phones to spread the news about the plane crash landing on the Hudson River in New York in 2009. Citizen photographers can play a part. It’s not a question of who can deliver live news. Newspapers have lost the battle for years.

Question: To what extent does outsourcing impact newspaper quality? Journalists complained at their Wednesday strike meeting about the fact that downsizing subeditors have led to more mistakes in Fairfax papers.

Taylor Glascock, a photographer, began comparing the Chicago Sun-Times’ daily masthead photography to staff photos from the Chicago Tribune, its competitor. She took screenshots of the front pages of both newspapers and let them speak for themselves. Poor composition and timing often resulted in mobile phone photos that lacked emotion. The journalist was too busy gathering news to take pictures at the right time.

Chicago Tribune’s front page shows the moment the Chicago Blackhawks celebrated after winning the Stanley Cup in June last year. The Sun-Times chose to run the same picture of the Stanley Cup taken after the celebrations.

Getty Images photographers are not iPhone-wielding novices. It’s a professional company that sells photos for professional use.

Fairfax will have to hire some redundant photographers. Fairfax’s outsourcing has a cost.

Getty’s main business is to take photos that customers are willing to pay for. It does not practice still art. The Walkley Photography Awards each year show that press photographers are more concerned about capturing an instant in time at even seemingly insignificant events than they are with the market price.

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