On Mondays I edit all of the images for publication in 5 weekly papers we produce. It’s a ton of work. I have to look through hundreds of photos, select the best ones and covert them into CMYK versions for the printer. Often times we take handout or submitted photos from schools, non-profits and other organizations. These photos are usually of varying quality and lack cutlines or any sense of composition. Sometimes we get one or two and sometimes we get everything they shot (last week it was two emails containing 45 jpgs…EACH. I wish I was making that up).
To start the editing process I fire up PhotoMechanic. If you are unfamiliar with the software check it out here. Its a first-step editor for displaying small thumbnails of the images, selecting the best ones, editing captions and renaming files. It’s actually capable of doing a lot more but I won’t get into that right now. One thing it does is to display EXIF information about each photo. When I looked at the batch, all 90 jpgs, I immediately saw “iPhone 3GS” next to the Model info box.
That explains a lot. Most of the images were way out of focus, poorly exposed and were filled with mosaic-like amounts of artifacting noise. These photos were barely publishable. Yet we did because that is what we were provided with for the story and we didn’t have enough copy or wild art to fill the page. I won’t make that mistake twice. As a matter of fact a new policy is to not accept photos from camera phones for publication unless they are of great news value (possibilities include fatal accidents, house fires, the Loch Ness monster surfacing in Evergreen Lake) or are the only option. In most situations there are other options including the option to say “these look like shit. I’m not publishing them.”
This however brings me to my point about quantity vs. quality. When did we sink so low that this practice has become acceptable? I believe the answer to that question corresponds to the time that we decided there were too many people on the photo staff and there was too little to cover. It happened across the country throughout newsrooms a couple of years ago. I won’t lie about the fact that there are some assignments that do not need an award winning, experienced photojournalist to cover. The job of an editor is to weed through these and recognize that the potential for a visual element to the story is slim. It’s also his or her job to suggest that we try to bring that visual element to the story from a different angle. By looking at the stories, assessing the possibility for art and assigning a photojournalist to it we get the best possible chance for good visuals.
The shoot it yourself, publish it immediately, anything is better than nothing, good enough attitude of editors at newspapers is part of what is ruining the once proud visual story telling of traditional media. Editors have lost their backbone in the fight against crap content. Very few are willing to stand up in fear of losing their jobs. The readers notice the lower quality of print journalism, most of whom as they read the “free” edition online, and then proceed to berate the paper on quality anonymously in the comment section below the story. Their appetite for the 24 hour news cycle is the other part that has caused the decline of quality in traditional media. Readers want more content immediately and the truth is that it takes a lot of time and effort to produce good quality content. It’s time for editors to stand up and say collectively that good enough is NOT good enough for our publication. We have to hold ourselves to a higher level of quality. Most of us have trained and continue to train to be able to bring stories that matter to our readers. In the process of trying to churn out content as fast as possible, we lose track of quality. If no one wants to read or look at what we produce are we really doing our jobs?
Even though I am an editor at a small group of weekly papers I am going to stand up and say good enough is NOT good enough for me. I am over worked and, arguably, under paid like most in my position but I am still working hard to try and produce the best paper I can. After all, this isn’t about me. It’s about our community and our readers. I truly believe our readers can tell the difference between good and good enough. If we are going to survive, it’s time for a change.