An Eye-Tracking Study That Makes Me Want to Jump Out of my Skin [Video]

A video that I executive produced about the value of professional photojournalism.  Thank you Bill Kurtis! 

In case you missed it, the National Press Photographers Association revealed last week the results of a study led by Poynter-affiliated researcher Sara Quinn on how readers interact with visual journalism. Today was the next installment in a four part series.

Besides for wanting me to do jump out of my skin,  the study should also give tremendous pause to any publisher making decisions about staffing levels in their newsrooms.

To be clear, the NPPA didn’t know what to expect when it asked Quinn to conduct the study. But they knew some kind of hard data was needed. News organizations have been firing photojournalists at a rate higher than their reporting counterparts, believing that the work of photojournalists could be replaced by reporters and reader submitted images (sometimes called citizen journalism, or UGC – user generated content).

It should be pointed out that these industry-shaking decisions have been made in a complete vacuum of solid data.

So let me ask a rhetorical question,  who thinks it’s smart to tamper with your brand without meaningful data? 

The results of the study surprised even both Quinn and the NPPA. The data showed that in every meaningful criteria, from engagement, to appeal, to sharing, the work of professional photojournalists scored the highest ratings across the charts.

When compared to user-generated content, readers showed an overwhelming preference for the sense of story in the images made by professionals. Moreover, readers could easily tell the difference between the work of professionals and those of amateurs, 90% of the time.

Turns out, because we are living in an increasingly sophisticated visual culture, standards rise as well.  Readers are becoming more visually literate.

Or, as one former publisher said pointedly after hearing of the results,  “Readers aren’t stupid.”

Those who understand photojournalism get this. But not everyone has understood that message. After Sun-Times Media laid off their entire staff, I was blown away by the ignorance of the move and labeled it, indelicately, “idiocy”. Afterwards, I was dumbfounded to read uninformed pontification in the journalism world, written by people who don’t understand the process of  photojournalism let alone the power of visuals. So I kept writing, and writing, and writing – about responses to the Sun-Times debaclehow and why professionals deliver images when others don’t, why crowdsourced photojournalism was a fantasy, and why photojournalists are essential to news organizations.  While at the Chicago Tribune, I used the unique blog platform I had to explain and defend what photojournalists do (I have since left of my own accord).

Impatient to change the false narrative that was leading to more firings, I talked to NPPA magazine editor Don Winslow and said, “Why doesn’t the NPPA make a video that promotes our industry?”

Mike Borland, the NPPA president at the time, called me soon after and asked if I would be willing to lead a video project with Emmy Award-winning videographer Mark Anderson to do just that. Mark then brought in his trusted producer Gail Brown Hudson, to help make things happen.

Our team spent months last year following Sara’s eye-tracking research in Minnesota and Florida, interviewing current and former publishers, and showing Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki in action. I sought out subjects to interviews in those locations, added a still photography component to the video and made sure that our subjects were both asked and answered questions that captured the nuances of the situation. When the publisher of The Herald in Jasper, IN agreed to an interview, we made a trip to one of the most visually-oriented newspapers in the country.

We were all incredibly grateful at the opportunity. Personally, I felt that the video would speak for my former colleagues at the Sun-Times and for everyone who cared about the future of professional photojournalism.  We hope to show the video at conferences to spur discussion. Current NPPA President Mark Dolan has helped to shepherd along the study, as he continues his mission to lift up the need for quality and to strengthen NPPA as a more powerful advocate for visual journalists.

If you are concerned about the future of not just photojournalism, but journalism as a whole, then please watch this video. Read the results of the eye-tracking study, and share them in your social media feeds.

The current narrative that undermines photojournalism is false and destructive to the business of newsgathering.  It is harmful to the free press and our democracy. There is no easy solution to the business challenges that face news organizations but, as the experts interviewed point out,  sacrificing visual quality will only add to the death spiral of a business.

If you still don’t believe me, look what happened to the Chicago Sun-Times, 15 months later. Once walking with swagger and braggadocio about how they would buy the Chicago Tribune, the owners were forced to sell the bulk of Sun-Times Media – six daily and 32 weekly suburban newspapers – in order to keep the downtown newspaper alive. It is sad and disappointing.

So who’d they sell to? The Chicago Tribune’s parent company.

If you care about professional photojournalism, this 9 minute video will fly by.

Thank you for sharing. Please give your thumbs up, and “like” the video where you can.

As they say in Chicago, vote early and often.

Alex Garcia


  1. The video is excellent, and you really nail the foolishness of laying off professionals when you ask who would do such a thing in the absence of good data on the professionals’ impact. It should be obvious that a story gets impact by conveying the emotion surrounding the facts, and that good photojournalism is the most efficient way to do that. Kudos, Alex.

  2. Thanks Alex…this is a must view for publishers as it clearly demonstrates the absolute folly and potential financial risks involved where photojournalism staff are cut back. The visual is the first thing you see…and it better be good! From a personal perspective as a photography enthusiast, photojournalists give us something to inspire to. Apart from that…I love looking at their photos!

  3. I saw this the other night and RT your Tweet. I also posted it and Tweeted it several times (so far), but with little response. Amazing and powerful!
    I think it is necessary and important that this messages gets out…otherwise people will start to think that there was wisdom and judgment used in the Sun-Times (and others’) decision making process.
    It’s amazing to me that any journalist and/or a journalistic publication would not realize the importance and impact of professional photojournalists. It would be like a professional sports team playing each game with amateur athletes. How long would that last?

    • True Steve, I think that’s why the Pro Bowl was suffering – people knew they weren’t watching the highest quality play by athletes.

  4. OK, I’m going to sort of play devil’s advocate here. Maybe I’m being overly critical and assuming this video was trying to be the definitive take on our industry. But I’ve seen nothing but golf claps so far.

    I think this type of work — video, research, etc. — is a good start in the grossly undeveloped area of Conveying the Benefits of Photography and Photojournalism. But I think it’s less white paper and more Tourism Video of Fairfax County, if that makes sense. The NPPA is an advocacy and trade organization — one I deeply respect — but an advocacy and trade organization nonetheless. We would have a very different opinion of this video if it was created by and for the International Pharmaceutical Producers Association and based on a single study. As photojournalists, the video sounds right and makes sense to us. But it’s also preaching to the choir. I’ve seen many photojournalists on the web (forums, Twitter, etc.) defend attacks on their craft, their profession, without the journalistic rigor and fairness that would be applied to other stories.

    As this video does, I think conveying the benefits of photojournalism should be done by highlighting the science/analytics/data value as well as the intrinsic/artistic/creative value. Photojournalism needs more hard evidence in its corner — that’s what is valued most in this era. But photojournalists are much more comfortable with nurturing and selling and pitching their ideas and their stories. That’s a disconnect between the insular photojournalism world and the media landscape of today. The photojournalism world puts too much emphasis on craft, technique and individual pictures and not enough on data and reaching viewers. The media world might be the opposite.

    We’re very comfortable with experimenting with craft; we’re not comfortable with experimenting with distribution and working outside of cameras, Photoshop and Instagram.

    The photojournalism community has pretty good institutions and mechanisms for nurturing craft (contests, internships, workshops, APAD, NPPA, etc. etc.), but it has a ways to go in terms of finding its place outside of craft and aesthetics.

    TL;DR: Great video. Good start. But the photojournalism community needs to break out of its insular bubble, spend time in other areas, bring ideas back, and experiment. And we need to check our biases.

    • I think you’re assuming this video to be the definitive take on our industry. It’s not. At 9 minutes, it’s already longer than what we wanted. It is meant to start discussions and to highlight research to an audience outside the photojournalism industry. You can’t go too far into inside baseball on the topic without losing your audience. This is meant as a lead-in for the research presentations, which will by deep dives.

      I dont think any video could be a white paper, unless you make it a documentary which would be much longer than this and not watched by any busy publisher. This video is an overview not just of the research but also of some of the arguments that we’ve all heard. It will likely preface or follow Sara Quinn as she speaks at conferences of news executives. So to that extent, it’s meant to be a conversation starter. Today in fact she will be presenting a webinar on Poynter’s site for data wonks who want more information.

      Incidentally, her previous research on tablets and other visually-oriented studies have been widely disseminated leading to talks in front of thousands of people. Just because a dataset is small doesn’t invalidate or call into question its findings. You can learn more about her and her methodology at this link.

      Thank you for your thoughts. To the extent that it’s an overview, you could call it tourism. But that kind of language is overly critical and probably reflects your pent-up frustration on the topic, which I understand.

  5. Agreed — and I hope it didn’t seem like I was ripping up the work. My comment definitely brought a lot of outside stuff into the conversation, which could be seen as unnecessarily critical or picky, but I guess I saw the video relevant to the broader conversation (or lack of conversation). It lives within that broader conversation. And I wasn’t thinking about the intended audience as much as the photographer audience that I’ve seen interact with the video so far. I was trying to bring the conversation (“Sun-Times bad!”) to a better plane. This video seemed, to me, like as good a jumping-off point as I’ve seen in a while. Maybe not.

    Some things about the data and research: A small dataset doesn’t mean the findings will be wrong, but there’s a limit to how much you can extrapolate from it, and it’s right to be wary of a small dataset. Plus, I was more concerned with the number of studies (one) than the number of participants in that study. Based on the study’s results, I think a lot of photographers will construct a flawed (or at least hasty) conclusion: That, because professionally-shot pictures are more likely to be shared, the Sun-Times was wrong to lay off their photo staff.

    I’m also curious about the methodology of how the pictures (and which ones) were chosen to be included in the study (obviously I didn’t expect this to be part of the video and don’t expect you to have these answers). How do you make sure you’re not comparing amateur apples to professional oranges? An extreme example to flesh out my point: If I show you 8 pictures of my breakfast and 8 Nachtwey pictures of genocide in Rwanda, yeah, you’re probably gonna say you’d share the Rwanda pictures. But if I show you 8 Nachtwey pictures and 8 citizen-created, on-the-scene breaking news photos, I’d wager the sharing stats wouldn’t be as uneven.

    A way to build off of this study: Convince a newspaper company (hell, Poynter could do it with the TB Times) to A/B test reporter-produced images and photographer-produced images: On assignments where reporter and photographer are working together on a story, both people produce images for the web story. 50% of visitors see the reporter’s picture, 50% see the photographer’s picture. If there’s a user-generated photo available for a particular story, throw that in the mix. Run it a year. Bam, you get a great sense of a photographer’s value in terms of sharing, time on page, etc.

  6. Great job Alex! I’ll regularly be showing this in my journalism students. Thanks for your hard work on this.
    Steve Sweitzer
    Former NPPA President

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