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.

13 Signs Your Politics Might be Seeping into Your Journalistic Storytelling

I was almost a social psychology major at Northwestern. It fascinated me, our behavior as social animals. The Bystander Effect and the Milgram Experiment were the kinds of topics that I still think about, years later. What most struck me was cognitive dissonance and groupthink, when we become unaware of the subconscious decisions we take in an attempt to achieve a cohesive narrative about ourselves and others. These two together are particularly troublesome in a newsroom environment. Once a narrative takes hold, others from a newsroom are less likely to challenge the “conventional understanding” – especially if it’s approved by an experienced journalist or editor.  At some point, the prevailing belief becomes an assumption that informs and shapes future narratives.

I read the news too and probably am not the only person to see that my opinions, ideas and beliefs are sometimes summarily dismissed or completely misunderstood. It’s what happens when your worldview is not part of the groupthink narrative. But hey, we’re all human.

So my 13 signs of encroaching politics within the work of journalists are in part based on my observations as a reader. With the lead-up to this week’s Election Day, I thought to have some fun with my very good-natured editorial colleagues:

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Upcoming Talk at the Michigan Avenue Apple Store

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I’m delighted to say that APA Chicago has asked me to speak as part of their regular photographer talks at the Apple Store. I’ll be talking about visual storytelling, both in an editorial and a commercial context, and what that means for photographers looking to connect with their audiences. I’ll be there for two hours on Monday, Oct. 20th from 7-9pm. For more details, please go to the APA Chicago website. Please mark it on your calendars!