Tag Archives: Newspapers

Looking for (Good) Work

During the early years of the digital revolution, I wrote a wrote a blog that focused on the challenges journalism and newspapers faced in an increasingly digitized society, and the entrenched cultural traditions that inhibited the ability of individual journalists as well as entire institutions to adapt to a changing world that was eroding their relevance and siphoning off their audiences.

I called the blog First Draft, a nod to the description of journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” The blog coincided with a three-year project I did on newsroom culture and learning for a journalism foundation (which resulted in this slim volume of advice) and served as my exit ramp from the professional world of daily newspapers where I’d lived for a quarter-century.

I left voluntarily and more or less at the top of my game – unlike the many thousands of my former fellow wretches who were riffed or bought out of their careers by collapsing newspaper companies. I was seeking something to fill holes the newspaper couldn’t, especially in those days, when news was defined rigidly, when hidebound hierarchies shaped what was covered and how and by whom, and when middle-age managers like myself saw a future in which deep shadows of uncertainty dulled any glow of promise.

A decade has passed. In that time, I’ve been freelancing wherever I can – and celebrating the hustle and the paltry paychecks as rewards for my liberation from management – and immersing myself more and more in photography, the pursuit that drew me into journalism in the first place.

For the last few years, I’ve been photography poor single mothers, repatriated families, children’s shelters and more in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is documentary work and is both intense and, at times, terribly saddening because of its intimacy. It is also immensely satisfying. I feel privileged to be allowed into the lives of these families and angry at the injustice, indifference and corruption that touches them every day. I regularly return home inflamed with the same passion to tell their stories that I felt decades ago in San Francisco during my first years in journalism as an enthusiastic, but unaccomplished photographer.

Therein lies the irony: I am working in what I love the most, photography and journalism, but it is not good work.

Good work? Yes, good work – “work of expert quality that benefits the broader society.” In other words, “good work” is at once personally satisfying and socially beneficial. The concept was the focus of a book (Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet) by three Stanford psychologists that explored the challenges and rewards of doing “good work” in various fields, including journalism. The authors found a direct connection between the ability to do good work and self-fulfillment.

“Doing good work feels good,” they write. “Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done.” … Good work is “something that allows the full expression of what is best in us.”

I’m not going to go further into the book, but it is well worth reading by anyone who has more than a passing interest in the current collision of values in what is now lumped under the term “the news media” and also between journalists who wish to adhere to the profession’s traditions of truth, fairness and, hopefully, justice, and the politicians and government institutions on which they report. In other words, in a world of lies and liars, how much currency does the truth retain?

For now, though, I am focusing on “good work” in a more selfish way: What I need to do to upgrade my documentary photography in Mexico from work to “good work.”

What I lack the most, I believe, is the opportunity to publish. An image that hides in a computer file is not “good work.” Stories that languish untold are not “good work.” A reporter who doesn’t empty her notebook or a photographer who does little more than fill his archives is not doing “good work.”

That’s what organized journalism provides, not only the opportunity to publish but the obligation to. Journalism does not happen in a vacuum. It is not just the academic, but also the journalist who must publish less the work perish. If good work, as Damon wrote, “allows the full expression” of the best inside each of us, then I am falling short because I have always expressed myself publicly.

In this context, I miss the newsroom. I have yet to accomplish alone what I did with other journalists, imperfect as it was. I miss the sense of purpose journalism provides. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the demands of deadlines. I miss waking each day with the belief, however misplaced or self-delusional it might be at times, that the day’s work ahead will matter to someone and perhaps make the world a more informed, more just or perhaps simply more functional place.

That desire is a universal characteristic among good journalists. In June 2004, after interviewing dozens of journalists for a project, I wrote that they possessed a common goodness: “ … the deep, abiding desire … to do good journalistic work. They believed to a person that the purpose of journalism is to provide, at the least, information and, at its best, knowledge to their fellow citizens with the purpose of bettering society.”

When these journalists could overcome “the oppressive troika of tradition, convention and production that combine to prevent most newspaper journalists from realizing these good intentions on a frequent basis” they achieved that purpose.

One reason I left the newsroom was that felt I could not otherwise escape that tyranny. What I have since discovered is just as there can be too much tyranny for some people there can be too much liberty for others, of which I am one.

I work better with structure. I work better on deadline. I work better under pressure. I need these things to do “good work.”

All that I had when I was younger even though I was less skilled, less accomplished and more full of myself. However, and I can say this now with the clarified vision of hindsight, I didn’t truly appreciate the work, the people and the basic purpose of journalism until I had it no more.

I want it back. Or as much of it as I can get back at my age. But how? I am too old to be hired somewhere, too experienced to be naïve and to hope to begin anew, and I carry far too much baggage filled with failures and (fewer) successes to share company with those who view reporting and photography as “content” designed to drive clicks.

You might think, given my age, that what I miss is not journalism, but my youth. That’s a reasonable assumption, but I can assure you that my longing for good work is not the waning pang of an aging heart. I would not wish my younger days on anyone (although I admit that certain less salubrious traits of those years served me well in newspapers, which at the time celebrated the aberrant as long as you could hit a deadline.)

No, what I want reflects a desire that only comes with age – the opportunity to do work that encompasses what I’ve learned over the years, that utilizes the skills I’ve acquired and forces me to challenge myself and confront the truths of the world around me. Good work.

Making this happen will be my greatest challenge.

Grab Shots: Old News Edition

* Newsies in the Pipeline: Newspapers are on life support, but J-school applicants are up in the U.K. and and in N.Y., reports Jarvis. Discuss.

* Readers Come, Money Doesn’t: Newspaper web readership is up 12% year over year (although web revenue is down). Nieman Journalism Lab lists its Top 15 newspaper sites. My hometown Chron (SFGate) averages 4.1 million uniques a month, up 10%. Somehow, there’s got to be a business in there.

* Ready the Tombstones: Former S.F. Examiner colleague and Salon pioneer Gary Kamiya concludes: “If newspapers die, so does reporting.” And, in light of the web revenue report, he adds: “Currently there is no business model that makes online reporting financially viable.” (Mutter mines the same vein.)

* Cancel the Funeral: Steve Yelvington says he just has “to call bullshit on the “Newspapers Are Dead” meme. Some numbers:

“In spite of the worst economy since Roosevelt, many U.S. newspapers are still turning profits in the 15-20 percent range, and the U.S. newspaper industry is still turning around 50 billion dollars of gross revenue every year.”

* Cue the Elegy: that “show deep digging.” (Andrew Cline calls BS on him, saying: “Nostalgia is dead. It’s time to discover or create the next venue for journalism.”

Here, There, Everywhere

(Note: This is a note to my friend Michele McLellan responding to her Facebook post about newspapers outsourcing copyediting tasks.)

Michele …

As you know, I’ve pretty much stayed out of the “whither journalism” lately, but I’ll add a thought or two to your well-reasoned argument based on my personal experiences of the last two years.

First, I’ve been doing a lot of work for a glossy, local lifestyle magazine here in the Bay Area. I do a lot of photography, I also write and edit. Most of the magazine comes together from people who don’t work in the same place — the editor has an office, freelancers write, I edit them, a copy editor in another place edits me, a designer in the office sends me Adobe InDesign files or PDFs for proofing. Works well. Every two weeks we meet for story planning and idea exchange.

Also, last year I wrote and photographed a book (touted all over my FB page). My partner — a chef — wrote her parts from her office, I wrote my sections from mine, the designer emailed around concepts and pages. We all rarely met. Book came out, is doing well. Of course, you and I did the same thing the year before.

Finally, to underwrite such rewarding, but hardly remunerative pursuits as magazine photography and cookbook writing, I keep a hand in editing research for financial institutions. I work with a team of a half-dozen analysts in Denver and New York whose work I edit weekly. I’ve done this for three years. Although we meet only once a year for a feedback and review session, I know their work as well as that of any of the reporters who say across the aisle from me in newsrooms for years.

Newsrooms traditionalists might argue that proximity contributes to quality. They are wrong. The prodigious amount of so-so writing and editing seen in many newspapers is testament to that. Commitment to excellence, responsibility and, most importantly these days, personal growth lead to quality – and those values are highly portable.

First the doors came off newspapers, then the walls blew out. In the next couple of years, we’ll see the floors drop away. Knowledge work – which is what journalism consists of, i.e., literary and creative skill applied to principles of public information, access and transparency – doesn’t need an address. It just needs a platform.

Cheers …

Tim

Grab Shots: PJ Edition

* From Staffer to Freelance: John Harrington, who writes the Photo Business News blog, points out that all the layoffs in the newspaper business are going to swell the ranks of freelance photographers. He wrote it a while back, but still worth a read.

* More Cuts on the Way: Alan Mutter, former editor and now chronicler of a declining industry, sees more down-sizing ahead “if the industry is to sustain its traditional operating margin,” which, by the way, is still more than 18 percent.

* Silencing the Inner Curmudgeon: When your world is collapsing around you, as it is for many staff photojournalists, it’s easy to let the anger rise and the bile fly. But that doesn’t help you find more work, or learn new skills, or fuel the energy and creativity you’ll need to keep working as a photographer. (I know; I’ve been there on all sides.) If you feel the curmudgeon stirring inside, read Jay Rosen’s post on how to deal with the beast.

* Photoshop, Ethics and the PJ: In my magazine work, I set up a lot of pictures, meaning I arrange the people and control the light in a way pure photojournalists don’t. I also Photoshop the pixels out of an image if I think it makes it snap more. How much of this type or post-shot manipulation has been debated in the PJ community ever since someone first burned the edges of a print. Here’s a good discussion about the topic on SportsShooter, sparked by this original rant and this young photographer’s portfolio.

Grab Shots

Photojournalism work that caught my eye today:

* Joao Silva in Sadr City for the New York Times. Silva is always in the middle of things. Here is his own website.

* Also in the the Times, the Cat Lady of Switzerland, a textbook example of doing photojournalism with small strobes ala Mr. Strobist.

* This Washington Post gallery of the election in Zimbabwe (10 sec. ad). No. 8 in the gallery is show in this post.

* Correy Perrine of the Nashuah (N.H.) Telegraph shows you can make an extraordinary photograph at an ordinary event such as a teachers’ protest.

*Another good use of small strobes on assignment, an author in a jail cell by Ken Ritchie of the Madison Courier.

The Second Draft of First Draft

Welcome to Second Draft.

The last time you heard from me I was still blogging over at First Draft and had just finished a book on newsroom management and strategic learning. That was a year ago.

At the time, the newspaper industry was in the tank, newsrooms were laying off and I was finishing a transition from a manager of institutional journalism to a doer of personal journalism (and other creative endeavors). Just as the news industry was undergoing reinvention, so was I.

Today, the newspaper industry is still in the tank, newsrooms are still laying off and I’ve returned to the humbler roots I planted when I left college. My business card now reads, simply, Tim Porter, Photographer & Writer.

The switch was not the leap you might think it was. My first job in journalism was as a photographer, first for the now defunct UPI in San Francisco and next for a small newspaper. I began reporting so I could better sell my photo stories to the paper’s skeptical city editor. Then, a few years later, ambition got the best of me and I jumped into management.

I blogged about newspaper journalism, management and innovation for nearly four years at First Draft, a process a pretty smart professor once called my re-education — “Tim Porter started journalism school the day he left the newsroom.”

He was right — and some day I may tease out the steps of that learning in a longer piece. But not here. Second Draft will be more personal, more about my freelance life in both photography and writing. If that sounds too narrow to you, thanks for dropping by. But I can promise you my world of creativity, media, technology and, at times, journalism is much larger than it ever was.

I’ve moved into a post-institutional media world that in some ways resembles my early days as a freelancer while in college (the lack of guaranteed pay, for example), but I’ve arrived with a lifetime of skill and, more importantly, the ability to learn new ones when necessary or desired. I’ve learned how to learn — and am quite good at it.

Many of the new tricks this old dog has acquired are applicable to those just starting out in journalism — adaptability, resiliency, just-in-time learning — and in those you may find some value.

I will write a lot about photography, my first love and my first newsroom paycheck. I do a lot of magazine and commercial work (here’s my portfolio) and find that the tools of personal connection that served me well as a reporter and manager are just as handy in the studio or on location.

I will write about reporting, too, because I can’t stop wanting to tell stories even though writing is an anxiety frought experience for me. (I like to quip that I like having written).

I will write about technology because it is the tool we all use in the digital age.

And, I will write about journalism because I still believe it’s important and perhaps more than ever in a world where our most systemic, intractable social ills fight for scant attention among a populace intoxicated by media intended to mesmerize but not illuminate.

Stay tuned.