A few weeks ago I was offered the position of photographer for a local paper but of course reality came crashing down after I was told they really didn't have a budget for one. The actual reality part of it is that "photo by Michael Penn" would be my paycheck. Three or five years ago this would have made me blow my top at whoever suggested it but for some reason I didn't this time and you want to know why? Because I was expecting it. I can't pay my bills with "photo by Michael Penn", I can't buy food with "photo by Michael Penn", and "photo by Michael Penn" will definitely not pay for health insurance. Since this was offered I've given a great deal of thought to photojournalism and the sad state it's in.
Newspapers began to disappear after the internet picked up steam in the early 2000's and when the masses became addicted to their smartphone and social media the death of printed news went supersonic. The photojournalist was usually the first casualty because any schmuck with a smartphone could take a photo and quality no longer matter. A good photo was no longer needed to grab someone's attention, that was relinquished to the clickbait headline. Nothing had to be good or truthful anymore, it just had to be fast and first. Photographers are rarely sent out on assignments anymore, if ever. The editor will scour social media to find the photos they need and then offer "exposure" to the person as payment and if that doesn't work they'll go to a stock photo website and pay about 17 cents for a photo, even less with a membership. The payoff for the free or next to it photojournalism usually was a photo that didn't relate to the story or was horrible enough that a clickbait headline was required to take the reader's attention away from the bad photo. Sometimes when on a news website it's hard to tell the difference between the editorial photo and one of the many ads that appear around it. This method became a bad habit to editors when they figured out that the photos really didn't matter anymore, especially to the youth who are looking for headlines to make them angry and insulted. Their attention span for photos is something you scroll by at the speed of light and click the like button every once in a while.
While speaking to a now retired photojournalist of over 30 years his tone went from disappointment to rage in about three sentences. The paper where he last worked was hiring photographers at about 40% of what he was being paid and his own salary began to decline rapidly. After claiming that some of these people should have never picked up a camera he quickly learned that a few were still living at their parents home even though they were around 30 years old and the rest were either supported by someone else or were trust fund babies. He claims it wasn't hard to figure out since some were carrying more in gear than what they would make in a year which wasn't enough to pay the rent in a small old one bedroom apartment. There was one photographer who was a college student but quit after a month because she didn't like the social aspect of being a photojournalist. Instead of increasing the pay in hopes of attracting seasoned or serious photojournalists they now have their field reporters take photos with their phone. This photographer now wonders how he'll survive.
An old paper editor who recently left his job said that "photography is almost anonymous because it's become homogenized (that word is being used a lot lately)". Photojournalism used to be incredibly prestigious and a much sought-after profession. The overall devaluation of photography that started years ago ran concurrent with the gradual demise of newspapers, which ran concurrent with the rise of the internet, which ran concurrent with the use of video, and it was a long, slow, critical illness for photojournalism. So why would someone underwrite the expense of a four-year undergraduate degree to compete for a $25,000-a-year job? Now when approached by someone interested in the job he states that you better have two or three years of salary in the bank before considering it. Even if you get in they now expect you to shoot video, tweet, instagram, facebook, and file to the web. Renaissance artists were supported by patrons. There are no patrons supporting photojournalism now. The patrons were newspapers and magazines. And they’ve cut off the money. That’s just the raw truth of it.