Dear Newspaper Photographer,
If you think you are safe in your job, you aren’t.
I say that bluntly to make the point stick. You are a number. You are expendable. Your work will win awards. Your work will sell papers. In the end, if they don’t sell that ugly ad around your photo, you don’t have a job. Period. Nothing short of winning a Pulitzer (and that doesn’t even count – ask the amazingly talented Rocky Mountain News or The Washington Times staff) will keep you in your job.
That being said I loved every minute of my newspaper staff job.
I want this to be positive, but it’s hard to be in this situation. I’ve seen too many friends and colleagues come and go and that choice was never given to them. Some are still shooting freelance, some had to give up photography as a career and pursue other things – but, they are some of the most creative and beautiful people on the planet. It’s tough to watch photographers get drained through a funnel as they come into this field, and as they leave. Staying in the funnel is tough and proving to be tougher everyday.
I left my newspaper staff only a couple months ago on my own and loving every minute of it. It’s been busy as hell (knock on wood), but I’m learning everything on the fly which is exciting and nerve-racking. It’s a wonderful feeling. Open book.
I write this after reading through some depressing news coming out of The Columbia Tribune today as they announced plans to – gasp – charge for their content starting in December. I feel for them, because wading through the bathroom wall-worthy, disgustingly unedited comments like (and I’ll paraphrase here) “R.I.P.” and “Why should I pay for something when I get it for free?” made my stomach turn a bit. I love newspapers. I want them to survive. It’s kind of like watching your kid on the playground and not stopping her from jumping off something because you know she’ll learn to not do it again. It will only hurt for a bit. I don’t think local newspapers – and I say local because it is more imminent for them – need to pull their heads out of the sand and wake up that society has changed. Information is easier to make, easier to get, and cheaper. That doesn’t mean they should use it. What user generated news providers don’t have on you, Newspaper Photographer, is raw talent, drive, professionalism, passion, creativity, education, and the ability to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.
Content is what needs to change. Not charging for content that people don’t want in the first place. Change your content. Improve storytelling. Rock the visuals and design. Make innovative websites that aren’t as ugly as a lot of newspaper websites out there. Look, there are some doing it right. They are obvious. They are some of my best clients. I love working for them, and want to keep doing so.
What you need to do, Newspaper Photographer, is a few things. Right now. Trust me. I’ve done it.
I’m transitioning as well. I spent 10 years at newspapers, and at age 33 I’ve ripped up all of that and started over. On my own with my wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I am shooting editorial gigs for some great clients, but I have to do something else. I do travel, weddings, and commercial work as well. I might not share all of it (Do you post that building mug to your blog? I thought not). Look at what people like Tiffany Brown just did. She left her job, took her editorial work and refashioned with the help of a creative team to make herself marketable to another genre. She’s going to pick up new clients with just a re-edit of what she’s been doing for years. She’s thinking outside of the box but in the same town with the same work. She’s going to kill it and I see it coming. Fast.
Start a new blog. Start a magazine. Start a collective. Open a coffee shop. Start a project on Kickstarter. Apply for a grant. Develop that new product that every photographer needs. I’m insanely jealous of the LUCEO kids. They are doing it how they want, when they want, and who they want to do it for. Use their success as a motivation to do something that will make someone else jealous. It’s a great feeling.
You can do it too, but you need to start planning now and you might beat the newspaper to the punch.
Decide what you are going to do when you lose your job. It may or may not happen, but assume it will. You have to have a Plan B. A Plan C. And a Plan XYZ. There are certain things you’ll need to learn quickly. Number one? Business. Pick up all of Harrington’s books. Read them. Figure out where you are going to live, who you are going to market to and what you are going to do when you don’t get your checks for 30-60 days. That happens. You never, ever know when that check will be in your mailbox.
Start saving money . Squirrel it away into an savings account, a bond, gold, Apple stock, whatever. You’ll need it to buy gear right away. If you already have gear, you probably have a mortgage, car payment, hungry kids, credit card debt, promo materials, utilities, insurance, doctor’s bills, professional dues, that new Sleigh Bells cd. Whatever safety net you had on staff will be gone. It is now on you.
It is now on you.
It is now on you.
I say it three times, because it’s the biggest thing to learn. You only make money if you work. You only meet new clients if you get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed and work a 9-5 shift in your house marketing your ass off finding work. I don’t care who you are or what you shoot, once you are out of the newspaper, you shoot 20% of the time at most. At newspapers, you shoot 2-3 assignments a day. You might 2-3 assignments a month outside of the paper. You have to learn to make them count. That requires learning licensing, copyright, creative fees, contracts, renting to yourself and working for what you are worth. Not too many do that, and I learned it later than I should have. You have something they can’t get from a random shooter on spec….you were sought out because you possess the skills, they trust you, love your vision, and want to work with you. They will pay if they want you. You just have to ask. Ever wonder why an editor won’t tell you the story before asking if you’re free to shoot something tomorrow at 6pm? Happens outside of newspapers too. You work for money. Not credit.
Someone has to do it for the money, and it should be you.
I know that goes against that “It’s not about the money, I tell stories for the people I cover and stories I tell.” That’s great if you can eat off of that passion, but sincerely, you do more justice finding clients to pay for your work and publish it to get the work out there to the eyes that need to see it. You not only help the people you cover, but you help your fellow photographers and you keep a profession in peril with a pulse for that much longer.
In the end, it’s all about making photos that you love. Keep yourself doing just that.