Jim Colton: As the Assistant Managing Editor for Visuals at the Appeal, could you give our readers a basic breakdown of how many photographers, photo editors and staff you have working on visuals at the paper...including the online version as well?
John Sale: The Commercial Appeal has eight fulltime photojournalists, an assignments editor, a night picture editor and the visuals editor, me. We also get near daily contributions from several talented local freelancers. We’re a digital-first news provider, so everyone is contributing to our four platforms (smartphone, tablet, web and print).
Our digital content pay wall went up in 2011. So we’ve been editing visuals to specific platforms for two years, but with limitations. We’ve been waiting for our operating system to catch up to where we can offer much more specific experiences on the different platforms. We’re going through training in anticipation of that right now. One of the photojournalists, Nikki Boertman, is leading the way in regards to social media.
JC: I mentioned in a previous article about how comprehensive community coverage is the cornerstone of any successful newspaper. How does the Appeal balance national and global stories versus local?
JS: Picture a pie chart. National, global and local content are three circles that overlap in areas. Some national content overlaps the global circle. Some global content overlaps the local circle. The areas where the local, global and national circles overlap on the chart are constantly growing due to connectivity. The technical revolution is shrinking the world. A lot of what’s global is local. So on one hand, it’s imperative that our wire report looks at the world through a lens of local relevance. On the other hand, we don’t attempt to be a media of record for global and national news.
When you look through the other end of that lens (backwards, if you will) at Memphis from a global perspective, you see a much smaller image. But we’re here. And we’re also there. Connectivity works in both directions. Several years ago we sent photojournalist Alan Spearman around the world to document instances of Memphis across the planet. An Elvis shrine near Tel Aviv brought Israelis and Palestinians together. A Memphis cotton trader bet on a unique supply chain, micro-farms in Zambia, and found his company battling the AIDS epidemic as part of his business strategy. Southern missionaries brought Christianity and unintended legal and cultural horrors to lower-caste converts in rural India. These were all good local stories.
My ideal as a community journalist has always been to publish content that reflects the heart of the community, its diversity and values. This is an important role for photojournalists at a local “paper of record” because the written words can bog down in the negative and the institutional. If customers look at our product and don’t see a reflection of their lives and what’s important to them, we lose our connection. We lose our relevance.
JC: Can you speak specifically about a recently published local story that you were particularly proud to have seen in print and/or on line?
JS: We published a series of stories and picture stories on poverty in Memphis in late 2012. Photojournalists Karen Pulfer Focht, Mark Weber and Alan Spearman each spent several months documenting different aspects of poverty.
Mark Weber examined an area, Ridge Grove, that even the most fervent neighborhood renewal activists said should be bulldozed. He found squalor as expected, but also pride and a deep sense of community. He took his report beyond the stereotype to a level where readers could connect and gain insight.
Karen Focht looked at a much larger community, Frayser, and the vast arsenal of civic resources being applied to try and reverse its downward slide. Issues included teen pregnancy, crime, foreclosure and unemployment. She knit these diverse elements into a very cogent, human story.
Alan Spearman looked at poverty through the eyes of Chris Dean, a young man trying to escape. Dean had gained 15 minutes of fame when he introduced President Obama as the speaker at his high school graduation. Dean took Spearman on a walking tour of his neighborhood to document the survival tactics of residents. Spearman shot pictures unobtrusively with his phone. A short film evolved that is on our site and scheduled to air on PBS in April.
JC: As newspapers have evolved through the digital revolution, how has that affected how your photographers cover stories (stills, video, multimedia?) and equally important, how the Appeal has published them (in print or on line)?
JS: I believe things like the need for meeting a 24/7 deadline and the pros and cons that come with the technological freedom to spend less time in the office and more time reporting should be obvious. We’ve certainly had a mix of success and failure navigating the technical revolution. I try not to ask photographers to do too many things at once and strive to give them the time to do one job well. It doesn’t always work that way.
Stills remain most important. They capture moments and local history. They allow for creative editing. They provide a rich, often emotional, experience that readers can understand both quickly and intuitively. Stills feed all four platforms. They attract attention to other content. They drive photo galleries – and galleries help drive traffic – and traffic helps pay the bills. Galleries of stills can account for as much as 12% of our total digital views.
Video remains in the research and development stage. It’s been stuck there forever. Readers in our market simply aren’t watching. I’ve put as many as four photojournalists full time into producing high quality daily and project-related video. Even with a push like that, we’ve never gotten more than one third of one percent of total digital viewership. And only half of those viewers are unique. And only half of the unique viewers watch more than half of a video. I’m happy to keep putting resources into high end video production but we just need to choose carefully. Resources are scarce. Alan Spearman’s film, As I Am, won awards and has over 100,000 views on Vimeo. It only has 1,000 views on our site.
JC: Lastly, what words of encouragement can you offer to photojournalists who wish to work for the Appeal? How can they get their work in front of you or other photo editors?
JS: Shoot stories at the heart of your community. I’m not impressed by a portfolio that is heavy on visually loaded subjects. I am impressed by pictures that portray subjects intimately. It shows you’ve earned trust – and you’re likely to have both social skills and intuition.
Learn how to run a small business. The market for visual journalism is growing. The number of fulltime jobs is shrinking.
Don’t imitate. Trust your personal vision.
If you do get a chance at a media company, look for opportunities to be useful, even (or especially) if they’re outside the realm of journalism. Make yourself indispensable. Do tasks that others are unwilling to do. When I was just getting started, mentor and wise guy Charlie Perkins of the Pittsburgh Press gave me good advice that I still think about often: “You came here looking for work, didn’t you?”