Midland (MI) Daily News: Three Amigos

  • PHOTO JOURNAL: THREE AMIGOS

By Jim Colton

Last week, Sean Proctor of the Midland Daily News in Midland, Michigan, was named Photojournalist of the Year (Smaller Markets) in the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. When informed about this honor by Donald Winslow of the NPPA, Sean said, “Wow, you’re kidding!” Although Sean may have been surprised, what isn’t shocking at all is that the Midland Daily News is the “Little Paper that Could.”

Neil Blake

Nick King

Sean Proctor

They are no stranger to awards. This small circulation newspaper located in the Tri-cities region of Michigan has garnered their share at major photography contests over the years including a 3rd place this year for Photo Editing Portfolio at POYi for ALL newspapers, regardless of circulation…right behind the New York Times and the Washington Post. And they did so, without a photo editor!

The driving force behind the visuals at the newspaper are three young staff photographers; Sean Proctor, Neil Blake and Nick King. They are a triumvirate that not only shoots the stories, but they assign them, edit them, lay them out and occasionally write them as well! They do it as a group; with implicit trust in each other.

Although Sean has been an intern at the Citizen Patriot in Jackson, Michigan and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, this is his first full time job as a staff photographer at the Midland Daily News, joining the crew in late 2012. Neil Blake has been a staff photographer for the paper since 2011 and had internships at the Herald in Jasper, Indiana and at the Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire. Prior to joining the Daily News in 2010, Nick King was a staff photographer for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri as well as serving as a photo editor at the Evergreen Newspapers in Evergreen, Colorado.

In an industry that’s being continually downsized, it’s refreshing to see good work being published on a local level and being recognized on a national one.

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little about the paper? How long has it been in existence? What is the circulation?

Neil Blake: The Midland Daily News was founded in 1858 and is owned by the Hearst Corporation along with the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle among many others. Our circulation is a little over 11,000 and the paper is printed on-site in downtown Midland. We also print our sister Hearst paper, the Huron Daily Tribune, on-site. Interestingly enough, we are one of the last daily papers in the region. A few years ago most of the major newspapers in the state went to printing three or four days a week to become true “digital first” companies. Many also have centralized design desks that are responsible for the layout of papers for multiple cities. We differ from that model and still place a high priority on our daily design and we do everything in house.

JC: What is the structure like for the visuals department? Is there a photo editor? How many photographers? Staff or freelance? Are there other employees in the art department or technical support for the visuals? Is there an online staff?

NB: In our photo department we have three staff photographers. Nick King, Sean Proctor and I all rotate between three shifts. There is the desk shift which runs 8-4…a day shift from 9-5…and the sports shift which runs from 2-10. When we are on the desk we do assignment editing, layout A1, design photo pages and attend daily budget meetings where we are the voice for the photo staff.

We also have a few freelancers we go to. One is local and the other two are seniors in the Journalism school at Central Michigan University, which is only a 30 minute drive from the paper.

So that’s it! No art department or photo editor, though the person on the desk fulfills all the responsibilities of a photo editor when they are in that role.

JC: How are the stories assigned? Are the photographers involved in the selection and layout process?

NB: Daily assignments are assigned by whichever photographer is on the desk. They are the mediator between the newsroom and the other two staffers and they are responsible for coming up with art ideas for the A1 centerpiece each day. They view it as their job to put the other two photographers in the best situations possible. Practically speaking, this means making phone calls, setting up assignments, and trying to explain what documentary photography is to the potential photo subjects.

Photographers self-edit their daily work and turn in a variety of photos but they leave it up to the photographer on the desk to make the final selection for the layout. Since we all do our fair share of editing and designing, we know what the needs are for the desk, and we can tailor our shooting to fit that need.

Project work is all self-generated. When one photographer has an idea they want to pursue, the other two will ensure that they have the time to do it. When Sean was working on a long term feature story about Katie Johns, a girl fighting brain cancer, he spent long days in the hospital in Ann Arbor with her and her family. On those days, Nick and I shifted our schedules to cover the daily assignments to fill the news hole.

When it comes time to publish the work (like Sean’s story about the Johns) it is truly a collaborative process between the three of us. We trust each other completely, and value the others’ input. It isn’t uncommon to spend 8 hours or more designing a photo spread if it is a big enough story. Sean spent over a year documenting Katie and her family, so we wanted to get that one right.

JC: Do the photographers also work on images for galleries on the website? Is there any multimedia work being produced? How are the decisions made regarding what runs in the print version and what runs online?

NB: We do post our images in galleries on the website. Any photos that run in thepaper run on the website and typically the outtakes (photos that did not run in print) from our shoots run there as well. When we are designing a photo page, some photos we like may not make the cut. To work on a page, every image has to work well with the one next to it and it has to mesh with the theme of the page. On our photo pages, it is uncommon to run more than five images on a page. Our story edits on the website may have extra photos that could not make print, but we feel very strongly about making tight edits and eliminating redundancies, even in our galleries.

I’ve seen some newspapers post 50+ picture galleries from events where many images are redundant in composition and content. We will rarely post more than 20 pictures in a gallery. And I think this is because of a major difference in philosophy.

I believe that we are journalists first…storytellers…rather than event photographers whose job is to get as many in-focus photos as possible. When I am on assignment, I am constantly asking myself, “What’s the story? What’s the story?” And I try to capture that in an interesting and graphic way. If I can say what is important about an event in five pictures, that’s the edit I will post. I understand the importance of adding a few extra images to a sports gallery or to a gallery from a larger event, but I don’t believe that the community is better informed by looking at a loose edit of pictures. As photo editors are eliminated across the country at small newspapers, I fear that editing will become a lost art.

At this point, we seldom do multimedia. Our main focus is on the print product and on photo galleries, which are promoted via social media tools. A huge pet peeve of mine is being forced to watch a 15 second ad for a 30 second newspaper video, so I’m glad we are not doing that at this point. I hope that as we incorporate more multimedia content we will be able to stay consistent with our vision of doing well thought out, tightly edited documentary work.

JC: The paper seems to be very committed to local coverage. How are decisions made as to what appears on page one? Is there a tendency to feature more local work in the visuals or do stories of national and international interest have the same capacity of being the dominant visual?

NB: It’s true. I can count on one hand the number of days last year where the dominant art on A1 wasn’t local. One example was the tornado that struck the Oklahoma City suburb. It was a huge story and since we do get tornadoes in Michigan we felt that our readers would strongly identify with the families going through the disaster. But that is the exception.

We are a small paper, and we recognize that our strength and value to the community is in local stories. We can’t compete with the New York Times or CNN on their outstanding national coverage. And while we do believe it is important to inform our readers about national stories we know that national coverage isn’t why our readers go to the Daily News. They have hundreds of choices available to them for national news. They can go to cable, the internet and even Twitter. But we are the only news source that is based in Midland County covering Midland County. Our A1 centerpiece will be local and shot by one of us 98.6 percent of the time. We are passionate about covering our city and county well with our photography and we get excited about covering large annual events like the 4H Fair.

JC: Does the paper break out and do extended photo features or essays? Is there usually a reporter or writer associated with those? Do the photographers contribute any textual elements besides captions?

NB: We do several extended photo stories and essays a year. It depends on the nature of the story whether it is written by the photographer or a staff reporter. Our project work is almost entirely self-generated feature stories and we often spend days with our photo subjects due to the nature of our job. Because of this, we believe that most of the time we are in the best position to also write the story. This isn’t always the case, and I have worked with some great reporters on some long term pieces here.

JC: What were some of the most enjoyable images or stories that you have worked on over the last year?

NB: I enjoyed doing a feature story about a family that runs a coffee shop in a small town. They use the space to homeschool their children too, so I spent many mornings with them. I enjoyed chatting with them and becoming part of their lives for a season. Also, the local National Guard unit was deployed to Afghanistan this year and I spent a weekend with them as they wrapped up their training. I try not to take it for granted that we get to see small pieces of history like that unfold in front of us. Hopefully, this unit will be one of the last ones that we send as the war winds down.  

And finally, Sean and I went down for the first University of Michigan football game of the year. They were playing our alma mater, Central Michigan University, in the Big House. CMU got killed, but the atmosphere was amazing. My dad is University of Michigan alum, so I grew up watching the games on TV. It was great to walk on that field. Most of the time we work alone, but I really enjoy working larger assignments as a team. We do that with our 4H fair coverage and at big sporting events as well.

Nick King: Some of my favorite stories from last year include a feature story on a couple that was allowed to stay in the same room during their time in the hospital, a standalone feature of a dog that got loose and ran into a traffic light repair job site, and a project on a new police officer and his journey through his first couple months on the job.  

Sean Proctor: Without a doubt, the most enjoyable work I did over the year was my project work. The daily grind is fun, but I love spending enough time to really get to know the people I am photographing. Stuff like the story on the Johns family, which Neil mentioned. I worked on it periodically throughout the year, dropping in here and there, going to birthday parties, sporting events, playing guitar hero and even taking a trip to DC with them. 

Likewise, the Sundays I spent with the Reformed Jedi Order during the summer were incredibly fun -- enough so that I still hang out with them when I have time. Lastly, when one of the middle schools closed its doors, I knocked out a couple quick essays and then spent the final three days walking the halls, hanging out with the principal and laughing with the students. I still see several of them now that they’re in high school, and it’s always great to see what they’re up to. 

The other thing I really enjoy is when it’s a big local rivalry game or a cool enough (and big enough) assignment that we all go out to cover it. It’s comforting to know that one or two other shooters are around, covering what you’re not seeing. It also makes me step up my game, because there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of friendly competition about who got the best picture on the day.

JC: The paper has been recognized by major photography contests with awards in their editing categories over the years. What do you attribute this to? How important are contests to you?

SP: I think a lot of that comes down to the rapport we have with each other. We’re all pretty laid back and we all trust each other implicitly. When it comes time to edit for a page or a project, everybody gets in on the conversation and talks it out. Then, after editing, re-editing, arranging, deconstructing, overanalyzing, nit-picking and arranging again, we’ll have our final edit. 

We have a running joke that when it’s getting close to finished, Nick and I will talk through every aspect of every picture to death and then when we’re done we show it to Neil, who “explodes the edit,” taking a bigger picture approach and pointing out things we somehow missed. Again, repeat the process, and finally we’re done! Our editing styles and visions are all different, yet similar enough to complement each other.

We look at contests as a way to compile a year’s worth of work and analyze strengths and weaknesses, both in editing/designing and shooting. It’s definitely exciting when our three person staff places right up there alongside the papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but we’re also looking at their editing and standout pages to draw inspiration from.

NB: I attribute it to allowing photographers to follow their vision and the trust that the Editor-in-Chief has in us to layout the paper. I guess it’s more than just allowing, it’s really supporting each other by giving the other photographers time to work on projects. We have been given the freedom to pursue projects and the freedom to design them at the paper. What’s that quote from Spiderman? “With great power comes great responsibility?” It’s true. And I feel that responsibility.

NK: I think Sean and Neil hit the nail on the head in their answers. I would only add that we all just really enjoy designing and editing pages. It’s something we all like to do, so it’s natural for us to strive for success in those areas. We all want to be better editors and designers and have been fortunate enough to develop our skills over the years, building on our successes and learning from our failures.

JC: Sean, you just won Photojournalist of the Year (Smaller Markets) at the NPPA's Best of Photojournalism contest. Congratulations! How do you feel about this and what does this recognition mean to you and the paper?

SP: Thank you! I'm excited and incredibly grateful. Most importantly, I know not to rest on my laurels, but to keep working. The bar has been raised, so what can I do to keep the momentum going? I'm still young and have a lot to learn, so this year will be a whole new learning curve. 

The recognition shows that good work can be done anywhere, no matter the circulation size. What's important is your attitude, your drive, and having people you trust around you to push you forward. 

JC: What are some of the unique responsibilities that photographers face at the paper? Is there a different mindset used when covering local stories? How does one go about shooting stories as opposed to a one shot?

NK: I think the most unique responsibility at our paper is that photographers are required to not only shoot assignments, but must also select the images that will run as well as laying out packages and front pages. Seeing your photos through to the end gives you the ability to think like a photographer, editor and designer all at the same time. We have the ability to bring photos and stories to life starting out in the field and finishing up on printed pages and online.

NB: As an intern I worked at The Herald, in Jasper, Indiana and at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, and the biggest change for me when I started full time here was working the desk and laying out the paper. I remember the first time when I was alone on the desk and it was up to me to ensure that the paper was ready to go on deadline. It was a rush! There is nothing quite like the adrenaline that you feel on deadline. There have been some days where breaking news will happen and I’ll have to literally leave the desk, grab my camera, shoot the event, and then rush back to the paper to place the photo on the page…all on deadline. It comes with all the different hats that we have to wear.

Our mindset is “documentary first.” We only shoot portraits when documentary isn’t an option. When I work on a story I keep in mind what Ryan Wood, a former photo editor at the Daily News, told me. He said that photo subjects will tell you the photos you need to take if you ask the right questions and listen!

SP: To expand on what has already been said, that’s how we have dealt with the lack of having a photo editor. Instead of leaving it to the copydesk or whatever other “powers that be,” we’ve taken on that responsibility ourselves. Sometimes it’s a challenge jumping from editing back into shooting, but it rounds out our skillset. Seeing things through from beginning to end is an enjoyable puzzle, and you learn something new every time.

We keep true to the documentary mindset as much as we can. It all starts with that initial phone call and setting those expectations right off the bat. From there, it’s about listening to what they have to say. When I’m out shooting, I try and treat every assignment like an essay or a small story. But the great thing about having a respected voice in the newsroom is the ability to say, “We should hold this, I want to do more.”

JC: Does the paper embrace/accept outside work from either freelancers or the public in general?

NB: We treat our freelancers as equal members of the photo staff. When I was a student I was a freelancer here and I would spend a lot of time with the staffers asking questions and looking at photos. They had a huge impact on my growth as a photographer. Today, I don’t assign freelancers anything that I wouldn’t be willing to shoot myself and I trust them to come back with an A1 worthy photo from their assignments. We do accept photos from the general public but we don’t run those on A1 except for extraordinary circumstances (for instance a reader captured a photo of a local coach rescuing someone from a car that went into a lake last year, so we ran that out front).

JC: Has new technology and digital photography become a blessing or a burden? What's different for you guys and the paper since, let's say, five years ago?

NK: In college and when I started in the business years ago I was still using film. I had the opportunity to see technology change from analog to digital. I always embraced the digital transition and saw it as a blessing. Work flow is so much quicker and image quality just keeps getting better. The technology can change, but the root of the work remains the same. The job was people, community and stories 10 years ago…and it’s still the same today.

SP: Technology is just a means to an end. Yes, it makes the workflow easier and quicker, but the latest and greatest DSLR doesn’t make you a good photographer or journalist. It doesn’t gain you the trust of people you’re photographing; being real and spending time does that. Sure, 4000 ISO looks ridiculous and sure being able to pump it up to 12800 is pretty neat, but I can still tell when I didn’t settle into an assignment or didn’t connect with a subject that well. The cave dark ISO abilities can’t fix that, neither can an uncompressed RAW file.

NB: Technology, for me at least, has been a huge blessing. We shoot with Nikon D4 SLRs and the ISO capability has enabled me to shoot in extremely low light and stay true to my documentary style. I rarely use flash. I still like to light gyms with strobes during basketball season, but even that isn’t necessary anymore. Five years ago the paper had just made the switch from the Nikon D2H, and I can see the change in quality in the ISO noise in our photo archive.

On a side note, we had some Nikon F5 cameras in the closet and I’m shooting on one as a creative outlet. Dave Weatherwax from The Herald, in Jasper, Indiana let me take 11 rolls of 35mm film that they had in their closet after my internship there and I’m hoping to shoot a project on it. It may be a visual disaster; it’s all at 3200 speed. But I hope it’ll be a fun disaster.

JC: Is there anything that you'd like to see being done differently that you think would enhance the paper's visual presence?

NB: The Digital Media Coordinator at the Daily News is currently working on a complete website overhaul which I am very excited about. He wants to display photos well on the website so I foresee our web presence vastly improving in the next year. He has already begun to make changes and I anticipate that it will look even better once we switch to our new platform.

JC: What have you learned from your time at the paper that would benefit photographers in general?

SP: Trust is an important thing in this job…trusting yourself, trusting your coworkers and your subjects trusting you. When I set up what might be an incredibly visual assignment I get excited to see what Nick or Neil come back with. Likewise, when I’m sent somewhere, I know I need to live up to that standard. They trust me to try my hardest every time, as I do them.

NB: When I was doing my undergrad at CMU I freelanced at the Daily News and Ryan Wood, the photo editor at the time, took a chance and trusted me on assignments. He trusted that I would get the job done. If I asked his advice, and I did so often, he would offer his insights but he trusted my vision even then. In turn, I now trust Sean and Nick completely. When I am on the desk, I view it as my responsibility to put them in a good documentary situation and then I leave it up to them. We never cherry pick assignments or show favoritism when assignment editing. I think that kind of trust and team mentality is vital for any successful photo staff.

NK: I’ve learned that you have to take responsibility for your own work. No matter where you are in your career, you have the ability to make compelling images. If each of us here at the Daily News didn’t strive to make the best out of our assignments or our situations, we would fail. I’ve also learned how much better you can become when a photo department is given more freedom and is trusted in the newsroom. That, combined with support from fellow staff photographers, can spark real personal growth that in the end benefits the entire newspaper and its readers.   

JC: Lastly, any final thoughts on the state of the industry, the outlook for smaller circulation newspapers or the future in general?

NK: The state of the industry and the future of journalism is a topic that can affect you negatively if you let it. I try my best to not let the chatter and the harsh reality of it bother me. It’s hard not to get bummed out when you hear about newsroom cuts, declining circulation and profit loss. I just keep my head down and focus on doing what I love to do, which is meeting people and making images.

NB: I am inspired by The Herald in Jasper, Indiana. They place a high priority on displaying photos well and by covering events that their community cares about. They own local news, and we do a similar thing at the Daily News. I think as long as small papers focus on telling in-depth stories and covering local news, there will be a place for them. They are the “social currency” of small towns.

SP: When I took my first internship at the Citizen Patriot in Jackson, Michigan, two of the three photographers were laid off (among others in all departments) days before I started. They were two photographers who I wanted to learn from and shoot with. More than that, they were two photographers with a firm standing in the community and in the newsroom. There was a strange tension in the newsroom. Along with the layoffs came a shift in philosophy and approach to the newspaper. I can’t say enough about the photo editor, J. Scott Park, who basically told me “Don’t worry about it, and go shoot good pictures. That’s why I hired you.” The future looks grim, but you have to remember what’s important; telling the stories of your community the best you can.

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