By Jim Colton
When I first started in this business (in 1972 for those of you who want to know) there weren’t a whole lot of photography workshops. It was more an era of work hard, play hard, learn on the run, get the job done and move on. But I was lucky. I had several terrific mentors along the way.
The first to take this long-haired teen under his wings was the director of the photo library at the Associated Press, Henry Mecinski. Every conversation with Henry started the same way. His glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, pipe in hand, he would bark, “Lemme ask you a question.” Always inquisitive, he genuinely wanted to know not only what I was doing, but why I was doing it -- looking out for me in an almost fatherly way. He got me excited about photojournalism and pushed me harder than he would his own son. He arranged my work schedule so I could work full time and finish my college degree. Because to him, “There’s nothing more important than that sheepskin, kid!”
So if and when you find one of these mentors in your life, grab hold and never let go! Eric Strachan is that kind of mentor.
Strachan has been with the Naples Daily News for 32 years, starting as one of two staff photographers in 1981. He became the director of photography in 1991, then assistant managing editor, then managing editor and then in 2008 became senior managing editor where his responsibilities now include supervising the entire daily editorial operations.
Along the way he helped build and direct the photography staff, has won numerous awards for the newspaper, and led the editorial portion of three of the paper’s redesigns. He has also served as faculty for the Stan Kalish Picture Editing Workshop, the Mountain Photography Workshop and has been a judge for the editing portion of the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. He is always giving back.
Needless to say, his impact on the Naples Daily News has been huge. He credits a lot of his success to hiring great talent along the way and “treating them like a partner, learning from each other and pushing each other as well.” As he rose on the masthead, he never looked down at those in the positions he left behind but rather embraced them, mentored them, and became the bridge between the editorial and visuals. Few have made the transition from photographer to managing editor as well.
This week, Photo journal talks with photographer, senior managing editor, educator, mentor and an all-around nice guy that plays a mean guitar, Eric Strachan.
Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself? When did you first realize that photography was going to be your calling? What other newspaper or other photography positions have you held before coming to the Naples Daily News?
Eric Strachan: My family was living in New Orleans when I graduated high school. So many of my classmates knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives after graduation but I didn’t have a clue. I traveled to Europe and bought a camera prior to the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience of recording my travels. It was my mother – probably grasping at anything I showed an interest in at the time – that encouraged me to pursue photography. I enrolled at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale – this was in 1977 – where I received training in the various techniques/fields of photography, but I really got baptized in photojournalism there. Walt Michot of the Miami Herald was an instructor there at the time and I found myself doing some ride-alongs with him on assignment. I got the news bug. Carol Guzy was a classmate there as well, and so was Pete Cross, who would later become the director of photography at the Palm Beach Post. All three of us did internships with the Miami Herald while going to school and I loved every minute of it.
JC: Few have made the transition as well from photographer to photo editor and now senior managing editor. A lot has changed since you were the only staff photographer for the paper in in 1981. Can you tell us a little about that transition including what the breakdown is of the current visuals staff at the newspaper…including the online version?
ES: I was hired at the Daily News as a staff photographer in 1981. It was a two-person photo staff and about a year or so after I started, the other photographer quit taking another position, so yes, I was the only photographer at the paper for a while. In a way, that’s how I started managing though, because I was given the opportunity to hire his replacement, and lead the department, small as it was. I’d never hired anyone before, but I did have enough sense to know, even then, that it was probably the most important opportunity you get. So I took it seriously. For my first hire I ended up hiring Bruce Moyer (now the deputy director of photography with the Tampa Bay Times). The way it worked out though, it was really like I hired a partner. I was his boss but we quickly became great friends and colleagues. We pushed each other to be better, and we were slowly changing the culture too -- one from photography as a short-order cook type service organization – to a viable and integral part of the newsroom and a key player in the process.
Naples started booming then too. Southwest Florida was quickly expanding. Scripps Howard bought the privately-owned paper in 1986 and because we were growing, I had the opportunity to make more hires, including my next hire, Kim Weimer, who to this day is probably one of the most naturally-talented photojournalists I’ve ever worked with. We kept raising the bar. There was a ton I didn’t know about management at the time so trust me when I say I’m grateful for all the photographers who stuck with me over the years as we grew.
It also became apparent that if visual journalism was ever going to truly succeed in Naples, someone had to have a seat at the table. To be present when meetings were held and decisions were being made. So as much as I loved being in the field, I found myself shooting less and less, but also having a larger role in the newsroom – to the benefit of visuals. I can’t say it was always easy, but we kept true to the vision and built on successes.
Our current photo structure is led by Michel Fortier, our visuals editor, who supervises the 5-person photo team who all work across platforms. We don’t have visual journalists dedicated to video only.
One perk of having a successful photo operation is the ability to recruit. Even though we’re a mid-sized news operation, we’ve been able to make some great hires of photographers that span a range of experience. We’ve benefitted from hiring photographers – some with not a lot of experience under their belts – but with a lot of potential, putting them in an environment where they can succeed if they have the passion and work ethic to complement the opportunity.
Our current lineup of photojournalists is: Dave Albers, Scott McIntyre, Corey Perrine, Will DeShazer and Dania Maxwell. And they fit perfectly with our tradition here of hiring photographers that not only have talent and technical ability, but show great potential as well. And, they’re all individuals who happen to be very nice people too. Our staffs have always been great ambassadors for the paper. They’re good people who make a good impression in the community and I’m proud of that.
JC: Photo editing is such a crucial part of our business. I know you’ve been on the faculty of the Stan Kalish Picture Editing Workshop and the Mountain Photography Workshop. Do you see photo editing as a lost art? What are some of the essentials of being a good photo editor?
ES: For me the most essential part is telling a story, communicating visual information in an honest, straightforward and creative way. Whether you’re communicating in a newspaper, website, mobile device or tablet, great news photography is about connecting with an audience to tell the stories of your community. Visuals are more important now than they’ve ever been, and the audience, as a whole, is more sophisticated visually. So photos need to have impact, key moments and feeling, and be able to contribute significantly to the content produced by your news organization.
The Kalish was such an inspiration, and something that had a profound impact on me personally. I attended as a participant in 1995. Then the following year we won first place in POYi for the first time. Our managing editor at the time, Bill Blanton, was a great mentor for me and he’d been involved with Kalish from early on. After our win in POY I was asked to come back to Kalish as a faculty member, and what a pleasure it was to work alongside – and become friends with -- folks like Bob Lynn, Bruce Baumann, Sonia Doctorian, John Rumbach, Janet Reeves, Michel du Cille, Randy Cox, Mark Edelson, Julie Elman, the list really does go on. I served on the faculty for nine years, so that’s not even counting the connections and friendships I made with so many of the participants I had the pleasure of getting to know at Kalish over the years, in addition to fellow faculty. I learned so much from everyone.
I think you’ve got to be curious to be a good photo editor. You’ve got to let photographers talk about what was going on when they covered an event or story, you’ve got to help them zero in on what matters and take the time to have that dialog. And it’s not bad to push photographers some either. In my experience the best ones respond to that if you do it right. And you’ve got to largely edit for the audience and be willing to take chances. You’ve also got to have a handle on the big picture of your publication and website, be plugged in to the other stories in the works, and know how to exploit opportunity to get the best for visuals. I wouldn’t say photo editing is a lost art, there’s just some poor editing being done out there, but fortunately there are also some terrific things being done now in the industry as well.
JC: Our industry is constantly changing and the advent of digital has brought blessings as well as burdens. One of those burdens is the sheer volume of imagery that is now available. How do you filter through all this “noise,” in search of those gems? And how has digital workflow affected how the Daily News produces its stories, both in print and online?
ES: You’re right, there are a lot of demands on working photographers now due to digital, but also some unique opportunities to have your work seen and appreciated by a much wider audience. We’ve been a digital first operation for a while, so shooting and editing for digital isn’t anything new to us, but the pace can be taxing at times. Our staffers will usually do a loose, photo-gallery edit of their work and Michel will help them make final cuts for print, often times going back to their full take as well. I’ll edit with the photographers on occasion for daily work (true confession, I still love to do it). Because of my visual background I work pretty closely with Michel, bouncing ideas daily on photo play and coverage. And often times Michel and I will tighten up the edit for a daily story in print. I’m involved with the daily report but much more involved with the photo team these days on their longer-term project edits.
JC: How do you go about satisfying the web needs of the newspaper as well as the print version? Is there a lot of emphasis being placed on things like multi-media, video and photo galleries? Is it now part of the staff photographer’s skill set to know how to produce them as well as shooting stills?
ES: Here in Naples there are definitely demands associated with galleries for the web. With breaking news it wouldn’t be unusual for a staff photographer to send an iPhone photo as soon as they’re on scene for online posting. We create a gallery for just about every assignment our team shoots. There’s less emphasis on video -- though I’d like to see us producing more video. Will DeShazer did one recently on WWII veterans who live in Naples. He did a Memorial Day piece that we published across platforms where he shot stills, wrote short stories on each of the vets and produced a video that had each man reminiscing about his experience in the service. It was moving. When video is good, it’s good. It really does offer value-added content to your audience. The trick is being selective about how you’re going to commit time and resources to video that has a fighting chance of moving the needle for you online. We’ve seen people spending a ton of time producing a video that barely gets any audience online. You want your people using their time to the best advantage, so it’s always a balance.
JC: Can you think of a recent story that you were particularly proud of or one that had a positive impact on the local community you serve?
ES: Not to play favorites but three very recent ones that come to mind include one that Scott McIntyre shot of a KOA campground where winter residents built a neighborhood devoid of pretense, that the residents themselves describe as “the friendliest campground in the world.”
Another was one Corey Perrine shot that we called “Life after limb,” a look at 3 local amputees adjusting to life after losing limbs. We were taking our time with that story but published it pretty quickly following the Boston Marathon bombings where as many as 13 people lost arms and legs.
And David Albers of our staff did a beautiful job documenting an ongoing news story for us where nature had closed one of the beach passes that fed tidal waters into Clam Bay, an area of tidal creeks and bays that meander for about three miles through mangrove forests adjacent to an upscale community on the Gulf of Mexico. When storms and shifting sands closed the pass, a volunteer shovel brigade literally materialized overnight – dozens of tourists and locals who took turns digging a deep, narrow trench between the bay and the Gulf. It was a Band-aid for an area folks feared would slowly die if deprived of water. Heated debated at commission and environmental meetings, volunteer diggers and eventually a permit and bulldozers to open the pass were all documented by Dave Albers who really captured the story. People thanked us in letters to the editor for not taking our eyes off this story, and for keeping it in the news so action would be taken.
JC: You’ve led the paper through a couple of redesigns. Can you talk a little about the collaborate effort that is needed amongst the various departments of the newspapers to insure both good display and good story telling?
ES: It’s a crazy difficult process because there are a lot of moving parts. The last redesign I did I was particularly proud of because a lot of thought went into actually making less design tools, less paragraph styles, less bells and whistles, but having design furniture and tools that were very versatile. I definitely come from the “clean, uncluttered, elegant, white-space-is-a-good-thing” school of thought when it comes to design. I like well-edited photography, played properly and complemented with just enough layers of text to pull you in and make you want to engage with the story.
Unfortunately, about a year after we launched that design all Scripps newspapers adopted a unified design for all properties to use, as a way of making it easier to share content. We’ve stayed true to our philosophy of picture usage and impactful editing, white space and clean typography, so we’ve been able to use the design tools we’ve been given to work with pretty well.
A redesign really is an effort that involves every department in the building. You find yourself working closely with advertising about ad sizes and anchored ad opportunities, or how obituaries will be done, or how sports agate should look and be scripted, how classifieds will get produced and look. It really is a daunting process. I’ve been involved with, and led the editorial portion, of three of them over the years. I also hired Suzette Moyer of the Tampa Bay Times as a freelance design consultant to redesign our community publications, and I worked closely with her to make those come to life. She did a great job, and our pubs are broadsheet community publications that are more like magazines in the shape of newspapers. Frank Russell is the art director for them here in Naples and he’s been fantastic making the design Suzette and I envisioned come alive week after week.
JC: The Naples Daily News is no stranger to winning awards from major photography contests including “Best Use of Photography” categories for your market size. What do you attribute this to? And how do you stay visually fresh and current?
ES: Well, it didn’t happen overnight, but it has – I’m proud to say – sustained for a number of years now, mainly because photography has come to play such a key role in contributing to the overall content of the news here. We’ve set the bar high and we have high expectations.
I had an old friend in Naples who was a music promoter in town, and the logo for his business said, “Naples, Florida, where anything can happen but nothing ever does.” Truth is though; Florida is a pretty newsy state. And really in any town, anywhere there are people, there are stories to tell. We have a demographic in Southwest Florida that runs the gamut from the extremely wealthy; to a farming community in our county that has a large seasonal migrant population. We have commercial fishing, sport fishing, snowbirds and families who have been here for generations. There’s no shortage of stories to tell and if you’re curious enough to find them, and invest in telling them visually -- hopefully stories that are timely and topical -- that’s how you stay fresh and current. We still have a weekly photo column that rotates between the photographers on staff and it’s one of my favorite things we do. I’m still a sucker for those slice of life moments, some big and some small, that define a community and offer opportunities to inject diversity into the paper.
JC: What advice would you give to photojournalism students today about what they’ll need and what they’ll be facing in the near future? Are you optimistic about the photography end of our business or are we facing the end of photography in our business?
ES: Learn your craft, be technically proficient, and be comfortable with video and social media and the technical aspects of the tools of your trade, so that you can concentrate on what really matters: seeing moments, documenting, sharing, informing, reporting, enlightening, surprising. Work to be a complete journalist. This can be a tough business, and it certainly took a big blow when the economy went south awhile back. But what we’re seeing is that, as tough as it’s been, it’s coming back. It’s different, but it’s back. And we’ve had to adapt and change ... again.
We’re learning new tools, new ways to attract and retain audience, new ways to sustain our business and profit, but news – reporting and informing by professional journalists – isn’t going out of business. There’s still a demand for good informative, unbiased and accurate investigative reporting now as much as there’s ever been. And it’s still one of the most exciting and absorbing professions you’ll ever be a part of.
I’m very optimistic about the photography end of our business, but mainly because I believe in the power of photography, to express and relate and to show in ways that only great visuals – produced by professional photojournalists -- can. Yes, we’re witnessing some devastating circumstances recently like the layoffs of entire photography departments in Chicago and elsewhere, but I’ve got to believe that in the end, it’ll prove to be bad, unprofitable business for companies that short change what professional photojournalists bring to the table. The companies making those wholesale cuts may achieve a short-term cost savings without a real strategy for business growth. Eliminating or severely reducing your visual report certainly can’t be a case of serving your readers or audience better, no matter how you spin it.
JC: Lastly, are there any upcoming projects that you are working on that you are at liberty to share with our readers at this time? What keeps Eric Strachan looking forward to going to work each day? And do you have any last words about any topic that we haven’t discussed?
ES: Dania Maxwell of our photo staff, along with writer Jessica Lipscomb, has been documenting a young 11-year-old boy with brain cancer living out the last months of his life by hitting the road with his single mom, in a “bucket-list” journey to compact a lot of living, and a lot of growing up, into a short amount of time. Our hope for this story, if we do it right and if we’re true to it, is that it won’t be about a boy dying of cancer. It’ll be about life. Treasuring it, living it, hanging on to it and embracing the good, but living it faster, in an accelerated fashion, in a way no one should have to. Our hope is that when it’s published it’ll be a very positive piece, one that celebrates just how special life is.
Do you have a story you think is a good candidate for Photo Journal? Email your suggestion to: [email protected].