SUMMARY: Visual journalism is as important as writing a story. That’s why it need to be treated not as a production function, but integrated in the story creation flow
Reporters on assignment have been known to introduce the photographer assigned with them as “my” photographer. Not only is it rude, but it demonstrates the reporter thinks the photographer is less than an equal partner.
The thinking that gives rise to such behaviour is still ingrained in some newsrooms. In these cases, the visual people — photo and video, infographics, art directors, and even platform editors — are seen as service providers, there to enhance the story written by the “real” journalists. They are most often called on after the story has already taken form.
It is a familiar scenario, perhaps a little exaggerated but not too far from reality: Someone writes the story, his editor goes over it, someone with responsibility for the topic might look at it, then it goes to a copy editor, who goes back and forth with the reporter a few times to perfect the story. It is ready to be published and somebody says, “Do we have art with that?” The graphics department is finally consulted and points out — not for the first time — it would have been better if it had been approached earlier. With enough time, the department could have provided something really interesting, but on deadline it can produce nothing more than a one-column bar chart.
The opportunity is missed, and all because nobody thought to include these people at the beginning. The audience is getting one-column bar charts when they’re expecting compelling, interactive graphics and great photos and videos.
The subscription revenue they provide is increasingly important, and they won’t stick around if visual elements continue to be an afterthought and seen as bells and whistles instead of “real journalism” because it is not written word.
The audience likes, appreciates, and expects attractive visual elements. The success of Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and other visual platforms is proof of that.
This counterproductive habit in newsrooms comes from newspaper thinking. Even in the digital age, where the desire to become “digital first” or “mobile first” is the goal of many news organisations, the legacy of the newspaper workflow still defines many newsrooms.
Excellent written journalism isn’t always enough if you aren’t giving your audience a phenomenally great experience. With multiple new journalistic formats in play, a story should be packaged for each of them right from the start. Changing the workflow is an opportunity to ensure visual journalists and designers no longer bring up the rear.
Visual experts need to be considered journalism creators — not service units. They need to be part of the conversation at the beginning of the process and the beginning of the story idea. For instance, data journalism is a new discipline, and some of the most viewed evergreen stories are based on the compelling representation of data.
Respect for visual journalists means giving them a seat at the news hub, among representatives from every department responsible for content creation and the different platforms. It means embedding them in the reporting teams, not isolated in a corner at the side or the back of the newsroom. They are a valuable voice at the table and bring in new perspectives. They help determine if the story is best told in words, photos, video, or graphics, and in what combination. They help define the story and make it compelling and unique, not just enhance it after it is written.
The same goes for the digital platform editors and the art directors who are focused on online presentation. It no longer makes sense to write a story in the old manner, then figure out how to make it “fit” mobile or digital. These platforms have great storytelling attributes that are underutilised when the story is presented as a done deal.
Moving visual journalists to the centre of the newsroom — both physically and figuratively — sends a statement to the rest of the staff members and allows them to interact in a meaningful way to produce even better journalism. New voices in the newsroom, at the news hub, help ensure the stories emerge in the right format with the right elements for all platforms to provide your audience with the best experience possible. ♦︎
This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.