‘Pictures of people sell papers’ was regularly drummed into me by various chief subs and editors.
I couldn’t get this old maxim out of my head as the importance of photographers was angrily debated in the wake of Johnston Press’s decision to axe the ‘snapper’ as a staff role across its Midlands region, and to reduce them in the North-West.
This background was perhaps unfortunate for the Dunmow & Stansted Observer, a Local World newspaper whose Thursday 23 January edition I’d already chosen for today’s review.
“Where oh where,” I lamented to myself, “are the cracking pictures and sharp images of people that might grab the reader and prompt them to buy this paper?”
The splash itself was a half-decent story – although the ’POLICE PROBE DRUG DEATH’ headline lazily missed the chance of projecting either the arrest or the emotive reaction from bereaved relatives.
But the fingerprint-sized picture of the late Jason Wyatt was nowhere near the size or grade needed to fulfil the role and importance of the page one image.
The second lead on a sex assault was also newsworthy enough, but the dark drop-in shot of the crime scene again couldn’t hold the page.
Yes, I know, these were probably the only images available with those stories, but if that was the case I would contend that a picture write-off using a quality shot from an inside page should have been considered.
Except once I’d looked through the Observer’s inside pages, I realised these were few and far between: a sent-in PR picture on page two; probable stocks used in single columns on page three; archive snaps on page four; a fuzzy aerial of fields on page five; blurred readers’ diet pictures on page six; a cheque picture on page seven; sent-in school pictures on page eight; another PR shot on page nine; a brick building on page 10; another cheque and a headshot on page 11; and a columnist’s broken boiler with his posed grimace on page 12.
Finally, on page 13, I found a snap just about sharp enough to have held the front page together – a traumatised elderly couple cuddling their three-legged cat after it had been mauled by a dog
But that, I promise you, was the only half-decent news picture throughout the whole paper, the rest being more cheques, blurred sent-ins, head-shots or obvious PR images.
I made enquiries, and it seems there’s no picture desk at the paper’s Bishop’s Stortford base although, as part of Local World, journalists can mobilise a snapper from Cambridge if their case is considered good enough.
Mainly, however, it seems that staff just have to get along without them, which is a shame because the Observer had enough good stories, but most were poorly projected because of a lack of quality images. Aside from those already mentioned, decent tales included:
- ‘Man free after planning to rape 10-year-old boy’ leading page two (no picture, such as a court snatch);
- ‘Ex-mayor at centre of police call for pub licence probe’ leading page three (tiny picture, probably stock);
- ‘1,200 submit views on new housing’ leading page five (fuzzy aerial);
- ‘Driving instructor is hurt in head-on smash’ leading page seven (no picture); and
- ‘Ground Force’s Tommy sells home for £299,950’ leading page 14 (in this case, a good use of stock and buildings for an inside page).
Last week, Roy Greenslade was monstered by furious comments on two of his Media Guardian blogs after saying, and then repeating, that staff photographers on local weekly newspapers were largely redundant because of the increase in quality pictures from readers, and reporters armed with iPhones.
I don’t agree with these views: yes, there’s a case for fewer photographers, but real newspapers should retain enough trained staff picture resource to have three or four great shots in every edition, rather than scratching around with sub-standard cheque snaps.
If they don’t – and ‘they’ means Johnston Press and all other publishers as well as Local World’s Observer in this review – I’d argue they will only hasten the fall off in sales because dull fronts don’t entice readers to buy papers, and tedious inside pages switch them off.
Perhaps Greenslade, so often a sound media commentator, ought to take a more regular look at small, weekly papers and think about why so many people – 160 comments when I last looked – might have found his blogs to be so condescendingly offensive.