Johnston Press soon to be renamed Johnston Er…

It’s hard sometimes to write a post and not be completely ranty, but I’ll give it my best shot this week even though I think I have good cause to vent.

In 2010 Michael Johnston, Johnston Press Scotland divisional MD, was being scrutinised by a committee of Members of the Scottish Parliament about the state of the newspaper industry North of the border.

I quote from Mr Johnston’s submission to the MSPs, “We possibly did not invest enough in journalism. Looking at the here and now, and moving forward, I want to ensure that the businesses that I am responsible for are sustainable and can continue to function in a viable way.

“Journalism is fundamental to what we do. I recognise journalism as being not only a significant cost but a significant attribute of our business.”

So what are Johnston Press playing at now? It emerged yesterday (Monday, 27th Jan 2014, via HoldTheFrontPage) that JP are to axe all the staff photographers from their Midlands division in favour of reader-generated content. It’s quite hard to see how this tallies with an ethos of investing in journalism. I guarantee that whatever state those Midlands titles are in now, their readerships, sales and advertising revenues will all see an accelerated slide once the papers are populated with submitted images.

The problem Johnston Press have is that after a long programme of acquisition and asset-stripping in the 1990s and early 2000s, they racked up large debts at the same time as fatally damaging the newspapers they bought.

Under-investment in journalism and photography has meant their readership and advertisers have run away to the internet. Had JP and other publishing groups like them already been AT the internet, ready and waiting with quality online content from the get go, they might not be in the terrible position they’re in now. But time and again, JP management have proved themselves to be woefully incompetent. So here we are, yet again hearing about the wholesale redundancies of photographers.

To many people this is just seen as inevitable change. A consequence of the internet, the digital revolution. This is lazy thinking and doesn’t take into account the loss of democracy that comes with quality reporting supported and enhanced by quality imagery. The Midlands group of newspapers affected by these redundancies will be expected to rely on images sent in by readers. In other words, the daily and weekly agendas of newspapers are to be set by whatever free pictures are sent in, not by reporters and photographers digging up stories which really matter to the communities in which they live and work. This harms democracy.

And no, this state of affairs would not have been inevitable had publishers taken a different course early on, but as Mr Johnston admitted, journalism is expensive and twenty years ago, when they were making more money than they knew what to do with, they could have invested rather than push for ever greater profit margins. This  might not have pleased shareholders looking for quick returns, but this lack of foresight means that companies like JP are among the “zombie” companies we’ve been hearing about of late. Their debts and years of under-investment leave them prey to the banks who control the finances and make them desperately un-attractive prospects for potential buyers who might have had the means to save them if things hadn’t gone to terminally dire.

Guardian columnist Prof. Roy Greenslade commented that these redundancies are inevitable and just a result of newspaper economics. Well, bless the dotty professor for forgetting to mention that current newspaper economics are a direct result of massive mis-management around 20 years ago. All this might be inevitable now, but it’s as a result of reckless greed, not out of a need to have rubbish newspapers filled with rubbish content. I don’t think anyone truly needs that.

There, I just failed to not rant.


Update: Professor Greenslade follows-up after photographers argue back. He says he’s right, then goes on to prove he barely has a grasp of newspaper economics. It’s quite worrying really.

A long-winded way of saying I haven’t lost my hobby

Looking down Great Pulteney Street in Bath

Who can resist a pretty sunset?

When I was a wee lad, photography was one of my hobbies. I also played guitar (badly). I still play guitar (badly), but until I was given a prompt to think about it, I thought I’d lost the other hobby because it became my career.

It’s true though that ever since I took up photography professionally, I’ve always enjoyed having a hobby camera to swing about and use for off-the-cuff shots. I still own a Yashica T3 Super, an excellent compact film camera with a Zeiss T* f2.8 lens, though I never use it.

Before people started paying me to take photos for them, I was always interested in using recent photographic experiences to inform my next outing with the camera. Looking through the prints from my first 35mm film camera, a Voigtländer, I would work out what I’d done right and wrong (and why I needed a better camera), and use that knowledge next time I went out.

A view of a grassy field rising up to a line of tall, straight, leafless trees in winter. There are vehicle tracks in the grass

Sometimes I’ll catch a good view while out cycling

These days for “fun” photography I generally carry my Fuji X20. I know it’s not going to give me the quality of my big camera, but it does give me a quality which looks great on a screen (and sometimes an old timey print!) and still lets me twiddle the dials I get to twiddle on my big camera, so I can have some creative control too.

A white bracket fungus growing on tree bark

I love shooting close-ups of fungi, even if I can’t name them

My iPhone is also handy, but apart from picking a subject and an angle, the only creativity I can have with that is with in-built filters, and I prefer my photos to be seen as close to their original state as possible (ie, little or no filtering). It’s also not so great in tricky lighting. The iPhone doesn’t allow me to skew the exposure much or play with depth of field either, so although I’ve taken some pictures with that of which I’m quite fond, it’s the X20 which I routinely use out and about.

The X20 has limitations as does any camera, but it’s particular mix of them forces you to see and record things differently than you would with an SLR. Sometimes I find the experience frustrating, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes it’ll feed back into what I do for my professional work.

When a client recently asked me if photography was still a hobby I struggled to answer, but now that I’ve thought about it a little more I can see that it is still a hobby, but one that informs my professional work. It ties in nicely with my cycling hobby sometimes, but I can’t say it’s improving my guitar playing.

Another Chapter

Smiling portrait against a grey background of author Sally M Gander

Standard head shot for small usage

Author portrait sessions are fun, I just don’t get to do them very often. That’s a slight understatement because in fact I believe in the last 15 years as a freelance I’ve done the grand sum of two. The first was in May 2003 for sci-fi writer Karen Traviss for her book City of Pearl, the second was in November last year for young adult fiction writer Sally M Gander* as part of the launch of her debut ebook, The Big Deep. A gap of just over a decade. Hardly London buses then.

What’s fun about them is that they are an opportunity for more creative input than I tend to get with, for example, corporate portraits. Using Sally as an example, we were able to discuss style and mood which feeds into considerations of location and, for me at least, what kit to use. Also, since the writing world has changed so dramatically since the halcyon days of 2003, we needed to consider context a lot more.

Author Sally M Gander's photo session in the street is interrupted by a passerby hugging her

A hazard of taking portraits in the street

Not only will these photos be needed for a possible inside jacket, but also for all kinds of social media, blog use, press use, print and digital. In fact I suspect the shoot covered Sally for pretty much everything barring projection onto the London gherkin (not sure what my obsession with all things London is this week).

We started the session with some fairly straight head shots, indoors against a white backdrop, then switched to grey. Some smiling, some straight-faced as these are useful for when a portrait is to be used very small somewhere.

After the warm indoor part we ventured onto the chilly streets of Frome and worked on getting more mood into the shots and making sure there was a variety of landscape and portrait orientations and shots with left/right emphasis. In order to work fast I stuck to just two lenses, a 35mm and a 105mm, and a single flash to augment the rather nice daylight.

Even keeping it simple takes some time. Add in the odd interruption (a hazard of taking photos on the street) and a couple of changes of location, and by the time I’d finished Sally’s eyes were watering so much it looked as if she might be crying. It’s possible she was, it was bitterly cold.

Landscape portrait of Sally M Gander, author, taken in Shepherds Barton, Frome

A landscape-oriented shot is also useful

The session finished, later that day I did the editing and processing on the files and delivered them to Sally, who said they were absolutely the best photos ever taken of her (I paraphrase, but she was definitely pleased).

So now all I have to do is wait another decade for my next writerly client. I’ll let you know when it happens.

Frome-based author Sally M Gander poses by a stone wall in Frome

An alternative backdrop and different expression change the mood completely

To buy Sally M Gander’s debut novel The Big Deep, click here.

*Yes, there is a relationship between myself and Sally M Gander. We are married. We are separated. We are friends.

First, 200th and beyond

The view from the entrance of The Holburn Museum in Bath looking down Great Pulteney Street at sunset.

By happy coincidence my first post for 2014 is also my 200th, and I’m going to mark the occasion by taking stock of where my blog has been, and where I hope to take it in the coming year.

It was October 2009 when I first put finger to keyboard and wrote my inaugural, slightly apologetic article and while I’m no blogging superstar, I’ve had some really interesting times, made some friends and even gained some work through my writing. A fine example of this is the articles I’ve been commissioned to write for Wex Photographic as a result of one of my blog fans recommending me to them when they tweeted asking if anyone knew any photographers that could write. I’m still not sure I qualify, but I still write for Wex so I’ll keep hush and hope they don’t notice.

The thing is, when I first started my blog I wasn’t terribly confident and having foolishly decided it should be weekly, I wrote on whatever subject popped into my head on the morning of the day of publication (Tuesdays). To be fair, that’s still how I write it, but looking back I’ve amassed quite an archive of work to which I really should afford a bit more respect.

To whit, I have decided this is the year to jump from to (something I know I should have done ages ago). This will allow me to improve layout, design and features, add video on occasion and make it all more attractive to an even wider audience. At the same time I really should ensure all the articles are tagged and searchable, as some are currently not.

While a general tidy-up and redesign will be a start, I can’t pretend I’ll be any more organised about writing it – I rarely reach Tuesday morning with a ready article and some weeks I’m just too busy with work to write one at all, but I feel a strange obligation to what I started and, more importantly, to the tens of people who come here each week seeking my pearls of wisdom, my self-promoting blurbs, or random rants.

Of course, now that I’ve said I’ll do all this, I’ve made a rod for my own back and will just have to get the heck on with it. It may take a while, but bear with me and watch this space. In the meantime, thanks for sticking around and I look forward to entertaining you for another year.