What does the future hold?

“It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” – Winston Churchill

My daughter, who is now a freshman at U.C. San Diego, took what seemed like the longest time to decide what her major would be. I actually should say she took a long time to tell my wife and I what her major was.

For a while she was leaning towards science/engineering and we thought that was great because there aren’t many women in those fields and companies would be falling over themselves to give her a good, high-paying job. Then she switched to archeology/anthropology, though she wasn’t firm on it. Another path where we thought that might make a good career for her if not as lucrative financially.

One day over the summer while driving in the car with her I asked her if she had decided yet as the deadline declare was fast approaching. “ She hemmed and hawed a bit then said: ”Communications.” “Communications” is a code word for journalism. I gave what I thought was a heavy but silent sigh. Then she said: “Don’t tell mom.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because she’ll give me the ‘face’.” “What face is that?” I asked again. “The face you’re giving me right now.”

My wife, a former journalist, and I, a photojournalist, encouraged our daughter to pursue anything she wanted. Anything that is, except journalism (in my case specifically photojournalism). We worry for the path that our she has chosen because the industry is in flux and its future is at best cloudy.

Scott Wreyford who used to be a salesman at the former Gluskin’s Camera in Stockton and is now photography professor at the Art Institute in Sacramento recently asked me to be a guest lecturer at one of his classes. After my presentation there was a Q & A session and one of the student’s asked what advice I could give to anyone who wanted to become a photographer. I actually was stumped for a moment.

In the old days I would have said to try to learn every aspect of photography that you can because most news photographers had to know how to do it all. Sure, there were some specialists (especially at the larger papers with bigger staffs), photographers who excelled at sports or studio work or portraits, etc., but most shooters were jacks-of-all-trades. That’s because you had to be. You could go from shooting a portrait, to a business assignment to an accident to a sporting event all in one day. And when the next day rolled around it would be completely different.

As long as I’ve been in the business it seemed that there were always more photographers wanting to work at newspapers than there were jobs available. Those who didn’t want to do it all were the ones who specialized and found jobs elsewhere.

The troubles of the newspaper industry is no secret. During the “Great Recession, the downturn in the economy caused a precipitous drop in advertising revenue. Circulation numbers dropped in similar numbers and classified advertising all but dried up when sellers moved to other venues like eBay and craigslist. Some newspapers have cut their reporting and photography staffs literally in half. Some of the best photojournalists I know or heard of have been laid off. Some have found other jobs in the photo industry but now are working in different, more specialized fields.

In today’s environment all I hear and read about is how one should find a niche and specialize. With newspapers shrinking photo staffs, the call for generalists is becoming more and more scarce. I’m fairly optimistic that newspapers will still be around when it comes time for me to retire but beyond that the crystal ball goes dark.

So back to that photo student’s question: What advice would I give for the budding photographer who wants to become a professional? I’d say learn the craft and art of photography. Gain expertise that will not only allow you to become proficient but to excel as well. Then you’ll have the skill to adapt to a constantly changing market.

Just as newspaper jobs become scarce, other avenues are opening up. Today photography is more important than ever. In the online world of Web sites, blogs and tweets there are millions pictures, many of which are frankly not very good. Be the one whose photos stand out. And news photography, whether in newspapers or online, will endure. In the long run there will always be a market for quality images.

The future is always a scary thing especially when you’re thinking about the well-being of your children. But as Apple founder Steve Jobs once said: “…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future…”

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