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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: A portrait of documentary photojournalism

By BRIAN KRATZER
September 17, 2010 | 4:00 p.m. CDT

A myriad of emotions well up when I think about the past five years and the future that is ahead for our journalists.

I’ve been through the pains and exhausting issues that come from turning a traditional print newsroom into an online-first newsroom. It is a world where the word "sex" in a headline will propel the story to number one on the analytics chart. And it requires the direct management of news, forum users (some of whom turn nasty), video production issues, server crashes and Web producer training.

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These problems all fell to my staff, which, by the way, also included the passionate and creative photojournalists.

Oh yes, those lovely photojournalists. When was I helping them exactly?

As an assistant managing editor for online and multimedia at The Gainesville Sun, gainesville.com and the sports site gatorsports.com, one person could not devote the necessary time to also coach and edit this passionate team.

So returning to the Missourian as the director of photography is blissful. This is a return to the coaching and building of visual journalists.

Let the story-telling image rule. Breathe in the fine elements of a documentary image born of time spent with a subject. Shy away from the pseudo-event and discover a way to tell the real story with real people. Yes, real people. Not the kind of real people gathered for a politician’s town hall meeting. I mean the real people who are the faces and struggles behind every trend story and every issue story.

This requires the training of everyone — reporter, editor and photojournalist — to ask real people to show us what they normally do, in reality, on a typical day. We don’t want situations created for us. We need to seek out these situations.

This takes more time and effort from the staff members, but it gives our subjects and our viewers a more realistic view of our community.

But don’t think I’m coated in rose-colored idealism. The assignment is inevitable where we will resort to a portrait, a ribbon-cutting event or a media tour of a new hospital. At times, these events are necessary to complete the coverage of our community.

We are starting with a fundamental framework based on a foundation of documentary photography. From this foundation, we work with the reality of the situation. Is the real person available? Is it possible to photograph the person in his or her natural state? If the assignment is event coverage, then how do we make ourselves aware of real moments during a media tour, festival or news conference?

If all of this documentary journalism wasn’t difficult enough, we have still images, photo galleries, audio slideshows and videos to manage. And I’m beginning to see the puzzle pieces come together, or at least I see them thrown into a pile ready to assemble.

This staff is large. Students are being asked to gather audio and visuals, and many of them have never been asked to do so before. Sometimes quality can be wide-ranging, and this is presenting a challenge.

There are several channels from which this content is being created in our newsroom. We have classes and sequences coming up with new ways to create content. This means coming up with better workflows for these new content channels. We want to develop an online showcase for what we hope is a high-quality product. So much of this new content is highly visual in nature, so several of us are taking a vested interest.

This is a blast. Collaboration is a key element to preventing a mess on our site. I’ve guest lectured in several classes about visuals and online workflows.  We’re collaborating with different editors to determine all of the elements involved from the different groups in and around the newsroom that are producing multimedia.

The fundamental line remains: The spirit of documentary photojournalism is alive. This vision is the same for every visual-content generator in the newsroom, whether the person is a photojournalist, reporter or convergence member.

My goal is to bring this vision to you in every possible form on ColumbiaMissourian.com and in print.

Brian Kratzer is director of photography for the Columbia Missourian and an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.