Tens of thousands gathered in downtown Los Angeles to participate in the March For Our Lives protest march. © 2018 Todd Bigelow

 

A week ago I received an email from my alumni association requesting donations to the journalism alumni association. The message was signed by the chair of the journalism department who I know and respect and alluded to some important changes to the journalism program. The email contained the following paragraph: 

“The Department of Journalism expects to launch a sweeping program and curriculum redesign in Fall 2018 in time for its October 60th anniversary celebration, hosted by the Journalism Alumni Association and the Department. The redesign expands the major and adds courses in critical areas, such as multimedia storytelling, engaging diverse communities and news literacy to meet consequential changes in our national accreditation standards in tandem with the urgent need to deliver contemporary and relevant curriculum that will ensure our students’ career success.”

Needless to say, I was thrilled to read this. In my many years of teaching as an adjunct professor at my alma mater, both in the Journalism Department and in the Art Department, I can state with certainty that curriculum change usually proceeds at a pace slightly slower than climate change. So when change does occur, it’s exciting! Although happy to see the noted changes, I was really disappointed for what was not mentioned.

Those who know me understand that I have advocated strongly my entire career, with special emphasis on the past decade, for photojournalists to develop a firm understanding regarding the myriad of business related decisions they will immediately encounter in the freelance world. The most sensible place to acquire these skills is during a student’s undergraduate work, yet the email from my alma mater failed to mention any training devoted to preparing their photojournalism students for the freelance world. 

So I replied with the following email:

Dear [redacted]

I just wanted to take a moment to respond to this message of giving. Hope you can find a few minutes at this hectic time of year to give some thought to my response. 

First, as a alumnus of [redacted] Journalism Dept and former lecturer (now on the art side) I’m always interested in finding ways to give back. That being said, I’m thrilled to see that the department is evolving the curriculum to meet the requirements of today’s profession. I’m still quite active as a freelance photographer and can tell you from direct experience that evolution is key. I shoot everything from stills for more traditional media to multimedia for new media clients. 

However, there is one major area of concern that I have and it relates to the business side of photojournalism. As you likely are aware, the reality of the photojournalism/photography profession is that it is now dominated by freelance work as opposed to staff positions. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as Pew Research Center for Journalism, and countless others such as the Poynter Institute, all have studied this transition and note that staff employment in the news media will continue to shrink as more organizations turn to gig and contract work. Just a cursory look at numbers in the LA market for staff photojournalists is enough to see the trend is no longer a trend, but the future. Staffs will all but be a thing of the past in the not too distant future. This year alone saw massive layoffs in staffs including the LA Daily News, Torrance Daily Breeze, Long Beach Press Telegram and the Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. One could say that the elephant in the room is firmly planted.

I travel the country teaching a course I developed five years ago to photojournalists who are incredibly desperate for information on how to freelance. It is so different from being a staff photojournalist and entails persistence with a keen understanding of being a journalism entrepeneur. It’s even very different from being a freelance writer since there are many unique aspects to being a freelance visual artist (such as archiving and licensing). The National Press Photographers Association, along with American Society of Media Photographers, have had me as a speaker at their annual conferences for several years and at chapter events because the photojournalists graduating from universities nationwide are simply not getting the information while enrolled, so they’re seeking it out individually at workshops. My talks fill with students who are literally upset because they know that once they graduate they will more than likely enter a extremely competitive market of freelancers with little to no training in how to proceed. Where do clients come from? How do you solicit clients? What do I charge for a portrait shoot? What do I charge for multimedia assignments? Is copyright important? What do I do with this contract someone just gave me? These are but a few questions I receive weekly via email from photojournalists.

I hope beyond hope that at this time when the journalism department is evolving the curriculum that the department will recognize that students need much more than skills, history and ethics classes if they’re to actually succeed in the profession today. I know this to be true because I’m working in the profession and dealing with students struggling to understand how to make a living in the freelance dominated market. 

In closing, please understand that this is not a pitch for the department to take on my services. Instead, I’m responding with no agenda beyond that of an alumnus offering a perspective on how to improve a program so graduates are best prepared for their career. If [redacted] incorporates into their curriculum educating photojournalists in the many topics they face as freelancers (you can see those topics on my workshop course page), I’d be happy to consider a donation!

March For Our Lives protests were held in over 800 cities worldwide to protest school shootings and advocate for gun control. The protest was organized after 17 kids were killed in a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. ©2018 Todd Bigelow

I share this here because the importance of this education is paramount beyond belief. We can’t ignore the fact that journalism, and especially photojournalism, is a profession dominated by freelancers. If universities choose to avoid teaching students about topics such as Client Development, Digital Asset Management, Portfolio Platforms and SEO, Licensing for Revenue, Photo Contract Analysis, Copyright Basics, Copyright Registration, Combating Infringement, Archive Management, Social Media Strategies, Standard Rates/Terms, CODB and more, then those universities and their respective departments are doing a HUGE disservice to their students. In my perspective, sending photojournalism graduates into the profession without requiring courses in managing a freelance photojournalism business is worse than failing to teach them how to edit a three minute video for web use. Far worse. Take for example the images included in this post of the March For Our Lives. Would recent graduates of my alma mater understand how to cover this without an assignment, run the images through a efficient, effective workflow, copyright, upload to their website (which functions as an archive) and deliver gallery links to agencies and photo editors who might wish to license them for a fee? Would they know better than to simply upload them as part of a UGC campaign by a news organization? Likely not, but that is the reality of what photojournalists face in today’s profession. 

I have not received a response to my email, nor do I much expect one. I know there are barriers that prevent a easy solution but aren’t we as professors teaching students that challenges are mere problems waiting to be solved? Well, it can be solved and there is no better time than now given the information provided in the donation request. If professors don’t have the skills themselves to teach about current topics in their profession, then they need to either get up to speed or the department needs to find others to fill the role (adjuncts, visiting scholars, new professors, etc). Tenure shouldn’t provide safe harbor status for professors to be shielded from criticism about their outdated curriculums. Professors need to be challenged in the same way we challenge students; identify and solve problems so you can progress.

The universities owe it to their students to provide them with current and practical instruction so they can reasonably expect to earn a living and perhaps pay off their student loans. Teaching photojournalism students about the business side of freelancing should be the utmost priority, and as much as I’d love to donate back to my university, I refuse to until I hear they’re providing students with the instruction they need to survive in the freelance dominated profession.

Todd Bigelow Photography

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