I first met Dirck Halstead in 1983 on the Day in the Life of Hawaii photo project. He was one of the 100 “world’s best” photographers invited to photograph Hawaii in a single day. I was there to do a documentary with my Betacam and to teach the photographers how to use the world’s first camcorder. The documentary was a dream project. To my extraordinary delight, I was directed by Gordon Parks, one of the world’s great photographers and a terrific man.
Dirck worked for Time Magazine for 29 years. During that time, his photographs appeared on 47 Time covers. Now, as one of the best news photographers in a vanishing profession, he edits the Digital Journalist website online and conducts the Platypus Workshops to teach a new generation of photojournalists how to survive in this brave new world.
His recent comments in a couple of interviews I did with him were not surprising to anyone that follows photojournalism. But since truth is rarely told to the public anymore, his comments are worthy of repeat here.
TV news, said Dirck, is dying fast. “I stopped long ago watching the three networks,” he said. “Now, it’s all on the web.” Video journalism, he said with certainly, is moving quickly to the Internet.
A total shakeup of the existing media infrastructures has been underway for a long time, Dirck continued. “The whole business is getting smaller. You are going to see far less reporter and anchor driven packages on television. What’s going away is the ‘voice of god’ approach to journalism. It will be replaced by much smaller and less expensive storytelling. Television today is not about video or about pictures. It’s about writing. In order for that to work, you must have the talking head. The talking head is going to disappear very soon.”Rather than writers, the new journalistic storytelling will be driven by the subjects themselves, he said. “There will be a lot less money available to produce pieces. They will be done on the cheap. You will be cutting out the overhead of all those expensive people.”
Today, Dirck said, the very best video journalism is being done by NPR. That’s right, National Public Radio! They have hired the best video journalists and are paying them to do top quality video pieces from around the world, he said. Go to radio to find the best television.
Television news today is whole new business model. The medium is used to dealing with big money based on advertising budgets. Once the advertising budgets are gone, which is happening very quickly, there will be no money available to TV, Dirck said.
The web, however, is very inexpensive to work with. It can be produced by individuals, rather than organizations. And it’s quite clear that advertising is never going to recapture the mass audience that way it once did with broadcast and print. “We are in a total shakedown economically now,” he said. “A lot of things we took for granted are not going to come back. One of those things is going to be major news organizations.”
Dirck’s Platypus workshops, the 39th just held at the Maine Photographic Workshops this summer, has trained nearly 500 new storytellers. They come from TV, newspapers and other media seeking a better way to work in this new environment.
Many are using Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras because the video quality is much better than standard video news camcorders. “The quality of the images stops you in your tracks,” Dirck noted. “Previously you could get this only out of a 35mm camera.”
In many ways, the shakeup of television news will do away with much of the mediocrity that we find today on television. The change will shift emphasis back to the photographer from the TV engineer, who has dominated news photography during the growth of the video medium.
“The storytelling is the crucial element,” Dirck said. “That’s what this is all about. It’s moving storytelling into a new arena and in the process is empowering a lot of people who couldn’t have done this before.”
Though the changes will come with a lot of pain, ultimately it means the power is shifting from large media companies back to individuals. That can only be good for truth and honesty in reporting.