Saturday, May 14, 2011

Is having a photo in the paper still a big deal?

In June 1977, I was starting pitcher for the Windham (N.H.) Babe Ruth All-Star team in a regional tournament game against the town next door, Salem. It was (ahem) a solidly pitched ballgame on both sides, but Salem won with a late-inning rally. I was 13 then – and crushed.

But a few days later, my parents opened the weekly newspaper that covered my town. There, on the front of the sports section, was a centerpiece photo of Peter St. Onge, Windham pitcher. The picture caught me mid-pitch and in full, early-teen awkwardness, complete with braces and bottle-thick brown glasses.

“It was a great picture,” remembers my mother, who is contractually obligated to reach that conclusion.

It was also a big deal. My parents bought extra copies and dutifully sent them to family. One copy was folded and placed among our boxes of family keepsakes. All of which is what you do when your picture is in the paper.

Today, the Observer celebrates its 125th birthday with a special commemorative section. You’ll read about our history – good and bad – and about the people who’ve led and written in and delivered the O. One story, which I had the privilege of writing, is about readers who’ve had their photos in our newspaper and saved them 30, 50, even 80 years.

An Observer photo, some told me, was an important moment in their lives.

Is it still? Is having your picture in the paper a big deal today, wherever that paper may be?

I asked friends this week, most of them non-journalists, and most say yes. But, said one, it’s different now. Quainter.

Part of that is technology. If young Peter pitches in an All-Star game today, family and friends can read about it on Facebook, see his photos on Flickr, maybe even watch a video of highlights in Dropbox. We’re our own publishers and photographers now, and for better or worse, having our lives available for public consumption just isn’t as unusual.

A bigger part of the change, maybe, is societal. Talk to those older readers who had their photos in the Observer, and they’ll tell you it wasn’t only the picture that was a big deal – it was who took that photo and told their story. The newspaper was a pillar of the community – an institution. But we’ve come to view our institutions more skeptically now.

Lots of folks point to the Watergate burglary and its political aftermath as the time when society began to tilt toward cynicism. Not only did Woodward & Bernstein give Americans reason to lose confidence in government officials, they ushered in an era of journalism where all the pillars – doctors and bankers and elected leaders – were fair game for suspicion.

And newspapers? Used to be we were content to have a mostly one-sided relationship with you. We’d bring you the news, and we’d tell you stories about you, but we did it all from our spot on the hill with the other community leaders. Now we invite you to help us learn what’s happening, and we give you more places to say what you think about our decisions and our flaws. And boy, do you.

But there also are days when an issue roils our city, or Osama bin Laden is killed, and we’re reminded how many of you turn to us – more than ever in print and online. And still, I get calls from people asking if I can grab extra copies of their story, their photo in the paper.

Is it still a big deal, that photo? You’re surely expecting the newspaper guy to say “yes.”

Let’s say this: It’s a different deal, for sure. We’re more fragmented now, technologically and ideologically. We trust each other less. But in a community, a newspaper is still one of the few places where you’ll find not only your 13-year-old ballplayer, but your neighbors’. It’s where our individual big deals are still brought together, still shared, each day, 125 years later.


pstonge said...

Hi all,

Hope you enjoyed the Sunday column.

No, I don't have the picture from 1977 - yet. Mom is working on going through boxes. If she finds it, I'll post it.


Anonymous said...

Be a great student and win a scholarship to Harvard, the CO will ignore you. Win a single high school ball game, the CO will send 3 reporters and a photographer to interview you.

Anonymous said...

In 1977 I was serving our country in the US Army, something i bet that never even thought your mind. If the story about the picture were true, you would have been able to get a copy through your sources in your hometown news story. This is just a made up feel good story. poor journalism

Anonymous said...

Having your pic in a small town paper in a small state always will be a big deal.

Anonymous said...

I've have mine in the paper several times, however, they were taken by professionals with the Observer and the Charlotte News, printed without any air-brushing or touch-ups. To me, it was an honor as I, like you, had achieved something and I wanted others to know. Just never wanted my photo to end up as a "Mug-shot".

Lynne Stevenson said...

Great piece, as usual, Mr. St. Onge.

To a lot of people, the reason WHY your picture appears in the paper is all that matters. Of course, your family and friends are going to be proud if you accomplish something positive. It also applies that they will equally react if something derogatory or negative is written or photographed concerning a family member or friend.

I look forward to seeing that picture from 1977 when your Mom finds it.

Have a great week!

Ghoul said...

Must not be that big of a deal, since the Observer has a policy of not including photos for certain criminals.

Anonymous said...

A big deal?

Maybe to someone over 35. As you mentioned, today's technology makes a photo available to so many via the newspaper almost meaningless. I have family members who put hundreds of photos of their toddlers on their Facebook page. There is no surprise as to how "quickly someone has grown", or catching up as to what's going on in someone's life, because they give you daily updates.

Anonymous said...

In reality, no it no longer matters. Those of the age that would care about seeing their picture already have their image online in hundreds if not thousands of places.

The bigger question is the relevancy of the newspaper as a whole and what has changed.

Is it cynicism induced...yea it is.

In our society, if the CO prints something, immediately half the people dismiss it because the CO is "a liberal rag".

Regardless of what happens in our society, no one believes what they see, hear, or read any more. If it is not "THEIR VIEWPOINT" well then it must be wrong.

Look at MSNBC and FOXNews. Both can cover the same story, use the same footage, but tell very different stories.

Half the viewers will believe what THEY identify with as the storyline. The other half disparage and say they have a left/right leaning view and cannot be trusted.

It really is less about what has changed with the CO but more about what changed in who or what we believe in...

pstonge said...

Anon, 8:15: That's an excellent point. I wonder how much, though, that mistrust in political/ideological stories carries over into the features we do on people in our community. I think there's some bleed, for sure, because if you don't respect the O, then a photo of you in the O is going to mean less. But I also think that people might separate whatever ideology they see us having with the story about the kid who did well on the soccer field.

Anon, 7:01 is a great example of that skepticism. To answer his/her question: I doubt a weekly newspaper has a picture of a kid from 34 years ago, but if you like to do some investigative journalism, it's the Salem (N.H.) Observer, and the picture was in June 1977. Or you can call my mom!

Thanks, all. Great comments.


Wiley Coyote said...

Even though papers such as the Observer are dying slow deaths, a picture in the "paper" still matters.

Here's a perfect example:

Anonymous said...

Not a big deal for the competition paper across the Catawba River. The GG is so devoid of real reporting, that they will gladly waste an entire page of coverage of 6 photos provide you submit the pictures to them.

Anonymous said...

it is a HUGE deal. One of my kids was in the paper last summer. I had the entire page professionally framed. I also had a huge canvas of it made. It doesn't happen often (at least for most of us) it's huge.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon. 10:42. It IS a big deal.

For the folks who are reading this blog, taking the time to comment, and blasting the paper for being irrelevant saying the picture wouldn't be a big deal - clearly, it IS to you, whether you realize it or not.

We may not get our main news from the Charlotte Observer, but the last I checked, ALLLLL these folks who are bashing the CO and papers in general are still writing their troll comments on the bottom of articles and on blogs like this. You still click the links, jokers. You still have a viewpoint.

You still read every word looking for something, somewhere, to leave your negativity on to in the hopes of being your own "citizen commenter rockstar journalist," or whatever you think you are. (By the way, whatever you think you are, you're not. You'll never be a professional and you'll never be a relevant journalist no matter how much you think newspapers don't matter).

So, yes, trolls, getting your picture in the paper is a big deal - and it would be for somebody like you, too. Stop lying to yourselves.

Anonymous said...

Some of these dont get it.

Everybody knows everybody in a small town so this would be major for the kid.

It was for a feat in kids baseball for petes sake. Jeez. That is BIG TIME BABY. U R the cats meow with the locals and strut like a peacock. Been there done that ...

Jo O'Keefe said...

Sometimes I photograph children on the beach -- one holding a sea star, one an octopus and a third a Blue Crab. Our local newspaper publishes their photos. Their families are thrilled and scoop up extra copies of the print edition. The family of the boy holding the crab was particularly excited because a photo of his father holding up his pole with a fish on the end had been published in a local newspaper when he was five years old. Rather than announcing academic or sports accomplishments, the pictures reflect the children's joy and the beauty of Sunset Beach.

In another vein, newspapers have written five or six articles about the work I do with marine life. A Raleigh TV station recently broadcast a video about my fighting for our badly needed bridge and my record of its construction. And yes, the delight in seeing the articles and sharing them with family and friends never wanes. Much of the pleasure stems from newspapers that I respect and rely upon thinking that my work is important enough to share with their readers. Because I depend upon them so much, I hope that print newspapers find ways to flourish.

David P. McKnight said...

Out-of-state news management groups consistently underestimate the impact of good local reporting and photography on newspaper readership in the 21st Century. They strip away more and more news and editorial positions which every week of the year generate scores of great local photos and "readers" (stories likely to catch the attention of curious readers).

Yogi Berra once observed of a certain restaurant: it's too crowded--nobody goes there anymore. Well, hardly anybody notices even numerous online news and features about local people and places because these articles are often re-distributed only among close circles of friends and associates and not out among the general public.

But if your group, sports team, business, church or other organizations is mentioned "in the paper," that is, in a local story with perhaps a staff photograph, people will talk about it for weeks--and not just the folks with whom you share your social and political networking but also "the general public." Photos and local news and feature arrticles which make it "into print" are seen by all readers of the newspaper, not just those who were specifically searching online for one type of article.

Like many others, I enjoy emailing to friends certain articles in the online press which I find interesting, noteworthy or otherwise instructive for daily living. My friends patiently tolerate this, and every now and then, somebody will muster the diplomacy to say "interesting piece" or (and what what we do without this one?) "thanks for sending this."

But let an uplifting and positive story about your group's activities make it into the print edition of the paper, or if one of your editorial comments appears not as an online post but instead as a printed letter to the editor, then people you hardly know will say, "Hey, I saw that piece in the paper. Way to go!"

A great photographic "still shot" in a printed edition of a newspaper or magazine can still compete with television and online journalism for readers' attention. But too many of today's newspaper publishers need to "get some religion" on this subject.

Back in Charlotte high school days, a schoolmate pal and I got into an all-night Friday night bridge game prior to a Saturday morning rehearsal of the Charlotte Youth Symphony. Turns out The Observer had picked that very Saturday morning to send out a photographer to take some impromptu shots of our musicians as part of "an advance" (article) on the orchestra's next concert. Wouldn't you know it, the photographer got a "candid shot" of both of us hanging on to our fiddles and fighting off the urge to take a nap. My friend appeared somewhat more concert-ready than I as I was fairly "spaced out" from too many "three-no-trump" bids the night before.

I endured a "full measure" of ribbing about this scene, and it had nothing to do with how assiduously we had practiced our Brahms and Tchaikovsky. After all, it was "in the paper" in the form of a feature photo by one of the many great Observer photographers of the '60s era.

Yet even now, half a century later, if editors will place good stories and photos "above the fold" on a news, sports or feature section front, why folks are bound to take note of it and talk about it with their friends, neighbors and fellow employees at work.

Anonymous said...

I have had my picture in the Observer on several occasions. Twice on the front page (!) of the Sunday edition in 2 unrelated articles. Believe it, it was a BIG DEAL to me and will always be so. My family and friends seemed to enjoy it as well. Yes, I still have multiple copies of the papers.

Anonymous said...

It "IS" a "BIG" deal!

Take pictures of children and students and parents will buy papers. They may be able to see them on other technology sites but, it is not the same as having your picture in the "Paper".

I think the CO and other local papers should take this in consideration. If they cover more school events, their circulation may increase. I realize some stories will be found online, but they will visit the website or CO can restrict the pictures to print only.

Cedar Posts said...

A lot of different views on this subject. Excellent topic.

Years ago a pan-x photo of a late night fatal accident would earn this blogger a tidy sum. The value today? Close to zilch.

And so it goes the value of having your photo in the paper has dimished as well.

Ask the twenty something in your house which would be "epic" a re-tweet by Ashton Kutcher or their photo in the "local paper"?

My money is on @aplusk

Anonymous said...

In 1977 there was a picture of me in the Charlotte News. I was taking a water break during summer practice at East Meck High School. It was a big deal to me then and I still have the picture. I doubt it would have the same impact these days. The photo was taken by the legendary Jeep Hunter.

Mark said...

"We’re our own publishers and photographers now, and for better or worse, having our lives available for public consumption just isn’t as unusual."

I think this is the gist of it.

What's ironic is that as people seem to care so little about their face in the paper, they do seem to care that much more about their opinion in the paper as noted by online comment sections.

I'm sure there is a moral about public face and anonymous comments in their somewhere...