Friday, April 01, 2011

Ryan Pyle Blog: Where Did All The Features Go?


In terms of breaking news consumption, the first quarter of 2011 has been intense.

We've had an Arab spring, a devastating earthquake in New Zealand and an double-catastrophe in Japan that as shocked us in to a realization of our fragile our existence is in this world.

And through all that we've had journalists running around dodging bullets, getting arrested, having their lives threatened and working within range of a major nuclear disaster. As one correspondent on CNN mentioned, we've had a years worth of international news coverage in the first 3 months of 2011. So, given that I write a blog about what's it is like being a photographer, and I am pretty self absorbed, my big question is: what does all this mean for people like me, the content producer?

Well, sadly it doesn't mean much. You see, I don't chase; I plot. In other words, I am not a breaking news man, I'm a features guy. I'm not very good at chasing the story, or documenting a breaking news story, or working in a war zone. I prefer to lay low, prepare and plot. I like to set traps and execute. The chaos involved in documenting breaking news is not an easy environment to work in; and I have great respect for the people who risk their lives to report in these situations; but I knew long ago that it wasn't for me.

While the crisis in Japan, New Zealand and the wider Middle East has contributed to some excellent news coverage and wonderful commitment by Newspapers and Magazines, it's been all breaking news all the time; and it's been an exhausting journey. So I have to ask: what happened to the feature story? What has happened to the well researched and well executed peace on a historical, business or cultural aspect of a geographical region or a people? There haven't been any, because there are already so few pages in newspapers and magazines and they have devoted, rightly so, much of their content to documenting the breaking news. I might also add here that there has been some stunning photography coming out the of the Middle East and Japan in the wake of these stories developing.

I was at a meeting with a few writers a couple of weeks ago and we were all joking about how impossible it is to pitch a feature story anymore, because there is so much pressure on the editors not to "overspend" that stories have to be basically a sure thing before anything can get "Green Lit"; and we joked about how boring that has become. One of the best parts about being a documentary photographer was the investigation aspect of the job, about not knowing what it would all look like until you got there, about trying to piece it all together for the folks in New York and London. Now everyone wants a storyboard of what the feature will look like when you don't exactly know what is happening on the ground, which is a huge problem when working in China specifically. Gone are the days of spending time, observing, plotting and executing; because that takes too much time and costs too much money for the newspapers and magazines of today. What's in fashion at the moment, and has been for several years now, is digital breaking news, print first and absorb later. Sure, some of this has worked, some hasn't; but the feature story has an important place in how we share information about what is happening in the world, and this information takes time to collect and it takes time to digest.

Breaking news is obviously crucial, but let's not lose track of the fact that the features stories still have an important role to play in this world of high-tech, speedy content creation.

Note: My blogs often allow me to try my hand at satire. Of course I feel deeply for the people of New Zealand, Japan and the folks striving for greater freedom in the Middle East; I've only used these examples to make a point that the "feature story" is getting lost in the mix of all the breaking news.

Ryan Pyle

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Ryan Pyle