According to Mr Kobré, most leading news sites are no better at using pictures than magazines were in the 1920s. "When you look at most leading sites - including the BBC and GuardianUnlimited the pictures are phenomenally small and they are not really used for excitement or information. Instead they are merely used to break up a long grey column."
Ken Kobré is author of 'Photojournalism - The Professionals' Approach', a classic text that has been used by tens of thousands of journalism students in the US for more than 20 years. To mark the launch of the book’s fifth edition, dotJournalism tracked Mr Kobré down to his holiday home in France to talk to him about the use of photojournalism on online news sites.
Mr Kobré is scathing about how most news sites approach photojournalism and much of his frustration is focused on the inflexible formats sites have adopted. When pictures are used, he says they are often only thumbnails, or are cropped into pre-sized boxes. "So one of the tools of using size to emphasise importance and drama is not being used. It is easy to make internet pages fixed in terms of format - that makes it easy to get the page out every day - but the reverse is that it is not good journalism."
Imagine if the broadsheet newspaper the Times, for example, were to produce its papers to exactly the same design every day, and you can see he has a point.
Mr Kobré feels that news sites compound the error by segregating good images."Even when space is made for photography, the pages or sections look like little old-fashioned slide shows," he says citing the BBC's 'In Pictures' pages as an example. "Many sites are separating the pictures in slideshows from the text and that takes away a lot of the drama of the pictures. They are being ghettoised."
For Mr Kobré, news site slide shows are clumsy because they have been separated from the text. "When pictures are ghettoised, they are no longer part of the experience of seeing pictures and reading the story simultaneously and integrating the two. They have now become disassociated. You don’t want to commit the time to opening a slide show. With a magazine, you read the story and look at the pictures and get an integrated and real experience."
Mr Kobré says news sites have become 'homogenised'. "The good pictures don't seem to have any impact and the bad ones don't look too bad." He says that most mainstream news sites rely on images from the wire services such as Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.
Worse still, flick through some leading sites and you come across countless stock pictures. "This is a huge problem," says Kobré. "You just wouldn't see that in sophisticated newspapers. We've transformed newspapers to be more conscious of images, that has been a revolution, but that has gone backwards online.
"Every study that has been done with print shows that the bigger the picture, the more people look at the story and the more they remember the story. This is the most compelling reason to use pictures from the writer's point of view. There is no use in writing if nobody is going to read it."
Mr Kobré concedes that visual content has suffered as so few online news sites are profitable. "Very few sites are hiring professional photographers. Online news has not been the great boon for photojournalists that was predicted. Instead it has become more or less a dumping ground for visuals that were created for the print versions. There is no competition forcing sites to become better visually."
So are there any hopeful signs? Mr Kobré points to two sites that have experimented successfully in using photojournalism more effectively. He highlights MSNBC and the Washington Post. The DigitalJournalist and SportsShooter.com are also sites that highlight cutting edge work both in print and online.
He rejects the theory that video downloads will relegate dramatic still shots for two reasons. Firstly, he says the drive for newspapers to groom multi-skilled photojournalists has slowed - there is now a broad recognition that if it is hard to take a good still picture, it is even harder to get good video. It is almost impossible for one person to get both. Secondly, he says: "As long as there are words in print or words on the screen, the still picture will survive. The issue is not whether photojournalism will die - it is how photojournalism is integrated into the copy."
More news on dotJournalism:
Photo opportunities wasted
Study confirms text more of a lure than pictures
Guardian Unlimited: http://www.guardian.co.uk
Associated Press: http://www.ap.org
Free daily newsletter
- International news publishers frustrated with UK Brexit coverage as audiences demand better information
- Nine tips on crafting the perfect headline for print and online
- What do millennials and Gen Z want from the news? Convenience and hard-hitting content
- Weekly journalism news update: Virtual reality, WhatsApp audio briefings and TikTok
- How The Times attracts and retains digital subscribers