25 years of digital photography in newsrooms: Early adopters look back

Twenty five years ago, Cindi Christie walked into a computer-filled hotel ballroom on Martha’s Vineyard. Then, she didn’t know much about digital photography.

“Nobody did,” she told Poynter. “I work for a company that has many daily and weekly editions and is spread out throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Photographers for my edition, the San Ramon Valley Times, had to have a slide ready by 1 p.m. for a courier to deliver to another office for scanning. We had to hit a specific window of time. Factor in processing time for the film and that meant that our color photos were stale by the time the paper came out. My goal was to look for a way to buy photographers some shooting time while still meeting production demands.”

From right, Mark Wigginton of the San Jose Mercury News, Larry Nighswander of National Geographic World and Cindi Christie of the San Ramon Valley Times work on the front page of the first edition of The Electronic Times at EPW1 in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in October 1989. (Michael Morse photo)

The first Electronic Photojournalism Workshop from the National Press Photographers Association brought together photographers, industry representatives, editors, designers and writers to Martha’s Vineyard for a week to test out new digital photography equipment. It wasn’t called digital back then, though. It was electronic.

“Tell you the God’s honest truth, we had no idea what we were doing,” John Cornell told Poynter in an interview. Cornell, then a photographer with Newsday, helped organize that first EPW. Now, he’s organizing the event’s 25th reunion during very different times.

“Twenty five years ago, we didn’t have cell phones with cameras on them,” Cornell said. “And you you look at what they’ve done to the industry today.”

Understanding technology was the real goal 25 years ago. It is again now.

“Where do we go as professional photographers? That’s the big question,” Cornell said.

‘The technology was really clunky’

In that ballroom, Christie and others present got to work with software that would become Photoshop. They used Aldus Pagemaker and Scitex Visionary, which became QuarkXPress. They worked with designers, talked during the downtime and worked through the bugs together as they came up.

Every year participants with EPW produced a publication with their work.

“I enjoyed being in the chaos, in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along atmosphere,” Christie said. “The technology was really clunky, but had a great deal of promise that could solve our problem back at work. So I was hooked.”

Poynter’s Kenny Irby, who was then at Newsday, attended that first EPW, too. Along with everything else it achieved, the workshop also pioneered important discussions about digital photography and ethics, Irby told Poynter.

“At the time, everyone was trying to figure out, how do you deal with Photoshop?”

In all, the Electronic Photojournalism Workshop went on for nine years at spots around the country. After that, it came to Poynter as Visual Edge. And every year, Christie said, cameras, software, scanners and computers improved.

“The great thing about EPW is that the vendors were there in the temporary newsroom, working side-by-side as the newspaper was produced. The companies tended to send their developers and tech staff instead of sales people. They could go on assignments with photographers and see pages produced under real deadline situations. They got direct feedback from the users and came back with their latest, often alpha or beta, products the following year.”

They took huge digital cameras into the desert on horseback “and immediately broke them,” Cornell said. They transmitted photos from a dome in Arizona. Designers came to learn pagination, prepress came, and soon military photographers from combat camera units. Journalists came from Canada, Singapore, South Africa and Great Britain, Christie said, and each year they produced their own print edition to test and show their work. Then those photograpehrs returned to their newsroom to lead the changes that were coming.

“They took a more active role,” Christie said, “rather than let the changes happen to them.”

Jon Falk, workshop picture editor, adjusts the TV monitor located in the Minoltabooth as David Tinney and Rick Myers evaluate a vertical picture displayed horizontally at EPW1. Submitted photo.

EPW 25

Twenty five years ago, EPW created a bridge, Irby said, from vendors to practitioners, but also from print to digital.

In October, at EPW 25, the people who helped build that bridge plan to look back at their work, the lessons they learned over time and the ones they missed, Cornell said. But they’re also looking ahead. As part of the reunion, there will also be a virtual reunion where people will video conference in from around the country and talk about how to monetize photojournalism. What’s the lexicon for digital storytelling using both still and video?

“What does visual journalism mean today?” Irby said.

“I can’t imagine hiring a photojournalist these days who doesn’t have strong multimedia and technology skills backing up visual storytelling abilities,” Christie said, and improvements to mobile phones have made everyone a potential photojournalist.

“Photojournalists are being let go as newsroom staffs diminish and are reinventing themselves as freelancers or finding a new way to make a living.”

Now, the purpose of EPW’s 25th anniversary reunion is a lot like it was then.

“We started this revolution and we have to lead it somewhere,” Cornell said. “Where’s it going to go? I don’t know.”

Interested in attending EPW 25? Email jcornell1@tampabay.rr.com and check the site here.

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