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|| News Item: Posted 2010-10-03

Intern Diaries: Newark Star-Ledger
'The reality is that the journalism industry is in peril.'

By Zach Ornitz, The Star-Ledger

This past summer I got a blunt dose of reality.

As the joint photo/multimedia intern at the Newark Star-Ledger, I was presented with a front row seat to the advancing decline of the traditional newspaper industry. I also received a hopeful glimpse as to what the future of journalism may hold.
Photo by Zach Ornitz /The Star-Ledger

Photo by Zach Ornitz /The Star-Ledger

Jeramiah McElroy 2, and Marcel Thomas, 16, ride on the Sea Serpent Roller Coller during an evening spent at the Keansburg Amusement park, on June 26, 2010. The attractions make up New Jersey's oldest shore amusement park, located in Keansburg, NJ.

What do I mean by this? I need to give you some background before I can answer that question_

Last fall I began my studies as a graduate student in multimedia journalism. I quit my job in the spring of 2009, leaving behind a stable position as the chief photographer of a small Colorado ski-town newspaper. With six years of industry experience in a sheltered news market (and not even the slightest clue in how to turn on a video camera), I felt that my profession was leaving me behind. Based on my employer's business model, there was no pressure or incentive to explore online media. I realized that if I wanted to take the next step in my career path, I needed to gain multimedia skills quickly.

I spent all of last school year cramming in multimedia knowledge. Two semesters later: Final Cut? OK. Moving pictures? Bring it on. Lavalier and shotgun mics hooked to an external recorder? Let's go. How to tell a compelling visual story in an artistic manner? Still a work in progress. The hours I spent working on various multimedia projects turned me into a true believer of the medium.

I'm sure that many photojournalism students will agree that the academic environment nurtures excitement, optimism and the hope that our hard work will be rewarded with some form of employment. The reality is that the journalism industry is in peril. Newspaper and magazine publishers are in a steady state of decline, and no one is certain what will happen to the industry. This uncertainty resonated throughout my summer experience.

When I accepted the position as the Newark Star-Ledger's sole summer photo intern, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. For those of you not familiar with the paper, The Star-Ledger was the 15th largest U.S. newspaper as recently as 2004, with over 340 newsroom employees and a daily circulation of approximately 400,000. In 2005, the editorial staff was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

By 2008, due to steadily declining advertising revenue and a decreasing circulation, the management staff was instructed to reduce its workforce by nearly half, otherwise, the paper would likely be shut down. This news made waves around the industry, exemplifying the fragility of American journalism. Today, the paper's numbers have slipped. It is now the 25th largest in the country, with about 160 newsroom employees and a daily circulation fluctuating around 240,000. Just last week, another round of buyouts have been announced.

So where is the diary part of this entry? What was my internship experience like? Well, I'll tell you.

I remember walking into the newsroom on my first day and thinking, "Where is everybody?" I was informed that 25-percent of the building is occupied (the paper moved its printing presses off-site), and empty desks are scattered around the newsroom. In spite of this, I was warmly greeted by reporters and editors who spoke enthusiastically about their jobs. They noted the sense of the privilege and responsibility they felt for their chosen profession.

Photo by Zach Ornitz /The Star-Ledger

Photo by Zach Ornitz /The Star-Ledger

American midfielder Clint Dempsey (8) celebrates after scoring the game winning goal during the United States versus Turkey exhibition soccer match, held at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa, on June 29, 2010. The United States beat Turkey 2-1.
While riding up the elevator to the newsroom for the first time, I also recall thinking, "I am 30 years old, and I am an intern again." I took heart in the fact that the newspaper industry has a long tradition of apprenticeship. It's how most of us cut our teeth. I admit that I felt a bit apprehensive seeking an internship at my age, but I also recognized the exciting opportunity I would have to hone my photography skills in a larger market and utilize my newfound multimedia skills with guidance from some of the best in the business. (There are several Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award winners working in the photo/video department).

Despite its financial woes, The Star-Ledger has maintained a competitive and highly regarded internship program. They also still pay. The editorial department believes in catering the internship experience to its interns. On day one of orientation, associate editor Tom Curran informed us that we would not be fetching coffee or be bound to desks to aid columnists in story research. Instead, we would be expected to produce fresh content on deadline and enterprise stories for the paper.

I reported to Chris Collins, the deputy director of photography, and he immediately put me to work. Under Chris's direction, I spent the first eight weeks of my internship shooting stills for the paper. He worked with me closely and offered periodic critiques of my shoots. The insight of a good photo editor is one of the most helpful things for a budding photographer, and Chris made sure to edit with me from time to time.

My assignments ran the gamut from capturing traditional breaking and spot news, illustrating quirky columnist features, crafting portraits for the business section and shooting LOTS of sports. Being based in Newark gave me access to the largest sports market in the country, and it was exciting. For the sake of this audience, I'll list some of the cool sporting events that I covered: NASCAR, U.S. Men's Soccer, New York Red Bulls Soccer, the Red Bull Air Race, the Jets and Giants mini-camps, horse racing at Monmouth Park and a ton of Mets and Yankees Baseball.

I would not say that baseball is my favorite sport. In fact, in my free time I'd honestly rather wax my own chest hair than sit through nine innings of baseball (the one exception would be to watch the Yankees beat the Red Sox). But with summer being baseball season, I found myself at Yankee Stadium for games on 16 different occasions. I learned that shooting baseball is very difficult. Beyond making the safe pictures of pitcher versus batter, you have pay attention to every play and be ready to react on an instant to capture a defining moment in the infield.

With the coaching of Star-Ledger staffer and long-time sports photography veteran, Bill Perlman, I really learned to appreciate, or at least recognize, the nuances of the game. By the end of the summer, I'd become so caught up in baseball that I even found myself wrapped up in the hunt of A-Rod's 600th career homerun. (I caught numbers 598 & 599 but unfortunately missed out on the grand finale).

As much fun as it was to shoot professional sports in New York, it was also safe for me. I am, after all, a Sports Shooter - action sports are really my thing. At the end of the eight-week mark, I recognized that my summer was slipping away quickly and I hadn't made a single moving image all summer. I realized that my editors we allowing me the freedom to shape my internship experience and expecting me to express my desire to transition over to the video department.

If any of you are still reading this novel of a diary entry, the best advice I can offer you in your own internship opportunities is to speak up and express to your editors exactly what it is that you hope to accomplish. With only four weeks left, I was very happy that I chose to switch gears and move over to the video department. I sought out a summer internship with the primary goal of putting my new multimedia skills to the test. It was my own hesitancy to fully challenge myself that prevented me from making the switch sooner.

My new video editors were Seth Siditsky, assistant managing editor and Bumper DeJesus, multimedia editor. These guys taught me so much in such a concentrated period of time that I am still absorbing their lessons a month later. Seth and Bumper reminded me of classic storytelling techniques and taught me that a well-crafted multimedia piece is no different. Like any narrative, you have to construct a clear story arc, meaning that the story must have a defined beginning, middle and end (even if that end is a cliff-hanger or an elusion to the future). For a story to hold your audience's attention, it must also present some sort of conflict for its characters to confront.

I spent the last month of my internship primarily focusing a single multimedia piece. Initially interested in how the BP oil spill might affect New Jersey businesses, I headed to a commercial fishing port to investigate. Although I found a loosely-linked tie to the fallout in the Gulf, there wasn't enough there to sink my teeth into.

Photo by Bill Perlman /The Star-Ledger

Photo by Bill Perlman /The Star-Ledger

Zach Ornitz in the first baseline photographers box of Yankee Stadium before the start of the New York Yankees vs the Baltimore Orioles in Bronx, NY, on June 2, 2010.
Instead, I discovered a story about the "little guy" struggling against government regulations, while trying to sustain a commercial fishing operation as global fish stocks decline. I recognized that this storyline would be a huge undertaking that would require several sources and great access to accurately depict. Nonetheless, I attempted to tell the story from the perspective of a single fishing family.

After a couple weeks of shooting, I began to construct my narrative. I showed my editors the rough cut. Although they agreed I had something, Seth and Bumper did not think I adequately captured enough footage or spoke to enough sources to construct my original narrative. They pointed out that unlike a written story, a multimedia piece has to rely on the content that one has captured, rather than what one intends to show. I was instructed to go back to the drawing board and came out the other end with a generational piece instead. Here is the link for those that are interested: I'm interested to hear any feedback from the multimedia producers in the SS community.

How does this relate to my hopes for the future of the industry?

Because of the forward thinking of guys like Seth and Bumper, The Star-Ledger recognizes the power of multimedia storytelling and is willing to invest a hearty portion of its departmental resources in producing pieces for the web. The paper's managerial staff recognizes the product's draw to their website and have identified a growing popularity in the content. The current problem plaguing new media is figuring out how to market the content for profit. Like many in the industry, I genuinely believe that the salvation of journalism lies somewhere in this answer. Some journalism pontificators are placing hope in the proliferation of products like the iPad and iPod as a viable delivery system for the content. For the sake of our profession, I hope that they are right.

When people ask me about my career aspirations today, I'm more inclined to say, "I'm visual storyteller," rather than my traditional response of, "I'm a photojournalist." Yet I recognize my multimedia skill set as just another arrow in my visual storytelling quiver. I hope that when my graduate studies wind down in about a year from now, I'll be able to reclaim the title of Staff Photographer at a news outlet that is as excited about the potential of multimedia as I am.

I would like to offer one final thought: My heart-felt thanks go out to the entire photo/video staff of The Star-Ledger for their guidance and encouragement.

Zach Ornitz is a graduate student and teaching assistant at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. A sampling of his work can be viewed at his member page:

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