Interview: Alex Garcia and the Chicago Tribune’s new photoblogs

Assignment Chicago - Chicago Tribune Photo Blog by Alex Garcia

Alex Garcia, photographer at the Chicago Tribune, contacted us a little while back about his new photoblog at the Chicago Tribune website. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to learn a little about how a major newspaper approaches photography online and how major metro newspaper staffs are starting to use internet publishing in their daily workflow. There’s some good advice in his answers for any of you trying to approach your publication’s management about starting an official photo blog.

dvafoto: How did the photo blog come about? What sort of behind the scenes groundwork did you have to do to get editors and management onboard?

Alex Garcia (AG): Scott [Strazzante] and I had been publishing photo blogs on our own but with the permission of Torry Bruno (the A.M.E for photo). The goal all along was to migrate the blogs to the paper, but the right opportunity hadn’t come along to do so. In the process, we were all able to understand how much work was involved to publish a blog, and what issues we would run into with our commentaries. So we worked close together to avoid any problems. Our readership were friends, family, colleagues, and eager-to-learn photogs, so it was a pretty forgiving crowd. Separately, in order to promote reader engagement, the Tribune decided to form the Trib Nation blog at Its goal is to engage readers in the workings and understandings of the newspaper process. Torry saw that such a blog wouldn’t be complete without photos, which people respond to emotionally. It helped that the Trib Nation blog editor James Janega was a big proponent of photos, and a decent photographer himself. So we formed the Trib Photo Nation photo blog under the umbrella of Trib Nation, with two individual photo blogs, Assignment Chicago (mine) and Shooting from the Hip (Scott’s). Our executive editor Gerry Kern is a big fan of photography, and speaks the language. He and Jane Hirt, managing editor, are both strong proponents, but it’s still a process with many players. So it took some time.

How do you decide what goes on the blog? What’s its goal? Is it a tease for print content, a way to get outtakes into the light of day, a way for you to engage more with your stories in a public way, a place to talk about photography, a place to talk about the process of photojournalism? What do you expect readers to get out of the blog?

AG: I think you pretty much hit on all of those goals. Scott and I both love that now that we are on the Tribune site, we can publish outtakes. Off-brand we couldn’t do that, because there was less copyright protection in case someone swiped a photo. I think the primary goal is reader engagement. You want people, especially Chicagoans, to participate and engage in the product that we put out. In so doing, I think we all benefit – as long as we all remain open-minded about receiving new thoughts and/or criticism. Opening ourselves up to people in an engaging way is not something that photographers typically do. We send in our work and then go home before we pick up the paper or check out the website, etc.. The blog is supposed to be more of a vehicle for social engagement, so it’s not just like an online portfolio or something.

Personally, I like giving my work greater longevity. So much of what I shoot is never seen by anyone, or gone in a minute on the internet. Having a photo blog enables me to shape my vision and thoughts, and to communicate more fully than any other medium. We get into this business to share, and this is a platform to do so if there ever was one. I like to write and to express thoughts through words. Some people don’t and find the prospect daunting.

I hope that people will see through my photo blog that photojournalists are three-dimensional people, not the cartoonish characters that are often imagined or portrayed in entertainment media. I also hope that I can give younger photographers some advice that will be useful – not just strobe advice but perspective on what they want to achieve in their career. There are many routes in photography and photojournalism, and I think people starting out want to know what to expect and what is possible. If you want to dedicate yourself to something in life, you need those answers.

What’s the reader response to the Tribune’s photo blogging efforts?

AG: Very positive. People love the larger photos and the photographer back-stories. I think long-term individual photo blogs will always work better than staff-blogs because readers respond more to the personal connection and the unique take that you get with one photographer’s voice. But it’s a new initiative, two weeks old, so we are just getting out there. I thought we would inherit a lot of traffic, but the reality is that the Tribune has many other bloggers who all want promotion as well. So we are trying to promote ourselves above the din of voices.

How do the Tribune photographers use their blogs? Is there a mandatory blog contribution every week/2weeks/month? Do they run things by you, the blog manager, before posting, or is it a free-for-all? What’s the photographers’ response been to the blogs?

AG: Only 2 photographers have blogs at the moment. Publication frequency is up to us, whatever we feel is enough to keep people coming back without diluting the quality. I’m at four times/week, and Scott is around that too, although he varies himself more – usually publishing more than that, than less. Now that the work is published on the Tribune site, we have to have our postings run by Robin Daughtridge, the director of photography. I’m happy for that. She used to be a copy editor a long time ago, and I trust her judgment. It’s easy as a photographer to not always see the bigger picture of the newspaper and our chain, so she helps with that. I think other photographers would like to blog as well, so depending on how it goes with us that will probably happen. But it will add more workload because that means everyone’s work will have to be vetted.

Now that you’ve got a couple months under the blog’s belt, what have you learned that might be useful to others trying to get a photoblog going at their paper?

AG: Be willing to explore every angle to persuade the editor of the website to get aboard. It shouldn’t be that hard because the facts are on our side as photographers. We are becoming a visual culture and rich media is driving everything now. Even Google is getting smarter about indexing images. Which reminds me. Persuade them that still images and video can form the part of their SEO strategy. Learn how to optimize your images so that your pictures show up in web searches. That will drive more traffic to your company’s website. Or learn about wordpress or typepad so that you can tell them things are possible when they are inclined to believe or say that they aren’t. Our designer said that there wasn’t a good template for photo galleries, and that’s why we hadn’t done a photo blog. At that point, I knew enough about publishing platforms that I said, “Why do we need a photo gallery template for a photo blog? Let’s just make a one-column blog and insert images according to the width of the page.” He hadn’t thought of that, but he knew that I knew what I was talking about. And that’s what we did.

I’ve almost been photo-blogging for a year now, but only a couple weeks at the paper. Individually, I think the most useful thing is to think about how you are going to grow an audience. We don’t have a link on our home page, so if anyone is going to find my photo blog, it’s going to come through my own promotion. And that takes time. You can’t just set up a twitter account and facebook page and expect traffic to grow quickly. Even when you get huge spikes of traffic as I have, you only keep a small percentage of that as recurring readers. You could easily spend three times as much time promoting your photo blog through social media, etc.. as you would actually blogging.

The other thing to consider is, do you shoot the kinds of things that people are going to want to see? I shoot a lot of grief because of my early morning shift, but I’m not posting that to the blog, because if they want to see that, they can go to the main site. People don’t want to be overwhelmed by grief. And promoting that on Twitter would be unseemly at best “check it out. great shot of mom crying”… It might be better to have a photo blog on a theme that is particularly compelling to your readers. I work in a big city, so there are a lot of interesting/crazy/new things happening. People also enjoy photos of the city and its landscape. In a different area, something else than a generalist blog might work better.

How does the blog fit into your normal workday at the paper? 3 posts a week, I see on the about page; planning? budget? design? cost (I know the Big Picture goes through a lot of money for bandwidth; I’d guess you aren’t getting the same sort of traffic, but I’m sure the cost of hosting it/designing it/spending time updating it is something to consider)

AG: I post now 4 times a week, with the fourth day being a Photo Tip Tuesday entry (example). Juggling everything is not easy. I have assignments to get out, images to prep and posts to write. In the back of my mind throughout the week, I’m making a mental note of when I will post which photo, and whether I need to get out and shoot more to repopulate the pipeline. The photo blog is not perceived to be mission critical, so I can’t say to the assignment desk “Oh, I can’t shoot that, I have to work on my photo blog” I don’t think some of the other photographers on staff realize how much it adds to your mental workflow. It probably comes to about 8 hours/week, interspersed between my workday and sometimes off-time. Most of the work is pretty straightforward because of the templates and automation involved. In addition to time of production and promotion, you also spend more time monitoring comments and traffic sources, etc.. It could easily bog you down if you let it. Because Robin is also running a photo staff blog, I know she is aware of the time and difficulty of the endeavor.

I think the costs you mention are minimal. IF it were a video blog that might be different, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about the cost of maintenance as a reason not to do something.

Be sure to check out Alex Garcia’s portfolio website, blog, facebook page, and twitter.

3 Responses to “Interview: Alex Garcia and the Chicago Tribune’s new photoblogs”

  1. Tracy Timberlake

    I am a photographer at Channel 7. I often work side by side with Alex. Unfortunately, I really don’t get to watch him work, since I’m shooting my own story at the same time. In the past, I’ve only been able to see the results of his work by looking at the paper or more recently, the Tribune web site. The photoblog is a great opportunity to see more of his work. I have two minutes to tell a story. A still photographer gets one frame. One frame to tell the entire story…to capture what happened, all the aftermath and emotion. Being able to see a second photograph (on the photoblog) can tell a second story or at least, add greater depth. His photos also help me as a photographer. I learn from every one of them, not just on Photo Tip Tuesday.

    The photoblog has also allowed us to discover what an excellent writer Alex is. I’m always fascinated to discover a talent I never knew someone had. Alex’s photoblog has allowed us to see another dimension of this very talented photographer.

  2. becky frontera

    Dear Alex, I LOVE your photo used in the Chicago Tribune calendar 2013.The photo is “A vintage Cadillac is covered with a light snow in front of a Rochelle, IL, barn”. I would like to purchase this print. How do I go about doing it? I went the web site on the calendar, but I could not get any information. Please help me. Your work is awesome! Thank you for allowing the veiwer to glimpse at your mind’s eye. I look forward to your reply. Becky Frontera

  3. becky frontera

    Dear Alex, I hope you received my comment and question about the purchase of one of your photos from the Trib calendar 2013. Please email about this purchase. Thank you.

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