Pictures and text often pair nicely together. You have an article about a thing, and the picture illustrates that thing, which in many cases helps you understand the thing better. But on the web, this logic no longer holds, because at some point it was decided that all texts demand a picture. It may be of a tangentially related celeb. It may be a stock photo of a person making a face. It may be a Sony logo, which is just the word SONY. I have been thinking about this for a long time and I think it is stupid. I understand that images —> clicks is industry gospel, but it seems like many publishers have forgotten their sense of pride. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s hard for me to imagine there’ll be much value in the text of an article illustrated by a generic stock image.
As with so many problems, social media seems to deserve much of the blame for this. Until the mid-to-late ‘00s, a publication’s homepage played a dominant role in driving people to individual articles. Homepages mostly mimicked the front pages of newspapers, where major stories—things that warranted investment in original art—had images. Other stories just got a headline. Over time, the endless space of the internet lowered the standard for which articles needed art, but still, not everything got an image.
Then Facebook and Twitter disrupted, in the traditional “made things worse” sense, the biz. Now when a user shares an article on their sites, a thumbnail image provides a preview of the article. If an article doesn’t have an image, social media will still pull in whatever it can—usually this is just a blown-up version of the website’s logo, though sometimes it’s another unrelated image from the same page, e.g. a thumbnail from another article. If the social media site can’t find any image at all, only the headline will be displayed. Websites fear that this makes them look unprofessional—or worse, boring—and drives away potential clicks. Even the fucking Economist now has a photo on every article on its website.
I believe this is wholly unnecessary. When I read a news story about how Donald Trump is a cruel semi-sentient lump of putty, I do not necessarily need to see a photo of him. If a publication has a new picture, something that provides added context to whatever the latest thing is that he’s done to destroy our future, then by all means, include it. Otherwise, I already know what he looks like.
Worse still are articles about Facebook. At least Trump’s pictures are sometimes funny; Mark Zuckerberg just perpetually looks like Justin Timberlake’s cousin who’s an RA. Like Trump, though, Facebook is also doing its best to destroy whatever good things are left, so Zuckerberg is in the news a lot. And every time he is, websites have to come up with an image to go at the top of the post. Because not having art would be unthinkable, websites feel compelled to upload yet another photo of Mark in the same shirt against the same light blue background, lest they yield to just literally posting the Facebook logo.
For crime stories the practice is even more disturbing. There is something weird and jarring about how new stories about Harvey Weinstein are still cycling through the same red carpet photos. What purpose do these images serve? At this point everyone knows what he looks like. I guess we look at him and think, So that’s what a sex criminal looks like.
Putting a generic photo of a cell phone on top of an article about cell phones is insulting
Of course, most of the offenses are not nefarious. It’s a photo of an office park used to illustrate a business story. It’s cars above a story about traffic. It’s women laughing alone with salads.
Even the unflinching belief that people won’t read articles if there aren’t pictures doesn’t hold up to logic. Sure, interesting pictures can attract readers, but most of these images are not interesting. And even if it were slightly better for business, is that really a compromise worth making? The situation reminds me of convenience stores with huge lines because they don’t employ enough cashiers; yes, it’s theoretically more profitable, but it comes with the cost of creating an awful environment.
I don’t blame the poor editors who choose these photos, because what else can they do? They’ve been told they have to find something. If you’ve edited articles in digital media, you’ve probably spent some time trawling on Getty Images or Shutterstock or (my condolences) Flickr’s Creative Commons section. It’s a deadening task that doubles as a reminder that we are ultimately content farmers engaging in a commercial undertaking. But couldn’t the time spent searching for images — not to mention the money it takes to license them — be put to better use elsewhere?
Adults do not need pictures to help them read. I understand that not putting photos on top of every single article might seem like a big undertaking at first, but once a few braves sites take it up, others will quickly follow suit. Putting a generic photo of a cell phone on top of an article about cell phones is insulting. To be clear: I am not an iconoclast. Including images in a story can be a nice addition; the problem is that this has now become a mandatory practice. Not every article should require a picture.