of Our Recession
is no getting around it, so let's just say it. Photojournalism is
in a recession right now. If you talk to enough photographers, you
might think we're in a Depression.
According to newsmagazine editors, photo assignments are down 75%
when compared with this period last year. Budgets have been slashed
with meat cleavers. For any photographer who proposes a major story
that involves travel, phone calls are not returned.
Recently, a well-known contract photographer for one of the major
newsmagazines traveled to Asia to complete a project he was working
on. The magazine would not pay for the airfare, and the photographer
was forced to pick up that cost himself. As of now, the story still
has not been scheduled. American Express, however, couldn't care less.
Photojournalists aren't the only photographers feeling the pinch.
Another well-established photographer, who makes his living doing
publicity and advertising for films which had a bumper year in 2000,
has not worked a day in the past two months. The top of this well-heeled
group, the hottest names, people who are generally hired by the studios
as "vanity deals" for film stars, are finding that studio
execs, used to traveling around the world on private jets, who now
go cross-country in coach, have no taste for lavishing these perks
on even the biggest star photographers.
Advertising, the big kahuna of photography, is offering "work
for hire" agreements to the few big talents that are lucky enough
to be called for a campaign. Otherwise, these same agencies are routinely
doing comps, and, in some cases, final layouts by their own creatives
using cheap digital cameras.
In television, the Platypus theory has run amuck. Networks agree that
small digital camcorders can do the job that previously called for
$60,000 Betacams. However, they didn't necessarily buy into the idea
that the most talented people to use these small cameras are photojournalists.
Instead, they started handing out cameras to already over-worked producers,
telling them if you want to do a story, shoot it yourself.
Last month, CNN bought $400,000 worth of Sony PD150 Camcorders and
handed them out to the bureaus, along with laptop computers loaded
with Final Cut Pro editing software. As CNN's Eason Jordan said in
a memo to the newsroom staff, "The opportunities will go to the
people who master these skills" (see
our February editorial).
Corporate parents such as Disney and AOL Time Warner have no tolerance
for investing money in "long form" news or features. It's
only a matter of time before television photojournalists, who felt
not long ago they were in a growth industry, will start to trade their
Betacams for tin cups.
The culprit these industries point their fingers at is a weak economy,
with drastic cuts in advertising dollars. The fact is that these changes
were planned long before the dot.com bubble burst.
A recent New York Times story pointed out that this is the
first time an economy was driven down by business decisions. It is
not that the consumers are not buying, it's that the producers aren't
producing. There seems to be a prevailing bottom line ethic that if
your company cuts costs, overhead, and staff, the same buyers who
have always provided the profit will continue to consume. The problem
is when everyone has the same idea, eventually there is no money left
for the consumers to buy your product.
Then there is the matter of consolidation. The big fish are swallowing
the small ones. Last week, AOL Time Warner made a bid for the IPC
group, a British magazine publisher, which, if it goes through, will
take AOL Time Warner from publishing 60 magazines to 160. Each of
those magazines represented clients for photographers. If the existing
magazines of Time Inc. are any indication, the budgets of all these
publications will be dramatically reduced.
The traditional fallback for freelance photographers has always been
the agency system. If a photojournalist was having a slow period,
he or she could count on a check once a month for the sales of their
stock. It was also the agencies that were the bankroller of last resort
to do a project. In the past year, that system has almost completely
With the acquisition of agencies such as Sygma, Liasion, Saba, and
others by corporate behemoths Corbis and Getty, the fundamental role
the agencies played as the representative for the photographers has
ceased to exist. Recently, Getty closed Colorific, a major London
stockhouse - after buying it just a year ago - and returned the stock
files to the photographers. They said in effect, "thank you,
Another obvious cause for distress is the move away from news to "personality
journalism." A picture of Julia Roberts on a cover sells a hell
of a lot more magazines than one of George W. It's also becoming irrelevant
whether it's a new picture or an old one, comes from the wires or
stock agencies, or has been used before or not.
It was the newsmagazines around the world that used to provide the
funding to hire photographers, and partnered in the creation of new
work. Today, virtually none of these publications cover "News"
At Time magazine, for example, it was considered a bedrock
necessity to cover the White House on a daily basis. Beginning last
year, that tradition was abandoned in the pursuit of cost cutting.
Instead Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report
now only cover their "pool days" once every third day.
Major trips are covered by the magazine photographer who happens to
have the pool on the day a trip commences. Of course, not only does
this mean that the magazines are deprived of two-thirds of what their
own photographer could shoot on a daily basis, but it also means that
this once lucrative "beat" no longer can support a freelancer.
Increasingly, if there is a need for alternative coverage to the wires,
that now accounts for a majority of what is run by the magazines,
they turn to sources like "Newsmakers" which is really just
another wire service. The photos are taken by their own staff photographers
who work for hire, using digital cameras. The ironic thing is that
Newsmakers is owned by Getty, which also owns Liaison, which used
to make its income from selling the work of freelance photographers.
All of this has resulted in a total collapse of the main motivator
of journalistic competition. It used to be a race to see which publication
could field the best team to get to the big story. Today, nobody is
even sure what a big story is, let alone has the budget tocover it.
In the next two months, The Digital Journalist will be taking an extensive
look at these trends in newspapers (if you are a newspaper staff photographer,
thank your luck stars), television, magazines and the Web.
There are a few slim rays of hope in the future, as Peter Howe writes
in his column this month, and we will be talking about those as well.
In the meantime, brace for a long, cold, winter.