Fear Brings Out The Fools

by Greg Smith

When people are scared, they do unreasonable things.

Friends in tight spots have turned on each other. Scared mothers have abandoned, even drowned, their children. Leaders of news organizations faced with falling revenues and nervous stockholders, have gutted their products in favor of marketing and sales departments. With low rates and rights-grabbing contracts they have driven many experienced independent photojournalists from news photography.

And the independent photographers who remain, or seek a career, in the news business are scared they won't be able to continue the work they love. Their unreasonable response has been to accept steady and falling rates, along with contracts that extract additional, and in some cases all, rights to their work for no added recompense. They scramble harder, invest in expensive new digital gear, and they fall farther behind financially.

Staff photographers - at least the smart ones - are scared, too. They see how cheaply their bosses can hire interns and "stringers," and they forego annual pay raises, don't log overtime and accept cuts in benefits. They bend over backward to please unreasonable employers, sometimes compromising their principles, in order to avoid the next round of layoffs. They follow orders to proffer unfair contracts on independent shooters and train interns who cost their boss less money than full-time employees.

Photojournalism educators - eager to keep high numbers of students in their programs, and either unwilling or unable to add to their curricula - give business issues little, if any, attention. John Freeman, associate professor at the University of Florida, writing in the February issue of News Photographer magazine, even extolled over four pages the wonderful opportunities offered by year-round newspaper internships.

Everyone seems to be mortgaging the future of photojournalism.

Is the Economy Really a Factor?

Meantime, America appears to be emerging from a recession. And America's publishing companies are seeing their double-digit profits return and potentially grow. Editor and Publisher reports the much-ballyhooed advertising slump seems to be abating. Does that mean independent photojournalists - providers of valuable "content" that buttresses publications in a visual age - will see better deals from publishers? Does it mean staff photojournalists won't have to deal with overtime restrictions, unreasonable performance audits, aging equipment and layoffs?

Don't bet on it. Rates didn't rise - in fact some fell - during 20 years of high media corporation profits. And the current crop of one-sided, rights-grabbing contracts originated during the expansion of the 1990s. But at the same time, have some hope: The tide may turn as the subject of penny-pinching in news reporting gets more attention.

Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation reports on The Poynter Institute web site some depressing conclusions from a March gathering of international journalists. According to Giles, the 57 journalists from 26 countries, after meeting for a week in Salzburg, Austria, "concluded that market pressures are undermining the quality of journalism, specifically as companies that oversee news organizations seek to preserve high profit levels by reducing news gathering resources and neglecting journalism in the public interest. It is this fundamental role of the press to inform and empower citizens that is being endangered."

Although American newspaper circulation has been declining for years as people have turned to electronic media, many newspapers, especially those owned by the conglomerates that now dominate American journalism, have over the past decades racked up annual operating profits well in excess of 20 percent. Some newspapers haven't seen annual profits below that lofty figure in more than a decade - including this past year of recession.

For years, investors in the news biz have profited handsomely. Advertising departments have been remodeled and ad reps have pocketed big bonuses. But newsroom staffs have shrunk, been pushed to dark corners of aging buildings and handed used equipment from the "business side" to produce the product their fellow employees sell. Silly penny-pinching has prompted flaps over minutiae, such as the replacement at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune of felt tip pens with ballpoints, which don't work reliably in sub-freezing weather. On the broadcast side, we recently saw ABC seek David Letterman and his "stupid pet tricks" as a replacement for Nightline's highly praised perspective on news events that change the world - even though the two shows had similar shares of the viewing public.

In addition to suffering such inconveniences and indignities, journalists have struggled to afford middle-class lifestyles as salaries have commonly failed to keep pace with inflation. Most newspaper day rates haven't risen in actual dollars (let alone inflation-adjusted terms) in 20 years or more, while the costs of a photojournalist's basic camera bag (which now includes expensive zoom lenses, lights and digital gear) has grown tenfold. Many, if not most, young journalists will spend five years or less in the "profession" before moving on to "real" jobs. And thousands more will graduate this month from colleges and universities that offer allegedly "professional" programs in journalism. With no jobs available for the inexperienced, many of those who don't give up on journalism will seek post-graduate internships or "stringer" assignments from newspapers.

Interns, Stringer and Bad Deals

Indeed, many newspapers now offer year-round internships. The industry has long depended on interns to help cover for vacationing staffers during the busy summer travel season. But increasingly, news organizations are not filling slots vacated by experienced reporters and photographers. Instead, many hire students hoping to get "valuable" experience that will land them jobs that are becoming scarcer, due partly, at least, to the same internship programs.

Stringers - independent businesspeople or "freelancers," who aren't eligible for benefits and are only paid when they fulfill specific assignments - have for many years helped supplement staff coverage, particularly in remote locations and at inconvenient times. But increasingly, stringers cover more day-to-day projects. And in recent years, particularly since the Tasini vs. New York Times, et al (a Pyrrhic victory for independent writers, photographers and illustrators) case wended its way toward and through the Supreme Court, news organizations have demanded stringers sign contracts turning over rights beyond those needed for the next edition.

Many of these documents, including the infamous Associated Press contract, which surfaced in 1999 and triggered a flood of such one-sided documents, actually state stringers transfer copyright to all pictures made on assignment. The same contract makes it clear stringers are not entitled to any employee benefits or expense compensation, and may not use any AP equipment or facilities. The payment for AP assignments reportedly averages $150 to $200. Many newspapers - including the New York Times, which recently eliminated a $100 scan and transmit payment, cutting compensation by a third - pay the same or less.

All of this makes great fodder for e-mail lists catering to publications photographers. Recently on one of these online forums, a correspondent suggested newspapers chose their rates based on their costs for employees. Why, he asked, should the newspapers pay more?

Putting Pencil to Paper

Let's compare some numbers. A staff photographer at a medium-large newspaper earns about $40,000 by working about 240 days each year, after accounting for weekends (or two weekdays) off, two weeks vacation, holidays and a sick day or two. Standard accounting estimates suggest that photographer's benefits (insurance, retirement, employer share of FICA taxes, etc.) amount to 40 percent or more of his/her salary. Equipping a news photographer with a pair of professional digital cameras, professional zoom lenses, a fast telephoto (300 mm, f/2.8 or similar), computer and a laptop or digital wallet costs about $24,000, or some $6,000 a year, if you depreciate everything over four years (very optimistic for fast-changing, fragile technology). The photographer also needs some office space, a telephone, mobile communications (cell, beeper or radio), transportation, probably a police scanner and other assorted facilities. Let's value that at $6,000 a year.

This adds up to $68,000 a year, or about $283 for each of 240 working days. The numbers are, of course, much higher for big papers, which pay bigger salaries and have higher office costs in expensive, big cities. The New York Times now pays $200 per assignment to most photographers outside its metro area. The Washington Post checks in somewhat lower. Small papers often pay only $25 to $50 per assignment.

What are the operating costs for an independent photographer, who must market him/herself to get work, has to collect late payments (which are the norm), needs similar equipment and benefits, yet doesn't have the purchasing power of a big company, along with IT and photo departments to maintain and upgrade his tools? A survey, of 93 editorial photographers in 2000 found their costs of doing business averaged $230.24 for a 250-day working year.

But it also showed independent photographers only average 100 paid shooting days in a year. In other words, each assignment - assuming a photographer manages to take annual vacation time and two days off each week - requires two-and-a-half days for every day of payment. This brings the average cost per assignment day to about $530. Few magazines and apparently no newspapers pay that much, let alone the additional $400 ($930 total) it would take for an independent photographer to match our staffer's modest salary.

Maybe the independent photojournalist - if he/she makes the effort to understand and support more reasonable pricing models - can also cover a few commercial, corporate or wedding assignments for $2,000 or more each. And according to the traditional editorial model, he/she would also be due some space rates on images used from assignments. But the new contracts don't account for those additional payments - which can often triple day-rate revenues. And since the current crop of contracts either take all rights to pictures made on assignment or demand so many that the photographer's remaining rights are devalued, the contracting photographer can't expect to make much, if any, money on sales of stock photography from such assignments. (But that's less significant these days, because most stock photography is now marketed by the mega-agencies, Corbis and Getty Images, which have drastically cut photographer compensation).

Imbalance Has Big Implications

With numbers so far apart - a client paying $200 or less for an assignment on which a photographer needs to earn nearly $1,000 - the equation doesn't begin to balance. Photographers who work under such conditions subsidize their clients and the high profits they return to stockholders. If they work often at such rates, they will steadily fall behind, or they will have to cut corners, such as foregoing insurance, purchasing business licenses, paying taxes or eating a balanced diet - all of which tend to be time bombs that vaporize small businesses.

But equally important, staff photographers cost the client more than cheap stringers and interns, and the costs above don't fully account for support staff and the time staff photographers spend not making pictures. Should anyone be surprised when staff positions evaporate as layoffs continue and vacancies go unfilled?

In last month's editorial on this site, Dirck Halstead described a "devaluing of professionals. The inherent value of the story or photograph," he stated, "has dropped in the minds of the editors who are responsible for paying for them."

But with some media companies still turning double-digit profits in a recession, there is reason to believe they are extracting considerable value from our images. Moreover, with the public reading less and surveys showing we prefer shorter stories with striking illustrations, visual communication is growing in importance.

For an aging generation of photojournalists, the great fear was failing to grow beyond the very basics of "f/8 and be there," to mastery of the craft and a search for Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment." By paying what amounts to less than a training wage to stringers, publishers seem to be saying the modern equivalent - "Green Zone" automatic, auto-focus and be there - is good enough. And any young shooter, trying to get his/her foot inside a door that leads to nowhere, or an old drunk with an EOS Rebel or Nikon Coolpix, who has a second income, a reliable spouse's paycheck or doesn't mind living in squalor, will give them that quality.

Such folks also make mistakes. They can turn a cluster of photographers at a competitive news event into a predatory mob. Untrained in, or unconcerned about, digital ethics, they can change the meaning of an allegedly documentary photograph. And they can make bad pictures that fail to advance reader/viewership, let alone understanding.

Fallout From Cheapness Could Be Profound

It's rather like polluting by the steel and chemical industries, inflating real estate assessments to borrow extra cash, and turning losses into profits on an annual report. Such cutting of corners - failing to account for the real costs of doing business - yields Superfund sites, savings and loan bailouts and Enron-like debacles. Somebody always pays. And too often the victims aren't just the stockholders and executives who profited to begin with. Indeed, in many cases the people who cause the problems get away with their loot, leaving the public holding an empty bag.

The savings and loan bailout cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions. We're still paying for toxic waste cleanups. And who knows the full effects of the Enron scandal? Since the news media - known as the "Fourth Estate" for their role in helping voters make decisions - underpin much more than financial matters, the resulting pollution of bad and/or incomplete information could have profoundly horrible effects.

This brings us back to the journalists' conclusions from Salzburg. The document notes the special status independent news media enjoy in many countries, including the United States, and it emphasizes this protection brings with it responsibility to do more than maximize profits.

There's good reason to believe independent visual journalists may be like canaries in a coal mine. Publishers are clearly taking advantage of our weakness, running counter to their classic duty of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." The American Society of Media Photographers outgoing executive director, Dick Weisgrau, notes this in an unusual front-cover article in April's ASMP Bulletin.

"Creators wonder why they are singled out to be the focus of savings," he writes. "Newspaper executives are not taking pay cuts nor are other suppliers being forced to renegotiate their fees."

The article, which takes the place normally held by a picture on the cover, goes on to name names (The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Boston Globe) of key culprits. Other organizations, such as Editorial Photographers, the Professional Photographers of America, the Advertising Photographers of America, the National Writer's Union and the Graphic artist's Guild have taken strong stands to support creators' copyrights and fair compensation. Even the National Press Photographers Association, which has been vilified for not taking stronger stands in the face of the AP contract and other rights grabs, has resurrected its moribund Business Practices Committee.

Independent creators, including we photojournalists, are the people first affected by publishers' unreasonable practices. And staff photographers aren't immune from the cost-cutting creep that's devaluing our vision and efforts. We should all be scared. But we don't need to be stupid. We're professional communicators. It's up to us let the public know how critical these issues are, and to work - by saying "No" to unfair deals - to keep them from threatening the accurate and complete information democracy depends on.

© 2002 Greg Smith

Greg Smith, an independent photographer, writer and editor, tries to hide from a fearful world at his home on the banks of the May River near Bluffton, S.C. Learn more about him and his work at http://imediasmith.com.

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