It appears that
photojournalism is now in the deepest part of a dark valley. In past
editorials we have written about massive budgetary problems affecting
newspapers, magazines, and television. Editorial assignments have been
slashed. Rights grabs by publishers, coupled with corporate takeovers
of the biggest photo agencies, have left most freelancers wondering
if it is any longer possible to simply earn a living from a craft that
At the National Press Photographers Association annual convention in
Minneapolis, Editorial Photo past president Paula Lerner, and Brian
Storm, of MSNBC.com, faced up to the grim new realities in a free-flowing
discussion with photographers. Ms. Lerner admits that she has had to
give up editorial photography as the major source of her income. Brian
Storm told the audience that his website, considered one of the major
buyers of freelance photography, is under enormous pressure to cut costs.
"Let's face it. This profession is in the worst shape I have ever
seen, " said Storm. "But we all know how bad it is. The question
is how can we come up with solutions?"
One thing the panelists and audience agreed on is that the traditional
solutions would not work. LIFE Magazine is not coming back. The days
of TIME and NEWSWEEK sending photographers off to far-flung, long-term
assignments simply don't exist any more. There are exceptions of course,
such as wars like Afghanistan, and Jose Azel was lucky enough to snare
a prime three week assignment for Time this month on the Lewis and Clark
trail. But unfortunately NBC, CBS, and ABC find that their principal
journalistic activities now revolve around reporters doing hour after
hour of standup openings and closes for affiliates, who generally share
pool feeds on ever-more superficial stories.
Brian came up with one model that might actually work. He suggests that
the technology is nearly at hand that would provide for a common standard
of HTML meta-tagging for photographs. Once that exists, it would be
possible for photographers to put their pictures on line, distributing
them through either existing web sites such as MSNBC.com, or The Digital
Journalist. The metatags would make it feasible for individuals to buy
printable copies of the photographs. Say, one of our audience, which
now totals over 6 and 1/2 million unique visitors wanted to buy an 11x14
print of one of David Hume Kennerly's photographs of Jerry Seinfeld
(we have gotten lots of requests from readers on that one). By clicking
on a button under the picture, the viewer would be taken to an order
page offering, for example, an 11x14 printable version for $50.00. After
entering the credit card information (eventually, your computer will
be able to do all that automatically), the viewer would be taken to
a page on which a copy of the photograph would be displayed optimized
for that size printout.
8x10s would be cheaper, 16x20s more expensive. A one-time print would
then be generated on the viewer's photo printer. Now, $50 may seem cheap
for a Kennerly print, but we are talking about offering thousands of
viewers that opportunity. Accounting for revenue would be automatically
generated, with the sponsoring site splitting the revenue with the photographer.
No individual would have to be involved in the billing or payment.
This is called "transactionalizing" web content. It would
make it possible for photographers to offer their work directly to the
buyers. Of course, the key is that the pictures would have to be put
on sites that draw the kind of customers in the volume necessary to
generate adequate revenue.
The implications of Brian's scheme are quite staggering. For the first
time, photographers would be offering their work to the public, at a
price, bypassing magazines, newspapers and agencies. The basic concept
of a day-rate also came to the attention of the NPPA audience.
It was suggested that day-rates really no longer worked. There are simply
too many photographers willing to work for less in a market that has
far too few assignments.
As Brian Storm said, "We need to get rid of 40% of the photographers
out there. Too many are simply bad photographers, who will work for
bad-deals. The problem is that we are losing the best 40% to the worst."
The only solution may be to dramatically change the way photographers
work for publications and broadcast. Rather than starting negotiations
with a payment for "services", which is what day-rates are,
photojournalists may need to become "producers", offering
a final package to clients. Payment would be based on the photographer's
budget, not the publication. The story would be offered as a finished
piece of work, at a price arrived at by the photographer, including
his or her profit. Publications and broadcast could then take the package
or not. Of course, this means that the photographer would have to assume
a lot more responsibility in the process, and the work would have to
In fact, for photojournalists to survive, it all comes down to a Darwinian
The best will be forced to do their best work.
And that may be the solution.