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 they love.

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 be good.

In fact, for photojournalists to survive, it all comes down to a Darwinian code.

The best will be forced to do their best work.

And that may be the solution.

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