The Digital Journalist
The Puzzling Case of Brian Storm
December 2004

by Dirck Halstead

When Brian Storm arrived at Corbis in the summer of 2002, the privately-held picture agency owned by Bill Gates was floundering.

After having subsumed and put out of business the respected Sygma agency, firing its French staff and turning its back on many of the finest photojournalists in the world that Sygma had represented, Corbis was booed at Visa pour l'image, the largest international photojournalism festival, in Perpignan, France.

Left to Right: Brian Storm, Shaul Schwartz, Ed Kashi (in back) and Andrew Lichtenstein toasting Brian. Taken at the Old Towne Inn in Manhattan, following his dismissal from Corbis.

Photo by Ed Kashi
Brian Storm had been the innovative Director of Multimedia at MSNBC.com in Redmond, Washington, and over a 7-year period had helped to build it into an award-winning site that also bought more pictures than any other single customer in the industry. The University of Missouri graduate had developed a reputation for technical innovation, a passion for the craft and strong leadership, and his hands-on approach was already legendary. The question was, could he help to save Corbis?

From the moment he walked through the door of the New York headquarters as Vice President of Corbis' News, Multimedia and Assignment Services operations, there was no question there were going to be changes made.

Over the next two years, he brought in 23 new top photojournalists and created an innovative site to showcase their talents at http://corbis.com/assignment. In an attempt to turn around the negative reputation Corbis had brought upon itself, he started to devote time and energy to relationships with the photography community, often showing up as a featured lecturer in industry events. He brought in new editors and infused them with his own enthusiasm and love of photojournalism.

Corbis' news division began to pick up steam as they partnered with Reuters Newspictures, added contributing photographers in diverse locations around the globe, and reached out to newspapers. Storm led a massive overhaul of the Corbis internal picture desk migrating to an all-digital workflow and integrated the out-of-date newsroom Web site onto the Corbis core platform at http://corbis.com/news. Earlier this year, he hired Maria Mann, who had directed AFP's Washington bureau, and installed her in Paris to supervise coverage in Europe.

He seemed to be the wŁnderkind of photojournalism.

So it came as an enormous shock to the industry to learn that early last month he had been told that his job had been eliminated.

Immediately, stories began to spread that Corbis was going back to its old, evil ways. Photographer Ed Kashi, who had been brought in to the agency by Storm, told Photo District News, "I'm incredibly upset. I'm concerned about what this augers for Corbis."

Other photographers wondered about what the new vision was. One said, "He played such an important role, not just for photographers, but the editorial people as well. It was wonderful to work with a real team in an environment like this. We were pushing important stories out into the world. It became a wonderful distribution system that worked. It was as good as it gets."

Another senior editor who has since left Corbis called Storm "a wonderful prophet of photography. This is a huge mistake; it shows a complete misunderstanding of photojournalism (by Corbis). Storm was one of the few people in the industry to have the love of photographers, and the business smarts and understanding of where the industry is going, plus the knowledge of the new technology. They have fired the guy who was the glue."

Major clients were also perplexed. "It's hard for me to understand what they are thinking," said Tom Kennedy, Managing Editor/Multimedia at washingtonpost.com. "As they were consolidating, they were also giving opportunities to photographers and strengthening their operations. Brian has been a strong partner, especially in multimedia. What he did was important for the industry, and anything that diminishes that is bad for the industry. I find it very troubling."

While Storm was reshaping the editorial and multimedia divisions, there were other forces at work that were out of his control. Tony Rojas, who recruited and brought Storm to Corbis, lost his position as COO in September of 2003. Other editors he had worked with were either phased out or left. Jennifer Hurshell, an aggressive executive with expertise in media relations and communications who joined Corbis in the fall of 2003, started to move quickly up the inside track, passing Storm in the company hierarchy.

In 2003 Corbis posted revenue "in the range of $140 million," according to CEO Steve Davis (at the Corbis annual meeting), but despite this Corbis was still not profitable. In an effort to reach profitability, Hurshell decided to hire product managers overseeing each unit, all focusing on the bottom line. The company's major competitor, Getty Images, posted an amazing $523.2 million in sales and is profitable.

Photo District News quoted Hurshell as saying, "Ultimately, there was too much encompassed in that one role. It was actually not fair to [Storm] because ... we were asking content people to also be business people at the same time. It was really almost a conflict of interest."

In the meantime, Maria Mann, who is another forceful editor and manager, provided an alternative to Storm in running the assignment, editorial, historical and some of the technical operations. "Brian's role was very large, and it got smaller." Now, Maria, as Director of Global Current Affairs, is commuting between Paris and New York overseeing assignment and editorial teams. "We are going full speed ahead. We want to expand our base of assignment and contributing photographers. As for our current team of assignment and key contributing photographers, I've been calling them personally. I would be sorry to see any of them go. We will continue to do what we are doing."

Stock photography expert Jim Pickerell suspects Storm's support of an equal share in sales from photographers' work may have had an influence on Corbis' decision. "Most major agents feel they need more than 50 percent of sales revenue to show a profit," Pickerell said.

Other editors at Corbis see a personality issue between Storm and Hurshell and Steve Davis, the CEO of Corbis. (Davis was asked to comment for this article, but he declined). One editor says, "Corbis has a tradition of pushing out strong leaders. They move people out of positions of expertise and put them in areas they are unsuited for. Jennifer's (Hurshell) statement in PDN essentially said that Brian cared so much, she thought it was a conflict of interest."

However, there were also many photographers who had worked with Corbis who were not nearly so enraptured by Storm's regime. More than a few told us that communications between these "legacy photographers" who had been acquired via Sygma and Saba, and Corbis was nonexistent. They told of discovering they were no longer being represented by the agency when their portfolios were returned to them with no warning. "If Brian was in your corner everything was great. But if you weren't one of the chosen ones, you were left out in the cold."

One of these same photographers however, summed up a common sentiment: "If there is one less photographer in the leadership of Corbis, that is not good. There are too many bean counters there now."

When asked for a comment, Brian Storm replied, "I'm incredibly excited about the next step. I wouldn't change one thing about the last 10 years of my life and I know that everything I've learned, the people I've been lucky enough to meet, and the experiences I've gained will help me continue my efforts to make photojournalism a viable career and a cornerstone of how the world stays informed."

It's a puzzle.

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© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of the Digital Journalist