The Digital Journalist
Common Cents:
Traitors - The Fifth Column of Freelancing
April 2007

by Mark Loundy

"I love treason but hate a traitor." — Julius Caesar

Every day brings news of more casualties. Media company business managers literally laugh about photographers who assist them in turning a highly skilled profession into a commodity. Photographers who have been making tens of thousands of dollars annually in stock licensing fees have seen billings drop, in some cases, to just a few hundred dollars per year.

Yet there are those who suggest that even using the term "war" only creates an unpleasant relationship with the same folks who are unapologetically lowering rates and imposing all-rights contracts.

Media companies are not in the information business. They exist for the sole purpose of making money for their owners. When a media executive comes up with a plan to reduce or even eliminate editorial costs, he's had a good day. The problem is that he doesn't have to work very hard at it. He's getting lots of help for the very people he's taking the money from.

Photographers who accept unprofitable jobs, sign Work For Hire contracts and generally fail to adhere to prudent business practices are a literal "Fifth Column" assisting their enemies. They think that the pittance paid to them in the short term will develop into a career. Or, they look at it as "extra" cash on top of their staff salaries. They don't realize that they're only helping pay for the rope that will eventually hang them.

Although there are no RPGs or IEDs aimed at us, this is no less a war. The weapons are contracts, lies and our own willingness to work "for glory." The defenses are good business practices and the courage to say no. The traitors can be found no further than the shooters who say yes.


Rock and Ice magazine for maintaining its usage fees despite a competing publication's lowering of the fees it pays to contributors. From their e-mail: "We greatly value your work and believe that paying below-industry rates devalues your photography and compromises quality."


• VNU, publishers of, of all things, Photo District News, for their new take-it-or-leave-it policy for their contributor contract. They used to actually negotiate. On the hopeful side, PDN editor Holly Hughes is a longtime advocate for photographers. Perhaps she can subvert from within.

Rowing News for paying $50 for a cover assignment.


• The photographers who shoot assignments for Rowing News — some for no pay at all.

The International Teamster, the official publication of the Teamsters Union, for pleading "non-profit" when presented with a mid-range estimate for an assignment. I guess the Teamsters need to save money to pay President James P. Hoffa's $251,529 salary.

• Urban Teen, Inc. for soliciting photographers for unpaid jobs and "the possibility of paying jobs in the future and use of photos in the photographer's portfolio (and a recommendation letter from our CEOs)."

• WNBC-TV's "Independent Producer Showcase" which not only pays contributors zip, but also takes all rights to the work.

Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.

Leftovers is worth taking a look at. They make their money primarily from organizational software for high school sports directors and only take a small cut from facilitating online photo sales.

© Mark Loundy

Mark Loundy is a visual journalist, writer and media consultant based in San Jose, California.