Revisiting the Death of Photojournalism,
Part II:
August 2009

by Dirck Halstead

In last month's issue of The Digital Journalist, we took a look at the state of photojournalism as we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

All of journalism is in serious trouble. At a time when more people have access to news and images, including video, than ever before, the basic economic model that supports the people who actually gather that news is failing.

If you go on Google or Yahoo News online, new stories are being posted minute-by-minute.

During the tumultuous events in the streets of Iran in June, "citizen journalists" bravely posted pictures and video. They were really the only sources, since the government had prohibited professional journalists from filing their dispatches. Yahoo and Google provide distribution for news, but not the news itself. We are dependent on professionals to give us reliable news. These people are trained to provide context that allows the reader or viewer to decide if what they are seeing is valid.

Newspapers are the first line of providing this information. Major papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Times of London rely on their own staff for most of their content. The cost of providing these stories is astronomical. The New York Times newsroom budget is over $200 million per year. As we point out in our editorial this month, that cost must be covered primarily by advertisers. Most other media such as broadcasters and other newspapers rely on these major newspapers as the first step in assembling their coverage. The axiom in broadcast is, if you want to know what will be on the evening news, take a look at the front page of The New York Times that morning.

Other than these major newspapers we rely on the wire services, The Associated Press (AP), Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), and commercial picture agencies such as Getty to move correspondents and photographers to news fronts around the world to provide independent and verifiable coverage.

As we pointed out last month in Part I of this report, major news institutions find that their very survival is in doubt in an economy that is resetting. What of these wire services? How much longer can they continue to provide their coverage?

It could be argued that the wires are the last bastions of photojournalism. Reuters alone has more than 600 staffers and stringers deployed around the world. Technology has vastly improved the wires' ability to file almost instantly from any part of the globe. As the major newsmagazines have lost the financial ability to send top-drawer photojournalists to the scenes of stories, the wires have moved in to take up the vacuum created. Wire service photojournalists have become very sophisticated in taking on complex and lengthy projects.

Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the AP, notes, "Today the quality of the content is very high. There is a mix of styles by our photographers, from conventional news photography to more thoughtful essays."

Of course, the granddaddy of the wires is the AP. According to Wikipedia, in the spring of 1846, Moses Yale Beach, publisher of The New York Sun, established a pony express to deliver news of the Mexican-American War. Dispatches were relayed by boat to Mobile, Ala., then sped ahead of the Great Southern Mail by pony express to Montgomery, Ala., where the mail stagecoaches carried them 700 miles to the nearest telegraph point near Richmond, Va. In offering an equal interest in the express venture to the major New York City daily papers (four of whom accepted), Beach effectively organized what soon became known as The Associated Press.

Telegraphic communications between Washington and New York were established on June 5, 1846; the New York-Boston line went into operation on June 27, and by summer's end, the telegraph extended from New York to Albany and Buffalo, and from Philadelphia west to Harrisburg, creating a telegraph network. Editors could now actively collect news as it breaks, rather than gather already published news.

The AP was established as a cooperative. Newspapers joined as "members." The members shared the cost of covering the news. This model still applies today. Also, the "member" agreed to share his or her own content with the cooperative. AP staffers were paid as staff employees. All ownership of content was to be owned by the members.

Other wire services, such as Reuters, which is now owned by the Thomson Corporation, mimicked the AP model. In 1907, Scripps Howard newspapers started a competing agency, the United Press. Rather than the membership model of the AP, UP licensed content to its clients, newspapers and radio stations. In the early '50s, UP bought a rival service, International News Service, and became UPI. Throughout most of the 20th century the two wires competed fiercely to provide "the big scoop." The wires became a key training area for journalism. Walter Cronkite, for example, came from the ranks of UP.

The wires were a contract-based service to its members and clients. For a set fee, based on the newspaper's circulation, stories and photographs were transmitted and could be used for no further fee. With one big exception: magazines would have to pay for use of content on an individual basis. Life, Time and Newsweek became major revenue providers to the wires.

While the AP was essentially nonprofit, UPI and Reuters were for-profit agencies. These services became "homes" for thousands of photojournalists, paying regular salaries, including health and retirement benefits on a competitive basis.

Like all for-profits, the competition was daunting for some of the players. UPI failed in the '80s, and despite a succession of new owners (one was a Saudi prince), was never able to return to its former position as a key provider of news.

Reuters and AFP, which was staffed by many former UPI employees, replaced UPI as the second service to the AP.

Although UPI failed as a business, its picture operation was still profitable when it folded. Its photographic archives were sold to Bettman, which Corbis bought in 1995.

But all the services had one thing in common. The copyright of the images was owned by the services, not the photographers.

Freelance photographers who worked for magazines sold their images through for-profit agencies, such as Sygma, Black Star and Gamma. Some agencies that sold the photographers' work were formed as cooperatives, which included Magnum Photos and Contact Press Images. Up until the '90s, these agencies sold primarily to magazines on a competitive basis. Generally, the revenue from sales was split between the agency and the photographer.

However, in the '90s, two major players changed this game forever. Bill Gates, who was a collector of photography, decided to start his own agency, Corbis. He bought Sygma in the U.S. and changed its name. Mark Getty decided to buy Gamma-Liaison and changed its name to Getty Images. Rather than sell photographs on a competitive bid basis to magazines, which suddenly had come face-to-face with the grim realities of tough budgets, they commoditized picture sales, using the new tool of the World Wide Web. Rather than one big sale to Time or Newsweek, which could make the agencies' photographers' year, they concentrated on mass sales at lower prices.

Which all brings us to where we are now. The cost of covering news, especially wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to escalate, while the revenue derived from sales is declining. The creation of the mega-agencies such as Getty and Corbis has dramatically increased the overhead in these businesses.

Even the solid block of members that the AP could depend on is shattering. Earlier this year, a group of Ohio members formed their own version of the wire service, sharing local and state news. They have all served notice on the AP of their intention to cancel in 2010.

Newspapers have discovered that with such partnerships, they could dramatically cut their news hole cost, relying on spot purchases of international photographs from the competing agencies.

In late July, the AP accepted voluntary buyouts from about 100 staffers. This is a major milestone for these employees who always regarded a job with AP as one for life.

According to a Reuters report, Gamma, the fountainhead of French photo agencies, announced to employees that it is on the verge of going out of business.

We are faced with a major erosion in the value proposition for photography. In late July, a small agency sold a cover picture to Time for $30.

The photographer, Robert Lam, was "thrilled" to get the cover, but other photographers were less sanguine. After various notes of congratulations were posted by other photographers, one of them wrote, "You got screwed," pointing out that commissioned, as opposed to stock, photographs on Time's cover are worth thousands. "Photographers are to blame for that $30 option," the poster wrote.

With an ever-expanding network of stringers and staffers, but diminishing revenue from clients, the composition of those staffs has changed dramatically. Wire photojournalists for the most part were westerners, positioned in key areas of the globe. Today, many of those staffers and stringers are local, with considerably lower pay scales. 

According to Tom Szlukovenyi, Reuters' Global Editor of Pictures, "Being local is actually the strength of the Reuters picture service. We, of course, have a large number of well-known 'international' photographers who act as firefighters and have a major role in teaching and educating young, talented local photographers in their country or their region. This is not new and started in the 1990s in Eastern Europe. The visiting western photographers covering the fall of communism needed the occasional help and found talented local photographers who quickly became forces in their own right. Several Reuters stringers from those days are working in very senior roles now as editors or chief photographers. The same pattern is being repeated in India, China, the Middle East and Africa now."

New picture agencies are trying to figure out a way to aggregate the photographs coming from "citizen photojournalists" who are posted on YouTube, and turn them into a cash resource base. That way, of course, there would be no salaries to pay. Unfortunately for these entrepreneurial agencies, by definition "citizen journalists" are not a reliable source of ongoing coverage. Their "scoops" tend to be once-in-a-lifetime moments, as opposed to professional photojournalists who make it their business to be on the scene of breaking news time and again.

But as we asked in last month's article, at the end of the day who is going to PAY for those photojournalists to be there?

The precipitous decline in budgets at magazines and newspapers is now threatening the ability of the wires to continue to service these members and clients. For photojournalists, these developments are genuinely alarming, since the wires collectively represent their biggest single employer in the industry. For society, the effects of pressures on the wires, in their unique role as the provider of first resort for our news, could be devastating.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from

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