The Reality of Our Recession

There is no getting around it, so let's just say it. Photojournalism is in a recession right now. If you talk to enough photographers, you might think we're in a Depression.

According to newsmagazine editors, photo assignments are down 75% when compared with this period last year. Budgets have been slashed with meat cleavers. For any photographer who proposes a major story that involves travel, phone calls are not returned.

Recently, a well-known contract photographer for one of the major newsmagazines traveled to Asia to complete a project he was working on. The magazine would not pay for the airfare, and the photographer was forced to pick up that cost himself. As of now, the story still has not been scheduled. American Express, however, couldn't care less.

Photojournalists aren't the only photographers feeling the pinch. Another well-established photographer, who makes his living doing publicity and advertising for films which had a bumper year in 2000, has not worked a day in the past two months. The top of this well-heeled group, the hottest names, people who are generally hired by the studios as "vanity deals" for film stars, are finding that studio execs, used to traveling around the world on private jets, who now go cross-country in coach, have no taste for lavishing these perks on even the biggest star photographers.

Advertising, the big kahuna of photography, is offering "work for hire" agreements to the few big talents that are lucky enough to be called for a campaign. Otherwise, these same agencies are routinely doing comps, and, in some cases, final layouts by their own creatives using cheap digital cameras.

In television, the Platypus theory has run amuck. Networks agree that small digital camcorders can do the job that previously called for $60,000 Betacams. However, they didn't necessarily buy into the idea that the most talented people to use these small cameras are photojournalists. Instead, they started handing out cameras to already over-worked producers, telling them if you want to do a story, shoot it yourself.

Last month, CNN bought $400,000 worth of Sony PD150 Camcorders and handed them out to the bureaus, along with laptop computers loaded with Final Cut Pro editing software. As CNN's Eason Jordan said in a memo to the newsroom staff, "The opportunities will go to the people who master these skills" (see our February editorial).

Corporate parents such as Disney and AOL Time Warner have no tolerance for investing money in "long form" news or features. It's only a matter of time before television photojournalists, who felt not long ago they were in a growth industry, will start to trade their Betacams for tin cups.

The culprit these industries point their fingers at is a weak economy, with drastic cuts in advertising dollars. The fact is that these changes were planned long before the bubble burst.

A recent New York Times story pointed out that this is the first time an economy was driven down by business decisions. It is not that the consumers are not buying, it's that the producers aren't producing. There seems to be a prevailing bottom line ethic that if your company cuts costs, overhead, and staff, the same buyers who have always provided the profit will continue to consume. The problem is when everyone has the same idea, eventually there is no money left for the consumers to buy your product.

Then there is the matter of consolidation. The big fish are swallowing the small ones. Last week, AOL Time Warner made a bid for the IPC group, a British magazine publisher, which, if it goes through, will take AOL Time Warner from publishing 60 magazines to 160. Each of those magazines represented clients for photographers. If the existing magazines of Time Inc. are any indication, the budgets of all these publications will be dramatically reduced.

The traditional fallback for freelance photographers has always been the agency system. If a photojournalist was having a slow period, he or she could count on a check once a month for the sales of their stock. It was also the agencies that were the bankroller of last resort to do a project. In the past year, that system has almost completely fallen apart.

With the acquisition of agencies such as Sygma, Liasion, Saba, and others by corporate behemoths Corbis and Getty, the fundamental role the agencies played as the representative for the photographers has ceased to exist. Recently, Getty closed Colorific, a major London stockhouse - after buying it just a year ago - and returned the stock files to the photographers. They said in effect, "thank you, and goodbye."

Another obvious cause for distress is the move away from news to "personality journalism." A picture of Julia Roberts on a cover sells a hell of a lot more magazines than one of George W. It's also becoming irrelevant whether it's a new picture or an old one, comes from the wires or stock agencies, or has been used before or not.

It was the newsmagazines around the world that used to provide the funding to hire photographers, and partnered in the creation of new work. Today, virtually none of these publications cover "News" anymore.

At Time magazine, for example, it was considered a bedrock necessity to cover the White House on a daily basis. Beginning last year, that tradition was abandoned in the pursuit of cost cutting. Instead Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report now only cover their "pool days" once every third day.

Major trips are covered by the magazine photographer who happens to have the pool on the day a trip commences. Of course, not only does this mean that the magazines are deprived of two-thirds of what their own photographer could shoot on a daily basis, but it also means that this once lucrative "beat" no longer can support a freelancer.

Increasingly, if there is a need for alternative coverage to the wires, that now accounts for a majority of what is run by the magazines, they turn to sources like "Newsmakers" which is really just another wire service. The photos are taken by their own staff photographers who work for hire, using digital cameras. The ironic thing is that Newsmakers is owned by Getty, which also owns Liaison, which used to make its income from selling the work of freelance photographers.

All of this has resulted in a total collapse of the main motivator of journalistic competition. It used to be a race to see which publication could field the best team to get to the big story. Today, nobody is even sure what a big story is, let alone has the budget tocover it.

In the next two months, The Digital Journalist will be taking an extensive look at these trends in newspapers (if you are a newspaper staff photographer, thank your luck stars), television, magazines and the Web.

There are a few slim rays of hope in the future, as Peter Howe writes in his column this month, and we will be talking about those as well. In the meantime, brace for a long, cold, winter.

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