The Digital Journalist
Taking Care of Business
February 2005

by Peter Howe

I don't know whether or not the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was also a photographer, but he certainly thought like one when he said: "Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits." If ever a phrase summed up the attitudes of most photojournalists to the messy business of business, then this is it (although maybe the good spirits part is exaggerated.) I know of what I speak, because when I was shooting I couldn't understand why I never had any money. The problem was that I so loved what I did, and felt so privileged at being sent around the world to do it, that it seemed churlish to complain that I wasn't making enough to support my family in even modest means. Looking back now I realize that some of the jobs I did cost me as much money as the magazine that had assigned them. I never added up the expenses and subtracted the fees in even the most basic accounting procedure.

I know that I wasn't alone in this, and so I suppose there has always been a need for guides such as the one recently put out by The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), titled "Best Practices for the Business of Independent Photojournalism."

Let me say right now that, in the interest of full disclosure, Publisher Dirck Halstead is a member of the NPPA Business Practices Committee, and played an active role in writing the document, which goes to show that it is possible to come up with more than one good idea in a lifetime. Having got that off my ethical chest, even if he had no part in it I would still have wanted to write about Best Practices, because anything that helps photographers conduct their business in a fair and honest way that in no manner compromises the integrity that is the keystone of the craft deserves not only mentioning but actively promoting.

The document itself is a simple and clear statement of aims, one sheet containing five points for people working with photojournalists, and another five points on a second sheet for the photographers themselves. The theme that runs through both pages is openness and honesty. When I was talking to Greg Smith, the chairman of the committee that authored it, he brought up an interesting example of a situation that in his mind needs to be remedied. It could be called the Case of the Good Picture Editor. An editor gives an assignment to a freelance photographer. He realizes that the day rate is pathetic, and is embarrassed by it. In an act of commendable generosity he tells the shooter to add on an extra day to the time that it actually took, and, even though the location is only 30 miles away, to bill him for 100. In the short term this benefits the photographer, but the long term has a significant downside, because it keeps the onerous pay structure in place, and depends upon the good will and sensitivity of the editor. It also appears to his bosses that the day rate they pay is perfectly adequate because nobody's complaining about it. There is one other thing wrong with this scenario – it's not honest, and if there's one thing that we should all be in business for it's communicating the truth. If this is our mission, then we shouldn't work in a dishonest way.

Smith is a passionate First Amendment proponent who believes that "our democratic future depends on the accurate, complete and fair reporting of news." He also believes that this kind of reporting only comes from journalists who are treated fairly, and is especially important today, when genuine financial constraints are causing publishers to look to any way they can to cut costs. As circulations decrease, and with them advertising revenues also, it is becoming standard practice not to send a staff photographer to cover a distant story, even if you have staff photographers in the first place, but to use a freelancer who is located close to the events taking place. There is a common misconception among editors in the big, urban centers of publishing that it's cheaper for a photographer to do business in places that aren't big, urban centers, somewhere like the place where Smith himself lives - Bluffton, South Carolina. Some things may be less expensive, but they're generally not the things that enable a photographer to do his or her job. Cameras cost the same, DSL lines aren't cheaper, cars are similarly priced, and their maintenance costs only slightly less. Smith believes that the financial circumstances of the publications that breed this kind of thinking put a pressure on photojournalists that compromises their ability to provide the kind of reporting he feels is so vital to our society. If you're working for a flat fee you won't spend the time that is often needed for complete coverage of a story. It's not that either editors or photographers are necessarily any less idealistic than they were in more affluent times; it's just that they're both working under much tighter constraints. This is particularly true, he says, for younger freelancers who have nowhere to turn to today.

The problem with the Best Practices document is that it has no teeth, and it may well be easier to enforce upon the photographers than the editors and their bosses. Having said that, however, it is consistent in its approach with the mandate of the NPPA, which, according to Smith, is "not to recommend boycotts, strikes, or anything else." He says that it was not intended to be adversarial, and given the inability of photographers to produce anything approaching an effective collective bargaining model, the value of having these guidelines available for anyone who wants them is real. Certainly Best Practices needs to be vigorously communicated to both the parties that it addresses, but in the end all that we can do is to make sure that our side of the street is clean, and to avoid the increasing number of contractual pitfalls that lead us down the road to victimhood. As Greg Smith himself says, "We're not trying to get rich; we're just trying to get by."

Download the NPPA Best Practices PDF or view online at

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor