Some Thoughts on our
Second Anniversary

Editorial By Dirck Halstead

Well, The Digital Journalist is now two years old.

We started with a premise: something big was happening in visual journalism. We began by talking about how still photojournalism would begin to merge with television news.

At the time, this idea was ridiculous to the established system. Why would television ever need to call on still photojournalists? The television product was made with $60,000 Betacams and a crew of several people: producer, correspondent, soundman and cameraperson. It was all going to be edited in a $200,000 Beta edit suite, which occupied a small portion of a multimillion-dollar-a-year rental space, overseen by executives who would bust the budget of most small countries.

Meanwhile in print, budgets kept shrinking. The newsmagazines used to send photographers around the world at the drop of a hat. I remember at one point, somebody told me that the average price of a photo used in Time magazine was somewhere in the area of $10,000. Those budgets are now history. Yes, the magazines still spend a lot of money covering various world events, and the political year alone will cost a newsmagazine somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars to get their still coverage. But, these costs come at the expense of enterprise journalism.

The fact is, the traditional ways of covering world events have now outstripped the budgets of both print and television. So, how on Earth can we get photojournalists into the field to preserve the visual historic legacy of our times? The answer is that we have to become creative, and offer solutions to both still and television. Photojournalism remains the most effective medium for covering major stories. It is a matter of basic economics. Which is cheaper, to send a lone Turnley to interpret a major story visually, or a crew from CBS (or any network), with the whole nine yards of technical support flown in? This is a no-brainer.

The photojournalist must be ready to provide the coverage. This means learning a whole new language. Many will not make this transition. But nobody ever said that every news photographer back in the '50s could become a LIFE photographer. There will always be special people, with a gift, people who can rise above the rest. There will, however, never be another weekly LIFE.

One of the most promising trends as we near the end of the millennium is the photographers' growing awareness of their rights. It started when the Associated Press made a flagrant grab for the photo rights of freelancers' film. The issue was brought to the fore when the Business Week bureau in Los Angeles tried to enforce a new agreement with contributing photographers that would have constituted "work for hire." Rather than doing what photographers are supposed to do --roll over--a group of West Coast-based photographers started a discussion list on the Web (, that has now grown to over 900 contributors. It has brought into focus the importance of photographers' ownership of their images. Among the groups rallying to the cause is the National Press Photographers Association that in July issued a special bulletin to its members, pointing out the importance of not giving up their images.

Some things happening in the industry bear watching. In the past year, two important photo agencies, Sygma and Liaison have been acquired by major multimedia companies, Corbis and Getty. The upside is that these megacorporations can pour enormous amounts of money into agencies that were floundering. The Paris home offices of Sygma and Gamma have been on life support for the past year. The problem is that the direction the new owners want to take these agencies in seems unclear. In the case of Liaison, for example, after Getty bought the agency, a lot of the major revenue producers--stock photography for instance--were redirected to other agencies, such as Tony Stone. This meant that Liaison stock photographers were suddenly merged into other bigger stock agencies, where their work was lost in the crowd of stock photographers. The most troubling aspect of these acquisitions is that for the agency owners-- traditionally "mom and pop" operations--there was no longer a clear objective for sales, based on daily input from photographers around the world. Instead, "sales quotas" were imposed, based primarily on existing libraries. The impact on creating new journalism under such a system can be very negative.

What can be done about it? The first thing I would suggest is that these agencies begin with a massive program of reeducation, starting with top management and continuing down through the editors, researchers, and photographers. What will the market strategy be in the coming decade? Will it be to continually sell archives that grow older with every day, or will new creative photojournalism be commissioned? I believe that if the new "total visual journalism" the Platypus idea represents is embraced, there is a bright new future for photojournalism.

The Digital Journalist will be here on our next anniversary, watching to see what direction the industry takes.

Dirck Halstead


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