What's a picture worth? The digital disruption of photojournalism

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Jasper Jackson, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, Consumer Media, Mobile, Newspapers

The spread of cameraphones and the ability for anyone to publish an image instantly online is putting intense pressure on a key part of the media ecosystem: professional press photography. Three stories last week underlined the change. 

First was the coverage of the helicopter crash in Vauxhall, London, where the first images to make it on to TV screens and news websites were provided by passersby tweeting within seconds of the event. The coverage was more immediate than it ever would have been in the past, though use of the images raised some interesting copyright issues

The second was the application for liquidation by the world's biggest celebrity paparazzi agency Big Pictures, amid allegations of unpaid contributor fees.

The agency's founder, Darryn Lyons, put the problem quite simply to Australia's Sun Herald last year: "Papers and magazines can so easily get hold of pictures, which celebrities are openly tweeting or posting on Facebook and Instagram of themselves, and papers are generally spending less and less money on editorial and photos as the media industry recession continues to grip."

The third was a judge's ruling that Agence France-Presse and The Washington Post had infringed a photographer's copyright by republishing and selling images he pposted to Twitter of the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.

So how much is a picture worth these days?

Those stories are examples of how the democratisation of technology has made it far easier for anyone to take a photograph and get it into the hands of a publisher within minutes. 

And from my own experience I know it doesn't take much skill with a camera to get published. During the G20 protests in London in 2009, a picture I took of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson moments after he was assaulted by a member of the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group was used by most of the UK's national papers.

I had no idea Tomlinson had even been hit, let alone that he would later die of his injuries. I was just, like those tweeting from the scene in Vauxhall, in the right place at the right time.

Value and competiton

Stephen Sidlo is picture editor at Demotix, one of a new breed of news agencies operating a distributed network of professional/amateur contributors.

He says the rise of smartphones and portable digital cameras means media organisations now compete more fiercely to get the best images up fast. However, that has had an impact on the quality of the images used. 

"For news organisations, the need to be first can prioritize over quality. The rise of news apps where you can submit content direct from your phone, or from Facebook, has given rise to competition over quality.

"It is not to say the news organisations disregard quality, the image has to have context, be clearly seen and powerful enough to be re-used."

But this kind of citizen journalism threatens to completely cut out the traditional picture agencies. 

Rick Hewett, managing director of the London Media Press Agency says the increasing availability of photos provided by amateurs is heaping pressure on picture agencies.  

He tells TheMediaBriefing: "It is just so many more people out there filing pictures and with the rise of citizen journbalism, papers can use that material"

"The smaller agencies, the NAPA (National Association of Press Agencies) members, lots of them are finding it incredibly difficult.  I honestly don’t know if there will be many around in five years’ time."

Even when agencies can make themselves a conduit for amateur images to reach the media, the returns are minimal. 

One of the agency's photographers arrived at the scene of the helicopter crash and found a bystander who had taken a photo, who was persuaded to provide the image of the incident to the agency.

"We put a picture from the helicopter crash out all round (making it available online for picture editors to choose to print for a set fee), it made very prominently in the front page of a national newspaper.

"The fee for that they offered to pay was £150 for it. We have to pay for the photographer's day, plus split the fee 60-40 with the person who took the photo. We're left with £40 quid."

Downward pressure on rates

Hewett says those fees have also not kept pace with inflation in recent years, effectively meaning photographers are getting paid less for the same image. 

In some cases, newspapers under pressure to reduce costs are also restructuring the set of rates they pay.

In December, The Telegraph informed contributors it was changing its rates from the start of this year. Matthew Bell, chairman of NAPA, says many agencies see this as an attempt to cut what they earn still further. Association members are to decide this week whether to challenge the changes en masse. The Telegraph was unable to comment.

John Harris, CEO of the picture library Report Digital, blames much of the downward pressure on picture rates on the rise of huge aggregators such as Getty Images.

He tells TheMediaBriefing: "If you look at the underlying economy of it, with something like Getty that’s rated by ratings agencies, they are judged on market share and that’s how they take on debt.

"How do you get market share? You drop the price. They’ve become this recipient of endless borrowing on the basis of being a monopoly. Are publishers going to say no we don’t want cheaper and cheaper photos? No-one hand washes the other!"

But it's not just individual image rates that are being cut - it's also the number of shifts available.

Bell says: "Maybe a few years ago, the Daily Mail may have said we need to have six photographers on the ground at something like the helicopter crash. Now they might send one or two, but they’ll also take the view that they are going to be inundated for pics on that story from photographers working on their own and citizen journalists."

The availability of more photographs is on the surface a very good thing for newspaper picture desks, offering more comprehensive coverage and reducing costs, especially if witnesses provide pictures for free. 

But Harris points out there is a downside: "With so many images, many are never going to look beyond the first few dozen pages. We have this ironic, almost paradoxical situation of vast amounts of content with little differentiation - researchers are left to wade through an ocean of mediocrity"

Long-term, the challenge to the viability of professional news photography threatens to completely wipe out many agencies, and drastically reduce the professionalism of photojournalism.

It remains to be seen whether a wider pool of amateurs and semi-professionals will fill that gap.  

Lead image via Flickr curtousey of The Wolf

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