Through new distribution platforms, multimedia formats and teamwork, today's photojournalists are trying to resurrect a moribund industry.
BREAKING NEWS — Photojournalism, the use of images to tell stories and convey information about topical events, from the Crimean War to this year's health-care reform debate, has died following a long and gradual illness.
The profession was approximately 150 years old.
The cause of photojournalism's passing was not immediately clear at press time. However, several industry sources have cited a combination of the rise of the internet, the commoditization of photography by news agencies and so-called "citizen journalists" as the most likely culprits. Foul play, say some photographers, has not yet been ruled out.
Photojournalism is survived by the cell-phone camera, Twitter.com and the blogosphere.
Talk to any remaining photographers today who still refer to themselves as photojournalists and you will likely hear a similar version of the obit above, perhaps with several more causes of "death" listed. These dark assessments are hardly new. The demise of photojournalism has been predicted and declared for decades with the advent of every new technological advance or news photo magazine closure.
By now, the list of cascading ills is familiar: a decline in print advertising; massive layoffs at photography departments; the shuttering of newspapers and magazines; the ease of transmission via the web; plummeting prices charged for usage; the small learning curve for new digital cameras; an explosion in competition; the consolidation of news agencies; the public's insatiable appetite for celebrity images instead of "hard news," and so on. Toss in the worst recession in 70 years, and it becomes easy to see the industry as a slow-motion funeral procession.
"I want to try to stay positive, but the outlook is pretty darned bleak, with magazines thinner than coupon pamphlets," says Vincent Laforet, a photojournalist for the last 19 years who has recently moved to Los Angeles to break into the video production and moviemaking business.
"Rates are so low, I can't cover my costs," he says. "It was much better in the 1970s and '80s with money from the resales of images. I still make most of my living with still photography, but it's my commercial work that's keeping me alive."
Of course, the only truly mortal aspect of photojournalism is the outdated business structure sagging around it. When cover images in Time magazine can be purchased for $36, it's time for a change.
Photojournalism itself obviously will always survive as long as there are cameras and people who want to tell a story. The main existential questions are: What will take the place of the old, print-oriented photojournalism model? Will still images be usurped by video and other multimedia platforms? Will anyone make any money at it?
The answers are still evolving and will not be easy to determine, says Scott Mc Kiernan, an award-winning photographer and founder of independent photo agency Zuma Press in San Clemente, Calif. "Everyone wants the one pill that will change everything," he says. "A lot of people come across trendy stuff and think, ‘This is the answer.' But no one [medium] will take over."
"I've been in this business for 40 years, and it's just a different work environment," says Cole Porter, former photography director at The Seattle Times and now senior editorial adviser for Getty Images. "The problem is with distribution. Pictures have become very much a commodity."
Seattle-based photographer Dan Lamont says the result is a "classic problem of supply and demand. The value of the work is diminished demonstrably. We're glutted with content and assignment work, so images are not worth what they once were."
"We've created a very nasty situation, and I think it's permanent," says J.P. Pappis, founder of Polaris Images in New York City. "We're not going back to what it was in the '80s and '90s. It's a matter of adapting."
Mc Kiernan also says it's time to add a little perspective to the doom and gloom about the industry.
"Here's a big secret: It's never been good out there," he says. Even in Magnum's heyday after the Second World War, "there were only 30 photographers, with maybe 20 people doing 95 percent of the work." At some agencies today, he adds, "there are 300 photographers, and another 50,000 they're competing with."
The "invasion" of citizen journalism, Pappis says, has the potential to take away the few paying photojournalism markets that are left. "Just watch CNN," he says. "They say, ‘Send us your pictures,' and people send them in for free. They're happy just to have their name on the screen."
But others say this short-term problem will be a positive boost, eventually. "Flickr and cell shots will be ubiquitous, but they will stay at the bottom of the pyramid," Lamont says. "We're the ones who have to raise the bar. Competition just puts the spurs back into our sides."
"I don't see citizen journalism as supplanting journalism, but rather augmenting it," agrees Miami Beach-based Brian Smith, president of the San Francisco-based Editorial Photographers (EP) photojournalism organization. "I know photographers who bemoan the fact that cell-phone pictures of plane crashes are freely available to media outlets. My advice would be not to see covering plane crashes as a business model."
New business models
Though some disagree on the means, the consensus among most photojournalists is that the industry is a dinosaur that must reinvent itself in light of the irrevocable paradigm shift toward online content.
"The best solution to this mess — and it's a terminal mess, unfortunately — is to change the business model," says world-renowned photojournalist Dirck Halstead, a UPI bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War and a former White House correspondent for Time magazine. "We're entering Stage II, and it's going to be web-based.
The huge hurdle we still have to jump over is the reluctance of advertisers to fund online publications the way they used to fund print magazines. Once that new model is established, don't bother looking toward the traditional [print audience], because they're gone."Another major psychological barrier to overcome is the deflation of the value of photographs, Mc Kiernan says.
"The formula that has been stamped in the back of everyone's heads is that one photo always equals $250," he explains. "No cars, furniture or paintings have that pricing structure."
These days, with both good and bad photos flooding the market, photojournalists have to learn to live with lower prices for photos and should embrace the internet's ability to compensate by vastly increasing their distribution. "You can't survive selling one photo for a penny," Mc Kiernan says. "But what if a million people buy it?"
With many newspapers and magazines going out of business, some photojournalists have created their own publications to provide a showcase for in-depth photo essays. Back in 1997, when the internet was still relatively young, Halstead saw the writing on the wall and launched The Digital Journalist, an online magazine covering the visual journalism industry. At Zuma, Mc Kiernan created both the quarterly print magazine DOUBLEtruck and the online site zReportage.com in 2004 to feature high-end, investigative photojournalist pieces.
In a similar vein, Brian Storm, a former multimedia executive at MSNBC.com and Corbis, created MediaStorm.com, a web distribution vehicle for photojournalism. Launched in 2005, MediaStorm is a production studio that showcases what Storm calls "cinematic narratives for distribution across a variety of platforms," including animation, audio, video and still photography.
The goal of the MediaStorm platform, Storm says, is to promote high-quality storytelling that rises above the din of amateur photos. Most of the revenues are generated by producing still and video content for various corporate clients and organizations, and also from licensing content to markets across several formats, including TV, the internet and mobile devices. Other funding comes from advertising, sponsorships, workshops and sales of stories on DVD.
"Value will come from quality coverage," Storm says. "The business model is emerging, and top-tier publications will pay higher fees as competition heats up."
Priming the pump
Some, however, say that relying solely on web clicks will not be enough to shock the industry back to life. Media outlets, Smith says, need to think like Rupert Murdoch, who is planning to charge readers to view content on his News Corp.-owned sites."The magazines and newspapers that will exist in five to 10 years are the ones that can make their web editions profitable by not giving away the store," Smith says.
"The survival of photojournalism hinges on both photographers and publications charging fairly based on the value of their work."
The free-online-access model was a crucial error by the newspaper business, Halstead says. "Now they're panicking more than we are," he says. "The advertising business is in the toilet — both in print and online. It's at less than 10 percent of what it was."
Strength of content is no longer enough to justify "giving away the crown jewels," Halstead says. "It's essential that we ask them to please put up a wall for their content. Rates are going to have to come up, but only if the value to the advertiser is clear."
The Wall Street Journal, Halstead adds, is one of the few newspapers that never posted its articles online for free and, as a result, is doing relatively well by providing "content that you can't get anywhere else." USA Today is also planning a switch to a $10-per-month format for an e-edition of its own.
Halstead also says it's time for some direct action from the journalism-oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Poynter Institute. "They spend money fostering training and underwriting educational programs," he says.
"But what they should be spending money on is how do we resuscitate this industry."
Several NGOs, such as the Smithsonian Institution and AARP, are in a position to help out more with the production of content — to create a "greenhouse" to promote new outlets and to help create viable markets for news photography, Halstead says.
"It's not a matter of retraining photojournalists," he adds. "We need someone to give 'em a check! It's going to take a Rockefeller to start priming the pump."
Despite the generally bleak outlook in the industry, the educators of tomorrow's photojournalists say interest in the field is stronger than ever. What is changing, however, is the way the craft is being taught.
With the arrival of Apple's Final Cut Pro software and the HD capabilities of cameras such as the Canon 5D Mark II, "video is becoming the de facto media," Lamont says.
Paul Myers, a photojournalist and faculty member at the Brooks Institute's visual journalism program in Santa Barbara, Calif., says that six years ago, when he first arrived at the school, the ratio of classes was about 4:1 in favor of still photography. Today, three curriculum changes later, that ratio has flipped in favor of video production.
"Student expectations about photojournalism have changed," Myers says. "We still teach students to look for the single image, but the way people edit is changing, too. Instead of one definitive image, they are asked to get 20 images."
Aesthetics are also playing a much larger role in photo essays, Myers adds. "Students today have a higher awareness of beautiful compositions and focus less on just the documentation of what they are witnessing," he says. "Their visual literacy has been informed by the aesthetics of TV and advertising."
Getty's Porter says he fears that the emphasis on beauty will lead to a diminished visceral impact in news images.
"I almost worry that photojournalism will become just another part of a bigger package based on page design classes, where photographs are more decoration than journalism," he says. "You look at certain websites and see that pictures themselves play a minor role."
Susan Bloom, director of visual journalism at Brooks, says students need a much broader set of skills these days, including multimedia storytelling, HTML, web design and postproduction, but adds that still photography is still the dominant medium — or, at least, still photos complemented by audio.
"Audio helps add depth to stories," she says. "A lot of newspapers are backing away from video, since it takes up so much space [data-wise] when you're streaming it."
"Audio is often used to emotionally bring you into the story," Myers says. "But some photographers get nervous about that; they don't want to bring emotion into it."
Mc Kiernan also cautions that the multi-media trend will come at the expense of technique. "How is adding a dissolve and music any more compelling than just the images?" he asks. "I love audio, but I don't understand this obsession with it. I'm also not convinced that video is a great market. Are they getting multiple sales? Is it going to matter a week, a month or a year later?"
Using audio and video tools can help you stand out from the crowd, but there is no substitute for an entrepreneurial spirit, especially in an era of intense competition.
"To give this market perspective, there are as many photographers who are laid off now as there were in agencies six years ago," Mc Kiernan says. Still, he adds, "there will be lots of photographers who are not great but who will do well if they market themselves."
Since magazines are no longer knocking on photojournalists' doors these days, many are running their operations like a serious business. "We push business a lot in our classes," Myers says. "We tell students that photography is maybe 10 percent of what you do during the course of a typical day. You have to use the web to generate your own media and buzz about your product."
If they aren't doing so already, most photojournalists will have to supplement their incomes with corporate work, covering weddings, teaching or taking a second job. "If you're only doing photojournalism, you're just counting your days," Myers says.
"There's a romantic notion that photojournalists just cover wars and paddle down the Congo, and that most do it for fun," Lamont says. "But young photojournalists will really have to go to work to make money."
First and foremost, Lamont says, is to "develop a business plan and stick to it." The Small Business Administration (sba.gov), he says, "just drips with free stuff" about financing your business and setting up credit.
He also suggests finding a niche to cover — say, motorcycling or green energy — and work on that topic via a diverse array of distribution channels, including still, video, audio, text, infographics, stop-motion and panorama. When he first started, for example, Lamont became known for covering the environment, land use and human culture.
"Try to choose projects that are going to be personal, not something where you're shooting side by side with 20 others," Pappis says. "There are lots of great stories right in our own backyards."
"A freelancer in any line of business should have a diverse business model," Storm says. For example, photographer Jonathan Torgovnik's "Intended Consequences" project, about the children of the Rwandan genocide, was recently distributed in news magazines, as a book, as a physical exhibit and online via MediaStorm. "Also, he set up [Foundation Rwanda] to raise money to put the kids through secondary school," Storm adds.
Lamont also recommends building a contact list by joining a related organization, such as the American Society of Media Photographers or the National Press Photographers Association. Online social network sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr (see related story, page 44) are "great ways to align with affinity groups and get people interested in your business," he says.
A team effort?
Taking control of one's work is admirable, but even the best photojournalists can hit a wall. That's when it's best to start leaning on others for support — something that doesn't come naturally to old newshounds.
Since arriving in Los Angeles this year, Vincent Laforet says he has been impressed by companies that are building huge networks for filmmakers — a community spirit he never experienced on the photography side.
"Photojournalists have never really stuck together," he says. "I'm able to make a lot more contacts in the film and video business."
Some of the younger photojournalists, however, are starting to combine specialties and work together in the same office, the same way that lawyers, dentists and doctors often do to scale costs, Lamont says. Basically, the partnership is set up like a small production company, which allows the photojournalists, reporters and videographers to be responsible for their own support.
"You can't do everything well, or you'd never get out to take a picture," he says. "So I tell people to pick three skills they are most excited about. In my case, it's still photography, audio and writing. For others it may be software or video."
Halstead sees a flaw in the doctor/dentist-office model: "People need to have their teeth pulled," he says. "They don't need pictures. All of the things photographers are doing to market themselves are based on production, but no one's interested in hiring them."
Pappis also points out that already-existing agencies, such as Polaris, are there to help photographers generate visibility and sales, and to provide field support. "I'm not sure if agencies that are all photographers and no editors are workable," he says.
Agencies, Pappis says, are becoming more important than ever as usage fees plummet. "Nobody is getting rich out there," he notes, "but we can help sell photos 10 or 20 times and reach markets internationally."
There will be blood
No one is saying the changes in the industry are going to be easy. As with all businesses in this economy, there will be a difficult shakeout period ahead for photojournalists.
"The reality is that there are a lot of people who should not be in this market," Lamont says. "Many don't have the inclination to do the business side well. Once this disruption ends, it will be a leaner profession."
Economics may turn photojournalism into a niche rather than a full-fledged industry. "In the next 10 years, it won't get any rosier," Pappis says. "The field will only get narrower. There will be the occasional great story, but, as a whole, the output will be poorer.
"Photojournalism has always been a profession that takes a particular dedication," he adds. "It's a calling, like becoming a monk. These people have to do it until they die."
Others are more excited than concerned about the future. "Only the strongest will survive," Storm says. "But those who advance their abilities to meet the increased demand for quality and context will find success."
"There's no question that the industry has changed," says Porter, "but the spirit and purpose of photojournalism is alive and heal-thy."