Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In 2009 the deep dive really begins

In 2009 the full brunt of our economic collapse is going to come to bear on the publishing world. Like a whale diving deep the economy is going down, down, down. Only the strongest will be able to hang on. The resulting pressure is going to eliminate the weak and the unnecessary. Even if the recession started to abate immediately, there will be no money for venture publishing for a long time. Either a publication is going to survive on its own merits, or it is not going to make it. Predicting anything is tempting fate, but here goes anyway-- my predictions for 2009.

1. The New York Times starts to charge for online access as the only means of making money available to it. Or it is bought up and folded into a Bloomburg-like empire, or goes non-profit.

2. Half of all local papers file for chapter 11 or go bankrupt. There will be enough national papers afloat to keep a close eye on the Federal Government. The loss of local papers with their watchdog functions will result in an increase in political corruption on a state and local level. There will be almost no independent small town papers left. The survivors will be swept up into conglomerate publications modeled after ClearChannel, the ubiquitous radio programming company.

3. At least 30% of all magazines fold while magazines like People and the Economist will thrive. Why? Because they have dedicated and loyal readers and they do an enormous amount to make sure that the readers get content that keeps them happy. They also charge a lot for subscriptions. In other words, they provide content that is worth the price and is profitable as a commodity. Their competitors who are making all their money on advertising and are using cheap subscriptions to bump up their rate base won't be able to cover their production costs. Without advertising, they have nothing. Not even readers. The survivors win doubly because when the market starts to return, whenever that might be, demand for ad space will increase with fewer publications to advertise in, increasing rates and profitability beyond where they were before the recession.

4. The individual creative becomes more valuable. There is no more efficient content producer than an experienced photographer who is capable and willing to work on her or his own. If they charge what they are worth and generate exciting and powerful images, they are still far cheaper than the complete entourage that comes with some celebrity shooters.

5. Good original photography comes back as good for business. Why? Because it is worth it. Not long ago I had a conversation about fashion and beauty work with a Lucie Award winning photographer. He had just been paid $400.00 for a one-day editorial shoot. The retouching budget on the spreads was over $4000.00. As he put it, "Any trained monkey can take a picture these days. It's the retouching that makes the work." That will change some as budgets get smaller and smaller. Paying photographers more while cutting down on the retouching is a smart move. Let's start making images in-camera again. It's more cost and time effective, not to mention more creative as well.

6. Good retouching gets cheaper. It has been very hard to find good retouchers. People with deep experience in printing, camera work, and photoshop, as well as in working with photographers, agencies and publications are hard to create. It takes an apprenticeship that can't be learned in school. For a long time, when I was asked to recommend retouchers, it was hard because everyone I knew who I thought was really good had as much work as they could handle or was on staff somewhere. That all changes with the massive waves of layoffs that have gone through New York's publishing world.

7. Content will become a commodity again. It cannot be produced and distributed entirely for free.

8. Social media changes the basic advertising model. As companies suffer financially, they will need cheaper ways to advertise. Social media is the answer. However, it concurrently requires something new from advertisers. Previously, advertising sought to influence, manipulate and modify the potential buyer. This was a one-way exchange. Within social media circles the audience can talk back--quickly and en masse--forcing a movement away from audience manipulation towards authentic communication between advertiser and market. This is also good for capitalism and the health of the markets in general as social media tend to increase transparency and feedback with so many voices involved in the exchange.

9. Photojournalism, and to some degree journalism in general, adopts a non-profit business model, much like arts and humanitarian organizations have. With this comes an increased exploration of the aesthetics of journalism and more public awareness of how linked our visual forms of news are to the arts.

10. I leave this one blank for the completely unexpected thing that will happen by mid-year, shifting the cultural landscape again. Chaos begets chaos, at least for a time.

See you back here in 2010. It's gonna be a wild ride.


Ida C. Benedetto said...

I'm interested in your predictions for changing ratios of pay for taking photographs and retouching them. It's an uplifting idea, especially given the intense doom and gloom prevalent among photographers scrambling for new business models. What are you basing this prediction on?

Aric Mayer said...

This prediction may be part fantasy on my part, but here is my reasoning for it.

For one, it is absurd to have retouchers making as much as 10 times what the photographers are making when working on the same images.

Second, the publishing industry has priced editorial photography down to the point where if you are making the established day rates for a publication, it is not possible to make a living shooting editorial work.

Given the fact that photographs make up half or more of the magazine, there has to be a more balanced approach to commissioning and creating the work.

The only reason many photographers do editorial is to get exposure to the ad clients who also read the magazines. I think that as advertising continues to drop off, magazines are going to go under or they are going to raise their subscription and newsstand rates and start paying very close attention to exactly what the audience wants. To do this the publications are going to have to cultivate photography in a different way.

Right now we generally have advertising aesthetics dominating the entire industry. Photographers all want to be ad shooters because it has been the only way to make a living. We need a viable editorial model that can support itself. And most importantly magazines need that model too.

And I'm afraid that the doom and gloom is only going to get worse. While I think we will come through to something that is better, getting there is going to be extremely painful.

Ida C. Benedetto said...

The amount retouchers get paid is pretty amazing.

Given the trends you describe, I can certainly see how the tendencies encouraged by the current business models might result is so little quality editorial work that things will swing back. I'm hopeful, too. Given the state of the magazine industry right now, and all the spasms that online formats are going through to become economically viable we are probably going to continue to see rough times... I'm looking forward to see how your predictions play out.