Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Crisis in Editorial Photography

By the square inch, photography is one of the most cost effective and exciting ways to generate content. Run an incredible image full bleed and double truck with some minimal overlaying text and you have two awesome pages. It plays to the strength of the medium and is the future of magazines.

And yet, we have arrived at a place in the business where publications would pay a photographer about $400 for the day to make that incredible two page spread while charging well above $100,000 for advertising to run on those same two pieces of paper.

How did we get here? Let's rip the band aid off of that sore subject and look at what lies underneath.

The industry-wide business pressures in the periodical publishing industry over the past decade have had a massive impact on the business of editorial photography, to the extent that it has been impossible for years now to make a decent living at it.

In my last post I examined how the publishing industry, with some exceptions, came to rely almost entirely on advertising for revenue, and how that is bringing the entire industry down. If you haven't read that, it would be good to read it here before continuing. Those pressures have everything to do with where photography as a business is today.

The popping of the tech bubble in 2001 brought the party in editorial to an end. Into and through the late 90's it was standard to commission a story to one photographer who would then fly all over the country shooting for a piece. It was a good time to live just about anywhere and have an agent in NYC or LA who could keep you in work.

That changed after the bubble burst when massive short term budget cuts came through the publishing world. Publications generally report earnings quarterly, which means they need short term results. Cost cutting is the fastest way to increase revenue. You simply stop money from going out. It was easy to cut photography costs first because photographers were not on staff and the spending reduction showed up immediately in the revenue stream.

Large publishing companies then revised their boilerplate photo contracts, reducing their day rates and increasing their standard copyright ownership. On every job, photographers wanting better terms were forced to push back, negotiating higher rates and redacting parts of the contract that they didn't agree with. Eventually many wore down and either gave in or gave up on editorial photography as a significant source of revenue.

Previously it had been possible to create a career in editorial photography. There was a class of photographers who could maintain a studio, feed a family and have a career based almost entirely on editorial clients. Increasing economic pressure since 2001 has all but eliminated this group.

Apart from straight photojournalism, editorial assignments have largely become a means of showcasing one's work to a publication's advertisers. There is so little money to be made shooting editorial that many photographers see it merely as a free way of getting a large number of publicity cards sent out under the brand name of a publication.

Rob Haggart has posted a moving letter from a young photographer who details his experiences and failures in the New York City photo industry here. Rob concludes with this:
The industry is shrinking right now so getting in on the ground floor has got to be nearly impossible. The pros fight over the scraps now. Is there a path anymore where you can grow and make mistakes and still make a living?
Breaking in right now might be nearly impossible. But there has to be more than just scraps for the future of the industry. Or we are going to have to make more. There are a lot of talented people available for the task. There is a large audience, and there is significant demand.

What we need are content models that minimize or avoid advertising entirely while returning a profit. We need publications that target a narrow and deep demographic while charging enough to operate independently. New tools and new technology are going to make this possible. More thoughts on that to come soon.

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