11.7 Reward Systems

A fierce and fascinating debate broke out over the cover photo on Time magazine’s April 27, 2009, print edition. Time paid a pittance for the picture of a glass jar semi-filled with coins, for a story on Americans’ newly frugal ways in the wake of the financial meltdown. The amount was much less than what big magazines normally pay for cover art, and that made a lot of professional photographers furious.

They should get over it. But they and their gifted-amateur and part-timer peers—especially the ones capturing breaking news events—should start agitating for some better marketplaces than the ones available today. As I noted in Chapter 4, I’m not a fan of a system that tells people they should be contributing their work to profitable corporations for nothing more than a pat on the back.

The freelance system of the past was inefficient. If you had a great picture, your options were limited. But as the Time photo suggests, the marketplace in the Internet era has changed irrevocably. Someone with a camera (probably part of a phone) almost always will be in a position to capture relevant still photos and/or, increasingly, videos of newsworthy events. We’ll have more valuable pictures, not less, and production values will take second place to authenticity and timeliness.

This is also becoming more and more the case for what journalists call “feature photography.” As anyone who spends any serious time on Flickr already knows, amateur photographers are doing incredible work. Few of them can match the consistent quality of what the pros do, but they don’t have to. Every one of us is capable of capturing one supremely memorable image. Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it on Flickr or other photo sites, including the stock-photos service where Robert Lam listed the picture that ended up on Time’s cover. According to a conversation thread on the Model Mayhem photo community site, which includes some strenuous objections from pro photographers, Time paid Lam $30 for the photo.

It does strike me as absurd that a huge magazine with huge circulation can get an image like Lam’s for so little money. But that was his choice, and it was Time’s choice to take advantage of the low price he was asking.

Just as some people gladly take the New York Times’s absurdly low pay when their freelance articles make it into the paper’s news and op-ed pages, some photographers gladly sell their work for peanuts to Time. They have their own reasons, which can range from getting valuable exposure—so they can (try to) charge more for subsequent work—to not needing the higher rates that staffers and more famous people can demand.

This gets trickier, it seems to me, when it comes to breaking news, where news organizations derive enormous benefits from having the right image or video at the right time, and too frequently get it for less than peanuts. Indeed, practically every news organization now invites its audience to submit pictures and videos, in return for which the submitters typically get zip.

Which is why we need a more robust marketplace than any I’ve seen so far—namely, a real-time auction system.

How would a real-time auction system work? The flow, I’d imagine, would go like this: Photographer captures breaking news event on video or audio, and posts the work to the auction site. Potential buyers, especially media companies, get to see watermarked thumbnails and then start bidding. A time limit is enforced in each case. The winning bid goes to the photographer, minus a cut to the auction service.

The premium, then, would be on timeliness and authenticity. One or two images/videos would be likely to command relatively high prices, and everything else would be worth considerably less.

Eventually, someone will do this kind of business—which could also be useful for eyewitness text accounts of events. For the sake of the citizen journalists who are not getting what they deserve for their work, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

For print, an auction system is also needed, but the timeliness is less critical. A British startup is planning, as I write this, to launch a service called “Newsrupt,” aimed more at editors than reporters. I hope it’s the first of many such ventures.

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