Needed: Real-Time Media Auction System

Time frugal cover.png A fierce and fascinating debate has broken out over the cover photo on Time magazine’s April 27 print edition. Time paid a pittance for the picture — at least a pittance next to what big magazines normally pay for cover art — and that’s 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 a better marketplace than the ones available today. More on that below, but first some background:

The marketplace for photography in an Internet era has changed irrevocably. In 2006 I argued that the professional who will feel the pain most in the short run are the folks who shoot spot-news pictures. I said, in part:

They can’t possibly compete in the media-sphere of the future. We’re entering a world of ubiquitous media creation and access. When the tools of creation and access are so profoundly democratized, and when updated business models connect the best creators with potential customers, many if not most of the pros will fight a losing battle to save their careers.

This was bad news for them, I acknowledged, but not for the rest of us — because someone with a camera (probably part of a phone) almost always would be in a position to capture relevant still photos and/or, increasingly, videos of newsworthy events. We’d have more valuable pictures, not less, and production values would take second place to authenticity and timeliness.

I also said that staff feature photographers were in less trouble. The Time cover suggests I was premature in that assessement, though I do believe that great artists would always have a market for their work.

The rub, as anyone who spends any serious time on Flickr already knows, is that 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, a photo for which he said he was paid $30, according to this conversation thread on the Model Mayhem photo community site, which includes some strenuous objections from pro photographers.

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 low price he was asking.

Just as some people gladly take the New York Times’ 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 money 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.

The sites currently promoting citizen journalists’ work don’t offer anything of this sort, as far as I can tell. This isn’t to say I don’t like those sites, which include NowPublic and Demotix, because I like them a great deal. But someone needs to go further.

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 journalist, 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 than later.

4 thoughts on “Needed: Real-Time Media Auction System”

  1. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your interesting post. Citizen Testimony (probably not ‘journalism’ as we hear quite a lot, when we talk about images) is going really big as we talk, and you’re a very good inspiration for us since a few years now.

    My name is Matthieu Stefani, I am one of cofounders, we have created our agency in France back in 2007 with AFP (Agence France Press, owns 34%), based on our 2 years experience on Citizen Tesimonies with Scooplive our previous project. We work with a few of the largest French Media houses as partners, and are growing very fast in the past months.

    The original project was born in 2005 under the brand and we have launched this auction system back in 2006! I can tell you that even for the best pictures and videos, media houses weren’t keen to come on an “editor’s ebay like”.
    It was quite dispointing for us, but it seems that our clients like good old ‘phone bidding system’, and when it’s the ones who have the biggest money… it’s a big problem for the document price, that are sold way under the real value.

    It might be worth trying again soon, but most of our docs can be sold on a non exclusive basis and for the ones that should be exclusive, as good professionnals (or trying our best), we know who to talk to and how to create the value around.
    I’m not sure you’ve heard about us before, we should will focus more on the international market now… we’re getting there with EditorsWeblog here and here
    I’d be very happy to talk anytime you have time for a ‘talk over beers’, I’ve heard it’s the new fashion.

  2. Dan,
    Demotix works just like an auction, albeit a private one. When we have time-sensitive, breaking news story, we go directly to multiple clients and and broker the best deal we can for the contributor. That’s for exclusives.

    For non-exclusives, we run on industry-standard rates. There’s no haggling – our street reporters get the same as any ‘pro’. The big issue we see, as new entrants into the picture space, is how spectacularly diverse global practices are. Some outfits self-bill, others run on subscriptions, there’s no universal system to understand who’s using what, and all the agencies function with different tech.

    As a friend of ours put it – the picture industry is a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. It drives everyone insane, and it’s ripe for rationalising.

  3. Great idea and I have to agree the current model won’t last for long. As the internet matures and people get over the thrill of seeing their name on a website then news organisations are going to have to get most realistic in their policies.
    I also agree that while Nowpublic and Demotix are great ideas they can’t continue indefinitely in their current form. Nowpublic’s lack of editorial control is turning the site into a platform for right wing nuts and conspiracy theorists. When the front page story is some crazy piece about FEMA setting up concentration camps in America using German troops then you know the writing is on the wall.
    On the other hand Demotix is quite happy to suggest people go out on life threatening assignments without even the faintest guarantees they even get paid. I got an email from them suggesting stories which included Greece’s  s@x trade, which is controlled by crime syndicates to a large extent. A photographer taking on such a task would be exposing themselves to all kinds of possible dangers.

  4. Matt, thanks for letting me know about your project. It’s another fascinating effort in this field.
    Tim, while I admire what Demotix is doing (and have since that meeting in London a while back), I don’t follow the logic that you’re like a private auction. You are brokers, which is not at all the same thing.
    Craig, I also tend to think that the stories involving danger are best left to people who are being paid to take risks. But we’d not hear about a lot of things we do hear about if they were the only ones exposing wrongdoing.

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