Agencies as publishers: a new approach to photojournalism

October 28, 2011 · by David Campbell · media economy, photography

Should some photo agencies become publishers and broadcasters?

Last week I concluded the post on the issue’s surrounding Magnum’s archive of Libyan Secret Service pictures with the view that agencies miss an opportunity when they don’t provide the most comprehensive context of their stories in conjunction with their images.

The challenges of the media economy mean that its going to be increasingly difficult for agencies to be just content providers and distributors for others in the media. Stephen Mayes, for example, argued in a lecture to the MA International Multimedia Journalism in Beijing earlier this year that agencies need to rethink their function and are “finished” if they stick the old ways of doing things, which means just selling photographs or photographers’ time. Stephen’s lecture was wide-ranging, thoughtful and revealing, but I won’t engage here much of what he said. There is, though, one thing in particular that stuck with me.

He suggested that the boutique, documentary agencies, those most associated with photojournalism – Contact Press Images, Magnum, Noor, Panos Pictures, VII, among others – offer something distinctive and important. They provide what Stephen called a particular kind of journalism that goes beyond description to embody an approach to, and concern with, the world.

That being the case these agencies should be thinking in terms of being publishers and broadcasters, actually creating new and substantive content on the issues their photographers are covering, and making that content available both through their own channels as well as other media outlets.

My thinking on this further prompted last week when I received an email from Panos Pictures, promoting Robin Hammond’s “Tuvalu Sunset” and Joceyln Carlin’s “Global Warming’s Front Line”. But it went beyond that to something interesting and important – it provided me with news I was previously unaware of. I had no idea the situation in Tuvalu warranted a state of emergency prompting a response from both the Red Cross and Oceanic governments. It achieved, therefore, exactly what a news article or television segment generally does.

Agencies have long provided short text introductions and detailed captions for their images online, but I don’t think its unfair to say that information has generally been secondary to the photographs and, now, multimedia, and that it falls some way short of detailed context.

Why not make it a priority and provide even more information and context, that could then be published on an agencies’ site as an article/report as well as sold to other media outlets? People could go to agencies for substantive content on issues they care about, and agencies could have an output more valuable than a few photographs.

I don’t doubt there would be many hurdles for such a suggestion, not least the research and resources needed to make it real. But given that we regularly (and rightly) bemoan the lack of important international stories in the mainstream media, why not leverage the skills of those photojournalists who are actually reporting to make something more substantial regularly available?

21 Responses to “Agencies as publishers: a new approach to photojournalism”

  1. David one thing you don’t mention is if you are suggesting that these agencies charge a fee for viewing this content that they would publish or broadcast? As you know, this is something I’m very keen on and selling direct to an audience rather than through a distributing third party seems to me to be the future for individuals and agencies alike.

    For me the future is 3 pronged

    1. Build your OWN community/followers/audience
    2. Micro Payment System of charging
    3. Global Market Place

    Nick.

    • Nick, as per conversation on your film and Distrify at sevensevenine, I’m in broad agreement with you. If an agency embraced the idea of being a publisher to the full extent I am trying to articulate here, then it would neither be sensible nor sustainable to give all content away gratis. Properly understood (and I’ve written quite a few posts here that canvas this from different directions) at least some freely available content is essential in the creation of community, which is the necessary first step. After that, whether there is one single approach that would work for all ’boutique’ agencies, I don’t know. It might be that each has to work out how best to garner the support of its community. And a micropayment system, if that is the chosen route, needs to offer ease of access and ease of use (one of the reasons why Apple’s recently released Newsstand, at least in the short term, is providing massive rises in online subscriptions). Beyond that I would want to give the details more thought and hear from others, but I do think your three-pronged future charts much of the possible direction for quality, enduring content.

  2. In terms of photofilms or multimedia most of the agencies are already publishers. That’s only because there is so little money in selling and distributing the work which has forced them to consider a new model.

    They could create paywalls but with so much good photography and free content already out there its going to be hard to make work. They could sell prints from stories at a more affordable price, to punters.

    David Alan Harvey has had a very good crack at it with BURN. I’m sure he can and will take it further, as long as he doesn’t lose interest because BURN is very reliant on his brilliant energy.

    The agencies would have to become much more responsive to the public. Is that a shift they can make?

    • Ben – in terms of what I am trying to articulate here, I don’t think there is any agency currently or consistently acting as a publisher. Burn is a great showcase for photographer’s work, and hats off to David Alan Harvey for creating it and maintaining it, but its not a site I would go to for photojournalism, for investigative stories on the issues some of the photographers portray.

      What I’ve set out here is general and admittedly vague, but it goes well beyond the simple hosting and distribution of photo essays or multimedia, which is what currently happens. At the moment they come with a small bit of text and some captions if you’re lucky. But that’s a long way from the idea of journalism and reporting my sense of being a publisher embraces. The Panos email I reference strikes me as an example of how a story goes with visual content. Now imagine if instead of just distributing that email with its news content, Panos was an in-depth investigative journalism site, and it was using its existing skills to produce actual stories around visual content, in collaboration with others, and linked to other reports/stories on the topic.

      Of course you are right, the economics of the enterprise are very difficult, and I don’t think a simple paywall is anything like the answer – though as my conversation with Nick Turpin here and elsewhere shows, I do think there are ways for quality content to attract payment. The devil will always be in the details, but I think a fundamental reorientation of how some agencies think about their principal function is needed first.

      • Hi David,

        that would mean the photographers working more as journalists right? Many are wonderful at taking pictures but really struggle with the journalism side … mainly I think because it rarely gets taught and in the past editors haven’t really been that interested.

        I guess there are start-up models in investigative journalism like pro-publica and in the UK there is a similar outfit which is producing very strong work funded by trusts and philanthropists (the bureaux of investigative journalism?). But those start-ups/charities are reliant on the big publishers like the BBC to get the work out.

        That I believe is the best model. Why spend a huge amount of money building an audience as opposed to creating content and taking it to where there are already large audiences?

        Which brings us back to who photographers are making their work for? One of our Open Eye programmes on the BBC was heard by about 12 million people and seen by a huge amount of people on the BBC website. But to be honest I think many photographers are more interested in the currency of peer approval. I understand why that is important and more meaningful, because most us want our hard work to be admired. The problem is that what photographers peers respect is often quite difference to what more mainstream consumers of journalism are interested in. I am afraid to say I am of the opinion that the elitism in the industry has prevented them from really grasping this nettle. There’s just not enough respect for audience opinion and in a commercial industry that’s commerical suicide.

        This brings me to a photofilm I just watched on VII. The photog crowdsouced the money for the trip and has been brilliant at engaging the photography audience. The photos are lovely, but the film, in my subjective opinion, is awful and will speak to no-one but the photography scene who are sure to nod their heads in approval. Fair enough they funded it. But had the photographer got himself trained in audio and worked with someone on narrative he could have produced a film that would have touched many peoples lives.

        This reminds of a focus group I did in Kenya on one of MSF’s Starved For Attention films. It was a mix of Kenyans and internationals. They all said that the photography was great, but eight out of ten said that they would be less likely to support MSF after having watched the film. That’s a staggering own goal. At the same time they watched Peter Di Campo’s Life Without Lights and loved it.

        One had huge amounts of money thrown at it, but had poor audio and a half-baked narrative, the other was made with love by a guy working off his own back. It showed. Still when Peters work was shown at Perpignan they stripped the audio from it and re-placed it with some crappy overblown classical music. Sad, but true.

        • Ben – lots of interesting points there…I’m concerned here with the challenge for agencies to think about their function differently, so the point is about a collective rather than an individual response.

          I think agencies – at least those that profess to be concerned with offering distinctive approaches to the world – should be more concerned about the overall story and that they should embrace their potential to tell it and make it available. They could do that journalism in collaboration with others (so it doesn’t all fall to individual photographers), and that collaboration would still involve content via established media outlets when that works. But as we all know, too often there is not enough good content available via those media outlets.

  3. I can’t believe I somehow missed this addition to your closing to the piece on Libya.

    I’m in agreement that more can and should be done to provide what I’d call “relevant finished content”. That’s true of both the agencies and the photographers.

    I’m no doubt biased by my own tastes, but I’m very strongly of the opinion that some projects work better as product X than product Y, be that a book, exhibition, dedicated, website, multimedia piece, or whatever. Many will work across different platforms, but generally need to be considered according to those platforms. So, a single project’s photos can have several “finished forms”

    I often get the feeling that exhibitions, books, etc, feel lazy in their construction – either by missing out key background information, or failing to consider how that form can best support the work.

    The internet gives us the opportunity to really develop products within that sphere, and at low cost. I’m surprised it isn’t being taken up more creatively, and has instead become something of a dumping ground for work. Same goes for much multimedia.

    I know that, well developed, that’s something I’d definitely pay for. I’m tried of all the debates about how tech like the iPad will revolutionise things – I want to see people using that tech to do something that couldn’t happen without it, or couldn’t happen as well without it. Then, I’ll pay top dollar for it.

    Photographers and photo agencies are both really sitting on an opportunity to make strong moves here, and I’m hoping we’ll see some of them take that up. If they do, we’ll be in for a very interesting and inspired future.

    • Sara, yes “relevant finished content” is one way to think about the main point here. And I agree that such content can be distributed across a range of platforms, not all of which are appropriate for all stories all of the time.

      The shift that is needed, in my view, is for agencies to focus more on the full story, embrace the opportunities to be publishers and broadcasters, and support their photographers and producers in that exercise. It doesn’t mean cutting oneself off from the mainstream media – it means themselves telling many of the stories that are too often ignored. And how many times do you hear good photographers and agency reps say that?

  4. I think we need to ask ourselves, what will people pay for?, they will only pay for what they can’t get elsewhere on the Internet for free. My in-sight film sold on Distrify partly because it was unique, there was no other comparable documentary out there. It was the same case with my magazine and book, there was no other Street Photography magazine in existence.

    This is why newspapers have struggled to make pay walls work because there is such great free news content out there such as the BBC.

    Unique content IS being produced and much of it I would pay for, especially if it was collated at a single Internet destination in the way that Flipbook on the iPad allows me to manually collate my favourite content into a single App experience.

    Imagine for example a subscribe able site with unique articles on Social Media by Bryan Formhals, Art Photography peices by Joerg Colberg, Blake Andrews quirky column, new photo stories supplied from around the globe by individual photojournalists as well as Panos, VII and Magnum. A multimedia section edited by Duckrabbit and a commercial photography review by Rob Haggart….etc…etc.

    If all the best writers of blogs and producers of visual content were available through a single platform whereby visitors could subscribe to the sections they want ( a bit like Sky ) and the individuals and organisations were recompensed in proportion to their views, we could have a model for ‘paying for the best creative content on the web’ that serves both subscriber and creator.

    I think it would be very difficult for an agency or blogger or individual to make a success of publishing or broadcasting their own content alone but as contributors to a single outlet I think they could financially benefit from their content.

  5. Many, many really great points here.

  6. Maybe a symposium David … where we start with a blank piece of paper and ask the question if you started NOW how would you work these different spaces (books, museums, comment, funding, internet and mobile platforms). And is there something in common that can pull it all together? From that create a model, form a community interest company and run it as an experiment.

  7. Hello,
    this is Mike from photomonth.de. I am a German publisher and write very much about documentary photography. But I see three big problems regarding my own experience.

    First the photo journalist likes photography but not writing. They want to sell photos and they like to a photo journalist.

    Second I worked together with travel journalists. But they did not want to work together. Networking means in their eyes not working together and dividing jobs and money – it means to get the next job as a single-fighter without team-work.

    Third we have a growing world of digital zeroinformation and most of the people do not need a lot of new stories. We live in a world with time eating software like facebook and most of the people like to be there because it is nice to have friends and to tell something about nothing. So good photojournalism needs readers who want to pay for photos and stories. And there is the point of the big end.

    May be it would be possible to make a new photoplusjournalism if people with the same thinking work together. For example would it be interesting if photo/journalists – working about documentary photography – would make in three countries a parallel project to the question of unemplyoment of young people in a sea town and they publish these stories in one multimedial project. This is totally new and this is the chance of the new digital age. This would be a new approach with English as common platform and the local languages parallel.

    But who would buy something like that?

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Mike.

      I want to keep stressing that the conversation here started with my point about the role of agencies. I think they can add greater value to their content by providing the story.

      That requires systems to support photographers so it doesn’t just fall to individuals. That said, the notion that photojournalists can’t or don’t want to write is a bit cliched in my view, but if true is something that has to change too. I can’t imagine how one can do the ‘journalism’ part without writing, even it’s just to put proposals and grant applications together.

      I would disagree with your view that people don’t want good stories. I think that the demand for unique, quality content is stronger than ever and growing.

      If people don’t want to work together in some form then I wish them luck. Given that I am talking here about agencies I am assuming some form of loose but common purpose.

      I like your final project suggestion though.

  8. I think instead of starting ‘agencies’ or ‘collective,’ young enterprising photojournalists are going to partner with other creatives like writers, videographers, designers to form small media & (maybe marketing) companies.

    But I think it’ll be tough for them to really build a large enough following online to sustain themselves so they’ll still need to partner with other media outlets. It’s always going to be a complicated equation. The Luceo guys have articulated this well in some of their interviews (sorry lazy, no link!)

    I’m not sure how it’ll shake out but I think we may start to see an embryonic ecosystem forming in the next few years. It’s just still too chaotic at this point (plus, crappy economy).

    Nick – You’re talking about a portal or new tablet magazine. if someone had money and inclination, they could probably recruit writers and photographers to contribute to something like that.

    Thing is, I don’t write and produce LPV because I want to make money, or believe I’m entitled to make living from it. I do it because it’s creatively fulfilling and it excites me to connect with people who are passionate and have a similar sensibility as I do. It’s a passion project, and I’m fine with that. I believe if you work hard and are passionate about what you’re doing, then opportunities will come your way.

    It’s certainly worked out that way for me.

    • Bryan, thanks for the comment, and building on Nick’s interesting points above.

      I began this by thinking about what existing agencies concerned with photojournalism can do to give their photographers’ work more value, in both the social and economic sense.

      Proposing new start-ups was not in my mind, but Nick’s points have taken the comments in a productive if different direction. I would have to be convinced though that another portal/magazine is the best route (but I’m watching initiatives like Once magazine with interest).

      I’m more interested in seeing how what you call the “embryonic ecosystem” can be developed and used to support the production and distribution of compelling stories. Highlighting what existing agencies might do as small parts of that ecosystem was my intent, though I think what has come out here is the need to explore all elements of it.

  9. David, glad to see the site back up.

    My suggestion was based on the observation that when I view photo blogs they very often contain the same smallish group of links to other photo blogs, the same people appear again and again, Amy Stein, Flak, Concientious, Blake Andrews, Duckrabbit, LPV, Darius Himes, Prsion Photography, Foto8 etc. When I see talks and symposia it often contains the same group of people on the panel, there is clearly a new and fairly tight group of commentators who have been enabled by the Internet to build and reach a pretty substantial audience. Each has their own angle/specialism and none are associated with major official organisations such as MOMA, TATE, V&A, TPG etc. In fact state funded orgs and indeed privately run agencies like Panos, Magnum and VII are notable by their absence In this new pool of opinion, discussion and debate.

    If the agencies you mention in your post are to publish or broadcast their imagery with more story and context they should do it through a platform to which the public subscribes directly rather than through existing traditional media outlets (OnceMagazine being an early example). But that platform would need to generate a small income which will only be possible if it is rich with exclusive content unavailable elsewhere on the web.

    Maybe bringing multiple streams of content under one umbrella and charging for it goes against what has become ‘the spirit of the Internet’ where everything is free but I consider that an unsustainable model.

    (Anything that you can make using a computer will not be innovative or sought after for very long because it is too easy to make, in 12 months time there will be a dozen ‘Oncemagazine’ style tablet magazines because they cost so little to make, in the same way that Blurb books are a bit ‘so what’ now. This is one of the reasons I am establishing a new bespoke printing business in the Alps alongside my digital/online activities, I want to get back to an inaccessible craft based platform where I make something that’s difficult and expensive to make, like photography was 20 years ago.)

  10. Nick, thanks, glad to be back in business, so to speak. The lesson for everyone – backup! Fortunately I had a good weekly backup regime with redundancy built in so no content was lost and recreation was possible.

    I agree with the points you are making here, particularly about where the locus of critical debate is these days. My only qualification to the points raised in the first three paras is that none of the blogs and people you mention as being central to the debate would have built a community or come to prominence if they had installed a paid content model from the outset. In my view they required the virtues of the open and free web to establish their reputations and reach. I’m firmly of the view that ‘free’ and ‘paid’ go hand-in-hand on the web, and the challenge is finding the balance so you can get to people while resourcing the projects. Clearly, a free-only model would be unsustainable if you were trying to run an online magazine as your livelihood designed to fund the family budget, but I think most of the people you mention are not actually trying to do that – instead they work on a varied portfolio of which online discussion and writing is one component.

    I like very much the plan revealed in the final paragraph. Again, I agree with you that the value of the non-reproducible object is greater than that of the digital file. I would also say the heightened value of the former is built on the ubiquity of the latter, so once more these two things are working as part of an overall dynamic. I don’t see them as competing logics. I look forward to hearing more about your plans.

  11. It’s been around for a while, but it would be interesting to know how things work out from a business point of view for Burn Magazine, where they make books from the essays shown on the site. The online content is free, but the offline versions of it cost to consume. I don’t think there’s any difference in the content, just the medium it’s presented, but it seems to sell well.

    Regarding photojournalists telling stories, and the different mediums to do it in – I’ve resisted the idea of putting text or even audio with my work, despite having skills in those areas I could utilise. I wanted the pictures to be as strong as possible, so bought in to the adage about them being able to stand alone. But, I realise there are stories where those elements re crucial. So, there’s a piece I’m working on at the moment about Russian immigrants where multimedia pieces are likely to be the main medium for it. It’s necessary to have the audio. Other forms of publication would/will be ‘interpretations’ in a sense, of that ‘original’ form.

    I write in order to clarify my own thinking. I photograph in order to clarify my own thinking. They’re both the same process in terms of their point, just the process differs.

    As far as agencies, I think both agencies and galleries (and, relevant to this discussion mainstream media outlets) are wary of trying out new ways of producing and presenting work. Probably for a few reasons – one is that they don’t always have the skills onhand to do it well; another is that this means stepping into areas where ‘amateurs’ are dominating (in the sense of “people doing it without pay” – blogging, multimedia shorts, etc., a lot of web work is dominated by people just doing it out of passion), and another is that they’re fearful of how getting it wrong can affect their reputation and authority.

    I think the last point is completely wrong – we need an attitude shift from the main organisations, across agencies, magazines, and galleries, to try new things sometimes, and to be prepared to take risks and to fail.

    I’m also a bit bored by seeing the same names everywhere when it comes to debates about the challenges of today. To be blunt, I’ve gone to some great talks over the last year, but the best ones have generally been when an artist I don’t know well talks about their work and I get a succinct overview of that. The talks about new media opportunities are painful to sit through, because it’s invariably a bunch of people talking very vaguely about new opportunities being there, but basically waffling. Then you check what they’ve done to experiment in this area themselves, and it’s usually very little.

    I try to take a cue from companies like Google, who are prepared to try something out then drop it if it isn’t working. I didn’t start blogging with any great plan. I started once I was going to a lot of events that I wanted to say something about, and the blog was an easy place to put that. I don’t have to think about monetizing it, because it isn’t really anything extra – it’s just the thinking I do anyway, in text form. So it started off (and still is) very rough, but I’m okay with that. Over the time I’ve been doing it, it’s taken on a bit more form, and it’s helped me to focus on what I want to focus on – if I have 10 things I’m thinking about, which matters most to blog about is also an indicator of what I need to prioritise. I feel a tad obliged to update exhibition reviews and things, but I’m noticing there are a couple of areas I want to sit down and write properly about that I need to designate time to (african photography, and some stuff on phenomenology and photography). So it helps me plan my work and keep my schedule focussed on what matters most to me. Any networking, money-making, or other benefits are totally incidental to the benefits I get from it.

    Agencies and organisations don’t think like that, so they’ll never experiment. Unless they can do a risk assessment and business forecasts that all add up. And then it’s hardly experimenting.

    I’m not sure if you’re proposing a more organic growth, like that is, or something that’s more structured from the outset. Agencies probably need to pitch somewhere in between – enough flexibility to find their feet, and then formalise things more as time goes on.

    But if they do this, and step into the arena of being publishers of content in a more direct to-the-consumer way, they’ll have a lot more leverage over their own future than if they remain in the background as they do at present, complaining about how newspapers don’t pay so well anymore.

    I’m rambling horribly here, but as great as having detailed plans can be, sometimes it’s important to just recognise the need for change and then start doing something to change things even if you don’t have a perfect plan for how to keep it sustainable. It’s through the information you get from it that agencies will be able to figure out a method for making it viable.

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