Categories
media economy

Media disruption (4): rethinking storytelling from content to service

This series on media disruption has looked at the major trends affecting how news and information is produced, distributed and concerned, especially the primacy of the screen, the rise of mobile, and the impact of social media and the trend towards distributed publishing. In this final article I want to argue these transformations mean we need to think differently about what it means to produce information in this new media ecology.

Many of us – myself included – have suggested “visual storytelling” is the best way of signifying what we do. Our focus has been on what we want to say, and then how to get that out to readers/viewers in the world. While storytelling is vital, this approach has prioritised production over consumption and impact, with questions about the audiences’ desires and needs subordinate to our own judgement about the value of work.

Focusing on the audiences’ wishes is not a matter of reducing reporting to the lowest common denominator because we know there is a strong appetite amongst readers/viewers for serious news and information. It is, instead, a matter of moving away from a preoccupation with content to a new concern for service. This chimes with what Stephen Mayes told me in a recent interview for the Multimedia Week podcast – rather than the usual starting position of “what is my experience creating information” let’s shift to the issue of “what is my experience when I am looking for information.”

One way of understanding this is to appreciate how business find consumers by asking what jobs people people want done, and what services address that need. Derived from Clay Christensen’s thinking, and recently applied to US news media, the basic idea of this approach is that

people don’t go around looking for products to buy. Instead, they take life as it comes and when they encounter a problem, they look for a solution and at that point, they’ll hire a product or service.

In the context of journalism, questions that different news consumers might pose at different times include “how can I be informed in my 10 minute break,” or “how can I be intellectually stimulated on a long flight,” or “how can I find out what is really happening in X,” or “how can I help change the injustice I am seeing?”

Jeff Jervis has recently offered a compelling new perspective on this by declaring that it is a mistake to define ourselves as primarily content creators or storytellers. He has outlined this in a recent book and public lecture. You’ll benefit from listening to Jarvis’s keynote at the April 2015 International Journalism Festival, or watching the video of it below.

The problem, Jarvis argues, is that our conventional “worldview convinces us that our value is embodied entirely in what we make rather than in the good people derive from it.” Instead he suggests:

Consider journalism as a service. Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. To be a service, news must be concerned with outcomes rather than products.

This does not mean stories are unimportant and going away. Content, Jarvis says, “will continue to be valued. But content’s value may be more as a tool than as an end in itself and certainly not as our only product.”

If we take this new turn, we get away from thinking about news and information as a business which is separate from the public, the goal of which is to produce a product that gets launched on to an unsuspecting audience. We will also be less concerned about product protection (in the form of traditional renderings of copyright and paywalls) and instead think about relationships (collaborations and partnerships) with the people formerly known as the audience. And we will recognise that good journalism has always been simultaneously good advocacy.

For someone developing a project this rethinking means beginning by asking:

  • What is the purpose of my project?
  • What problem am I trying to help solve?
  • Who is the potential audience?
  • What collaborations and partnerships can connect me with the audience?
  • Do I know what they need?
  • What formats and tools enable the service the audience requires?

 
Thinking about the raison d’être of the visual storyteller in terms of providing a service means, above all, determining how to link purpose to the audience. Depending on the purpose, the audience may be small and singular or large and varied. No doubt some of the people formerly known as visual storytellers are asking these questions. We will all be better off, in all senses, if this becomes the norm.

[For an audio overview of this series, listen to the Multimedia Week podcast #34 where I talk about media disruption with my co-hosts DJ Clark and Sharron Lovell.]

Categories
media economy

Media disruption (3): social media and distributed content

How does social media affect news consumption and production?

The two previous articles in this series have shown how mobile screens are the primary access points for information and news consumption has moved online. How important are social networks in people’s online experience, and what is their role and impact on news?

The number of people with a social media profile has risen greatly in recent years. Nearly 2 billion people around the world currently use social networks. In the UK, “nearly three quarters (72%) of internet users have a social media profile, compared to 22% in 2007.” In the US the numbers are even higher – 73% of the population have a social media profile, up from 24% in 2008.

Facebook is the behemoth of the social media world, with 1.4 billion monthly active users, although people increasingly have multiple networks. Social media is also used frequently, with 70% of Americans accessing Facebook daily. Unsurprisingly, Facebook also dominates the social media pathway to news.

The Reuters Institute survey of ten countries investigated the most popular social networks in general, and the networks that were most popular for news.

Social networks for news

Their conclusion: “around half of Facebook (57%) and Twitter users (50%) say they find, share, or discuss a news story in a given week, but news is considerably less important in other networks.”

However, usage varies by age, country, and gender. In the US, 60% of “millennials” (18-34 years old) name their Facebook feed as their top news source, compared to 39% of “baby boomers” (51-69 years old). The Reuters Institute found that “around 90% of Facebook users in Brazil and Italy use the network for news each week compared with less than half of those in the UK.” Image-focused social networks are growing fast amongst the young, Pinterist has enormous reach amongst American women, and girls dominate teenage use of visually oriented social media.

Whichever way you look at this data, the significance of social networks for news is undeniable. Media organisations know this, given, for example, that 15% of referral traffic to The New York Times, and 25% to National Geographic, comes from Facebook. As the Times CEO Mark Thompson has said, “we have an interest in broadening the reach of the New York Times, and going out and finding audiences in other environments…we want to fish for new users in the ponds where they are.”

This marks a fundamental shift in the media economy. Richard Stacey has summed it up perfectly: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.” As a recent report on the content strategies of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter observed:

Traditionally, media companies have operated independently and controlled their own destinies. They owned the whole content supply chain, from research to writing to publication to distribution. In the digital era, they built their own websites, which drew loyal readers (direct traffic), and they sold most of the ads that ran on their sites, keeping 100% of the revenue.

Those days are gone.

Now the fate of publishers increasingly depends on social platforms such as Facebook, where billions of people discover news to read and videos to watch. And the social platforms are equally interested in the media business.

Social networks are changing production in light of the new patterns of consumption. Media organisations are either accommodating or embracing the separation of information from its means of distribution through strategies of distributed content.

Distributed content is publishing directly to platforms you don’t control. It is something social media users do all the time, but as noted above, it is new for media organisations. It can be found in large companies like BuzzFeed, which has embraced it through its strategy of being a “network-integrated company,” being indifferent to the platform and focusing on “making content for the way people consume media today.” This means, for example, less than 5% of BuzzFeed’s video views happen on their own site. It can lead to the reorganisation of a campus newspaper, which gave up print and its own web site to focus on using platforms like Medium and Twitter. And it is the thinking behind Instant Articles, the Facebook collaboration with nine media companies, that has been launched slowly.

Distributed content in partnership with Facebook involves considerable risks for media companies. As much as Facebook maintains their algorithms have little impact and users control the content of their News Feed (see the excellent critical analysis of that claim by Jay Rosen), Facebook is anything but a neutral machine impartially distributing the news. Moreover, those algorithms regularly change in ways that no one publicly knows, meaning while Facebook is not an editor in the classical sense, it is a powerful filter of news.

We’ve seen this filtering power with the decline of organic reach – “how many people you can reach for free on Facebook by posting to your Page” – a process that has been underway for a couple of years. This has meant anyone trying to promote things through getting likes for pages has been progressively less successful. This is something photographers have to consider, given so many have a Facebook page at the heart of their social media presence. The dalliance of organic reach has been “catastrophic” for non-profit organisation who can no longer get to the vast majority of their fans unless they pay to boost a post. Facebook is quite open about the high level of selection this involves:

Rather than showing people all possible content, News Feed is designed to show each person on Facebook the content that’s most relevant to them. Of the 1,500+ stories a person might see whenever they log onto Facebook, News Feed displays approximately 300. To choose which stories to show, News Feed ranks each possible story (from more to less important) by looking at thousands of factors relative to each person.

Facebook is thus, in the words of Frederic Filloux, “an unpredictable spigot, whose flow varies according to constantly changing and opaque criteria.” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has spoken similarly on the new relationship between media and technology companies (see her 2014 Reuters Institute lecture and her 2015 Hugh Cudlipp lecture). Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, she concluded:

The traffic to your stories, the pathways to audiences and even the shape of your newsrooms are changed by this new balance of power [between the news business and the social media giants]. The obscurity of how these systems and algorithms works has not been lifted by agreements that might raise advertising revenues. The locus of power in delivery and distribution of news has shifted, irrevocably, towards commercial companies who have priorities that often compete with those of journalism.

Embracing distributed content and a network-integrated approach makes great sense given the dynamics of the new media economy. Dealing somehow with social networks like Facebook makes great sense if you want to get to where the audience is currently found. But long term success is also going to depend on those producing news, information and stories being on, and adapting to, a variety of platforms so that we are not beholden to one monopolistic distributor.

In the final article in this series, I argue these transformations mean we need to think differently about storytelling, moving from content to service

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Media disruption (2): news consumption today

Given the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile – the topic of the first article in this series – how and where do people get their news? If you are looking for the audience, where are they?

The primacy of the screen means media companies necessarily operate within the same digital space. Whereas newspapers, magazines, radio and television used to be defined by their distinct modes of distribution, their largest audiences are now online, and they all deliver news and information through a combination of audio, text, photographs, video, and infographics to their audiences. As a result, despite the continuing importance of established organisations on the web, there is no such thing as traditional media anymore.

In this new environment we have witnessed a shift from news and information consumed in fixed places at fixed times, to mobile news consumed at moments selected by the users. What persists in this new environment is a strong public interest in news and information. This conclusion from Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds:

The audience for good journalism is large. We may think modern culture has become celebrity obsessed at the expense of news, but international survey data indicate a strong appetite for domestic and international news among all age groups, and that people still like to read.

This is reinforced by the Reuters 2014 Digital News Report, which offers a global perspective through its survey of people in ten different countries. As they found, not less than two-thirds of people expressed an interest in news:
Interest-in-news-by-country

This is supported by detailed research from OfCom on News Consumption in the UK. While recent Pew research says “millennials” – the much maligned, allegedly narcissistic 18-34 generation in the US – trail their elders in interest about government and politics, an American Press Institute study shows they nonetheless have a strong desire for news broadly defined:
How-millenials-get-news

With the organisations formerly known as ‘newspapers,’ ‘radio’ and ‘television’ operating in the same digital space, it is no surprise that people are increasingly satisfying their desire for news online. In the US, 50% say the internet is their main source of national and international news. This is below television but far above newspapers and radio. For those aged between 18 and 49, the number using the internet rises and equals or surpasses television. In the UK, the number of users going online rose from 32% to 41% in 2013-14, with the number of 16-34 year old users climbing to 60%. Reuters ten-country survey confirms that online has become at least the second most important way of accessing news.

However, saying people get news online only tells us which platform or they use. It doesn’t say anything about their main sources, which is now being shaped by their devices (a point well made by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute, in this talk).

With are witnessing the rise of mobile, although, as noted in the first article of the series, ‘mobile’ does not necessarily mean ‘on the move’ or ‘in transit’ given the preponderance of home and office use. One consequence is that media organisations now find most of their readers/viewers are using touchscreen devices to reach them. Pew’s State of the [American] Media report revealed that “at the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers.”

The rise of mobile changes the way news is packaged, distributed, discovered, and consumed. They have extended both the number of touch points throughout the day, and meant that news is accessed constantly rather than according to the classic consumption curve of morning, lunch and dinner. Time spent on news sites during each session is a short 3-5 minutes, but as there are multiple sessions a day, the level of news consumption rises. And the more devices people own, the more news they consume.

Frequency-of-access-by-device

Smartphones and tablets drive use of news apps rather than the mobile web through browsers. The speed and efficiency of apps have lowered the threshold to news consumption by offering a one-touch route to a recognised source. Smartphone users reportedly spend 88% of their time online in apps – although a lot of time within apps involves redirects to the mobile web, and that a lot of app time is accounted for by the dominance of Facebook.

The convenience of apps means touchscreen users access fewer news sources, with 37% relying on a single news app each week. This may mean apps limit the disaggregation of news providers fuelled by the use of search engines and social networks. The Reuters Institute survey found that “that audiences consume the majority of their online news from familiar and trusted brands, but we can also see that they are using increasingly varied ways to find that content.”

There is a lot commentary about how we are in a “golden age” of video online as more and more companies produce video, driven in large part by the advertising revenue it can generate. Forecast to make up nearly 80% of global IP traffic by 2018, we might assume video is a prominent means for delivering news stories. In the UK, the number of people downloading or watching short video clips each week has risen from 21% in 2007 to to 39% in 2014 (although the question gave music and comedy clips, rather than news, as the examples). When the Reuters Institute asked for the ways in which people in their ten-country survey had consumed news, only 10-30% named video, with headline summaries and text predominant.

Type-of-online-news-content-accessed-by-country

The important Tow Center study Video Now investigated the production and consumption of news video in ten American organisations, and found that while their was considerable investment in the area, profits were non-existent because views were very modest. While there were occasional viral succeed, on average a single video on a ‘newspaper’ site got 500-1,000 views each, with brands like Mashable hoping for a minimum of 20,000 views per video.

This may not offer a true picture of the status of video, however. Singling out video versus text for news consumption in digital space is a problem. As Video Now concluded:

People consume news by subject, not by medium. Audiences don’t say “I want to watch news video.” They come for information on specific topics: Syria, Ukraine, Obamacare, sports.

This led to an obvious and important recommendation:

Video should be embedded with other content, inside a blogpost, next to a graphic. Videos posted with other media get more plays. Those left in segregated “video” sections get ignored.

That, of course, is the very definition of ‘multimedia’ in digital space. Whereas watching video would have once required users to go to a broadcast platform, they can now find it alongside other forms of information on any digital network or site.

Touchscreen devices are changing the levels and patterns of news consumption. Building on the majority interest in news, they increase consumption by offering unlimited access to information, principally through apps, at a time and place of the user’s choosing.

They also change the practices of news consumption, and reveal that “consumption” is a complex phenomena.

The web has given us an unprecedented capacity to measure audience consumption. Previously, news consumption was measured by the circulation of print publications. This recorded the number of units purchased, but could not reveal which stories within newspapers or magazines received the most views or the longest read. On the web, all this and more can be determined, yet the focus to date on traffic numbers determined by clicks has perpetuated the superficial assessment of circulation data.

The limits of our current metrics are exposed in an important study of the available research by Irene Costera Meijer and Tim Groot Kormelink. They went beyond the medium people use, or when they use it, to look at the different ways people engaged with the news. They identified 16 different news consumption practices:

Reading
Watching
Viewing
Listening
Checking
Snacking
Scanning
Monitoring
Searching
Clicking
Linking
Sharing
Liking
Recommending
Commenting
Voting [as on Reddit]

Many of thse apply to both print and digital, and a number of them – especially checking, snacking and scanning – do not necessitate a click. And as Paul Bradshaw says, this shows that “focused reading is not confined to any one medium, and that distracted forms of consumption popularly associated with smartphone use are equally typical of how people use television, radio or print. It’s not about the medium: it’s about the user.”

Producers now have to understand the complexity of user behaviour as they hunt for their audience – or the “people formerly known as the audience,” given their capacity to produce and interact themselves. But they should be reassured the audience for news and documentary is there and growing, enabled in large part by the screens that connect them to others via the internet.

In the third article in this series, I look at the effect social media has on the production and consumption of news

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Media disruption (1): The primacy of the screen and mobile

What are the key features of the media economy in 2015? And how do those features effect the work of visual storytellers?

Two years on from the publication of Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, I want to update – in a series of articles – some of the central findings of that research. That report was the summation of the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project, which was designed to review issues around, and map the global emergence of, multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism.

The research examined the transformation of the media economy so we could better understand how information is being produced, published, consumed, and funded. This is something I have been writing about since my five-part series on the revolutions in the media economy posted in 2009, and three posts on the new media landscape in 2011.

I believe understanding the nature and scale of the on-going disruption in the media economy is essential for anyone involved in documentary, news and non-fiction narratives. While I would argue the analysis in Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds, some things are now even more significant.

First, the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile.

World_media_consumption
[Source: Screen Fiends]

This year, for the first time, individuals around the world will spend more time online than with any other media platform. There are regional variations, some of this activity will take place concurrently, and given the rise of internet streaming the boundary between online and television is blurred. We have to recognise that internet access is unequally distributed (note the absence of Africa, where only one-quarter of the population use the internet, from the above data). But what is indisputable is that the screen has become the primary access point globally for information and entertainment.

Mobile-phone-screen-evolution
[Source: This Isn’t Happiness]

The primacy of the screen is closely tied to the growth in mobile devices. The 2 billion iOS and Android devices currently in use will soon grow to 3 billion, easily surpassing the 1.6 billion PC’s in existence. Mobile phone ownership has grown dramatically in all the world’s regions.

The smartphone – a touchscreen device with internet access – is becoming supreme. Smartphone ownership in the US has grown from 35% of adults in 2011 to 64% in 2014, and nearly three-quarters of American teenagers have smartphones. In the UK it is up from 30% in 2010 to 66% in 2014, and the level of smartphone penetration is similar in Western Europe. Global smartphone penetration shows wide regional variations, although growth is universal.

Times-and-screens
[Source: Paul Adams, Why ‘mobile first’ may already be outdated, Inside Intercom]

Mobile devices are not really mobile, at least in the conventional view that they are mostly glanced at when on the move. Yes, touchscreen devices – tablets and smartphones – are handheld and used outside the home, but two-thirds of people use them in both the home and beyond. In fact, they have become the way most of us regularly access the internet, accounting for nearly 60% of the time spent online in the UK.

Rather than regarding mobile devices as just a scaled down version of the internet, we should appreciate that each device is an entire internet platform that exceeds the browser version of the web available on PC’s. The smartphone is itself a social platform where apps are networked through contacts, images and notifications. And we know it has eaten the stand-alone camera, with the number of iPhones and Android devices exceeding the total of Japanese cameras ever sold.

This means “mobile” is the wrong frame of reference – it is not about the status of small devices, but the way in which information is produced, published and consumed via the screen. Indeed, the size of device is secondary. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, regards televisions as “just glass-panelled displays connected to the internet” rather than unique devices.

It has become a cultural cliche that smartphones are “ruining our lives” by making us distracted, isolated and stupid (humorously presented in these 27 cartoons). The ever growing number of US users have a different view, however, with the vast majority seeing them as “freeing, connecting, helpful.” This is part of their overwhelmingly positive view of the internet’s impact on society and their lives, with at least three-quarters saying it has been a good thing that improves their ability to learn things and be better informed. Nor do they complain of “information overload” – a majority of internet users (72%) enjoy having so much information at their fingertips, while just 26% find it overwhelming.

All this has important implications for thinking about how information is structured and stories presented. The audience is engaged, and “mobile” can no longer be a subset of digital experience. While some offerings will be for those with little time while in transit, overall the mobile experience for readers and viewers needs to be comprehensive as it might be the only touchpoint between you and your audience. This is especially so given the willingness of users to access immersive, long-form stories via their small screens – as in the case of serious 6,000 word BuzzFeed report that had half its views on mobile with people reading for 12-25 minutes.

People are consuming more media, and doing it principally through screens of various sizes connected to the internet. Other platforms like print will persist, but in new and more limited ways. This is the media infrastructure producers need to know and work with.

Next in this series…how the audience consumes news in the digital space

Categories
media economy

My on-going recommendation for best UK WordPress hosting

If you are looking for the most reliable WordPress hosting in the UK, with the best customer service, then based on my experience I have a strong recommendation for you.

For two years this site has been hosted by Fresh Sites. I moved to them in April 2013 after some very bad experiences with other companies. Four months after moving, I wrote in an August 2013 post about how good I had found Fresh Sites hosting to be.

I was recently asked on Twitter if my recommendation still held:

https://twitter.com/smartco/status/586118366508769281

I had no hesitation in responding:

https://twitter.com/davidc7/status/586136105189253120

After @smartco followed my recommendation, I was delighted to see she was equally happy:

https://twitter.com/smartco/status/587556414232625152

This is why Fresh Sites remains my on-going recommendation. In the last year I’ve very much appreciated the way the keep on top of web developments affecting security and search, advising their customers of the need for SSL certificates and mobile responsiveness. They then offer assistance in putting those things in place. Earlier this year I needed a more bandwidth after some posts received unusually high attention, and although I was out of the country and could only email, the upgrade was done very quickly.

After being with Fresh Sites for a while I joined their affiliates programme, so if you click on the link to them and sign up I receive a small commission. This is the only commercial arrangement I’ve had in six years of writing online, and the proceeds help sustain the work I do here for free. Thank you for your support if you follow this recommendation. Based on my experience, you won’t be disappointed.

Categories
media economy multimedia

World Press Photo multimedia research project: video interview

A year ago I delivered and presented the World Press Photo multimedia research project report entitled Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism

In this interview with D.J. Clark for the World Press Photo Connected Learning project (which we did in the CCTV studios in Beijing where we teach on the MA in International Multimedia Journalism) I talked about the major themes of the multimedia research report,  which I think are more relevant than ever.

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Shaul Schwarz: A photographer finds a new world of expression in film

Reel Peek Films

“Magazines are hungry for video,” says Shaul Schwarz, a still photographer who has been interested in film since 2006. Schwarz — who recently directed both Rise, Red Border Films’ story of the people who built One World Trade Center, and Narco Cultura, the 2013 full-length documentary that grew out of his photojournalistic account of the drug culture on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border — is fascinated by the notion that photos can do more than merely illustrate a story. Schwarz is attracted to the way film can provide image-makers with a voice and, in the editing, a level of control over the narrative that’s rarely found in still photography.

In light of the growing demand for quality visual storytelling from media organizations, Schwarz has set up Reel Peak Films, a production company combining photojournalists and filmmakers. With photographers and directors like Maisie Crow, Uriel Sinai, Christina Clusiau, Gillian Laub, Yoni Brook, Leeor Kaufman and Jared Moossy — along with editors Jay Sterrenberg and Bryan Chang and sound specialist Juan Bertran — Reel Peak Films is a network of highly skilled freelancers formed with the aim of producing high-quality films of around 10 minutes in length (for example, Schwarz’s film Ashes to Ashes, Peter van Agtmael’s piece on Bobby Henline, a badly wounded Iraq veteran-turned-stand-up comedian, both of which featured on LightBox, and Christina Clusiau’s Black Rush Life).

“We’re not just taking pictures and doing audio,” says Schwarz, while also acknowledging that Reel Peak is not inventing a new visual form. Reel Peak’s priority, he says, is focusing on the film component around which a larger story and presentation can be built. Schwarz’s hope is to connect the collaborative model that large film projects demand with the journalistic ethos of his partners’ photography backgrounds. “We can go further and deeper into the story,” Schwarz maintains, combining “old school journalism’s hard-hitting perspective and great access” with strong, cinematic aesthetics — an approach very different from, say, that of TV crews.

Schwarz works in the field with a small footprint: no rigs, just a DSLR, and occasionally a sound person. This intimacy, Schwarz says, means “most people don’t even realise I’m doing video.” Reel Peak Films is emblematic of a major shift in the media, as disparate organisations increase their online presence and produce more programs and stories. The past year has seen broadcasters and magazines set up documentary film units, including TIME’s Red Border Films. The Atlantic started three video series, the New York Times expanded its output, placing its videos outside their pay wall; and the Washington Post opened a political channel.

As we concluded in the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project I directed, the intersection of broadcasters, magazines and newspapers in digital space means there is no such thing as traditional media any longer. While there will continue to be print platforms, the screen has become the primary access point for most news and information, and media outlets have to be cross-platform. An encouraging feature of this new media economy is users’ demand for compelling stories. Ooyala, a company that runs 1 billion video streams per month for media organisations, including The Daily Telegraph in the UK, analysed the viewing habits of nearly 200 million unique viewers in 130 countries, and found long-form video (i.e., more than 10 minutes) very popular. MediaStorm reports very large audiences for their stories, with users viewing them years after the original release date, demonstrating that quality storytelling enjoys a long life online.

With distribution partnerships in place, Walter Astrada’s Undesired attracted a six-figure audience in the first week of its release. The online audience for a story like Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Driftless can quickly be 20 times as large as for a print publication, and has the potential to replicate print run numbers on a daily basis. More than half, and often two thirds, of those viewing MediaStorm pieces online stay with them to the end, even with running lengths up to 20 minutes or more.

None of this new and compelling information, of course, should be used to shore up simplistic arguments or proclamations about the imminent “death” of photography. Schwarz continues to shoot stills, and has recently completed a National Geographic assignment. In fact, paradoxically, he finds that he is now able to take more time with his still work — producing book projects, for example — now that he no longer looks to print media exclusively to make a living. Schwarz describes his photographic work as both “solitary and fun,” but when he wants to tell a complex story, he turns to film.

This post was originally published on TIME LightboxMarch 2014.

Categories
media economy photography

World Press Photo 2014 contest: Reflections from the Secretary’s seat

1658625_645063568863118_1560212609_o

I’ve been in Amsterdam for fourteen long days working with many others on the intense process that judges the winners for the World Press Photo 2014 contest (which includes the award of the World Press Photo of the Year 2013).

This was my first year working as Secretary to the contest jury, though it was the second year I have witnessed the judging. Last year I was present for about two-thirds of the time, learning from my predecessor about the Secretary’s responsibilities. Unlike other jury members, the Secretary does not participate in debates or vote on photographs in any of the rounds. The Secretary is tasked with ensuring fairness in the process and is responsible for all procedural matters relating to the conduct of the judging, which means applying the written rules to ensure the jury can reach the best possible outcome. Looking back on the last two weeks I’m in no doubt we ran a judging process that treated all contestants and jurors equally and fairly.

I’ve had a long association on and off with World Press Photo, having presented the 2005 Sem Presser Lecture and directed the Multimedia Research Project in 2012-13. Up until the time I was employed by World Press Photo for the research project I occasionally wrote here about debates involving their procedures and the prizes awarded. When I was directing the research project I decided I could no longer do that. While the Secretary is not an employee of World Press Photo, I still maintain the position that it is not appropriate for me to comment one or another on winning photographs. I leave that for the time being to others, and you can see Martijn Kleppe’s independently curated list of commentary for most of those debates.

What I want to do here, therefore, is detail how the judging process operates so that the jurors can reach their decision. I am presenting some detailed information for others to debate if they so wish, but will not be debating these points directly myself. World Press Photo keeps its procedures under review and I will be contributing to those internal discussions. I am writing this because after two years of having an insider’s view, I feel that those on the outside will benefit from knowing more about the stages of what is a long and complex process. Sometimes I get the sense that without knowing what happens at various stages, people on the outside view the jury process as something akin to the cardinals electing a pope – an opaque process, in which deals are done and favours called in, that culminates mysteriously in the release of white smoke to signal a conclusion.

I’m sure there will be many who continue to hold that view even if they read this, but I feel it is my responsibility to the nineteen jurors who gave their time and energy to the process this year – without payment – to lay out how they worked. All the jurors and the Secretary are bound by a signed commitment to confidentiality, meaning we are unable to discuss what individual jurors do or do not say, and we are unable to discuss which specific images went out and why. This cardinal rule is designed to create an environment of openness and trust within the jury room amongst the jurors, so they can speak critically and freely in the knowledge their contributions will not be misrepresented later. This of course complicates the desire to be transparent about all aspects of the debates. Other competitions operate in different ways, with, for example, Picture of the Year International running live webcasts of its judges at work. While that seems to be the model of openness, I have heard from former PoYI judges it has the potential to constrain judges in speaking freely because of the concern that those up for awards might be watching. Which approach is superior is for others to debate, but there are good arguments on both sides, and as a result I can only discuss how the procedures of the World Press Photo contest work.

I know also there are a number of people who doubt the value of contests in principle, and that can be a valid view point. World Press Photo has been judging professionals annually for nearly sixty years and retains considerable respect and status within the international photographic community. While I am Secretary I want people who question the contest to do so from as informed a position as possible. As a result, this will necessarily be a long post, quite dry in large part. I will be covering:

  • data on entries
  • jury structure and principles
  • the first and second week of judging
  • conflict of interest procedures
  • manipulation and processing issues

I hope those wanting to continue the debate will take the time to read it closely, because a good critique depends on some knowledge of what you are talking about.

Data on entries

This year the contest received 98,671 images from 5,754 photographers with 132 nationalities. Photographers enter their images in one of nine categories

Data on the national breakdown of entries is interesting. If we consider all countries from which 100 or more photographers entered we get this list of the proportion of entry nationalities:

USA 10%

China 9.4%

Italy 8%

Spain 4.4%

UK 4.3%

Germany 4%

India 3.6%

France 3.4%

Russia 3.1%

Poland 3%

Brazil 2.8%

Netherlands 2.8%

Iran 2.3%

That means entrants from thirteen countries constitute 61% of the total number of entries, and those from 119 countries make up the remaining 39% (with Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Indonesia and Mexico prominent amongst those). We would have to look at other years to know whether this national breakdown was either typical or anomalous. It is worth noting that 61% of this year entries came from freelancers who work professionally, with 39% from directly employed professionals. Male photographers made up 86% of entrants, and 14% were female.

The jury structure and principles

In the first round their are specialised juries – News and Documentary, Nature, Sports and Portraits. – that consider their respective categories. You can see who was on each specialised jury here. News and Documentary is the largest specialised jury, with five voting members, because it considers the bulk of the entries – 68,023 photographs this year. The other juries have three voting members. A great deal of effort goes into having a diverse group of jurors. There were nineteen judges from more than a dozen nationalities, though judging always takes place in English.

The juries operate with three general principles:

  1. Over the two weeks juries are, in two stages, editing a large body of work down to smaller numbers in order to award prizes to singles and stories in each category.
  2. The jury process is a form of peer review, where people from the industry and wider photographic community make the judgements.
  3. The images are presented anonymously, without any credit identifying the names of photographer, agency or publication. Jurors are prohibited from mentioning any names if they recognised images and they are prohibited from speculating on names if they are unsure, and this prohibition applies both inside and outside the jury room. As it is not uncommon for different photographers to independently submit images from the same event or place, event those who think they recognise work are often surprised when the names of winners are revealed after the conclusion of judging. To enable discussion of anonymous entries, each image and story has a code number jurors can refer to if they wish to review something.

The contest has five voting rounds: the first, second, third and fourth round, and the finals. Each jury has a specific role, and each round had different voting requirements and procedures.

The first week of judging

The first stage of the judging process runs for the first week. In each specialised jury, singles or stories are passed to the second round if one member of the jury says ‘yes’ on the basis of seeing the screened image. All images are on the screen for roughly the same brief period of time, and there is no caption information available at this stage.

Because they are dealing with smaller bodies of work, the Nature, Portraits and Sports juries proceed to the second round in the first week. Work passed with a single ‘yes’ is then seen again, and requires at least two votes to proceed. If stories do not proceed, then each jury member can if so desired select a single image to be entered into the same singles category. These specialised juries then bring a minimum of six entries in each category to the second week of judging.

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The second week of judging 

The General Jury conducts the second week of judging. The Chair and Secretary of News and Documentary act as Chair and Secretary of the General Jury. They are joined by the Chairs of Nature, Portraits and Sports, and five new members who did not participate in the first round.

The General Jury begins with the third round. Voting is anonymous, with an electronic voting machine recording each jurors ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only the Secretary sees and calls the results of each vote. It requires at least 6 votes of the 9 voting members for a picture or story to pass to the fourth round. Caption information (provided by the photographers when they enter) is available. It was read as a matter of course for stories and on request for singles. Work voted out can be recalled if proposed and the vote is supported by at least 6 jurors, and work can be moved to another category if proposed and supported by the same number of jurors.

In the fourth round, voting is also anonymous and conducted electronically. The aim of the fourth round is to edit each category of singles and stories down to between four and six entries for the final round. That is achieved by alternating negative and positive voting. Jurors first vote to reject work for the finals by voting ‘no’ with the machine, and it takes at least 6 ‘no’ votes for something to go out. If there are less than four or more than six entries left, the jury will then revert to positive voting (voting ‘yes’ with the machine) to reach the four to six entries required for finals. If this takes longer, then the process alternates between positive and negative voting.

In a new procedure for this year, all singles and stories voted through from the fourth round to the finals were reviewed by an independent digital expert to see they complied with the contest rules on manipulation and processing. I’ll detail that process in the section below. Those entires deemed eligible entered the finals for consideration for prizes, with a maximum of four entries in each category.

Extensive discussion is a feature of the process. From the third round onwards the jury engages in extensive debate on the singles or stories in front of them. This was like being in an advanced visual studies seminar – jurors explored aesthetics, ethics, editing, the depiction of violence, informed consent, stereotypes, narrative, story and more.

In the final round, a different voting process, involving the distribution of preferences, operates. Entries are still presented only with their code. Voting is anonymous, using paper ballots, and jurors are prevented from discussing their votes. Jurors have 10 points to distribute to singles or stories they wish to award first, second and third prizes too. They can award a maximum number of 7 points to any entry. This means they chose any combination of 10 points from 7/3/0 to 4/3/3 is given to the three winning entries they favour. Once they have voted these points are counted and the prizes determined.

After all first/second/third prizes are awarded in the nine categories for both singles and stories then the process of selecting the Photo of the Year begins. Only those singles which were first place in their respective categories, plus any frame from any of the first/second/third prize winning stories that was taken is 2013, are eligible to be considered for Photo of the Year. Jurors then nominate photographs – which are still anonymous, without the names of the photographer etc – to be considered and a long list is produced. After debate, successive rounds of positive and negative voting along the lines described above (each time requiring at least 6 votes to keep a photo in or remove it) are conducted until two photographs remain. After more debate, a secret paper ballot is conducted with jurors voting for photo A or photo B. The photo with at least an overall majority amongst the nine members is selected as the winner.

Conflict of interest procedures

I have laid out the jury structure, principles and process in detail because I don’t think these procedures are widely known. The complexity of the voting structure over five rounds is designed to ensure that to progress singles and stories have to build strong majority support and resist majority opposition. The anonymised images and confidential voting process is specifically designed to prevent one individual pushing a favoured image, for whatever reason, against the majority view. Having watched this for one year and operated it this year I have no doubt it works exceedingly well.

The judging process, as I observed at the outset, is a form of peer review. It is inevitable that when you have entries from thousands of professional photographers around the world, someone on a jury of peers could have some relationship with submitted work. This is dealt with in two ways. Firstly, if they know they have an interest jurors must publicly declare it to the jury so it can be factored into debate. Secondly, to check that jurors are declaring an interest, from the third round onwards in the General Jury, the Secretary is given data from the support staff that cross checks the entries remaining to highlight potential interests. I can make two general observations on this. The first is that to date the only reason jurors have not declared an interest before being told of the interest is because they do not know or recognise the work under consideration as being somehow related to them. People assume jurors automatically recognise all work from their colleagues or publications, but this is far from being the case. The second is that people should not assume jurors declaring an interest automatically go on to advocate for the work in which they have an interest – they are at least as likely to oppose it.

Of course, there are many ways organisations can handle the appearance of, or potential for, conflicts of interest. Pictures of the Year International represents its process in these terms:

Pictures of the Year International selects judges who maintain the highest journalistic and ethical standards. We have confidence that these same values will apply as jurors for POYi. We recognize that our profession is a close network and that the judges are also working journalists. So, we carefully research and consider any potential conflicts and then counsel all the members about their obligations to be fair and impartial. Any judge with entries in a category are asked to recuse themselves. The entire three weeks of judging is an open forum for anyone to quietly observe the process. POYi conducts the annual competition with complete transparency and integrity.

Without knowing the full detail of their research and counsel, this sounds similar to the World Press Photo approach. One big difference is that World Press Photo jurors cannot submit entries in the year they are judging, so there are no ground for recusal as there are for POYi judges.

The appearance of a conflict of interest has been a topic in the aftermath of the Photo of the Year award because the winning photographer, John Stanmeyer, is a member of VII, founded by Gary Knight and others. As Lens blog reported:

Mr Knight said that although he had asked to be removed from the final judging because of his friendship and professional relationship with Mr Stanmeyer, the World Press rules did not allow for it. He emphasised that at every level there was complete transparency. “If anything,” he said, “I was a hindrance for John getting the award, not a help.”

This is true. According to the rules, all jurors have one vote and must vote, and no one can abstain in the vote. There was complete transparency at every level and all the rules were followed strictly. The winning image had to progress through the various rounds with majority support as detailed above. Like all the votes from the third round onwards the final vote was anonymous and confidential so we do not know how any individual juror voted. To be blunt, it is an insult to the intelligence and integrity of the eight other voting members of the jury to suggest they made an award on the basis of a declared interest. As Secretary and the person responsible for the integrity of the process I have no doubt whatsoever that all the winners were decided on in accordance with both the rules and the spirt of fairness and equality. There is simply no basis in evidence for questioning the conduct and integrity of Gary Knight, the general jury chair, who at all times created an open environment for free debate on all entries. That was one of the things remarked on and appreciated by all jurors.

Peer review is the backbone of a good system of governance. Anyone with experience in research knows that peer review helps ensure the best quality outcome. In academia peer review determines the award of grants and publications that involve millions of dollars and secure employment. Yet procedures in the university sector often lack the levels of assurance and robustness found in the World Press Photo voting scheme.

The problem is that peer review in a relatively small professional community is going to create the appearance of a conflict of interest where none exists. That is a difficult issue we will struggle with so long as judging by peers is the principle. I’m sure those respected film, literary, musical and theatre awards which use peers from the highest levels of their respective industry struggle with similar issues. Given that 5,754 professional photographers from 132 nationalities entered, making the avoidance of the appearance of a conflict of interest the primary basis on which a jury was structured would eliminate anybody – photographers, editors, publishers, broadcasters, journalists, gallery owners, writers, curators, foundation funders, not to mention any personal friends or current and former partners – who in some way were associated with or worked with that global network. If you made recusal mandatory for any declared interest, then contests could be decided by a jury of peers reduced to a much smaller number of people that could alter with each vote on a single or story, which would distort the process and outcome in other ways. Would it be fair if there were nine jurors voting on one entry, six on the next and only two on the last? That would be a nightmare to administer in terms of equitable procedures.

Of course, you could advocate having a photography contest judged by people who had absolutely nothing to do with any aspect of the global network of photographers who entered. But then you would have a totally different contest and potentially a whole new set of problems. It might be a good idea for someone to set up such a contest and see how it works out, but it’s obviously unlikely to be under the auspices of World Press Photo.

In the end, I don’t know an easy way around the problem of communicating the integrity of a process based on peer review in a small professional community beyond what is covered here. I would be interested in any considered responses on that topic. My hope is that fair minded readers will appreciate that the detail of these reflections is necessary in order to understand how the structure of voting deals with the conflict of interest issues in advance of the specific processes for checking and declaring an interest. With regard to this year’s award, too many critics have, in ignorance of the procedures, remained at the level of appearance, confusing correlation with causation. We know we have a communications problem, and we know that appearances matter. What we do not have is a fairness or integrity problem.

Manipulation and processing issues

In a new development, this year World Press Photo had all entries being considered for prizes in the final round examined by an independent digital photography expert from the Netherlands before the jury proceeded to deliberate. This was to determine that all singles and stories going into the final round were eligible. To be eligible for prizes, entries must be valid according to the contest rules. The relevant rules states:

The content of an image must not have been altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry are allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards…

The expert carried out a case-by-case analysis of the level of post-processing in the files that were entered in the contest by comparing them with the unprocessed files. 120 photographers were contacted with the request to submit the unprocessed files for analysis. The jury received a full briefing and this was followed by a thorough discussion.

In applying the contest rules, the jury affirmed the content of an image must not be altered. This means no significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning. The jury based their decision on the outcome (whether significant material had been added or removed) irrespective of the technique (cloning or toning) used. The jury applied accepted standards in the industry, which, for example, allow for the cleaning of dust and scratches, and this judgement was applied in the same way to each entry in each category.

The jury decided that 10 entries were not eligible for the finals. That is 8% of the entries that were still in competition after the fourth round. There were 8 stories and 2 singles rules to be ineligible, entered in the Nature, Sports, People, Spot News, and Contemporary Issues categories. World Press Photo will be writing in confidence to those photographers whose work was ruled ineligible to make them aware of the decision.

Was this a large number of problem entries at that stage of the competition? Given that it is the first year this process has been in place, there is no point of comparison. We will have a better idea in the future, but then we would expect that percentage to drop as future entrants will be aware of what being caught means, so we won’t be able to say if that proportion is reflective of the industry as a whole. The Jury Chair reflected on these numbers:

I was really distressed, especially because so much of the post-processing that had made these images ineligible was absolutely unnecessary…It was materially minute but ethically significant. Or it was just laziness – it was photographers trying to turn a pig’s ears into a silk purse. One image in one story disqualified the whole story.

The review of eligible entries is an on-going process given the need to closely analyse unprocessed files as they come in from photographers. Work found to be ineligible can be disqualified after judging, as was the case in a previous year.

Conclusion

I am presenting this detailed information on the process for others to debate if they so wish, but will not be debating any points relating directly to this year’s competition myself. I am happy to accept comments below, but will only respond myself if there is a factual point about this years procedures to clarify, or a general observation to engage.

I have to conclude by saying I was honoured to accept the post of Secretary to the World Press Photo contest jury and I am already looking forward to next year. I am proud of the way this year’s judging was conducted by all concerned. There’s lots of analysis to do on what the contest can tell us about the state of the global visual economy and the representation of the world it gives us, and this was something this year’s jury debated too. But since returning form Amsterdam I have been sleeping well in the knowledge the results of this years contest were achieved fairly, equally and with unquestionable integrity on the part of all who deliberated.

Update: 18 February 2014

The World Press Photo Managing Director issued a statement which concludes: “World Press Photo has total confidence in its judging process and how it was applied this year. We trust absolutely in the integrity of our chairs and jurors and we honor the selections they have made.”

Photos credit: © Michael Kooren photography / Hollandse Hoogte — the general jury working, at World Press Photo HQ, 11 February 2014.

Categories
media economy photography

Documentary Photography in the Age of Anxiety: Fred Ritchin’s “Bending the Frame”

Ritchin Bending the Frame

We live in a period of anxiety, a time of deep uncertainty about the foundations and frameworks through which we make sense of life. It may have always been like this, but various faiths and philosophies work to convince us that there are guideposts and touch points around which we can orient our purpose and values. The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, in his seminal 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, coined the term “Cartesian Anxiety” for the generalised belief that we have lost even the pretence of secure reference points. As Bernstein argues (p. 19), we face “the growing apprehension that there may be nothing – not God, reason, philosophy, science, or poetry…that answers to and satisfies our longing for ultimate constraints, for a stable and reliable rock upon which we can secure our thought and action.”

This Cartesian Anxiety manifests itself in multiple forms and different ways. In recent times it has been evident in the media economy, where economic and technical disruption has challenged the traditional frames image makers, reporters and storytellers have relied upon to give their enterprise purpose. In Bending the Frame, Fred Ritchin – former picture editor, educator and one of the most important writers on the social role of photography over the last two decades – asks some of the big questions that flow from these disturbances. What is photography for? Do photographs help anyone? How should journalistic and documentary photographers regard themselves? Ritchin’s book is structured like an essay that probes debates and perspectives rather than a linear argument leading to a single conclusion. He generally avoids the easy temptation of those afflicted by Cartesian Anxiety, a nostalgic longing of a better and simpler past. Instead, he sees great but largely unrealised potential in the new digital possibilities for storytelling, a point that reinforces his important argument about “hyperphotography” from his 2009 book After Photography. This is especially the case given that tools like Luminate, Stipple and ThingLink now allow producers to embed information in online images and connect them to other sources of data, a commercial function that has great potential for visual storytelling.

One of Ritchin’ virtues is his upfront recognition that photography inevitably and inescapably is an act of construction and interpretation. Photographs have been granted the cultural status of “a reliable trace of the visible and the ‘real’” (p. 8), but they embody the photographers point of view amongst other factors. This should be obvious to the point of being a truism, but it is surprising how many discussions of photography’s meaning and status proceed by assuming an unshakable, but conceptually unsustainable, commitment to objectivity (partly, I suspect, as an unconscious way of warding off the Cartiesian Anxiety). Ritchin acknowledges this commitment by references to John Szarkowski’s claim photographs were “windows” on the world, transparent devices to record reality, but is not bound by it. Nonetheless, Ritchin wants to retain the social purpose that was part of that commitment, the idea that photographs are “also capable of telling truths, however partial.” Pictures have this capacity, but it is not derived from their status. Rather, it flows from how they are used: “photographs have to be employed rhetorically to build a case and to persuade.” Cast in this light, photographs, “rather than routinely indicate what is (as records of the visible)…increasingly point to what might be – with the potential for much deeper understanding, as well as for a particularly subversive simulation designed to mislead” (pp. 6, 9). Given this, documentary photographers, who, Ritchin argues, “have always seemed to approach the world with touch of both the poet and the social worker, aware of both what is and what might be” (p. 152), must “increasingly emphasise the role of interpretation rather than that of transcription” (p. 49).

The increased recognition of the professional photographer as author rhetorically building a case – for which Ritchin uses the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s as an interesting analogue – is heigthened by the contemporary image economy. Claims that we are being saturated to the point of passivity by photographs proliferating daily, are now a staple of much commentary. Ritchin variously invokes this perspective when he writes of the “cascade of screens submerg[ing] viewers with enormous numbers of images, including billions of their own photographs and videos,” “societies experiencing a surfeit of images,” and the “unrelenting barrage of vivid, often heart-wrenching imagery” (pp. 9, 20, 30). There is a quasi-conservative strain to these claims, a sense that the population at large is ill-equipped to make sense of the visual information it is presented with. While it is easy to cite some egregious example of public stupidity, and while we must contextualise information better, do we really believe the citizenry – of which we are all a part too – cannot cope with the billions of images they readily contribute to? I confess I have only ever heard this claim from photographers and photography critics. Part of the problem with framing our concerns in terms of image saturation is that we can be seduced by the macro numbers oft cited in relation to mobile phones, Facebook uploads and the like. There is no doubt that the growth of mobile devices and social media is one of the most significant developments of our time, but the idea that all of us face a tidal wave of billions of images daily is far from personal reality. As I’ve argued previously, the metaphor of the image flood is deeply misleading. If you average out the global numbers of Facebook photo uploads across all users, they are the equivalent of one picture every three days per person. Add to that the fact these uploads are more personal than public – we generally don’t see the images uploaded unless we are recognised as friends or followers – and the automatically assumed cultural problems said to be induced by those global numbers are looking a little overstated. Not to mention that the popularity of photographic images in social media might actually be a good thing for visual storytellers to connect to and build on.

Ritchin does qualify the claims about image saturation: “Grumbling about the enormous number of images online now makes little sense without acknowledging that they constitute a new, expanding visual literature that, riddled with its share of inanities, will in the end transform our understanding of ourselves and our universe” (p. 48). And the fact his New York University photography students were ignorant of the work of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros (p. 145), suggests there are some dry spots in the pictorial deluge. Making good work more visible is one of Ritchin’s main concerns, and it leads to his consideration of the need for a new “front page” for the online world that helps societal priorities surface and “tells us where to look.” Ritchin proposes “informed groups of people, a rotating cast of experts who have studied certain issues at length or lived through them,” helping us ascertain what matters, and funded by users micropayments (pp. 145-46). He suggests these groups could be – “like the editors and community leaders of yore – people we learn to trust” (p. 147).

Ritchin’s proposal informed the 2011 Aperture exhibition “What Matters Now: Proposals for a New Front Page” he coordinated. I was amongst those who contributed to the section run by Stephen Mayes that concluded we “didn’t want new conventions to replace the old.” Given that front pages of even the most estimable newspapers promote what Daniel Hallin called the “sphere of consensus” – which is a reduction of political options to a series of accepted that frameworks that sometimes involves printing lies – some of us felt the new structures of post-industrial journalism we now live with were already doing a better job of contextualising and promoting important issues. But, as Ritchin notes, “Others at the exhibition felt differently – asserting that media strategies are necessary to prioritize events and issues, in order to create a community with at least certain similar preoccupations” (p. 149). While I don’t doubt that we need ways of prioritising and creating community around pressing issues, the new networks and structures of our disaggregated media economy are already doing this and permitting this. What we need to see is more of it around visual projects of significance.

That disagreement aside, Bending the Frame provides us with an essential starting point for debating the place and role of the image and image makers in the new media economy. We need to change the conversation around the place and role of the image and image makers in the new media economy, and Ritchin’s book will play a big part in that movement.

This is a revised version of my review of Fred Ritchin, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (New York: Aperture, 2013) that appeared in Source 76, Autumn 2013.

Categories
media economy photography

George Rodger’s lessons for contemporary photojournalism

Rodger 2

The 100th anniversary of Robert Capa’s birth this week has called attention again to one of photojournalism’s pivotal figures, one of the four founders of Magnum Photos. Cartier-Bresson is equally well remembered, but David ‘Chim’ Seymour and George Rodger sometimes less so. Yet there is much to learn from George Rodger’s career, in addition to the stories around his famous World War II and Nuba photographs.

I re-read Carole Naggar’s excellent biography George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995 before interviewing her for Jonathan Worth’s #phonar course at Coventry University. Carole was a brilliant interviewee, and what she has to say is worth the 50 minutes of the interview:

There were a lot of issues relevant to the state of contemporary photojournalism in the book and interview, but here are some of the things relating to the industry that stood out for me:

  • Rodger was one of the photographers present at the creation of photojournalism in the 1930s, but he understood himself to be a “writer-photographer” who developed “package stories” that combined pictures and text – multimedia, if you like. These picture essays were also considered “stories with a point of view.”
  • Producing stories with a viewpoint was essential to Capa and Rodger because they thought photographers should be authors, not just illustrators who were inferior to writers. That meant photographers had to gain control of their work – own their own copyright, choose assignments and take pictures without censorship.
  • Rodger and many of his peers rose to prominence working for LIFE magazine, but they came to resent the fact they lost both copyright and their physical negatives to the publisher. Given the communication technologies of the day, it sometimes took months for photographers to get their work back to the magazine, and when in the field they never saw their tearsheets to see how their work was used.
  • In the aftermath of World War II LIFE magazine often assigned Rodger to social and society shoots, which he despised. One drew his “ironic contempt” – a story on dancing rabbits entitled “Rabbits Who Walk on Front Paws.” That LIFE would make the war photographer they lauded with a seven page feature a few years earlier cover such a story shows that fluff and trivia in the media is far from a new thing.
  • The magazine market in both Europe and the US drove the emergence of photojournalism, but in the late 1940s and 1950s it was already in decline, and circulation at outlets like Picture Post collapsed (from 1.38 million in 1950 t0 600,000 when it closed in 1957).
  • Those economic pressures meant Magnum members had to accept industrial reports and even commercial shoots as a necessity. Rodger, for example, took a commission from Standard Oil to photograph its installations worldwide, work he disliked intensely.

Together these points demonstrate that if there ever was a golden age of magazine-funded photojournalism it was extremely short, and shouldn’t be the model by which contemporary practice is judged. The conventional economic structure of photojournalism – when based on commercial media where journalism has always been cross-subsidised by advertising – has always been precarious. The on-going revolutions in our media economy pose many new challenges, but those challenges may not be as new as many think. And reclaiming and developing the idea of photographer as author of a package story with a point of view would be a very good thing.

Categories
Featured media economy photography

Abundant photography: the misleading metaphor of the image flood

Erik Kessels Flickr photographs flood

“We’re exposed to an overload of images nowadays.”

That was the impetus behind Erik Kessel’s 2011 “Photography in Abundance” installation, in which he printed off 1 million pictures to illustrate the number of daily uploads to Flickr.

Kessels argues we confront a glut images on social media:

Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed. By printing all the images uploaded in a 24-hour period, I visualise the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences.

The metaphor of a flood of images drowning us all has become commonplace in photographic commentary, another of the many conventional wisdoms that shape how we understand contemporary image making and its challenges. This week has seen two more iterations.

Michael Kamber was quoted in a New York Times review of the new Associated Press book on the Vietnam War:

Today’s war photographers produce work “every bit as good as anything out of Vietnam…But when you put more stuff on the Internet, it competes with more stuff on the Internet.” Back then, he said, “great photographs had tremendous staying power: you didn’t have access to billions of photos.”

In a review of Jerome Delay’s working showing at this years Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, James Estrin wrote on Lens that:

His task is to take photographs that will make the viewer stop and look at them in a world that is flooded with more than a billion pictures every day.

Estrin’s invocation of the image flood is an especially interesting example of how this metaphor persists. Writing twelve months previously – also about the Perpignan festival – Estrin observed:

The prizewinners are applauded by their colleagues in the crowd who seem oblivious to the tsunami of vernacular photographs about to wash away everything in its path.

What makes Estrin’s 2013 reiteration of his 2012 point noteworthy is that John Edwin Mason wrote a detailed and sympathetic critique of Estrin’s 2012 claim (in which Mason linked to my previous 2011 post on this issue). Mason gently unpacked Estrin’s argument and by highlighting photography’s historical context drove a stake through the heart of the argument. But unlike a vampire, the flood metaphor lives on. Why?

60 seconds on internet - photo uploads

On the face of it, the metaphor of a contemporary image flood has a lot of evidence to support it. We’ve all seen the astounding numbers (from graphics like this one on an internet minute) used to capture the contemporary proliferation of photography:

  • Facebook’s billion users upload 300 million photographs daily, rising to 1-2 billion on holidays, meaning Facebook receives seven petabytes of image content monthly, and stores more than 220 billion photographs in total
  • Instagram has 100 million users who upload 27,800 photos per minute, meaning the site is now home to 5 billion pictures

The numbers seem irrefutable. Those for Facebook and Instagram come from the sites themselves, so we can assume they are credible. We can raise questions about the global total of photographs though. Estrin’s 2012 post links to a Visual News graphic on cell phone photography, which in turn references Jonathan Good’s 2011 post “How many photos have ever been taken” on the 1000memories blog. A close reading of that post, interesting though it is, shows the global total is based on a series of suppositions:

Digital cameras are now ubiquitous – it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos.

‘Estimated’…’if’…’would be’…not unreasonable claims, but assumptions and projections nonetheless. Overall I don’t doubt these claims point towards the general scale of global image production, but they are not quite the objective data they seem to be. More importantly, though, does this number of global images actually produce a flood?

The trouble with the flood metaphor is threefold. The first is that it renders image consumers as passive victims of a force of nature – we drown in the tsunami which against our will sweeps everything away. But image consumption is not a natural process. It involves a series of conscious decisions – to open the book, read/view the news site, watch television, subscribe to the Instagram feed, click on our friends Facebook albums, and so on. Like Mason, contra Kessels, I don’t see us drowning in other people’s personal representations to the exclusion of news and documentary images. As Mason wrote:

…there is no evidence – none – that people think that photos of sunsets and photos of body parts are equally important.  Quite the contrary, people wielding camera phones – people like you and me – have demonstrated time and again that they understand the difference between amusing their friends and recording something of significance.

For that reason I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the likes of Jerome Delay are competing for attention with the vast majority of Facebook uploads.

Secondly, focusing on the macro level – aggregating the global numbers of image on social media sites – hides the much smaller number of images per person. As one assessment concluded, “Roughly broken down into individual Facebook users, the numbers translate to…one picture uploaded every 3 days per Facebooker.” Similarly, the 1000memories calculation quoted above assumes 150 snaps per person per year. Viewed this way, the situation hardly seems overwhelming.

Finally we have the most important point about why the mantra of the image flood is misleading. While there are billions of photographs online, we do NOT actually have access to all of them all of the time. You have to decide to follow people on Instagram and then you have to decide to look. And Facebook is the most closed site on the internet – it’s a walled garden that makes sharing outside its borders difficult, and you cannot get to someone’s personal album if they don’t give you prior access. In other words, either you or a friend has to turn the spigot on the reservoir before pictures come your way, and when they do it’s more like a controlled stream than an endless flood. Having never encountered anyone other than a photographer or photography critic who fretted about the flood, I’d suggest the population at large – the people producing the bulk of the picture uploads – are largely undisturbed by this stream.

So why is this metaphor of the flood endlessly repeated in the face of counter arguments? In many ways it is either an alibi or code for larger issues. It is part of the contemporary manifestation of historic concerns about information overload. It signifies the tension between “amateurs” and professionals in the image economy. It gives a possible explanation for why photographs don’t have the power to change many think they once had. And it offers a possible account of why photojournalism seems to be perpetually in crisis.

Each of those issues deserves close attention because each comes with questionable assumptions as baggage. But we cannot deal with each specifically if we continue to repeat misleading metaphors that deserve to die. It is hard to drive a stake into something as fluid as the mantra of the image flood, but we really have to avoid its easy repetition if we are going to move understanding forward.

Photo credit 1: Copyright Erik Kessels/Gijs Van Den Berg/Caters News

Photo credit 2: Foxcrawl, VIDEO: 60 seconds on internet

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media economy

My recommendation for best UK WordPress hosting

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Having your own patch of digital space is vital in the new media economy. While I have been involved in publishing web-based projects for the last 14 years, it was the discovery of WordPress in 2008, and the recognition it offered an easy way to be online, that revolutionised my work.

Your digital space needs to be stable, fast and well supported to function effectively. And that means you need good web host to provide peace of mind – especially, if like me, you don’t have sufficient technical skills to manage the hosting of your site personally. After some troubled times, I’ve finally found a web host I trust.

[For 2014/2015 updates to my recommendation see the links at the end of this post].

The dark ages

I’ve had some bad experiences with UK-based web hosts in recent years. In November 2011 this site was down for a month because of shockingly bad service from Fasthosts. A server upgrade they recommended went haywire, my site went off-line and a lot of content was lost despite having independent backups. I was left scrambling for help, but got no assistance: I couldn’t reach a live person, I was directed to online forums to see if other users had insights, and when that proved fruitless I received an email from them stating “we are unable to help any further”.

When you’ve paid for service, such a dismissive attitude does not go down well! Unsurprisingly my site was rebuilt on the server of a new host, Force 36. All seemed to go well until my site was the target of a spam attack in March this year. Security is a major issue given WordPress’s popularity – it runs 1 in 6 of all web sites on the Internet – and there are many ways to protect yours site, but you need a knowledgeable and understanding host to make that security possible. So it was very frustrating when my new host was more interested in shuttering my site and getting it off their servers than helping to defend and restore it. Another move had therefore become essential.

Finding a better home

My site is not a big operation on the web, but it is vital to me as the platform for my work. What I wanted above all else was a web host who understood that personal importance and offered timely support when problems came up. After extensive searching followed by phone calls to test customer service, I settled on Fresh Sites. I transferred my domain and took out a package costing only £40/year. The service I have received since then has been exceptional.

https://twitter.com/davidc7/status/325230341507923970

The transition to Fresh Sites went very well, their SEO review was helpful, and the telephone guidance on how to increase site speed by reviewing plugins was illuminating (tip: install P3 – Plugin Performance Profiler to see load times). Unlike my previous hosts, they know WordPress inside out.

Their security guidance and support has helped the most. They have ten excellent tips to make your site more robust (as well as another suggestion for their clients), and they made the suggested code and file changes quickly and for no additional cost.

https://twitter.com/davidc7/status/330594764833583104

Even when you have taken all precautions, it is speedy customer support that is most important, as I have twice found out, beginning in May:

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Yesterday my site came under a sustained botnet attack, of the kind that has been directed globally at WordPress sites over the past few months.

https://twitter.com/davidc7/status/369451802938200066

When Fresh Sites couldn’t mitigate the attack by blocking the IP addresses of the hacked computers involved, they protected this site by temporarily suspending the account until the botnet had cleared. I was off-line for less than 12 hours and nothing was lost. My only reservation with this latest episode was that I would have appreciated being contacted shortly after the suspension was activated so I didn’t have to find out via a user. But once I was in touch with them I received instantaneous email and telephone support.

After four months of great service, and with my site running faster and better than ever, I’ve today joined the Fresh Sites affiliates programme. I’ve never recommended a commercial service before, but given the role Fresh Sites play in keeping my work online, they have my vote if you are looking for the best UK-based WordPress hosting.

UPDATE 14 October 2013

Happily Fresh Sites continue to offer great service. Yesterday I went online and found my site header had been hacked and the pages were full of random text. I was relieved to find all the security measures we had put in place protected the content.

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You can’t want for more than speedy customer service on a Sunday morning that sorts your problems. If they let me down I would let you know, but as the brilliant work continues they definitely have my wholehearted recommendation.

UPDATE 2 JUNE 2014

The best news from the last six months is that, despite all the daily attacks on WordPress sites around the world, all the security measures recommended by Fresh Sites have meant no more downtime because of hacks. It has been a period of smooth running, and I’ve set up other sites on Fresh Sites because of their continued excellence.

UPDATE 6 MAY 2015

After two happy years, Fresh Sites remain my on-going recommendation, as detailed in this new post.

Categories
media economy multimedia

Scarcity, abundance and value: the economics of digital culture

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Understanding the changing relationship between scarcity and abundance – and how they affect value – is essential for visual storytellers seeking to operate in the new ecology of information.

The foundation for this changing relationship is the fact that the web is built on a structurally open system.

Open doesn’t mean all is equal and free of from power.

There are, for example, obvious international inequalities in terms of geographic and class access to the Internet.

It is also true that commercial interests (whether that be Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter or individual corporations) are able to exercise great power on the web.

Nonetheless, because the founders of the web took the historic decision not to patent and thereby privatise its invention we can all have our own piece of digital space.

So the system remains structurally open because anyone can, for very low cost, broadcast, publish and distribute information. Anyone can establish a web presence from which to attract and reach audiences. This simple fact, combined with other changes in digital technology, has altered the parameters of the media economy from scarcity to abundance. This has been well described by Nicholas Carr:

As the Internet becomes our universal medium, it is reshaping what might be called the economics of culture.  Because most common cultural goods consist of words, images, or sounds, which all can be expressed in digital form, they are becoming as cheap to reproduce and distribute as any other information product. Many of them are also becoming easier to create, thanks to the software and storage services provided through the Net and inexpensive production tools like camcorders, microphones, digital cameras, and scanners….The shift from scarcity to abundance in media means that, when it comes to deciding what to read, watch, and listen to, we have far more choices than our parents or grandparents did.

Of course, this doesn’t itself address issues of quality amidst abundance, but social recommendation, the filtering done by trusted sources, delivers a rich stream of information. I can avoid cheesy cat videos on the web just as easily as I can bypass tabloid newspapers in the shop. But I can get unexpected reports and stories much more easily now than when I had to rely on either the physical library or the newsagent.

The great challenge is how to financially support good stories in this era of information abundance. Approaching that question requires us to appreciate three things:

  1. Good journalism has always been indirectly subsidised and never paid for directly, and this is complicated by the way the artificial scarcity prices of print advertising have collapsed since 2000;
  2. We cannot confuse or conflate value and price: people value quality information and stories for their utility or experience, but the price that can be charged is driven more by issues of access and availability than content worth;
  3. Being able to charge scarcity prices depends on having something unique, long-lasting, easy to access and easy to pay for.

This is the eighth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Categories
media economy multimedia

Digital and the the desire for long form journalism

The world is at her fingertips

The disruption of the Internet, the turn to online news sources, and the global spread of mobile technology are sometimes seen as producing a new age of distraction and superficiality.[1. This position draws on the likes of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and crops up in articles such as “Smart readers are too distracted to read smart content.” There are two problems with these claims. First is that the science on the impact of technology on thinking is contested, as the arguments reviewed her make clear. Second is that the claims are very absolutist, giving a sense there is a general social-psychological condition that automatically affects all. The New York Times ran a good series on brains and computers in 2010 but its opening character revealed that “distraction” might be a conscious choice. While 17 year old Vishal Singh was used as example of one whose love of computers and the Internet meant he couldn’t focus on school homework, he had no trouble concentrating unreservedly on his true passion – film making – spending hours editing short sequences and getting an A in his film studies class. As such, he is hardly “wired for distraction.”]

Without claiming that these are in fact the best of times for visual storytellers, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that contemporary developments are building on and encouraging a healthy appetite for engagement with news and information.

Here is what we found in the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie multimedia research project (see section 2 of the report for details and sources):

  • Over the last two decades – and consistent throughout that period – American data shows people enjoy reading (51% say they enjoyed it a lot), and there has been no decrease in the number reading a book on a typical day (c. 30%). Now, though, the proportion (currently 20%) reading those books via electronic devices is growing
  • In Europe and the US there is a strong appetite for news, with 75% or more of people accessing news daily
  • International news is a topic of interest for 44%+ in Europe and the US
  • At least two-thirds of the 16-24 age group in Europe and the US are interested in news, so the future is not so bleak as sometimes feared.

Significantly mobile technology is helping to cultivate this appetite for news:

  • accessing news is one of top things mobile consumers do
  • it increases the amount of news they consume
  • it increases the number of longer stories they read
  • organisations like the Wall Street Journal report people spend at least as much time (40-50 mins) on their tablet app as they did with the printed paper.

Web video is the subject of current debate, with some producers questioning its value. That argument makes some good creative points that need to be examined in more detail, although there is wide variation in what counts as “web video.” But it is clear that news consumers like linear video. Media organisations we surveyed repeatedly said it was one of the two most popular formats for people coming to their sites. As a result many media organisations (especially those formerly known as newspapers) are investing heavily in video production. All this makes online video the fastest growing multimedia format, with encouraging audience behaviour for those producing stories:

  • News is a popular category on YouTube (it was the most searched for item in four out of 12 months in 2011)
  • There is no strict correlation between length of video and popularity – one-third of popular videos were 2-5 minutes in length, and nearly one fifth were longer than 5 mins
  • Oyala, a large video streaming platform, reported that long form videos of 10 minutes+ accounted for 57% of viewing time on tablets they served
  • Multimedia completion rates can also be good: MediaStorm says that more than half, and often two-thirds, of those viewing their stories online stay with them to the end, even when stories run up to 20 or more minutes.

We can also point to studies commissioned by the Associated Press demonstrating that audiences desire breadth, context and depth – news consumers feel they have the headlines and what they want is the background. To that end, they value the depth visuals (both still and moving) can bring.

This shows the audience is out there, they have an appetite for visual stories, and are consuming long form journalism and video. This does not mean the audience for visual stories can be easily found or quickly engaged. It still takes a good story, and one that is accessible to as many as possible. But both audience desire and our ability to reach them is being encouraged by the digital transformations many feared would have a negative effect on the future of visual stories.

This is the seventh in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

FOOTNOTE:

Categories
media economy multimedia

The global spread of mobile technology and what it means for visual storytelling

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The global spread of mobile technology is reshaping the media economy.

By 2017 there will be 5.2 billion mobile users worldwide, up from 4.3 billion currently, and the number of mobile Internet connections will exceed the number of people on the planet (albeit with a different distribution). The proliferation of smartphones, laptops and tablets has made the screen the primary access point for much information and is helping to drive the growth in online news sources. In the US, smartphones have outpaced almost every other technology in the speed of mainstream adoption, and are the backbone of most media interactions.

Instead of one technology killing off and totally replacing another, people are now getting their news through a combination of different new devices and sources. Nearly all media organisations produce mobile content, and those like The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal are seeing one-third of their readers coming in via mobile devices and the number is growing rapidly. The proliferation of devices for accessing the web enables and encourages multiplatform consumption.

The visual is at the heart of these developments. According to a Cisco executive, the “dramatic adoption” of mobile technology means “we are rapidly approaching the time when nearly every network experience will be a mobile one and, more often than not, a visual one as well.” That is because mobile video is the biggest single component of mobile data traffic – it now accounts for 51% of this traffic and will rise to 66% in 2017.

Mobile feeds social. The growth in mobile is fuelling the number of Americans – not just the young – who access news via social networks, which increased from 9% in 2010 to 19% in 2012. In the UK, social networks are equally important, with the Reuters Institute reporting that they provide the gateway to news for 20% of users.

These developments mean being mobile and social is essential for every visual storyteller. That does not mean every story has to be designed for mobile only. It does mean that to have the chance of reaching the largest and widest possible audience, at least some element of every story, or some version of every story, needs to be readily accessible on mobile devices and easily shareable on social networks. Storytellers need to find their audiences, and audiences in the new media economy are increasingly found, at least in the first instance, through mobile and social.

This is the sixth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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Featured media economy multimedia

The primacy of the screen

Google screen study

 

The screen has become the primary access point for much information.

The shift to online news sources, the growth of mobile platforms, and the expansion of video output are both cause and effect of the screen’s increasing dominance.

The above graphic comes from a 2012 study commissioned by Google and conducted by Sterling Brands and Ipsos. They concluded that 90% of media interactions by Americans were now screen based. This could well be an overstatement, despite the good mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, because the research sample was 1,611 people aged 18-64 in Los Angeles, Boston and Austin, three connected cities. Nonetheless, because of the many intersecting factors contributing to the dominance of the screen, it shows at least a clear trend.

This study reported that screens were employed both sequentially and simultaneously. Sequentially meant people would use different devices individually in different contexts and at different times. simultaneously refers to “the second screen experience”, where viewing on one device is accompanied by another. While mobile devices enable access anywhere anytime (assuming network connections), Pew found they are most often used for news in the home. And whether sequential or simultaneous, the study concluded that smartphones were the backbone of daily media interactions, the most common starting point for activities, and the most common companions in sequential use.

The main thrust of the Google/Sterling Brands/Ipsos findings are supported by a 2013 BBC study of global multiscreen news consumption:Multiplatform news consumption infographic

Jim Egan, CEO of BBC Global News Ltd, drew an interesting conclusion from this study:

Avid news consumers are hungry for information wherever they are and expect to stay in touch on all the devices they now own. There’s been speculation for years that mainstream uptake of smartphones, laptops and tablets will have a negative impact on television viewing, but this study has found that the four devices actually work well together, resulting in greater overall consumption rather than having a cannibalising effect.

The primacy of the screen is good news for visual storytellers. Increased access to, and consumption of, information is being enabled by these devices. The challenge will be how to make stories work on, and across, different screens, especially smartphones. The challenge will also be how to link print and other platforms with screens in this new ecology of information.

This is the fifth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Categories
media economy multimedia

Newspapers, advertising and the Internet: How journalism has always been subsidised

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The disruptive power of the Internet changed everything in media. But it did not cause everything.

The decline of newspapers, so long the editorial paymaster for photojournalism, is a trend dating back six decades.

Globally there are mixed signals concerning newspaper circulation, with some reporting growth in Asia offsetting falls in Europe and the US, while other sources reveal “printed newspaper readership is now declining in almost all major economies,” including China and India.

In the US, UK and Canada, the data is clear and dramatic. The Communications Management Inc. study on Sixty Years of Daily Newspaper Circulation Trends shows newspaper circulation has been falling since 1950:

CM2011 newspaper circulation comparison

Because the defining characteristic of the new media economy is “the separation of information from its means of distribution” we cannot conclude that the decline in newspapers means the demise of journalism, visual or otherwise. The reverse is in fact true – journalism has many homes and benefits from the freedom of circulation and distribution that the Internet makes possible – the Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News is a great example.

The problem is that the traditional homes of journalism have seen their already parlous financial health further undercut. However, we have to remember that most media organisations are in business, but not primarily the business of journalism. Legacy organisations (including great ones like The New York Times) spend no more than 20% of their budget on news content (in fact, in the US the industry average is 12.7%). The rest goes on the management and operation of the distribution model.

Media organisations are in the business of advertising, advertising has accounted for 80% of their revenue, and that revenue has subsidised the journalism that provides the content that draws the readers/views in to see the advertisements. Above all else it is the collapse in advertising revenue for print media that has been the single largest cause of journalism’s financial crisis, as this graph from Mark Perry shows dramatically:

Newspaper ad revenue 1950-2012

The disruption of the Internet has put added pressure on print advertising and online advertising has not replaced print losses.

There are some vital lessons flowing from this for the future of visual storytelling. We have to understand that:

  • journalism (reporting, stories, pictorial coverage) has never been a viable, stand-alone product. It has never paid for itself directly and its users have never directly paid for all of it. Journalism has always been subsidised by indirect sources, principally advertising;
  • the culture of “free” is originally a product, not of the Internet, but of the mass media model – it comes from “free to air” radio, “free to view” television (both financed indirectly by advertising) and newspapers with small subscription fees making up no more than one-fifth of their revenue, all of which enabled many generations of users to get their information for no charge at the point of consumption;
  • there will not be a one-size-fits-all, single business model for good journalism in the future, but it will continue to depend on sources of indirect subsidy;
  • successful journalism operations (of which there many good examples) are becoming sustainable not by discovering some untapped, secret pot of gold, but by diversifying income, making new connections between advertising, paying for content, selling data and technology, events, freelancing, consulting etc.;
  • photojournalists and visual storytellers should not pin their hopes on “paywalls” for established news sites as the single best solution, because even if they work on some measures these are not going to bring back a lost golden age of editorial assignments, as user subscriptions can never replace lost advertising revenue for legacy organisations.

This historical perspective challenges some important myths about what happened to media. None of this makes the present struggle for critical visual journalism easy. But it should re-set the terms of the debate about what is happening now, and re-frame some of the strategic options for the future.

This is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Categories
media economy multimedia

Disruption and the new ecology of information

What happens in an internet minute

The context for thinking about what is happening with visual storytelling is one of “disruption.” Yes, that term can be drained through overuse, but it is still vital in understanding the dynamics of the new media economy,

That is because disruption is more than just change through competition.

We have disruption because, as the Columbia University report Post-Industrial Journalism argued (p. 83),

the arrival of the internet did not herald a new entrant in the news ecosystem. It heralded a new ecosystem, full stop.

The Internet is not a competitor that stands separate from the traditional media institutions. Its dynamics have created something new that encompasses all who exist in the news ecosystem, including the traditional institutions. Even though there are still significant inequalities in Internet access within and between countries, the Intel graphic above makes clear the scale of the disruption the Internet produces for all.

The metaphor of the ecosystem and ecology is important here because it reflects the way the media economy is made up of networks through which news and information is produced, distributed and consumed. How can we understand the impact disruption has had on the ecology of news? Richard Stacy puts it best. The defining characteristic of the new media economy is “the separation of information from its means of distribution.”

This means (according to the Columbia study, p.1):

Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the startups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate, narrowly and broadly, outside the old strictures of the broadcast and publishing models. The past 15 years have seen an explosion of new tools and techniques, and, more importantly, new assumptions and expectations, and these changes have wrecked the old clarity.

As a result it no longer makes sense to speak of a traditional, print based media opposed to a digital competitor. There is no such thing as traditional media any longer, even if print remains a mode of distribution for some. When ‘newspapers’ are streaming more video on some services than broadcast stations, broadcast networks are competing on the web with everyone else, and public radio networks have multimedia producers for visual stories, you know the media world has changed forever. Everybody is implicated in the digital ecosystem, even if you think of yourself as a print producer, and that goes for individuals as well as organisations. We should therefore refer to the traditional distribution platforms for journalism as “the organisations formerly known as newspapers, radio and television.”

And if you want a sense of how we have come on the web, then find time to watch this 1995 PBS computer show introducing the Internet, and note how much more visual the web has become in its second decade:

This is the third in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Learning to COPE: Multimedia freelancing in the new media economy

Guest post from D J Clark

How people make a living from ‘multimedia’ reporting and storytelling is one of the most pressing issues.

In the new World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project report (p. 44) is a colourful diagram. As an illustration of how indirect revenue can subsidise work, “Ways to make money blogging” sits in the midst of a discussion about how the old media system is now broken and how “in the new media economy all media is multimedia, social media, and it is increasingly mobile.” Examining the various income streams laid out in blue, yellow, red and green, I realized how similar this was to my freelance business as a photographer turned multimedia journalist.

The diagram below represents a quick email survey of five Beijing-based international freelance visual journalists, including myself, who have successfully made the transition from a single media (mainly photography) to delivering multiple media (mainly photography and video) to international clients.

easelly_visual_590

While freelance assignments still make up the largest part of our income, surprisingly it is less than half. Of that half, the vast majority (78%) is for regular media clients rather than one-off assignments. As with TV news, multimedia not only requires the freelancer to be well versed in a particular style of shooting, it also needs the freelancer to understand complex workflows, compression settings, subtitling, transmitting etc., which together make it more likely the media companies will use the same people repeatedly.

Of the five of us surveyed, three had formal contracts with at least one media company, but this still made up only 10% of overall assignments. Commercial work was the next biggest earner, although two people said this takes up very little time and is undertaken to fund equipment and editorial assignments.

Teaching on university courses, conducting media company training, and running workshops all formed a reliable income source for most of us. Grants only made up 6% of income, although four out of five of us had received at least one. Funding projects with grants and crowd sourcing is often put forward as a potential substitute to publishers but much of the money is spent on travel and production costs with little going back to the journalist as income. My most recent grant ended up costing me money as the project went over budget by more than the amount allotted to my fee.

One other surprise was stock sales, which in the old system was a trustworthy form of income even when assignments were slow. At only 3% there seems little point in investing too heavily in the time it takes to organize media for stock agencies and send it off – maybe better to upload to YouTube, Vimeo or Flickr as a way of promoting yourself and generating sales?

There was one additional question I asked the group. How much time do you put into social media and/or online promotion? All except one explained they find it hard to separate social media/blogging from their work, and the individual who was not so engaged said she should be doing this. “This stuff is completely intertwined with my life,” explained one journalist. Yet all of us answered 0% when asked how much direct income we derived from these time-consuming activities. Indirect income is another matter, however.

Recently I discovered the world of COPE – ‘Create Once Publish Everywhere’, a concept first championed by NPR and now used extensively by media companies to get their content to where audiences are, rather than trying to bring audiences to them. For multimedia freelancers it is also important to spread your content on as many platforms and in as many ways as possible. Sharing photographs on Instagram while working an assignment, tweeting from behind the scenes, sharing links on Facebook, uploading (when permitted) stories to your YouTube and Vimeo accounts, and blogging all help promote the journalist effectively, if not more so than having a personal website you expect people to find. Learning how to separate the noise from the signal and using time-saving social apps like Hootsuite are also key skills to save getting bogged down in the social stream so you can concentrate on the story.

This short survey is by no means conclusive but it does demonstrate that developing strong relationships with a few media organisations, taking on a variety of income creating activities, and devoting a good amount of time to online engagement that is not directly paid, all form part of modern-day, successful freelancing in the new media economy.

This is a guest post from D J Clark, with whom I have worked in various capacities for more than ten years. You can find out more about D J Clark at djclark.com. The MA International Multimedia Journalism he directs (and to which I contribute) is now accepting applications for September 2013. D J Clark’s newly released, free, and co-authored multimedia training resource is at multimediatrain.com.

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Categories
Featured media economy multimedia photography

‘Multimedia’, photojournalism and visual storytelling

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What is “multimedia”?

Searching for a single definition in answer to this question is neither possible nor desirable. At its most basic, “multimedia” signifies some combination of images, sound, graphics, and text to produce a story. In different realms of practice people speak of “cross media,” “transmedia” or “mixed media.’ In photojournalism, “multimedia” has often been first understood as “photography, plus…”, principally the combination of still imagery with other content. Nowadays we see it in multiple forms ranging from online photo galleries where pictures are combined with text captions, to audio slideshows, linear video (both short-from and long-form), animated infographics, non-linear interactives, and full-scale web documentaries and broadcast films.

The digital revolution has been a defining development in the emergence of “multimedia” that blurs the boundary between still and moving images. But that boundary has long been blurred. Even a brief consideration of the history of image making shows considerable overlap between still and moving images. Close-ups and freeze frames are moments in which cinema employs the still image, and photo-stories and sequences testify to the influence of cinema on photography. Famous photographers like Man Ray, Paul Strand and Gordon Parks were all involved in filmmaking and films like Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (1962) and Agnes Varda’s “Salut Les Cubains” (1963) were based on still photographs. Ken Burn’s creative use of archival pictures in “The Civil War” (1990) was so powerful it gave rise to an effect now immortalised in video editing software. Modern television is not averse to deploying stills in either opening credits (as in David Simon’s “Treme”) or in news broadcasts, when a slower pace is needed to underline the significance of the event (the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq being two such cases), or when video is unavailable.

The roots of “multimedia” go deeper still. In the media history of photographic images, prior to mass reproduction of images in print becoming possible, pictures were displayed to the public with the help of technological devices such as the magic lantern (as well as the gloriously named phenakistiscope, zoetrope, praxinoscope, mutoscope, etc.) that created the perception of moving images in theatrical settings.

Moving forward again, we can recall other photographic projects in which images were entwined with other forms of content. Nan Goldins’ famous “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was originally shown in the early 1980s as a constantly evolving slideshow with music. Pedro Meyer’s “I Photograph to Remember” (1991), Rick Smolan’s “From Alice to Ocean” (1992) and “Passage to Vietnam” (1994), and Tim Hetherington’s “House of Pain” (1996) were all on CD-ROMs and it was speculated that CD-ROMs might replace books as the chosen platform for photographic presentation. Gilles Peress’ “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace” (1996) was an interactive photo essay, while Ed Kashi’s “Iraqi Kurdistan” flipbook style production (2006) closed the circle by deploying a nineteenth century technique on a twenty-first century platform.

Photojournalism has always been influenced by technological changes, and the arrival of DSLR cameras with video capability – the Nikon D90 in August 2008 followed shortly thereafter by the Canon 5D Mark II – have again highlighted the relationship between still and moving images, providing practitioners with dual image capability in a single camera body.

What is the significance of this history? It confirms that any attempt to strictly define “multimedia” would exclude more than it includes. And it demonstrates that what we need is not a restrictive definition of one genre, but an expanded understanding of “the photographic,” especially the long-standing and complex relationship between still and moving images, possibly what Tim Hetherington meant when he spoke of a “post-photographic” world. This is not a world in which one visual form has died, but a world in which multiple visual forms are alive and stronger than ever.

This is why this study speaks of “visual storytelling”. It opens up the field to different communities who share a common purpose in image-oriented reportage. It is the zone in which photojournalism, videojournalism, documentary, cinema and interactive storytelling have the potential to intersect. This does not create a new visual genre, but it constitutes a space in which photojournalists can bring their aesthetic abilities and commitment to reporting, and learn from those operating outside of photography.

This is not the “convergence” of everything into one, nor a place where a single new form replaces all others – none of this leads to the conclusion that all forms of print are passé. Instead, we have arrived at a place where image making is important to storytelling, and storytelling encompasses many forms across many platforms.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Image credit: Magic lantern show, 1881. This engraving of a magic lantern show is from La Nature (vol 1, 1881), and is signed ‘Smeeton Tilly’. The image being projected depicts a castle at night. © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library — All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Categories
media economy

Getting paid in the digital economy

Spring

Few topics are as potentially toxic as the question of how one gets paid for creative work in the digital economy.

This week has seen the latest round of recriminations on this topic following Nate Thayer’s posting of correspondence with The Atlantic, in which he was invited to edit a previously published 4,300 word article down to 1,200 words for no pay. Thayer’s post went viral, attracted more than 100,000 views on his blog, sparked widespread social media debate, and led to an apology from The Atlantic.

As someone who writes, lectures and produces freelance, I have a personal interest in these questions. I’m regularly asked to work for free. Only this week I was invited to present a new keynote lecture to the annual meeting of a European organisation, something that would have taken at least three days to prepare and required two days of travel, yet there was to be no recompense beyond the necessary economy flight and overnight hotel stay. Needless to say, in the absence of any other perceived benefits, this invitation was respectfully declined.

As much as examples like this invitation and Thayer’s experience invite a moralising response, we learn little about how the new media economy works through venting our disgust. Instead we need to probe deeper into what such moments reveal about the cultural economics of our current moment.

To that end, in repsonse to Thayer’s post, Reuters’ Felix Salmon detailed the new dynamics of online journalism, showing that while there are good digital journalism jobs available, overall the structure of publishing online means “the web is not a freelancer-friendly place.” Alexis Madrigal’s impassioned defense of The Atlantic editor’s perspective also revealed how an online operation differs from (often misplaced) assumptions about the good old days of print magazines. And paidContent’s Matthew Ingram spelt out how the almost infinite supply of quality writing available at no direct cost means few people are going to make a living directly by submitting work to traditional outlets.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t value good writing, or that there aren’t successful new publishing outlets, like Marco Arment’s The Magazine, which is digital only (and a testament to simple design), runs no ads, pays its contributors, and is already turning a handy profit.

What this latest debate shows is that in the context of infinite supply, creative practitioners will rarely be remunerated directly for their work, regardless of whether that work is in the form of words or images. Instead, as I’ve long argued, the dynamics of the new media economy means those of us working independently will have to be compensated indirectly from diverse sources. We all have bills to pay, but we may not get the money to do so from the words we write or the pictures we produce, but from value created around those words and/or pictures. Above all else, we have to forgo the easy moral outrage and develop a more sophisticated understanding of the role ‘free’ plays in relation to paid in a structurally open system like the internet. Creative experimentation is the order of the day. I know personally how hard this is, but it is now unavoidable.

Photo credit: Rebecca L. Daily/Flickr

Categories
media economy

Copy culture: What people actually think about file sharing

The revolutions in the media economy and the new media landscape are producing new dynamics in the circulation of digital files. To appreciate how image makers might function best in this new ecology, we need to learn from other areas, and music is one domain where some work has been done.

The American Assembly, affiliated with Columbia University in New York, has produced a study on Copy Culture in the US and Germanywhich “explores what Americans and Germans do with digital media, what they want to do, and how they reconcile their attitudes and values with different policies and proposals to enforce copyright online.”

Many discussions of these issues proceed in terms of assumptions and generalisations that often have little evidence to back them up. The great virtue of Copy Culture is it provides some hard data on what is actually happening in the new media economy, and that data paints a picture at odds with the oft-heard claims about a rampant and destructive “culture of free” on the web – symbolised in the graphic at the top of this post.

In both the US and Germany people like to share music, most of it bought legally. There are not huge differences in national attitudes, and the vast majority think it is reasonable to share with family and friends. Only small numbers (less than 20%) want to put files on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks for others to download. There are generational differences, but the numbers are a very long way from painting an anarchic picture of moral depravity.

When the American Assembly study looked at the composition of people’s music collections they found two things. First, that “‘copying from friends/family’ is comparable in scale and prevalence to ‘downloading for free’.” And it is worth remembering that much of the material copied from friends and family is legally purchased in the first place – it is similar in many ways to passing a book around once you have finished reading it.

Secondly, they found something that matches the conclusions of numerous other studies that have put illegal file sharing in perspective: “The biggest music pirates are also the biggest spenders on recorded music.” 

And as the study observed, “if absolute spending is the metric, then P2P users value music more highly than their non-P2P using, digital-collecting peers, not less. They’re better digital consumers.” So just because people share for free doesn’t mean they don’t value what they share. Appreciating how enhanced sharing leads to greater purchases – how the virtues of the web can be leveraged – is one of the most important things for anyone producing creative content in the new media economy.

One study, even a good one like Copy Culture, won’t end the debate on sharing in the internet economy. But it certainly casts a more sober and hopeful light on what people are actually doing and thinking.

 

Image credits: top graphic from Mot/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. The report graphics are from the American Assembly web site, at http://piracy.americanassembly.org/file-sharing-is-it-wrong/ and http://piracy.americanassembly.org/where-do-music-collections-come-from/

Categories
media economy multimedia

Paying for multimedia: MediaStorm’s Pay Per Story scheme

Few things remain more challenging, and require more experimentation, than finding a way to fund new visual stories. It has never been easy to sustain documentary work, but now we have a new development that is worth watching. MediaStorm have built an enviable reputation as the leading multimedia production studio, and their launch of “Pay Per Story” with the release of “A Shadow Remains” by Philip Toledano and “Rite of Passage” by Maggie Steber, is an important moment for this issue.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Brian Storm since we taught together for a week in China in 2008, and I’ve continued to benefit from his advice on projects and insights on the industry. I’ve visited MediaStorm a number of times, most recently in April, when I got a behind the scenes look at the player that powers PPS. For this post I checked a number of factual details with Brian this week while writing this post.

Here are a few thoughts on what MediaStorm is doing. In particular, I want to call attention to the need to frame our discussion of this development in a particular way if this is going to be a productive step.

Pay Per Story means you pay $1.99 to access feature length stories and support material, and that access is on-going, so it’s not pay per view. As is standard for MediaStorm, revenue is being shared 50:50 with the photographers whose stories are being produced. PPS is also being applied only to the new editorial work MediaStorm does, so access to client projects and workshop stories is not being monetized through individual payment. The player for the stories is HTML5 meaning it can be viewed on phones and tablets as well as computers, though whether it can be viewed on a device different from the one it was purchased on is not clear to me, and something I would still like to check, because ease of access and use is one of the key conditions for success. (Update: MediaStorm confirm that once purchased you can log in on other devices to view, which is an important feature).

In the PDN report on PPS, Brian noted that the majority of the 30 plus stories they have produced since 2005 have had million or more views. Because they are “non-perishable” – that is, they are not time specific, with sell by dates – it is possible that revenue from new stories will be accrued over a long period of time.

Given the vast investment MediaStorm makes in its stories, they would need to turn 10% of viewers into paying consumers to full cover the cost of production. That’s a very high proportion when you consider most media companies count it as a success if they turn 2-3% of their audience into payers.

This means we need a sense of perspective on this development. Pay Per Story is not a silver bullet strategy. It’s not a self-contained, all encompassing business model that’s going to right all that’s wrong with the editorial sector. And Brian seems sanguine about it being another source of revenue rather than immediately a replacement for the client work or training they undertake.

That said, in announcing the move, Brian was keen to highlight the wider implications of what they are doing:

…the reality is, no company or industry can sustain itself for long without producing a product for which people are willing to pay.

At MediaStorm we think it’s time for us, as content producers and publishers, to bring this conversation into the limelight. Frankly, our long-term survival as an industry depends on it.

We believe that our industry is in need of a sustainable business model that will allow us to continue to report and produce compelling stories. While Pay Per Story may not be the definitive answer, we believe that it can be a step to getting us there.

As one of the experiments that could really help, there is no doubt PPS is significant. But it’s more than a question of whether individuals will pay. I think Time overstated the case when they said the video player that makes PPS possible was a “game changer” – there are no single things that will by themselves change the game in my view – but licensing the rich functionality in the player, which effectively makes MediaStorm also a software company, is a major part of this development.

While many are wishing MediaStorm well, some of the immediate reaction to MediaStorm’s introduction of Pay Per Story has been quite silly. Many of the comments on PDN talked of the problems with paywalls. If we were talking about daily, general news – content that is dated within minutes if not seconds, and can be sourced from credible sources elsewhere – then the paywall analogy might be relevant. I’ve certainly been very sceptical of paywalls for organisations like The New York Times, even though I am a digital subscriber.

What MediaStorm is doing is not building a paywall. It’s offering unique stories, rich accounts with lasting value, to which people can purchase on-going access. From iTunes to Louis CK we have plenty of examples now to show that people are willing to pay for content they want and which can be accessed easily. Those instances are often dismissed by those who say they don’t scale easily for something like photojournalism and documentary, and that’s true in one sense.

However, it overlooks the lessons we can learn about how people value things in the digital world and are willing to pay and pay often. We are now witnessing photographers releasing book-like apps that cost much more than the MediaStorm stories, though I’m not aware of an analysis of their prospects. But if you want an example of an individual pay per story experiment that was quite successful, think about Nick Turpin’s 38 minute In-Sight film, which he sold via Distrify for two or three times the amount MediaStorm are charging, and which earnt him a not insignificant amount of money. What Nick had was a community who were interested in his work, and that is something, with an engaging social media strategy, MediaStorm have perfected too.

My one concern about the debate over PPS as it moves forward is we have to be careful about how it is framed, at least in so far as it allocates responsibility for success or failure. Maggie Steber wrote a tough response to some critics who obviously dismissed the idea of paying for her story. I can appreciate her frustration, but in the end if potential customers choose to behave in certain ways there is not much producers can do about it.

And the least productive thing is to turn any resistance into a moral rebuke. We might think people who readily pay three bucks for a coffee but bemoan $1.99 for a visual story are “mistaken and shortsighted.” In the end, however, it is the producers not the consumers who are responsible for getting people to part with their money. I think if the stories are engaging and easily accessed – as they are – then a paying clientele will be found. The issue will be the size of the paying community.

Finally, let’s not turn this into a debate over free versus paid, as though those two things are unrelated. MediaStorm is in part successful because they employed the idea of free to leverage the web over some years, building a great portfolio and an engaged community around their work. We have to work with the open dynamic of the web, not against it, and Pay Per Story is consistent with that logic by focusing on particular kinds of projects.

Let’s hope it succeeds within those terms, and whatever its course, MediaStorm keeps us posted about what it learns from the experience as it goes along.

 

Categories
media economy photography politics

Photo agencies and ethics: the individual and the collective

The controversy surrounding Ron Haviv’s sale of an image for use in a Lockheed Martin advertisement raises a host of issues. A number have been covered in the original charge by duckrabbit, Haviv’s response, VII’s statement, and commentaries by BagNewsNotes, Stan Baros, Joerg Colberg, Stella Kramer and Jim Johnson. Wired’s Raw File blog summarised the debate in twenty tweets, which I collected on Storify.

Rather than revisit the specific issue or engage the details of those commentaries, I want to examine one of the larger points this controversy highlighted: what is the relationship between the individual and the collective in a photojournalism agency?

In Haviv’s statement he declared that his status as an individual practitioner was not synonymous with his being a VII photographer. He said none of the images in question were associated with VII, and that he draws “a strict line between my photojournalism and commercial campaigns.”

To see whether this split between the individual and the collective is normal or an aberration, and to explore how agencies committed to documentary photography and photojournalism deal with the ethics of the relationship between advertising and editorial, I interviewed the directors of NOOR, Panos Pictures and VII. I am grateful that Claudia Hinterseer of NOOR, Adrian Evans of Panos and Stephen Mayes of VII agreed to Skype interviews on June 1 (Hinterseer and Mayes) and June 7 (Evans). I also approached the director of advertising at Magnum, but unfortunately their web site contained out of date information, and the person named was  no longer able to speak for them.

What was immediately apparent is that those agencies are solely in the editorial business and have taken explicit decisions not to represent commercial work their member photographers might undertake. If photographers with those agencies undertake commercial work they often have separate commercial agents or distinct commercial arrangements that do not involve NOOR, Panos or VII. Both Evans and Mayes stated that they prefer to be informed of their photographers’ non-editorial work, but that happens less often than desired.

The amount of commercial work done by photographers associated with NOOR, Panos and VII varies greatly. Claudia Hinterseer said that few NOOR members are interested in commercial, while Stephen Mayes indicated that between one-half and three-quarters of VII photographers are pursuing or actively engaged in commercial work. Adrian Evans noted that some photographers do commercial work independently, and that Panos also works with some commercial clients, usually in the form of corporate social responsibility projects, if the agency thinks those projects are both substantive and consistent with its ethos.

What makes NOOR, Panos and VII distinctive in terms of documentary photography and photojournalism is that they each embody an ethos. NOOR has a strong statement on its web site declaring that “an abiding commitment to the fundamental power of photography to bear witness to the eternal struggle for human rights and social justice that form the foundational principles of NOOR.” The Panos site notes the agency specialises in “global social issues, driven by the vision and commitment of its photographers and staff. Panos is known internationally for its fresh and intelligent approach and respected for its integrity and willingness to pursue stories beyond the contemporary media agenda.” And during our interview, Stephen Mayes stressed that “honesty, integrity and humanitarianism” were the driving principles for VII.

These statements are testament to the fact, as Adrian Evans told me, that photojournalism often places itself on a moral high ground which makes it imperative for photojournalists to be very careful about the work they do and who they do it for. At the same time, given the split between editorial and commercial work, Evans said one of the problems from the agencies perspective is “how much control do you have over what your photographers do?”

So how do these agencies negotiate ethical problems when they don’t represent all of a photographer’s practice? Each of them has slightly different approaches that reflect, in part, their different organizational structures.

Owned by twelve members who are equal shareholders, NOOR has the clearest approach. In addition to having the strongest public statement of ethical and political concerns, it is the only one of these agencies to have a code of conduct. Hinterseer told me that NOOR members sign off on a statement that they subscribe to the National Press Photographers Association code of ethics, to which is added four additional requirements: that they conduct themselves at the highest professional level, that they understand they always represent the agency, that they must respect the people they photograph as well as their colleagues, and that they abide by the agreements between themselves and NOOR. Any violations are given a warning that is discussed at an AGM, and a severe violation would mean exclusion from NOOR.

Although it has a code, Claudia Hinterseer stressed that drawing the lines is not easy and that members have discussed these issues for hours at AGMs. The concerns can be quite practical. For example, when NOOR was being established and needed to open a bank account, they opted first for ABN-AMRO, until Kadir van Lohuizen argued that this bank was involved in the blood diamond issue he had been covering.

VII is a limited liability company with ten owners as shareholders, and thirteen non-owner members making up their list of photographers. While stressing they are motivated by humanitarian principles and have also had extensive discussions about how they can be implemented, Stephen Mayes said VII does not have a code of conduct with which to police their photographers. Mayes argued, “we swim in ethical challenges, they are part of the fabric of our environment” but that legislating for ethics was very difficult. Instead he observed that the “issue is one of awareness and being mindful.”

Panos is different again. Its ownership is via a shareholders agreement that gives the director 51% and the Panos Institute 49% control. That agreement includes a requirement that Panos Pictures not bring the Panos Institute into disrepute, though Adrian Evans stressed it was a general rather than prescriptive provision. At present Panos does not have contracts with its photographer members, but the agency is considering introducing them. And, in the wake of the Haviv controversy, he told me that they were now considering a general provision that would be akin to the agreement for NOOR members – that their photographers represent the agency and should not undertake work that would bring the agency into disrepute. Evans made the point that in many ways this would not be dissimilar to the common approach with agency clients, whereby they have to agree not to alter or misuse images.

Like both Hinterseer and Mayes, Evans stressed that, although Panos doesn’t have a formal code of ethics, and that even if they did it would necessarily have to be general rather than prescriptive, they are confronted with challenges and dilemmas daily. One example he gave was a request to use a photograph of a Hercules aircraft on an aid mission for a campaign declaring this was the main purpose of such aircraft. Knowing full well their large military role Panos declined to sell the image on the grounds the campaign would be misleading.

From my interviews with agency directors it is clear that the relationship between the individual and the agency is complex. We cannot assume one is synonymous with the other. These agencies represent only a portion of their members’ activities and work and do not have any control over work done outside the agencies ambit.

That makes the problem of negotiating ethical challenges even more difficult. None of the directors thought you could legislate for ethics, and I agree. For an agency to have prescriptive list of provisions about what you can and can’t do would be both prohibitively long and yet would ultimately fail to cover all the bases.

This issue is only going to become more important for photojournalism. As Adrian Evans argued, with the decline in editorial news outlets everyone is looking for new revenue streams, and in that search work with the corporate sector is increasingly attractive and lucrative. At the same time, work for governments of all stripes and NGOs of all kinds pose similar questions. If you are offered an assignment by the Sunday Times magazine, how do you feel being paid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, a corporation now infamous for illegal journalistic practices? And if  – as with this post – you produce things with Apple computers, what’s your stand on Chinese labour conditions and the mining of rare minerals in the Congo?

We are all implicated, especially in a global capitalist system where the structures of ownership and responsibility are increasingly hard to discern. To repeat Stephen Mayes observation, “we swim in ethical challenges, they are part of the fabric of our environment.” There are no pure moral grounds from which any of us can freely cast stones. At the same time, being unavoidably implicated does not mean we shrug our shoulders and give up on the need to make the difficult judgements about what should be done.

We cannot, and probably should not, draw up a twenty first century version of the Ten Commandments for the ethical practice of documentary photography and photojournalism. But, as Adrian Evans said, now is perhaps the time for photographers and others to start an active discussion on general principles that can underwrite the critical ethos photojournalism so often claims.

If I were an agency director, I would probably look at the NOOR model as the best way forward into that discussion. If I was a photojournalist, and wanted to manage possible tensions between my commercial and editorial work, I would consider the guidelines for ethical investment where certain industry sectors (e.g. defence, tobacco, nuclear power) are excluded as places to put your money. Translating those into limits for the sale and use of images could be a first step towards greater moral consistency.

Documentary and editorial agencies will never control nor police all of their members’ activities, and nor should they given they don’t represent all of their members practice. While we can appreciate the relationship between the collective and the individual is a complex one, it surely needs a clearer ethical grounding.

However, in the end it will be the critical and ongoing discussion about what work we should do, whom we should do it for, and how we should represent people and issues, that will be the ultimate manifestation of an ethical approach. And that is a discussion that cannot be limited to the formal institutions of photojournalism.

POSTSCRIPT

Santiago Lyon, Vice President and Director of Photography at Associated Press, emailed today with a substantive comment on AP policy. Posted with his permission, here are his thoughts:

David,

I just read your recent  posting on the moral dilemmas facing photo agencies [above] and would like to thank you for taking an even-handed and thoughtful approach to what is clearly a complicated issue.

While your piece focused on photographer-owned or cooperative agencies, I thought it worth noting that at The Associated Press, one of the world’s largest – if not the largest – photo agencies, we have a  well-defined code of ethics, viewable here – http://www.ap.org/company/news-values

In addition, staff photographers are expressly prohibited from undertaking nonjournalistic assignments for the AP, thus avoiding the sort of specific ethical challenges that prompted the initial debate (that said, as your piece notes, we live in a complicated world of ethical and moral dilemmas and review issues constantly on a case-by-case basis).

AP freelance photographers, as independent contractors, are free to undertake whatever non-AP work they deem fit, although we would take a dim view on a case-by-case basis if this extended to openly controversial work for organizations with deliberately violent or provocative agendas.

As the leader of the AP’s global photo department (and a former photographer), I am always interested in exploring and educating myself and others about these issues.

Bests

Santiago

 

Photo: theilr/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. The photo is accompanied by this epigram: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line some place. — Oscar Wilde.”

Categories
media economy politics

Kony2012: networks, activism and community

In the short history of social media, Kony2012 is now the most viral video ever, having reached 100 million views inside six days. Its success has been quickly examined by media analysts and some of the early findings are fascinating for what they reveal about the spread of information in the new media economy.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project details (as I noted in my earlier post) how the spread of the video shows “that young adults and their elders at times have different news agendas and learn about news in different ways.”

SocialFlow undertook a data visualization (see above) of the first 5,000 Twitter users who posted the #Kony2012 hashtag. What the clustering of connections reveals is that the hashtag started trending on 1 March before the video was posted online, and the trend came from Birmingham, Alabama. SocialFlow reports:

This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios.

This fits with Elliot Ross’s assessment of Invisible Children as a missionary organisation coming out of the American Evangelical tradition.

This is the basis of SocialFlow’s analysis that a pre-existing network of activists was the driver for Kony2012’s success. Those activists were primed for the video’s release prior to its posting, and it was they who used their social media channels to bombard celebrities with mentions as a way of getting attention. This means that while celebrity retweets were important in fuelling the spread of Kony2012, the campaign did not begin with celebrity action.

The Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California has been studying Invisible Children’s campaign strategies for some time, revealing how they use transmedia storytelling to mobilise and train young activists. When the Kony video talks of an eight year campaign and shows young activists throughout, this is what it is referring to. All this leads Henry Jenkins of Civic Paths to write:

The Kony 2012 video did not “go viral”; rather, its circulation depended on the hundreds of thousands of young people who already felt connected to the organization and to this cause through their participation in school based clubs and grassroots campaigns over almost a decade. These young people were among the first to receive the video, pass it along through their social networks to their friends and classmates, and thus, start a process which ultimately got the attention of millions around the world.

The Kony video did not go viral in the sense of magically taking off just because it was placed on social media platforms or because it was championed by celebrities alone.

It went viral because there was a pre-existing network of activists, built up over years through Invisible Children’s media strategies, who used social media channels to spread it far and wide.

Above all else, it shows that in the many different contexts of the new media economy community is an essential concept for all. Far from simply being the poster child for a new generation of social media activism that overtakes and replaces more conventional campaign strategies, the Kony2012 campaign collapses boundary between new/old modes of activism.

Picture: [Data Viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention, 14 March 2012.

Categories
media economy photography politics

Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change

A week on from the “Kony 2012” video eruption, I want to take a step back and ask: what does this tells us about the media economy, what does it suggest about the state of activism, and how should we think about change in the face of global problems?

I’m not going to add much to the enormous volume of critical analysis on Invisible Children’s campaign. Whydev.org has a comprehensive readers digest of links, and posts from Unmuted, Michael Wilkerson and Alex de Waal detail what de Waal calls the “dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” I too see in the video. Ethan Zukerman has a great overview, Charlie Beckett offers a self-styled grumpy indictment, while the defence comes from Bridgette Bugay, Chris Blattmann and, of course, Invisible Children themselves. For me, the militarized vision of Invisible Children – both in terms of its red-shirted “army for peace” and its proposals for how to capture Joseph Kony – contains more than a whiff of the Machine Gun Preacher, and that’s not a recommendation.

That said, I want to move beyond the framework of ‘the video right or wrong’ and look at three important issues:

1. The media economy

The viral speed and spread of the Kony video has been incredible, and it underscores how “tastemakers, communities of participation and the unexpected” work together to promote a small number of videos on to the global cultural stage. Significantly, the length of any video is not a determinant of potential virality, meaning that the conventional wisdom about our allegedly shortened attention spans need to be seriously questioned.

The scale and quality of the critical response to the Kony video has also been momentous. If you spend time online you might take these things for granted, but the ease with which passionate and knowledgeable voices can now be heard is quite remarkable. In this case the access we now have to Ugandan journalists like Rosabell Kagumir is also a plus. While her video response has been viewed by ‘only’ 400,000 people, a fraction of tens of millions who have viewed the Kony video, that total nonetheless exceeds the daily circulation of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Our global media economy is now marked by networked relations of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media that make those categories meaningless, something manifested in the diverse range of sources curated by The Guardian’s Live Blog of the debate.

2: Contemporary activism

I’ve been irritated by how some critics dismiss the response of young people to the video:

In an otherwise powerful post, TMS Ruge let fly:

The click-activists, denied context and nuance, have spewed their ignorance all over the comments section in self-righteous indignation for all the world to see. They have whipped out their wallets and bought their very own Super Hero activist action kits. They have bombarded their friend’s Facebook wall with ignominious updates.

Ok, so the Borowitz tweet is a little bit funny. And of course it’s fine and correct to say that “Oprah and bracelets won’t solve the problem.” But let’s also think about what has happened and what these denunciations assume.

A personal account first. I was working at home last Monday. After I encountered the burst of attention about the Kony video in my social media stream, I went downstairs and found my teenage daughter, recently back from school, watching something on her smartphone. It was the Kony video, all 30 minutes of it. She found it because it was in her social media stream, it came to her via friends’ recommendations, and they were debating its content and meaning. In the end, scepticism meant they weren’t impressed by the action pack. It was a stunning moment where I observed at first hand the very phenomenon so many were beginning to comment on.

What those comments have too often missed is they way young viewers negotiated the meaning of what they were watching. They didn’t just swallow a party line. Their critical engagement was captured in this story of London teenagers’ reactions, as well as the comment from Jess on this post. The critics have complained the Kony video homogenizes and infantilizes the issue of the LRA. But some of those same critics have homogenized and infantilized viewers of the video. There is a sense the production is so slick there can be only one message received (except, of course, by urbane critics) and any response like passing it on is evidence of the victory of emotion over reason.

The viral success of the Kony video demonstrates you can get attention for distant stories, and that emotion and reason can work together. Getting attention is a complex business. Somebody has to be moved, and being moved means having compassion (so another nail in the coffin of ‘compassion fatigue’ as a collective socio-psychological syndrome). It involves making stories available in the social media stream (because in the new media economy that’s how many get their news), recipients accepting a recommendation, viewing some or all of the story, and making a decision to comment on it, or pass it on, or both.

We can obscure his complexity by repeating snide comments about “slacktivism,” but as Zeynap Tufekci writes this is

not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.

Isn’t that something that we want, people thinking and acting in ways they haven’t previously? Amazingly, some of the critical responses to the reception of the Kony video have derided the idea of “raising awareness” as “vapid” and “useless”. Of course I understand the limits of awareness when the video in question is flawed. But awareness is not simply the product of the video’s content; it is the end result of the video and the (unintended) debate it prompted. And even with a flawed video awareness can only be a problem in itself if you believe that people are just passive recipients rather than active viewers who contribute to and participate in the subsequent debate.

3. Change in the face of global problems

There is, without question, a big difference between the sort of activism generated by the Kony video and solving problems on the ground in distant locations. But I think this episode should prompt us to conduct a hard-headed analysis of a soul-searching question: what can we who are at a distance actually do in the face of global problems to change things?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to formulate a better understanding of what contribution, if any (dare I say it), photographers can make to global change. I’m a long way from knowing how to discuss this let alone having an answer, so I want to end with a few thoughts that demand more work. But we should begin by examining the conventional assumptions about how change is achieved.

The first observation is that if you have, like me, worked on campaigns and in practical politics, you quickly come to realise there is no place, no ground, where you can go to easily solve problems. There’s no magic room where some Wizard of Oz-like character is pulling the levers of power. If only it were that simple. Power exists in networks and relationships, and it’s not under anyone’s control. We are all, to differing degrees, at a distance from the problems, even if we suffer directly.

The second observation is that the standard approach to change assumes a set of linear, causal relations between information, knowledge and action. If someone provides information, you can know and action will result. That, of course, is the assumption at the heart of the Kony video, but significantly it’s also an assumption at the heart of critical responses to the Kony video. The critics think that if the information is wrong then poor action will result.

No one would argue against trying to seek the best information so as to make better understanding possible. But the linkage between that and desired outcomes is not clear. Social movements like those in the US promoting civil rights and women’s rights have seen decades of individual and collective action make imperfect progress, through a series of small, uneven steps that have culminated in unfinished advances. Nobody planned them at the beginning and at various points along the way few knew what the outcome would be. As they persevered there were competing strategies, violent and non-violent, people working within established social institutions as well as beyond them in cultural spaces, full time activists and (mostly) occasional participants. They deployed diverse tactics like writing, picturing, speaking, voting, protesting, and much more.

All this is to say when we think hard about pursuing change we should adopt a more humble approach to what we can do and how we can do it. We then have to insist upon the importance and urgency of doing something even when it seems limited and uncertain. In this context, symbolic action should not be underestimated. As Tufekci notes:

there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.

And the key word in that quote? May. There are no guarantees. Who knows what can come of something even if it seems insufficient?

So let’s understand that this episode shows the importance of social media in the structure of the news economy, as well as the supply of compassion that can drive attention amongst those who don’t use traditional media. And let’s not write off the actions or motives of those who made Kony2012 viral, even if we fervently wish it had been another video in another campaign.

Featured photo: Screenshot from Invisible Children page detailing their response to the critiques of Kony2012. The original photo is by Glenna Gordon, and she discusses the image and its use here and here

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media economy

The struggle for the open web: putting ‘piracy’ in perspective

The struggle for the open web is going to be a big issue in 2012. Given the importance of the internet to creative producers, its something we should be paying a lot of attention to. And that means, first up, thinking about the implications of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently before the US Congress.

Commenting on issues surrounding creative content, copyright and piracy on the web is fraught with danger. All too often the battle lines are starkly drawn, issues are cast in black and white terms, and people fight their corner with passion. I’m always trying to question such simplistic frames, but my sympathies clearly lie with those favouring openness. If you’ve followed earlier posts (see them via the ‘media economy’ tag) you will appreciate that. At the same time, a fair reader of those writings over the last couple of years will know that I want creative producers to be paid for their work, and for that work to be protected by a system of copyright that works in the digital age. Which is hardly surprising, because as a writer and producer working largely freelance, I too need to pay the bills through my labour.

So what is SOPA? There is good background on the provisions on Wikipedia, in a Guardian explainer or CNET’s excellent FAQ. In many ways it recalls aspects of the UK’s 2010 Digital Economy Act, which I questioned at its inception. The essence of SOPA is that piracy is killing America’s creative industries, and foreign “rogue” web sites that allow or encourage illegal downloading would be targeted with a court order, which US internet service providers would have to enforce by preventing their US subscribers from accessing such sites. According to CNET, this “could require Internet providers to monitor customers’ traffic and block Web sites suspected of copyright infringement,” something that could involve deep packet inspection or DNS blocking. Given that these are the means authoritarian regimes use to censor the web, this has led to the provocative claim that SOPA will install the “Great American Firewall.” Whether or not that is fair, some consequences are deeply worrying. Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe has argued the act is unconstitutional because of its vague and sweeping provisions: “Conceivably, an entire website containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement.” If enacted, that provision would mean the blocking of Wikileaks and other currently legal sharing sites.

One of the things that troubles me about the drive for legislation like SOPA is the focus on piracy. I don’t doubt that unauthorised file sharing is a real issue and that we should find ways to limit it. What I doubt is that such downloading is “killing” the creative economy and that criminalising behaviour and restricting web access are the best means to combat it.

The language of the debate is part of the problem. In a fascinating doctoral study of legal metaphors and legacy mindsets, Stefan Lund has argued that even notions of “copy” and “theft” are ill-suited to the realities of the digital age. But if we don’t want to go that far, then consider the frame of a book such as Robert Levine’s Free Ride, which I’ve read over the holidays.[nbnote ]Robert Levine, Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back (London: The Bodley Head, 2011).[/nbnote] Levine writes of “the internet” as an agent that has “ransacked” traditional media. He believes the fight between creators and copyright infringers is one of the main reasons for the culture business’s problems. Indeed he claims that “the illegal availability of all kinds of content has undermined the legal market for it.”[nbnote ]These quotes are from the “About” and “Introduction” sections, but as I read the Kindle version of his book, there are no page numbers to reference. [/nbnote]

Really? The legal market for all creative content has been totally undermined? While illegal download charts show millions of copies of movies are being ‘pirated’, the most downloaded movies are often those doing best at the box office. And with box office revenues totalling $10 billion per year in America, there isn’t much evidence for the idea the legal market for films is gone for good. Add to that – to repeat a link provided in my previous post on leveraging the web – the TorrentFreak experiment that demonstrated the switch of all US BitTorrent users to Netflix would generate $60 million/year, far short of the billions said to be lost to piracy, and I think we need to put the apocalyptic claims about morally reprehensible individuals destroying the creative economy in perspective.

For a final thought, listen to the award-winning, best-selling author Neil Gaiman speak of how the open web benefited his sales, and turned him from a “grumpy” hater of ‘pirates’ to an advocate of sharing:

Gaiman asks his audiences how they found out about their favourite authors – the authors they now buy regularly – and 90% or more reveal it was through books being lent to them. In its logic, the sharing of books amongst friends and through book clubs is similar to the unauthorised downloading of digital files. But we never think of this long established form of off-line sharing as an activity that should be criminalised (imagine Congress proposing book club members face up to five years in prison for passing on a novel!). Far from being a reason for lost sales, Gaiman sees sharing as the precondition of increasing sales. “Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free,” he states.

I think Gaiman’s experience is worth more than Levine’s argument. Of course, someone will now pop up and try to limit the implications of Gaiman’s story by saying something like ‘it’s fine for an established author to say this, but what about emerging writers without his reputation?’ They might be right in so far as they are talking about scale – that Gaiman’s return from openness will be higher because of his prior reputation.

But they will be wrong in so far as they are talking about the logic. As Gaiman says, his experience revealed to him “what the web was doing.” That function applies to all of us regardless of previously established reputations, and can be used to help create that reputation. So, for me, the best approach is one that works with the inherent logic of the open web to achieve the desired outcome, rather than fighting against its feared consequences. Too often an over-reaching focus on ‘piracy’ makes the latter the priority, which means we don’t get on with the developing the former.

Featured photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr

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media economy photography

Leveraging the web: how people are willing to pay for content

Will people pay for online content?

Here is a recent example, and a recent thought experiment, that gives us food for thought in the often fraught discussion of how people can leverage the benefits of the web (global access and ease of distribution at reduced cost) to generate income from creative content.

The example comes from the comedian Louis CK who asked:

If I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?

Louis CK has provided an admirably transparent account of his thinking and production process, revealing the costs, revenue and profit. His experiment has been analysed in detail by Mike Masnick of Techdirect in two interesting posts (here and here). In short, he broke even after just 12 hours, and is now in profit to the tune of $200,000 or more.

On the purchase, page Louis CK put a message directed at prospective purchasers:

I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without “corporate” restrictions.

So Louis CK’s experiment made it easy for ‘pirates’ to take his content for free, avoiding all payment. Perhaps some did, but more than 100,000 people paid. That’s a pretty decent demonstration of willingness.

Which brings me to the thought experiment. Piracy is regularly cited as a reason for declining revenue to creators, and some of the figures bandied around – in the tens of billions of dollars – are breathtaking. At TorrentFreak they speculated “what might happen if all US BitTorrent users made the switch to Netflix.”? In other words, if all US file sharers, who were paying producers nothing, suddenly stopped passing around films for free and became paid customers of the online video service Netflix, how much money would be raised?

The answer: $60 million. Not to be sneezed at for sure. But that’s small change when Hollywood takes in $10 billion in ticket revenue annually and a major star can personally command $20 million to appear in a major film. It’s some three hundred times less than the loss from piracy claimed by the industry’s lobby, the Motion Picture Association of America. And its equivalent to the MPPA’s annual budget.

Let’s be clear about one thing – making these points is NOT a defence of piracy. But we need to critically assess claims about the impact of piracy, not to mention factor in those findings that suggest ‘pirates’ actually spend far more on legally acquired content than the average consumer.

Is there a lesson from this for domains like photography and journalism? I think so. While people continue to tell pollsters they won’t pay for daily, general news online, clearly there are increasing examples of people being willing to pay online for quality content with lasting value, even if they can get a copy for free.

Leveraging the web to make such content available for purchase requires creative producers to shift their starting position. Too often I’ve heard people blame the plight of creative industries on the alleged moral failings of potential consumers or fans. It’s time to move beyond the claim that most people using the web are feckless thieves just waiting to steal content. If you make quality content available in affordable, easily accessed formats, and you make it easy for people to find you and pay for that content, then you can leverage the web to find those who will part with their hard-earned cash for your work. That responsibility lies with the producers not the consumers.

Photo: Community Friend/Flickr

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media economy photography

Agencies as publishers: a new approach to photojournalism

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?

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media economy photography

Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?

Should we be worried about image abundance in the contemporary world?

In recent weeks I have heard a number of affirmative answers to this question. At both the University of Sunderland’s excellent “Versatile Image: Photography in the Age of Web 2.0” conference and the Les Rencontres d’Arles symposium on “Photography, the Internet and Social Networks,” a number of contributors voiced concerns.

Heard in presentations and conversations were declarations about the number of circulating images. We live in a time of “too many photographs” and the digital revolution is “worrying and dangerous”. Metaphors of flooding were common. We are inundated with pictures, leaving us as a “lonely figure found amongst the surfeit of images”.

This proliferation was said to have negative consequences. This “over-abundance” makes us “image bulemics” suffering from visual excess. “Quality has been exchanged for quantity”, “taste is dulled and crushed by multiplicity”, and we have arrived at a point where “nobody believes images anymore”.

This quote seems to sum up the connections between quantity, anxiety and effects:

Today the eye of modern man is daily, hourly overfed with images. In nearly every newspaper he opens, in every magazine, in every book—pictures, pictures, and more pictures…This kaleidoscope of changing visual impressions spins so rapidly that almost nothing is retained in memory. Each new picture drives away the previous one…The result—in spite of the hunger for new visual impressions—is a dulling of the senses. To put it bluntly: the more modern man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees much too much to still be able to see consciously and intensively.

But this quote is not recent. It dates from 1932, and is from a German article on image fatigue (reference below). It shows that, in a period we regard as a time of editorial control, relative slowness, and contemplation, anxieties about visual abundance and its effects were also common.

Although few express worries about being swamped by words or text in contrast to pictures, concern about “information overload” has an even longer history. Having located concerns as far back as 1565, Vaughan Bell wrote:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

What is driving the contemporary concern about image abundance? In part it’s the scale of production enabled by digital production and circulation. There are probably 500 billion digital images produced each year, and more than 60 billion have been uploaded to Facebook (with 8 billion on Photobucket, 7 billion on Picasa, and 5 billion on Flickr). When the majority of mobile phones have cameras it is no wonder we take a lot of images – the iPhone 4 is now the single biggest source of Flickr uploads.

I don’t doubt that the ease of digital technology means that overall there are more pictures than ever. However, these macro statistics can be a bit misleading. As Joerg Colberg pointed out a while back, if you take the overall number of photos on Facebook and divide it by the large number of users, the average Facebook album is little more than a hundred images per person. Is that any larger than the analogue prints collected in a traditional family photo album?

The anxiety associated with image abundance condenses a range of concerns. Listening to the debates at Arles in particular, I think this anxiety is driven by a professional concern about the rise of the amateur, and the way in which this is seen as destabilising traditional frames of cultural reference. Most of the statistics cited in relation to the contemporary proliferation of pictures refer to popular production. What people fear is being swamped, I suspect, are the assumed qualities of the professional image.

Far from being a threat, I see the abundance of images as an opportunity for ‘the professional’. We live in a culture where people avidly consume photos. But in this culture there is still a scarcity of certain types of imagery – those which drive a story.

Critical, engaged and reflective photographers (as well as curators and editors) are the people who can offer in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, the general familiarity and fondness for single images in our ‘photo-op’ culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.

There is much to study about photography in all its forms in the context of web 2.0. But in relation to the metaphors of excess, flooding and their assumed effects, its probably time to move on from repeating clichés of cultural anxiety to embracing new creative production.

 

  • Reference: Paul Westheim, “Bildermüde?”, Das Kunstblatt16 (March 1932): 20-22. I am indebted to Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the quotation. She provided the translation, which comes from her dissertation, Ecce Homo Prostheticus: Technology and the New Photography in Weimar Germany (Yale University, 2001).
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media economy photography

The new media landscape (3): community, transactions and value

 

The disruptive power of the internet has produced a new ecology of information. As outlined in the first post of this series, this is the inescapable big picture for anyone engaged in creative practice.

This new ecology of information incorporates some hard realities for those of us seeking to support creative practice. In the second post of this series, I argued that community is now an essential concept in the new media landscape.

Throughout I have drawn inferences from what is happening to large media organisations in this revolutionary environment so that independent photographers and visual journalists can understand the challenges they face.

In this third and last post of the series, I want to discuss how some media companies are pursuing different sources of revenue. While their strategies are not easily replicable, they show how the dynamics of the new media landscape are playing out when it comes to the nitty-gritty of business models.

The end of distribution supporting scarcity

The past profitability of many media companies was based on controlling the mode of distribution so that scarcity prices could be charged. What the disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation of the media economy exposes is that this control was unique to a particular historical moment, resulting in prices that were artificially high.

As Google argued in a submission to the US Federal Trade Commission, this certainly applied to newspapers:

The large profit margins newspapers enjoyed in the past were built on an artificial scarcity: Limited choice for advertisers as well as readers. With the Internet, that scarcity has been taken away and replaced by abundance. No policy proposal will be able to restore newspaper revenues to what they were before the emergence of online news. It is not a question of analog dollars versus digital dimes, but rather a realistic assessment of how to make money in a world of abundant competitors and consumer choice.

It also applies to television, movies and music, because “the very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution” – that is, control over broadcast networks, cinema chains and record companies. Once that content has been digitised and streamed, centralised control and high prices is much harder to maintain.

The hard reality, then, is that business models have to be decoupled from modes of distribution. In a context where publication and broadcasting have become easier and cheaper, running printing presses and managing TV networks are no longer licenses to print money. No business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution can succeed in the long-term.

Of course, existing media corporations can go on for some time. Legacy industries don’t grind to an instantaneous halt just because the central principles of their operating environment unravel. But if they fail to innovate, they tend to decline slowly before becoming unsustainable.

Diverse and indirect approaches

If a business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution cannot succeed in the long-term, another casualty will be the idea of the single business model behind visual journalism. The new approach will be a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly.

As John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News declared, news organisations do not make money from news; news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism.

There is nothing new in this. Advertising has been the main source of revenue for mainstream media, with a contingent and indirect relationship to the journalism we (mistakenly) assume is the raison d’etre of media companies.

While it seems shocking to say news is a ‘brand’, that is how it has functioned. Oliviero Toscani, who was behind the controversial Benetton campaigns of the 1990s once remarked that we should understand that in a capitalist media economy “editorial was always the advertising of advertising.”

Although advertising will remain important for media companies, and new ways of garnering subscriptions might offer small revenue streams, what are these indirect approaches going to comprise?

The community that pays

That is where the idea of community comes in. Those engaged and loyal people – readers, viewers, listeners, fans – who identify with and congregate around their chosen content streams are where revenue comes from.

It’s fashionable to say nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, and there a plenty of online comment threads that can be mined for anecdotal evidence to support this rather glib generalisation. But if we think about the hundreds of millions of TV episodes, 10 billion songs and 10 billion apps sold via iTunes, or the 23 million Netflix subscribers in North America, or Spotify’s 1 million subscribers in Europe, plenty of people reach into their pocket for quality content. If providers offer availability and ease of use, direct payment for something that is not fungible is forthcoming.

If we look at indirect revenue from communities, then transactions are key. Fairfax (publishers of the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the largest media company in Australasia) has seen digital grow into its second largest revenue stream. 60% of their digital revenue comes from transactions, with readers using companies that Fairfax purchased, including a dating service called RSVP and a holiday home rental service, Stayz.com.

Transactions are one way that social networks can be leveraged for revenue, with social recommendations leading to commissions. As one Deloitte analyst predicted,

the next phase of social commerce is about extracting commissions from products which are sold directly as a result of recommendations made…So rather than selling advertising, what you’re doing is taking a commission against a product sold.

A 2011 report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on the business of digital journalism pointed to a number of indirect transactions supporting editorial content, such as The Atlantic magazine’s events business with $6 million/year in revenue. In a similar vein the Washington Post is running online courses and The Guardian is organising weekend masterclasses.

None of these constitute the holy grail that will replace the unending decline in print advertising revenue. But they are good examples of creative approaches that don’t fight the disruption of the internet and work with the contours of the new media landscape.

Can an indirect approach work for photography? When I reviewed the New York Times paid content scheme at the end of March, I painted a different scenario using transactions rather than subscriptions:

The Lens blog is a high profile site with some 750,000 users visiting each month. Instead of raising money by hoping some of those subscribe on their 21st visit each month, consider the monthly visitors as a community of interest around photojournalism and offer goods and services to that community. There could be Lens-sponsored master classes, special events and workshops for both professionals and the general public; print sales; discounted equipment and photographic services via business affiliates; photo tours and themed travel; equipment, medical and travel insurance for practitioners; logistics and visa services for photographers having to travel at short notice…you name it, anything that interests a broad photographic community, amateur and professional, could be offered by negotiated deals where Lens’s earns a percentage on each transaction.

This strategy would leverage the Lens blog Twitter feeds and referrals providing unlimited free access. It would be based on growing the community that comes to the site, thereby underscoring the value of having quality photojournalism distributed globally and the benefit of having it accessible to as many as possible. It could raise more revenue than subscriptions could achieve, and the revenue could go directly to photojournalism.

This is the emerging logic for media companies. Might it work for independent documentary photographers and photojournalists? Even if the scale is different, why not? This logic comes from the dynamics in the new media landscape affecting everybody.

Paul Melcher claims “photographers, photo agencies and related have no experience in building value around their images.” That has to change. Value will be created indirectly more than directly. It begins with the six steps towards building your own community.

Photo credit: Enol/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

 

Categories
media economy photography

The new media landscape (2): the importance of community

 

The disruptive power of the internet has made ‘community’ an essential concept in the new media landscape. A community is a group of people who share the similar interests, concerns or pursuits. They form around common purposes or practices.

As argued in the first post of this series, the internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

These distributed networks and new social groups are the basis of any new community. This post will argue that for creative producers community is a precondition of successfully operating in the new ecology of information.

There is, however, one common assumption about community that need to be dispelled before I consider what is involved in the development of a community that can support an individual’s creative practice.

Does size matter?

The ease with which web content can reach a wide audience can lead us to think that success is defined by mass interest. YouTube videos with millions of views seem to be the benchmark we must aim for. However, some data from new organisations shows how scale is not necessarily synonymous with success.

Newspaper web sites hailing the tens of millions of unique users they attract monthly is a regular feature (see this example). However, Navigating News Online, a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, although flawed in many ways, offers a different take on these numbers.

NNO identified an important distinction between ‘casual’ and ‘power’ consumers of information. More than three-quarters of the traffic to the top 25 American news sites came from users who visited just once or twice a month. In most cases they will have arrived via a link or search, read once piece, and then moved on.

While there is an obvious social benefit in getting a media organisation’s content to as many as possible, these infrequent flyers will not offer much economic benefit even in terms of an audience for advertisers.

In contrast, the NNO report found that ‘power users’ – people who came to the same news site more than ten times each month, and spent more than hour each month on those visits – comprised on average only 7% of the total web readership.

This trend was known before the NNO report, and applies also to UK examples. Although the numbers are now larger, these 2009 metrics from the Daily Mail show the number of casual versus power consumers:

  • 28.7 million unique users/month globally
  • 8.9 million unique users/month from the UK
  • Of the UK users 611,588 came to the web site every day
  • Half of those UK daily users (c. 300,000) stayed for 20 minutes/month

So while the headline-grabbing tens of millions of unique users suggests a vast audience around the Daily Mail, their loyal British users numbered no more than 300,000 in 2009.

These dynamics are the reason pay walls attract a small number of subscribers in relation to the overall readership of a news site. Subscribers come from power users: pay walls exclude or limit casual users so depend on subscriptions from the most loyal.

Working with fans

The idea that it is the power users, the most loyal consumers, that are the basis of an economic strategy to fund creative content is common to the music industry, where such people are known as fans.

What the internet has done, however, is made to possible to directly access prospective fans and provide them with content. The consequence of that is that artists don’t have to pursue a ‘blockbuster’ strategy to succeed. Instead of waiting for the one thing that might offer stardom with all its rewards, artists can build a community of those who appreciate their work and might be willing to support it.

Kevin Kelly famously outlined this concept with his post on 1000 True Fans. Like so many things influenced by the web, Kelly identified how a power law curve, which is the basis of the long tail phenomenon, suggested new possibilities. While the number of 1000 was indicative only and varied according to the artist’s media, Kelly maintained that if you could move people from an encounter with your work to being ‘lesser fans’ and on to  ‘true fans’ regular support would be forthcoming.

Kelly later conducted interviews with artists to see if his argument played out in practice. The results supported the thrust of his original argument but tempered its enthusiasm. He concluded that:

there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. (my emphasis)

Mike Masnick’s review of musicians supports this conclusion, and importantly demonstrates that the logic applies to more than just the famous who already have a fan base.

How does an individual create a community?

So, if you wanted to pursue this strategy what would it involve? The first thing to note is the hard graft. Kevin Kelly’s interviews made clear “it takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.”

Assuming you are committed, here are six steps to create a community around your practice:

  1. Get yourself a web platform (site, blog etc) to make some work and your thinking available for viewing and linking, and keep updating this platform;
  2. Think of yourself as a publisher or broadcaster, find your angle or voice, and offer information beyond self-promotion on a regular basis;
  3. Participate in social networks and other on-line forums, offering comments, links, information;
  4. Understand that a community is more than the sum of your social media followers and friends. Social networks are a necessary but insufficient condition of community;
  5. A community’s members have varying degrees of commitment, from observers to occasional supporters to committed fans. Followers and friends are, until they demonstrate otherwise, not ‘true fans’. But they might become committed supporters if they are engaged with your work;
  6. Engagement means offering your community a sense of belonging and commitment to your practice and the thinking that informs it. This comes through conversation and dialogue around ideas and information rather than just appeals or material inducements;

In the debate about crowd funding photojournalism I have emphasized how having a community is a precondition of successful support. Those who have raised funds have either been already well-known (which means they have had a community of support) or they have in effect followed most of the steps above. As Bryan Formals wrote in his good post on crowd funding, “it all starts to tie together: transparency, authenticity, community building, collaboration, funding.”

Point 6 is probably the most difficult and most important in the process. It is the step where supporters feel they participate in the project, something Joerg Colberg identified as important, and which Tomas van Houtryve has put into practice creatively and effectively. But like all engagement, this participation is not a one-way street – as van Houtryve has found, creative practitioners can learn a lot from their supporters and their work can be better as a result. The benefits are not just financial.

Conclusion

As I shall argue in the third post of this series, the idea of community is important for big media players as much as individual artists, and it is behind some of the new economic strategies to support journalism. There are lessons to be learnt from those strategies for individuals too.

The principles that make community possible are the same in both cases even if the scale is different. The internet’s logics of disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation affect everyone. It’s harder for individuals to perform all the necessary tasks that make a successful community, but the rewards are potentially great.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (1)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: victoriapeckham/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy

The new media landscape (1): contours of change

Change in the media landscape is constant. Everyone involved in the production of creative content – photographers, journalists, writers, and musicians, as well as those who deal in those products – knows that nothing is as it was.

Too much of the current debate about how creative practitioners can cope with these upheavals proceeds without an understanding of the big picture and historical context. There are some hard realities that have to be properly understood before new strategies can be devised.

In this series of three posts, I want to lay down an understanding of what is happening, how some are responding, and what others can learn from them. Many of the elements I discuss are well known, and many of the examples I cite show that people are already positioning themselves to prosper from these changes. But for those who are still unsure about what is happening and what to do I think it is important to take this step back in order to plan where to go.

These posts are based on a presentation I gave at the CEPIC New Media Conference 2 in Istanbul on 21 May, and I would like to thank Marco Oonk of Fast Media Magazine for the invitation. For that event I knew I could not compete visually with speakers from the stock photography industry, so I selected key words that named the main themes.

In this first post, I will cover the concepts of disintermediation, disruption, ecology, disaggregation and free, including the importance of the relationship between scarcity, abundance and fungibility in the new media landscape. In part two I will unpack the concept of community and its importance, and in part three I will review how some are thinking about business models in this context. As one of my concerns is how documentary photographers and independent photojournalists can work better, I will outline some practical steps they can take to incorporate some of the lessons from this review.

So what are the contours of change in the new media landscape?

The internet has changed everything. That is obvious, but the question is how? ‘Disintermediation’ is one ugly word, but an important handle on the change wrought by the internet. Made popular by Dave Winer, the idea comes from economics and points to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain. It highlights the way you can cut out the “middle man” and deal directly with your audience or customer.

The internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

All of this means we live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has been expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions, distributors and gatekeepers.

None of this means the internet is the single cause of all change or that we have a perfectly open world. And we have to remember that for all its potential universality, the internet currently only reaches one-third of the world’s population. But it does mean the internet is an important enabler of change that challenges or routes around many of the barriers and gates in our world.


Through disintermediation the internet is disrupting many walks of life, especially information industries. When we consider that global internet traffic is predicted to increase fourfold by 2014 its easy to see how many areas are being affected by the internet.

The disruption that follows from disintermediation can be understood as resulting in what Richard Stacey describes as “the separation of information from its means of distribution.” This means that all those modes of information distribution we have taken to be natural – the newspaper, magazine, radio station, album-length CD, television broadcaster, cinema and the like – are being challenged by new means of producing and circulating content. As one analyst remarked recently:

The very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution…Films, TV, music are all produced and distributed in a tightly controlled way. The internet blows the doors off that concept because it’s an environment where everyone can distribute with maximum efficiency to everyone else.

Netflix is showing what this means in practice. It now accounts for one-quarter of North America’s aggregate internet traffic because streaming video is so much more efficient than mailing DVDs. It costs Netflix $1 to send out a DVD, but just 5 cents to stream the same movie. As a streaming service they will eliminate the $600 million they currently spend on labour for checking discs and the postal service, with obvious negative impacts for both those sectors.

The lesson from this is clear – in Richard Stacey’s words, “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”


The web, built on top of the internet, has created a new ecology of information, both literally and figuratively. ‘Ecology’ is the study of organisms in relationship to each other and their environment. As a new ecology of information, the web exists as much more than a competitor to existing infrastructures. It is not a new market side by side with traditional markets – it is reshaping both the infrastructures and the markets for everyone.

Yet many information industries treat the web as a competitor rather than an ecosystem. For example, a recent debate about the difficulty of linking from many newspapers stories to supporting information revealed the print-centric nature of media company workflows and CMS’s, and showed how far they were from a digital-first strategy.


In this new ecology – where disruption is powered by disintermediation – we are seeing a change in the structure and process of information.

It is changing what have been called the “atomic units” of established modes of information, and unbundling traditional modes of distribution. We are seeing the disaggregation of forms and formats we have taken to be natural:

  • the disaggregation of albums to individual downloads in music
  • the disaggregation of newspapers and magazines to stories that can be circulated or linked to individually
  • the disaggregation of broadcast stations and fixed schedules to personal streams that can be consumed anywhere and anytime

The idea of the ‘stream’ is significant here. It emphasizes process rather than product, because once disaggregated, things can be updated.

Even when thinks look like fixed commodities we should think in terms of streams. iTunes downloads and Kindle ebooks are sold as though they are fixed units, yet they are parts of a stream leased for use on particular devices. With ebooks your edition can be updated or removed by the organization that controls the stream.

Disaggregation does not mean things dissolve into a formless universe. They are re-aggregated, but that is increasingly done through social networks. For example, a study for CNN found that social media was used to share nearly half of all news.

Disaggregation, therefore, leads to the importance of information that is social, modular and mobile. As Mathew Ingram has observed,

the future of media consumption is going to look a lot more like a smorgasbord of sources and content, personalized and recommended by friends and our social graph, and a lot less like that megaphone traditional media outlets used to have and control.


Few words rile creative producers more than the idea of free. But it is a concept that has to be confronted. We have to move beyond the competing ‘theological assumptions’ that either content should be free or that people should pay. ‘Should’ cannot be the basis for a rational response to the hard realities of the new ecology of information.

There is no escaping the fact that free is part of the intrinsic architecture of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The problem is that the web’s essential characteristic makes earning revenue hard. As Frederic Filoux notes, “the social web’s economics are paradoxical: the more it blossoms, the more it destroys value.”

Filoux’s statement renders value only as price or revenue, thereby overlooking the cultural and social value that flow from free circulation and distribution. Nonetheless, the web’s architecture of free intersects with a basic economic formula.  As Chris Anderson argues in his book Free (p. 173), “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint.”

That does not mean that everything is given away for nothing. Despite claims to the contrary – for details see my review of his book – Anderson is very clear that (a) free is not a business model and (b) that it is always linked with paid.

The ability to leverage the web’s architecture for paid content depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. Most content producers have priced their work on the assumption that it is scarce, and inefficient modes of distribution have supported that. But because the web has made many things abundant, charging scarcity prices is not easily sustainable.

Here I want to introduce one more concept – fungibility.  Something is fungible if it can be substituted by something else. A breaking news story is fungible because there are a number of credible sources that can be substituted for each other. A music track or a specific photograph is not fungible because if you are a fan who wants only a track from a particular band, or an image by a particular artist, they cannot be replaced by music or images from others.

Scare items are not fungible. Abundant items are fungible. If you produce something that is unique and not found elsewhere, you can resist the inevitable free endpoint. If you produce something that is abundant and can be replaced by something else, then you will not be able to directly charge scarcity prices for it (although, as I will argue in the third post, there will be other ways of using that content to produce revenue to support its production).

Conclusion

These are the dynamics that I think drive the changes in the new media landscape. They are the hard realities creating the new ecology we all operate in, producing a landscape marked by disaggregation in which traditional forms and formats of distribution are being unbundled, and content is increasingly social, modular and mobile. Content producers and distributors have to face up to these dynamics, and try and work with these developments in order to achieve their goals. In the second post in this series, I will argue that the concept of community is an essential part of that process.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (2)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: laihui/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.15: Syria, social media and photojournalism

Both the scale of the protests in Syria, and the violence of the regime’s response, is growing. Yet photojournalism is able to offer little about this vital story. While we have seen powerful coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen, there seem to be few if any photojournalists – either freelance or associated with the wires – at work in Syria. I have seen one Flickr stream from Syria, but given the nature of the regime, a larger photographic absence is perhaps unsurprising.

In the place of photojournalism, media outlets are using video footage and screen grabs taken from social media sites. For example, to illustrate its 25 April story “Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began,” Reuters has a gallery of ten images many of which come with this warning:

this still image [was] taken from amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on [date]. Editor’s note: Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of the video from which this still was taken.

Reuters Pictures is selling many of these images for clients in a package labelled “Arab States Conflict (Anti-Government Protests in Syria – 25 Apr 2011).” The Guardian used one of them at the top of its Syria live blog on 26 April, and has a related gallery of pictures from protests in Homs here. While the social media provenance of the images is explicit in the Reuters’ credits – they read “REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV” – it is interesting that a picture produced by others can by watermarked by Reuters to protect its value.

Some of the social media-derived pictures are dramatic, as in the case of the man throwing a rock at a tank in Deraa (above). Many of them show large crowds streaming through the streets of various towns, the military gathering around those protests, and the deadly consequences of live fire.

There is, I think, a curious effect of this reliance on amateur images. On the one hand, their lack of a professional aesthetic – especially their graininess, poor focus, and unsteady composition – signifies authenticity and immediacy. The image makers are more interested in the politics than the picture. And yet, on the other hand, their capacity to make us connect with the events portrayed is diminished by the way they render people as anonymous crowds in a middle distance. As a result we lack, I feel, an insight into the people, their passions and purpose.

In Egypt especially we saw photojournalism using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further enhance our connection.

The coverage of Syria to date offers a different lesson. It’s not an argument against ‘citizen journalism’, because in the absence of professional photojournalism the only alternative to getting pictures via social media would be total blindness. We need professionals and amateurs to combine in producing a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, when the professional are not present, something is lacking.

Top photo: A man prepares to throw a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Credit: REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.

Second photo: Syrian anti-regime protesters waving their national flag and holding a sign that reads in Arabic “Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Druze, I am Syrian” during a demonstration in the central town of Homs. Credit: YouTube/AFP/Getty Images.

Categories
media economy photography

Crowd funding photojournalism: how is it going?

Crowd funding is growing as a means to support creative projects. Back in January I discussed the theory and practice of crowd funding through a critique of Larry Towell’s ‘Crisis in Afghanistan’ project, followed by an update on my experience as a contributor. Here I want to provide a review of how crowd funding is currently working for photography and photojournalism, with an analysis of Kickstarter and a look at emphas.is.

There are a number of new crowd funding sites, such as WeFund in the UK, and Norwegian-based New Jelly, though they have few if any photography projects. In contrast, IndieGoGo, which was established in 2008, and says it has raised millions of dollars for over 20,000 campaigns, across 173 countries,” has more than 100 photography pitches. However, only four have been successful (see here, here, here and here), raising a total of US$15,000 between them.

Kickstarter by numbers

In photography circles it is Kickstarter that is best known. Founded in April 2009, contributors have stumped up more than $35 million in the last two years, and the money is coming in at the rate of $1 million/week. In a review this February, GigaOm detailed the figures:

  • more than 600,000 supporters come to the site
  • 5,000 projects have been funded and 2,500 are currently pitching
  • 250-300 proposals are submitted daily, though Kickstarter rejects 45% of these because they do not meet the requirements

I’ve done my own analysis of successful photography projects on Kickstarter between 17 June 2009 and 17 April 2011. These include much more than photojournalism. Here are the numbers:

  • 284 projects
  • $1,295,803 raised in total
  • Average of $4,563/project

The amounts funded range from $25 to $50,000, with the latter for a non-photographic part of Zana Briski’s “Reverence” project. Briski’s large total is very much an outlier, as the average/project above suggests. Of the 284 projects, there were only 19 that bid for and raised between $10–20,000, only three in the $20–30,000 bracket, another three in the $30–40,000 range, with Briski’s the single one beyond that.

Significantly, many of the best known photojournalism projects – by Ashley Gilbertson, Bruce Gilden, Krisanne Johnson, Gerd Ludwig (who raised twice what he asked for), and Larry Towell – are in the $10,000+ category of success.

This has encouraged the Magnum Emergency Fund to set up its own Kickstarter page. The MEF states that “funds raised will be used to cover actual costs and a per diem.” The latter is a controversial point. Are these platforms a way to make a living, or do they provide project expenses only? I’m firmly of the view that it should be expenses only. If by per diem the MEF means a personal fee from crowd funding, that would be unacceptable in my view. If by per diem they mean travel and subsistence costs, that would be legitimate. The doubt around this arises from the fact that most if not all of these pitches remain opaque as to their detailed budget. More transparent accounting is still needed to clarify issues like this.

The promise of emphas.is

Emphas.is is the crowd funding platform focused on visual journalism, and after launching in early March with a few understandable teething problems, it has just seen more than $40,000 raised to fully fund four of its nine opening projects. Of the remaining five, one should succeed, one has failed, and three are precariously placed. That’s not a bad start – though the platform will need to react faster once projects are funded. As I write, Matt Eich’s project has been fully funded for a few days yet remains in pole position as the site’s ‘featured project’.

Aside from its focus, Emphas.is differs from Kickstarter in two important respects. First, it has a board of reviewers that determine which pitches are accepted for the site. With a likely 55:45 funding success rate on the first batch, the review process is no guarantee of success (not that it was intended to be).

The second difference is that as a platform emphas.is both enables and encourages community engagement through its “Making of Zone” where backers get project updates. While this rewards contributors, it also helps the projects. As Tomas Van Houtryve, whose project was fully funded, notes:

Backers have started to pose relevant questions. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence.

What can we conclude so far?

I think the performance of Kickstarter and the promise of emphas.is give us some pointers to crowd funding photojournalism:

  • Successful bids require careful preparation, and the likes of Frank Chimero have good advice on how to make an effective pitch.
  • While the macro-level figures are impressive, the most likely level of project funding is in the US$5,000 – $15,000 range
  • Achieving above $10,000 requires a previously established professional reputation and an active community of support to call on
  • Even with that community of potential support, generating support requires considerable planning and effort, pursuing connections, publicity and pledges. As Rene Clement told PDN recently, “Don’t think money will pour in. You have to work really hard for it.”

Above all else, turning crowd funding into a sustainable source of project revenue for photojournalism requires those how have recently been funded to deliver on their promises. If backers are engaged and see their support enable projects that would otherwise not have happened, then continuing assistance could be forthcoming.

Update 23 April/5 May

The British Journal of Photography (4 May 2011) has a good report on crowd funding with some UK examples.

They discuss three UK-based crowd funding sites I had not previously heard of: CrowdfunderSponsume and WeDidThis. Sponsume is interesting because it has a ’50 per cent’ rule – if pitches get backing for half the total they ask for they can keep the money pledged. Most other sites require the target to be reached in full before funding is made available.

The report also discusses two ‘DIY’ crowd funded projects – the well-known Sochi Project, and the less known appeal by Andy Sewell, in which he has raised over £6,000 for a book by pre-selling a limited edition version.

The most important observation in this BJP report comes towards the end:

With crowdfunding there is a notable correlation between the size of the project leader’s online social network and the amount of money raised – the bigger the network, the greater the chance of reaching the target.

Photo credit: Genista/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
Back Catalogue media economy photography

The Back Catalogue (2): Photojournalism in the new media economy

Welcome to the second in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covered work on representations of ‘Africa’, and the third deals with representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are analyses of documentary photography and photojournalism in the new media economy – specifically the challenges for creative practice and story-telling, challenges for the industry given the disruptive power of the Internet, and new ways of thinking about doing business and funding photographic projects.

Posts: challenges for creative practice

Posts: challenges for the industry

Posts: new ways of doing business and funding work

Posts: other sites

 

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo: drewm/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Paying for photojournalism: a review of the New York Times ‘pay wall’

Newspapers in the US and UK continue to struggle with growing debt, declining circulation and falling advertising revenue. In the search for additional sources of revenue, new schemes for paid content are being implemented. (For an excellent overview of the issues, listen to WNYC’s On the Media podcast from January 28). After nearly two years planning, the New York Times launched its “metered” system this week.

This development has been greeted positively in the photographic world, with Aric Mayer, Rob Haggart and Joerg Colberg endorsing the thrust of the scheme. While agreeing that news organisations need to find new ways to fund critical journalism, I don’t share this upbeat assessment of what the New York Times scheme means for photojournalism. Indeed, as I’ve been arguing for the last eighteen months (see here, here and here), I think it’s a mistake for photography to pin its hopes on a revival of the long-lost editorial paymaster.

Here I will review commentary on the NYT scheme and suggest an alternative way to think about revenue that would be more beneficial for photojournalism. This a complex issue that demands some key assumptions are questioned, so this is a very long post. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I hope you will take the time to read it in full and engage the debate.

The pay scheme that isn’t a wall

Although much of the discussion has proceeded in these terms, the NYT scheme is not a pay wall. As Steve Yelvington argues,

A paywall…is a dumb, blunt instrument that separates content from the general public, prevents sampling, inhibits linkage and sharing, and usually is the product of an unhealthy arrogance.

That view sumps up the approach of the Times and Sunday Times in London, the experience of which demonstrates the limits of that approach. Although there are now 79,000 digital-only subscribers to the Times pay wall, there has been a massive reduction in the paper’s online readership (90% according to one initial estimate), advertisers have become nervous about the decimation of their online audience, and the journalists are cut off from the wider social media conversation because of the block on search engines and the inability to link freely. The small gains in monthly revenue will not make a significant dent in the tens of millions of pounds the Times loses annually, they may not offset the lost advertising revenue, and they come at the price of cultural presence and global engagement, which in turn most likely reduces advertising revenue that depends on reach.

To try and avert the falls in readership that result from demanding online payment, the NYT scheme permits some open access and encourages continued linking. Everybody can access 20 articles a month, after which you are asked to pay $15-$35 every four weeks depending on the device you want to use. If you are a print subscriber, you get access without additional cost, and if you come to a NYT article via a search engine or distributed link (via Facebook or Twitter), that does not count against the quota of twenty. To get it all up and running, NYT is offering, in an echo of iTunes, four weeks access for 99c.

Reactions and estimates

Reactions to the details of the NYT scheme have been many and varied (see eleven mixed responses garnered by the Nieman Journalism Lab here). Whatever one’s initial take, it is clear that the paper’s aim is to limit the number of readers who will encounter the request for payment. As Steve Buttry observed:

they have structured this to apply to a small segment of their online audience (people who read more than 20 pieces a month who don’t subscribe to the print edition and don’t find them through search or social media).

Buttry feels that the result will be “a trickle of revenue, not worth the time they spent developing the plan.”

Given that the NYT spent $40-50 million on planning and implementing its scheme, it needs to produce a significant amount of money just to cover development costs before there is any hope that new revenue will make its way into content creation – the journalism, and then photojournalism.

There is also the issue of lost opportunity cost. As Koi Vinh – a former NYT designer who was involved in the initial planning — asked what else could the NYT have developed with the enormous effort and resources the scheme consumed in the last two years?

I’m not qualified to judge detail of the economic projections, but it is clear from reading the commentary there is a great deal of uncertainty around the plans. From its global audience of 42 million unique users each month, the NYT is hoping to get 300,000 digital subscribers in the first year. That could mean it takes two years to repay the development costs, or it could mean increase in subscription revenue of 10% or more. However, even the latter, more optimistic calculation offers a boost that is marginal in comparison to advertising revenue. Ken Doctor notes that digital advertising makes up 26% of total advertising revenue for the paper, and that sector is growing:

If the Times could nab another half a percentage point in market share of that still-growing pie, that would amount to $140 million a year, dwarfing new digital circulation money.

Personal expense and premium content

The NYT scheme varies in cost depending on the number of access points, and is being sold somewhat disingenuously as a particular amount “every four weeks” which, although it sounds like a “per month” proposition, actually requires thirteen annual payments. At the top end, it is a very expensive deal when compared to others offering similar services. Michael deGusta has visualized the NYT and its competitors, and he concluded by asking:

Does The Times really think the mass audience is going to decide their $455/year is better spent on The Times rather than getting 20+ free articles/month from The Times plus The Wall Street Journal ($207/year) plus The Economist ($110/year) plus say The Daily ($39/year) for good measure, and still having ~$100 left over each year? (emphasis added)

What the NYT is requiring for its digital-only subscription has lead deGusta and others (such as Frédéric Filloux) to argue that the NYT scheme is a defensive strategy designed to stop existing customers from cancelling their print subscription revenue rather than a creative approach to generating new digital revenue.

Another part of the NYT scheme underscores its defensive nature. At first glance the scheme is a “freemium” approach in which a certain amount of free content is provided in order to build up demand for premium, paid-for access. Yet while the NYT is requiring payment from its most regular readers, it is not offering them anything new in return. The scheme requires payment for content they have accessed for free until now. As Dave Winer remarked, “they’re not offering anything to readers other than the Times’ survival, and they’re not even explicit about that.”

Still free for many

The NYT scheme is also not a pay wall because it is porous and easily avoided.

Part of that is intentional. To ensure it remains in the global social media conversation, the paper allows the front page of its blogs to be freely accessed, and has no limit on the number of articles that can be read by following a link on Facebook, Twitter and some search engines. Indeed, the paper has its own Twitter account @nytimes with more than 3 million followers, all of whom can follow as many links as they like each month. The Lens blog has discussed all this overtly in a special note.

In addition, NYT journalists and columnists with their own followers – such as the Lens blog’s James Estrin – will get more articles, posts and galleries for free. This is all before the computer literate pursue other ways to maintain free access, which involves little more than four lines of code to get around.

Can it emulate other successful pay schemes?

People who want to see good journalism well funded have been hoping that the NYT scheme might replicate the Financial Times success with digital subscriptions (although there is now a debate how successful the FT actually is). Nonetheless, the fortunes of the FT (or the Wall Street Journal) are not replicable for general news and daily journalism. The FT and WSJ provide time-sensitive market information that has direct value to subscribers, many of whom get it as a business benefit rather than through personal expense and are therefore not price sensitive.

Much as we may wish otherwise, even the investigative journalism of the NYT is not a scarce or fixed commodity like an FT market analysis or a music track from iTunes. With other credible news sources (e.g. the BBC, Guardian et al) pledged to remain globally free, and the news stream constantly updating, readers are resistant to paying for online content that has been and will remain freely available.

If that makes you wish for a chance to rewrite history – imagining that ‘if only’ newspapers had ganged together and set up universal walls at the beginning of the Internet age we would now be handing over money without complaint – then pause for a moment and reflect on this. The Internet is an intrinsically open system. If all the legacy media outlets had withdrawn into walled gardens, do you not think that sometime during the last fifteen a bright spark would have set up a free global news site attracting millions and funded via advertising or related sources? Something like, you know, that Harvard graduate and his little project called Facebook…

What is the purpose then?

The NYT scheme is expensive, complex, porous, and easily worked around. Even if it functions as desired it won’t generate anything like the revenue that would flow from the growth in online advertising. It is accompanied by risks, such as alienating the NYT’s most engaged and loyal users and reducing the reach of NYT stories. And it has potentially large lost opportunity costs – an on-going commitment to a print-based strategy that will run its course in the years ahead, and the lack of investment in creative alternatives during that continued decline.

It is possible that all the sceptics are wrong, and we shouldn’t knock the willingness to experiment in these revolutionary times. There is great uncertainty about the details of the economic projections, but even if the scheme succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams it is only going to provide a fraction of the needed revenue to fund critical journalism. Paid content schemes, no matter how flexible and nuanced, are subscription models, and subscriptions have historically only ever provided approximately 20% of a newspaper’s revenues with 80% from advertising (although papers like the WSJ have a 50/50 split). Given the availability and culture of freely available general news, who would bet on digital subscriptions reaching even that historical share?

So why have they done it?

I think the NYT scheme is less a business model and more a moral imperative.

It is based on the claim that people should pay for quality journalism. It is a scheme designed to defend the worth of the paper’s journalism. This has been explicit in a number of arguments in favour of such schemes that talk about a “value proposition.” It appears when an editor says

the act of placing a value on our journalism may be more important than any penny we ever collect

And it is to be found in Aric Mayer’s statement that

it [content creation] is a thing worth paying for, and requiring the audience to pay for it demonstrates its value.

Of course, quality journalism and photography costs, and it should be paid for (though I am not as misty eyed about the USP of the NYT as some). The question is how and by who is content paid for. Taking an historical perspective again, we have to note two important things.

First, news and investigative journalism has never made money by itself in order to pay for itself. We should not, therefore, be judging current plans by the flawed assumption that we are looking for a single business model that will do what has never previously been done.

Second, we as readers have always paid for modes of distribution but never directly for content. Viewing the NYT scheme as a device for readers to value content though direct payment is wishing for a historically unprecedented change of behaviour in the most unlikely of circumstances. As Steve Buttry caustically observed:

My friend and former boss Jim Brady says that you can’t build a business model based on what people should do (and newspaper people believe in their bones that people should pay for their content). You build a business model based on what people will do. This tortured maze of exceptions and trigger points is a laughable effort to collect because people should pay but to find a way not to lose the people who won’t pay.

The NYT scheme also comes up short as a value proposition because of it offers subscribers nothing new, there being no exclusive or premium content to go with the newly demanded payments. And quite how a company rationalises asking patrons at the front door to pay while the very same goods are being handed out the back door free (via its own Twitter feeds) remains a mystery.

But above all else we should recognise that value has different forms and manifestations. It is a mistake to see price or payment as the only index of value. Circulation, distribution, engagement and global presence have considerable value.

Fine, but where does the money come from?

In his welcoming assessment of the NYT scheme, Aric Mayer wrote:

Journalists and Photojournalists should be applauding this move. It signals an effort by the New York Times to uncouple content creation from direct dependence on online advertising. Without online subscription prices or online newsstand sales, there simply is no other way of generating a predictable online revenue stream.

There are, of course, problems with a dependence on advertising, although that has historically been the mainstay of the legacy media many continue to view fondly, and online advertising is growing and will soon overtake print advertising.

Diversifying revenue has to be a good strategy. But is it that case that without online subscription “there simply is no other way of generating a predictable online revenue stream”? I disagree with that claim.

There are many other ways of generating predictable revenue streams, and this is where the news business has to learn from other sectors like the music industry, which encountered digital disruption before journalism. Pursuing these routes could mitigate the risks of the paid content approach.

John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News, argued we have to appreciate that news organisations do not make money from news – news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism. Instead of a single business model for journalism emerging, we need to see a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly.

For music, the idea that content creation (the songs) is what provides significant revenue through fans paying directly is slipping away as album sales fall. For some of the mega acts, only a tiny fraction of their revenue comes from the music they write. The bulk comes from things that revolve around the content – concerts, merchandising, video games, advertising, and sponsorship. And some of these mega acts give their content, the music, away for free in order to enhance their revenue from the related but indirect sources.

This means that instead of just advertising and subscriptions, transactions are a major alternative revenue stream. Indeed, a Fairfax media executive has remarked that transactions rather than advertising or paid content were the best on-line revenue streams. Crucially, transactions require news organisations to build a community around their brand and product, and then take a percentage of the transactions (hotel bookings, financial advice etc.) those community members conduct through the associations, links, and relationships provided. The various ‘reader’s offers’ that papers have long provided are a pre-web version of this.

How might this work for the NYT in relation to photojournalism? Here is a proposal that is much more direct that the newly proposed scheme and the hope that some of its revenue trickles down to content creators. (BTW, has anyone reported a rise in photo fees or a spike in demand for photographers by News Corporation since the Times pay wall went up?). If someone takes up this proposal for a photography site, I might even coming calling for a consultancy fee, but for a limited time only I am offering it for free!

The Lens blog is a high profile site with some 750,000 users visiting each month. Instead of raising money by hoping some of those subscribe on their 21st visit each month, consider the monthly visitors as a community of interest around photojournalism and offer goods and services to that community. There could be Lens-sponsored master classes, special events and workshops for both professionals and the general public; print sales; discounted equipment and photographic services via business affiliates; photo tours and themed travel; equipment, medical and travel insurance for practitioners; logistics and visa services for photographers having to travel at short notice…you name it, anything that interests a broad photographic community, amateur and professional, could be offered by negotiated deals where Lens’s earns a percentage on each transaction.

This strategy would leverage the Lens blog Twitter feeds and referrals providing unlimited free access. It would be based on growing the community that comes to the site, thereby underscoring the value of having quality photojournalism distributed globally and the benefit of having it accessible to as many as possible. It could raise more revenue than subscriptions could achieve, and the revenue could go directly to photojournalism.

Funding critical journalism and photography has always been difficult and will remain difficult. Hoping for a paid content scheme to offer salvation strikes me as being like a cargo cult. Paying for premium content, or content with longevity – like the move to make magazine articles saleable as in-app downloads or Kindle singles – has a future, through the amounts may not be large. But there is little historical or contemporary evidence to suggest people will start paying for daily news in sufficient numbers, and remonstrating with individuals about what they should do is something best pursued by priests rather than corporations.

Equally, scepticism about paid content is not a theological position dependent on the virtues of free. I think an appreciation of how ‘free’ functions on the web is essential but that means seeing how it connects to paid. Like many I happily pay for multiple modes of news distribution. Having stumped up for a seven day print subscription to the Guardian and Observer, a digital replica subscription of the same papers and two versions of the Guardian iPhone app, while eagerly awaiting their iPad app, GMG has many of my hard earned pounds. They would get even more from me if they had a photography blog that offered equipment transactions, because purchasing that new tripod I need or shotgun mic I want could earn them affiliate revenue.

But if the Guardian was to go back on its commitment to free access to quality content through those modes of distribution, I would be heading elsewhere for my general news and comment. That is the nature of media ecology in the twenty first century, and only a realistic assessment of how people function in the world of social media will provide a sound basis for funding new content.

Featured photo: borman818/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

 

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.13: Target Libya

More than 100 newspaper front pages are running Goran Tomasevic’s photographs of the airstrikes on Libya. These scans have been made and circulated today by Thomson Reuters, and demonstrate how particular images attract the eye of picture editors around the world. His most featured photograph shows “a bomb from an allied aircraft explod[ing] among vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Col Muammar el-Qaddafi during an airstrike Sunday.”

Pictures like these are what a British cabinet minister called “emotional optics” – visuals that prompt affective responses to international events. The impact of these “emotional optics” on public support for this military campaign remains to be seen, but the echoes of Iraq are concerning those responsible for the strikes.

 

 

 

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Covering Japan’s disaster: A visual journalist’s reflections

Dan Chung spent four days covering the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Based in Beijing as the Guardian’s videojournalist, Dan runs the DSLR Newshooter blog and is the video tutor for the MA in International Multimedia Journalism I contribute to. Upon returning to Beijing on Thursday Dan came into class to give an immediate, first-hand account of his experience in Japan.

Dan spoke for nearly two hours, offering a revealing and thought-provoking analysis of the aesthetic, logistical and reporting challenges he faced working in the disaster zone. He kindly allowed the talk to be recorded and made available as a podcast. I have edited the talk, taking out the sections that recorded the audio from the video reports he showed. In the recording you will hear questions from DJ Clark, and references to Adam Dean, a freelance photojournalist in Beijing, and Tania Branigan, the Guardian’s China correspondent.

You can listen to the podcast here, and I have provided the videos Dan discussed so you can follow the discussion and engage the debate about how to cover an event of this magnitude.

[powerpress]

Some of the key points I took away from the talk were:

  • the logistical challenges of getting to the disaster zone quickly were immense, as were the challenges then faced in moving around the disaster zone. He noted that each day only about 2-3 hours was available for shooting still or video images; the rest of the time was consumed by logistics, be that sourcing fuel, power, internet connections and food
  • although he has advised journalists not to shoot stills and video at the same time during an assignment, this was an event in which that dual function was unavoidable. (Dan’s stills galleries can be seen here and here, and he talks about them at 42:00 in the podcast). However he opted to focus on video because of the large number of highly skilled photographers working on the story
  • the fundamental question he thought journalists should ask themselves is ‘what are you doing there, and what can you add to the story’ given the blanket coverage by both the Japanese and international media
  • in assessing a visual journalist’s contribution to the story, he argued that you had to consider the overall media environment you were publishing into. In this story there is the extensive coverage of the Japanese media, the large presence of international agencies and wire services, and extensive social media networks.
  • In this context, the most dramatic footage came from user generated content (such as this video, discussed at 18:15 in the podcast), and it was very hard for international journalists to compete with that. He described a lot of the western coverage as “formulaic,” driven by conventions of reporting and the limits of what one could do in the disaster zone.
  • Dan said his function was to be a witness, providing images to take the reader somewhere they are not.
  • He wondered whether we would be seeing some “stylised photojournalism” in an effort to do something different. He felt that the drive to differentiate oneself through aesthetics was problematic. He asked, “how much thinking can you do outside the box photographically in a disaster like this? How much is down to what you come across, what you see?”

Dan discussed the videos he produced during the talk. At 15:26 he introduces the first story, which is this standard “television style” package presented by Jonathan Watts, that appeared on the Guardian site on 13 March.

[jwplayer config=”Custom Player” mediaid=”1908″]

This was contrasted (at 17:38 in the podcast) to Matt Allard’s Aljazeera English report, which Dan regarded as amongst the best of the TV reports.

In an effort to offer something different, Dan produced a piece of ‘cinematic journalism’ he felt embodied the experience of being in the disaster zone. He discusses his intentions at length in the podcast (from 20:55 to 30:00). This film, which took less than two hours to make, has generated a lot of controversy online, as the comments on Vimeo demonstrate.

 

Aftermath – The Japanese Tsunami from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

The Guardian did not like this package, largely because of the music that accompanied the shots. In London they took Dan’s footage and re-edited it with some audio of a survivor, producing this version.

Watching both versions back to back it is striking how different the visuals can feel when associated with music in the first and the voice over in the second. It demonstrates well that pictures do not speak for themselves.

The final video story Dan discussed (at 31:20 in the podcast) is that of a helicopter rescue, that begins with some of the amateur video he felt provided the strongest visuals.

Dan concluded with a reassessment of his earlier commitment to solo video journalism. He argued that being a single operator visual journalist is extremely difficult for spot news. It offers enormous advantages for a documentary approach, he said, but because the media environment is not a level playing field given the large operators’ resources and logistical support, it could not contribute as much as he had originally hoped to the coverage of event like the earthquake/tsunami.

Featured photo: Fishing boat washed up on the waterfront of Kessennuma, 13 March. Dan Chung/The Guardian

Categories
media economy photography

Learning from Larry, part two: what crowd funding looks like from the donor’s perspective

My postman brought an envelope from Larry Towell this week. Sent from Canada, it contained the 6×4 inch photograph (above) offered to those who pledged US$25 towards Larry’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project. Personally captioned “International Committee of the Red Cross, Kabul, Afghanistan 2010” it was also personally signed.

In my original post reviewing Larry’s Kickstarter-funded project on Afghanistan I said I would periodically report, from the contributor’s perspective, on how the project seemed to be progressing. This is my first follow-up to the original post.

At the outset I want to be clear on two points. First, this is not about harassing Larry! Given that its early days for crowd funding I think it’s worthwhile for photographers contemplating the approach to appreciate what the process looks like from the other side of the fence. Although I’m drawing my points from Larry’s project, I don’t want to personalize this. Perhaps I should refer to “Larry,” putting him in quotation marks to emphasize that this project is an example from which we might draw some lessons.

The second point is that this is a review about a particular form of crowd funding, namely how it looks via Kickstarter. In the original post I discussed crowd funding in theory and then in practice, and Kickstarter as a crowd funding platform is just one example of the practice. Nonetheless, I think there are general pointers that emerge from what I have seen so far.

When you contribute to a Kickstarter project, what happens? Well, nearly all communication is via automatically generated emails.  The first arrives after you make your pledge:

You are now a backer of Crisis in Afghanistan by Larry Towell.

If funded, Larry Towell will send you a message to request any info needed to deliver your reward (mailing address, etc.)

Please help Larry Towell spread the word!

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/ahKZP/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

While a project is seeking funding, the person behind it can offer updates on Kickstarter, and distinguish between updates available to all and those that can be accessed by backers only. The latter also come to your email inbox if you have made a contribution, and I received “Project Update #6 on the final day of the pitch:

Dear Everyone

The time is almost up and I have made more than my goal, thanks to your generosity. I have been in communication with my contacts in Afghanistan recently and am beginning to plan, looking at a departure date in March. I’ll be sending things off asap. For those receiving prints, I’ll be in touch personally about your selection. Thank you again for making this happen.

Larry

There haven’t been any further project updates for contributors. Once the deadline for pledges passes, and assuming the project is funded, another email arrives:

Congrats! Amazon will now charge your credit card and transfer the money directly to Larry Towell.

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/DRFaj/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

Shortly on its heels, the Amazon Payments system issues an email confirming it has taken your money and completed payment, in this case to the Magnum Foundation who handled Larry’s finances.

With the money paid, it was then a matter of waiting for the promised personal communication about the print selection. Only the communication wasn’t personal, and there wasn’t any selection involved. The Kickstarter platform sends an email asking you to complete an online “survey,” which means entering your name and address on their site so the print can be sent.

Larry Towell has created a survey to request info needed to deliver your reward:

“A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6” print postcard.”

Respond to this survey on Kickstarter:

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/uPMqE/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan/surveys/174274?at=b6f04baa8f8ebd36

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

Once that is done, the contributor then waits for the reward. Was it a “personal thank you”? Not really – it’s a photo I’m happy to have and the pencilled caption and autograph is fine. But is there anything that marks it out as a “thank you” for a project that is ongoing? No. Was there anything about where the project is currently at or what the next stage is? No.

What one gets as a contributor – at least at my minor level – is automated, impersonal and far from engaging. I don’t mean to sound petty or whiny about this; I’m just trying to judge the process in terms of what the Kickstarter system said was forthcoming. The discussion here is also no criticism of Kickstarter – it’s a very efficient fundraising process. It’s just not a platform for community engagement around a project (nor does it claim to be).

As a contributor interested in the substance of the project I was hoping for more. I’d love to know more about where the project planning is at, what is going well and what problems are being faced, not to mention some idea of where and when we might see the end product. To that end I did post a comment on Larry’s Facebook page but that didn’t elicit any response.

At the moment it seems my role as a minor contributor came to an end once my credit card was charged. To my mind crowd funding, if it is to fulfill its potential, has to do much more than that. It has to really engage the contributors. But let’s wait and see if Larry’s backers get more updates in the weeks ahead. I will let you know.

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.

Categories
media economy photography politics

Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better

Larry Towell is one of the most accomplished contemporary photojournalists. Two weeks ago I became a backer of his “Crisis in Afghanistan” project, pledging $25 through Kickstarter. Today was the deadline for Larry to attract backers, and with 143 supporters contributing $14,007, the project exceeded its target and is up and running.

I became a backer because I want to see alternative visions of Afghanistan produced and Larry should be able to use his talents to produce something different. But I also pledged a small amount because I want to see how crowd funding via Kickstarter works from the perspective of a contributor. I’m going to follow Larry’s project through the various stages from now until completion and will periodically report on what, as a minor backer, I can see happening.

The proposal for “Crisis in Afghanistan” has been the subject of some controversy in the last month, with a series of posts on duckrabbit beginning here and here, some heated debate spilling over into the Kickstarter comments, some observations from A Photo Editor here and a critique of the concept of crowd funding from Daniel Cuthbert that involved an interesting exchange with Tomas van Houtryve, who offered his own take here. I’ll touch one some of the points raised in between the heat of these exchanges, but I want to stick to the big picture – what can we learn about crowd funding photojournalism from Larry’s pitch?

Understanding crowd funding in theory

Crowd funding is one manifestation of the new possibilities opened up by the disruptive power of the Internet. Because the barriers between producers and consumers have been breached, and because our capacity to create communities has been greatly enhanced, creators can now look in new places for supporters.

Of course, the need to look for new ways to fund projects has been necessitated by the same disruptive power of the Internet. While it is not the sole cause of the revolutions in the media economy, the Internet has hastened the decline of traditional modes of distribution. Instead of bemoaning the loss of long-past certainties, the challenge is how to leverage these new forces to finance new work. In an earlier post on making documentary possible, I outlined the various ways this was happening, and Kickstarter and Emphas.is were two of the examples discussed (see also Phil Coomes’ post on BBC Viewfinder).

Looking at the overall context, what drives the potential of these new approaches to funding is the way the web opens up possibilities to create communities around practices and projects, such that those communities then become sources of support including money. At the heart of this logic is the recognition that ‘free’ is now an essential part of getting paid (as I explain here, ‘free’ remains one of the most wilfully misunderstood concepts of the web 2.0 world, especially in photography circles).

Creating communities is an essential part of the concept of crowd funding. Communities come from engaging potential members, making them participants in the production and circulation of one’s project, rather than just viewing them as donors to call on from time to time. It can be understood as the search for “a thousand true fans” out of the many people who might like your work, and examples of how it works can be studied by reference to the music industry, as I’ve noted in my previous posts.

In this sense, I disagree with the way Daniel Cuthbert cast crowd funding per se as “a virtual begging bowl,” a fancy name for “handing out a cap to the world and begging for them to help you.” And I disagree with the anonymous ‘iamnotasuperstarphotographer’ – author of the duckrabbit posts that took aim at Larry Towell’s project – who repeats the related claim that crowd funding is in essence just “charity.”

Part of the debate around crowd funding comes from judging it as though crowd funding was a singular business model that could offer a sustainable means for financing the global practice of photojournalism. If anyone is claiming that they need to think again. The days of “a business model” that is universally applicable are long gone. Photographers wanting to work in the difficult area of story telling are going to have to – as so often in the past – put together a number of often in-direct revenue streams.

Crowd funding, even in its early Kickstarter forms, can be one of those revenue streams. It will never be the financial answer to a photographer’s every needs. But it is undeniably a source of money to enable new work. For it to be the most effective source, for both the creator and their backers, it needs to be founded on communities created through engagement with the project in question.

What about recent examples of crowd funding photojournalism?

Do the early examples of crowd funding follow the concept in theory? Not really. So although it is wrong to see crowd funding per se as nothing more than begging like a charity, Tomas van Houtryve is correct to say, after reviewing some recent proposals, that “photographers need to drop the ‘donate’ or ‘help save me’ vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee.” Refocusing on the issue of creating communities is the way to do that.

So what about Larry Towell’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project? Was it more about charity than creating a community?

Much of the projects success came from Larry’s status as a Magnum photographer making a bid backed by Magnum. Previous visits to Afghanistan have been funded by the Magnum Emergency Fund, money pledged from Kickstarter goes through the Magnum Foundation, and Magnum in Motion produced the supporting video appeal. Among the contributors are many famous photographic and media names, so ‘the community’ that rallied behind this project was one already in place and prepared to give. This was, then, more a case of donation than engagement.

Had the pitch for the “Crisis in Afghanistan” come from an unknown photographer I very much doubt if it would have succeeded. I know I certainly wouldn’t have contributed. Here’s why:

  • Support is requested for a fifth trip to Afghanistan since 2008, but there is little detail about the work done on the four previous trips. When were the trips undertaken? With whom and how? What topics were covered? How many images were produced? What is the size of the best edit from this work?
  • There is little detail about what remains to be done. According to the project statement “your support will enable me to finish shooting, and to interview landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.” Isn’t that a lot to do in “four to five weeks”? Are contacts in place or yet to be made? What is the narrative that these characters are part of?
  • There is no budget. All the statement says is “Afghanistan is a very expensive country in which to work, due to the need to hire professional fixers, interpreters, and drivers, and your support will help to cover these costs.” Why $12,000 then? How does that break down? What is the contingency if costs exceed this budget? What happens to the money raised over and above the original target?
  • There is little detail on the outcomes. Funding “will result in a book of photographs and text,” and the video flicks through a book dummy that looks pretty substantial. What is the text going to say? Who is the publisher? When will it be out? How will it be promoted so it’s part of the political debate?

If Larry didn’t have a great track record already would a proposal with these unanswered questions have garnered the funding? If a student came to me with a project proposal like Larry’s I would have sent them away to do much more work on both context and logistics. If you aren’t a famous photographer seeking support you need to prepare a much more professional pitch, and must, as David White argued, be more open and transparent about all the elements of their project. Daniel Cuthbert has outlined some of the elements of a professional pitch here.

The problem of narrative and politics in “Crisis in Afghanistan”

Above all else, the biggest problem with Larry’s project as presented is we don’t know what the story is, and what details there are about the political context are as unspecified or problematic as the logistics. I think that narrative is one of the key features of good photography, and its something lacking in Larry’s project proposal.

In the video Larry says he wants to offer an “alternative view of Afghanistan,” something “a little different.” Great. Different to what though? The specified list of Afghan victims has been much photographed so what is he going to offer that others haven’t? Being concerned with victims is a starting point, but is the project going to do more than put them on display? How is it going to avoid the romantic clichés that Stephen Mayes spoke about in his 2009 World Press Photo lecture (where he wryly observed that “I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House”). What is the narrative that takes us from the Soviets, to landmines, to heroin, to Obama’s dilemma – all points highlighted in the project video?

And then we come to the political framing of the project. The Kickstarter statement begins with the claim that “for 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.” As Asim Rafiqui pointed out, that is nonsense. “Civil war” presumes no outside intervention, which is obviously not true. In the project video Larry says “Afghan culture is about 5,000 years old and they have been fighting foreign interventions for most of that time.” While that recognises the interventions, the generalisation about thousands of years is equally nonsense, the sort of claim ‘we’ often make about foreign societies, flattening their history onto one miserable dimension. An alternative account of Afghanistan must go beyond that.

It is no longer acceptable for photojournalists to peddle unsupported observations about world issues they want to picture. If you want to produce a book that is part of the contemporary debate over Afghanistan, you have to have some political nouse. That depends on the hard graft of research and analysis, yet, as Ciara Leeming recently observed, too many photographers have forgotten the ‘journalism’ part of their story telling brief. I don’t know what research Larry has done or plans to do, and I can’t tell what his sources are, because the pitch didn’t specify these vital elements. Any professional bid for a reportage project must be based on good research and name the sources of its evidence.

The need to engage

Transparency, openness and engagement are among the essential ways of operating in the web 2.0 world. One controversy over Larry’s Afghanistan project kicked off when Larry’s brusque handling of a potential contributor’s important questions – similar to the ones I have asked above about narrative and politics – were highlighted for “for transparency lovers everywhere.” (I have to note the irony of someone who posts under an anonymous tag, and refuses to make any details about themselves public, calling out a publicly known figure for being opaque. I also have to disclose that I have disagreed regularly with this anonymous poster when he/she has submitted comments to my site).

Although the debate then went off the rails, Larry’s response was poor. David Allen Harvey defended Larry’s “awkwardness” with questions by claiming he “is totally averse to interviews, blogs, all of these things.” If that is the case, then he was a poor candidate for crowd funding, because using social media tools to communicate with supporters so they can participate in the project is essential to making this approach work. Sadly, as Tomas van Houtryve’s assessment of recent projects shows other photographers also fail to make engagement on on-going priority.

Crowd funding offers great potential as one amongst many sources of revenue for photojournalists, but it is not designed to be the solution for a sustainable income. It will be interesting to watch Emphas.is – which has a different structure – when it joins Kickstarter as a platform, along with others like the UK-based WeFund.

To succeed crowd funding needs to be meaningfully connected to communities around a photographer’s practice, and that means a new way of working for many. I will be putting a link to this post on Larry’s Facebook page in the hope of engaging him on some of these issues. I genuinely hope he can produce an effective new project with an alternative vision. In the meantime, I am looking forward to my post card from Larry thanking me for my financial contribution.

 

Want to know more? Webinar on Emphas.is and crowd funding:

UPDATE 13 APRIL 2010: Tomas van Hotryve participated in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa (the CEO of Emphas.is) and Paul Lowe (Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication), on Tuesday February 1, 2011. A recording of this OPEN-i session can be found on Vimeo.

Categories
media economy photography

Grants for new visual stories: who provides them?

The photography world is full of awards, grants and competitions. Many of these reward work already done.

But where do you go if you want funding for a new project? Who will fund a visual story you are planning but have not yet commenced?

On a new grants resources page I have collected a range of funding opportunities that meet two basic criteria. The first is that they provide grants specifically for new visual projects (this means grants like the OSI Audience Engagement Grant is not included because it excludes the shooting of new work). The second is that they have an open application process, meaning they do not depend upon prior selection (as in the case of the Magnum Emergency Fund, which uses a group of nominators to invite 100 applicants).

I have identified more than 20 funding organisations to start with. On the Grants page you can click on the links to go to those organisations for further information, including the deadlines for the next round of applications.

If you are aware of other funders, please either add them via the comments or contact me directly, and I will update the list.

Photo credit: cobalt123/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Making documentary possible: How the Internet leads to new funding opportunities

Finding the money to enable new photographic work is one of the most pressing issues practitioners currently face. Editorial paymasters have been in decline for a very long time, forcing those who want to pursue challenging and time-consuming projects to seek other means of support. Now the Internet’s disruption of the media economy has quelled any forlorn hope that there will be a single, universal business model to replace the advertising revenue that enabled – some time ago, in a limited and indirect way – photojournalism and documentary work.

This challenge requires a radical rethinking of how creative practice can be supported. One step is to recognize that because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution by bring the cost effectively to near zero, it’s highly unlikely any business model can hitch itself to a single mode of distribution and succeed. Another step is to understand that leveraging the benefit of the Internet’s capacity for distribution in all these channels requires some content to circulate for free.

In our digital present, as soon as something (like a song or photo) becomes an easily replicable file of bytes, nobody can exercise perfect control over its distribution. And if one cannot exercise this control, then being rewarded for the creative process that arranged those bytes cannot be limited to the sale of those bytes.

Of course, few concepts raise more hackles in the creative world than the idea of ‘free’. At the base of this concern is the misplaced belief that free is itself the business model. Instead, free needs to be understood as an acceptance of the dynamics of digital distribution and the first stage in finding ways to gain rewards from that largely unfettered circulation.

What does this mean in practice? As examples from the music industry (as opposed to the recording business) demonstrate, many artists, both new and established, are already pursuing these strategies. They may or may not replicable in the photographic world, so we cannot say a ‘new business model’ has been discovered and will work for all concerned. Nonetheless, I’ve come across a few examples in recent times of new ways of working that are producing the financial means to foster new creative practice.

  • Stephen Gill publishes his work through his own imprint Nobody Books, and issues both regular versions and limited editions of 100 that sell for £200 or more. This is “versioning” and is driven by the fact that in a world of infinitely reproducible digital copies a sufficient number of people want the non-reproducible in material form and are prepared to pay handsomely for it.
  • Nick Turpin of Nick Turpin Publishing told the British Journal of Photography earlier this year:

“My business model is very specific, I have to make my publications quickly and efficiently, sell them directly to the public through the internet, thereby avoiding the loss of 45 percent of my cover price to distributors and bookshops, and market them using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and my own website. I build a community around the publications allowing, for example, street photographers to submit their work for inclusion in the next Publication magazine. More than 1000 have done so. I hesitated to show too much of my first magazine online, but I actually found that the more I displayed images from it, the more people wanted to buy and own it – the opposite of what I had expected” (emphasis added)

  • Ctien, a Los Angeles-based fine art photographer, has used his web presence to solicit regular sponsorship from his community of admirers. He offers people four contributor levels, asks for monthly subscriptions, and offers various cards and prints in return depending on the amount they pledge. From just 94 fans he has obtained $15,000 per year, which amounts to one third of his living expenses.
  • This approach also works for social documentary. Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have garnered a lot of attention for their Sochi Project, which is covering the issues in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, and makes some examples of the project public on the web while retaining others for subscribers. Like the previous case, through different supporter levels and their engagement with those who sign up, they have attracted €22,000 in the first year which enabled them to undertake the first stage of the work.

There are also collective funding platforms where the web’s reach enables people to pitch for public support to support their work:

  • Kickstarter is the most notable of these. It has seen 3,000 projects funded (a little less than half those that bid for support) and you currently needs a US bank account to start a project, but anyone with a credit card can give. Projects are only funded when they reach their goal, and most projects are asking for under $10,000 but some raise many times that. The most successful projects are over-subscribed, and the total amount of money raised is available for the proposer. As in the above cases, higher rate pledges are encouraged through versioning. While used for all sorts of proposals other than photography, documentary projects have done well too. A recent example is Amira Al Sharif’s proposal for “Unveiling Misconceptions: A Muslim Woman Documents Lives of American Women Project.” Currently with 208 backers it has raised $8017, and will likely double its goal by the November deadline. Amira was aided in her efforts by the support of Ed Kashi who effectively used Twitter to distribute her plans through various networks (mine amongst them).
  • Starting early next year, emphas.is will take the crowd-sourcing model of Kickstarter and partly apply it to photojournalism. An introduction to the project is online now, and is preceded by screens that declare “what if you were on Robert Capa’s email list in 1944?…what if Don McCullin was blogging live from Vietnam?…Now imagine if you had sent them there yourself.” Its invitation for supporters to engage with photographers directly is enticing, and given that 3,500 people have already registered their interest, substantial support seems likely. While the funding is open and crowd sourced, the projects on offer are limited and “carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.” Although emphas.is depends on the new thinking demanded by social media, and the supporting blog titled its first post “never mind the gatekeepers,” the project does unfortunately turn to some old ideas to introduce its purpose, not least when they claim to have “partly” found “the silver bullet that will cure all that ails the media industry.” Likewise, casting contributors as people “willing to pay a small fee for the privilege of being included” is to potentially rely on an outmoded idea of subscription and diminish the necessary community building aspect of crowd sourced funding. I hope they recast their thinking to more accurately reflect current realities as they go forward with this important initiative, and I hope the gatekeepers on their board of reviewers would be open to a project like Amira Al Sharifs.

These examples pursue a variety of different approaches, but all use the power of the web to connect with supporters and offer them both engagement and reward for their support, often for projects that are yet to be undertaken. Even when material products like books are being produced, all these examples depend on having a web presence and being active in social networks to build a community of supporters. In all of these cases free does not mean giving everything away for nothing; it means creatively using the new media economy for new works.

None of these examples lead to a single, replicable, one-size fits-all business model. Each has its own business model. It’s never been easy funding the good work in photojournalism and documentary. It will continue to be as difficult as it’s ever been. But if we think beyond the confines of the past its possible to see a wider range of tools that can both create and access a larger community to make it possible.

This post is drawn from a lecture I gave at the International Orange Festival, Changsha, China on 23 October 2010.

Photo credit: iskanderbenamor/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

 

Categories
media economy

The ongoing revolution in the media economy

The revolutions transforming the media economy continue apace. In the year since I published my five part series on these changes (beginning here and ending here) we have seen more evidence of the overall direction of change. Reviewing my notes from 2010 here are some of the standout developments to date:

1. Things remain grim for traditional newspapers

Global newspaper circulation continued its downward trend, declining by 0.8% in 2009. A survey covering 223 countries by the World Association of Newspapers and Newspaper Publishers showed that newspaper circulation significantly declined in Europe and North America, although it increased marginally in Asia.

2. Advertising revenue continues to plummet

Advertising revenue is the core of the traditional newspapers business model, and it is falling globally too. Ad spend declined in most of the regions – North America (25 per cent), Western Europe (13.7 per cent), Central and East Europe (18.7 per cent), Asia (9.6 per cent) and South America (2.9 per cent), but remained fairly stable in the Middle East and Africa. In the United States, newspaper advertising revenues are likely to dive to a 25-year low of approximately $26.5 billion, or 47% of the record $49.4 billon in sales achieved by the industry as recently as 2005.

Online advertising is becoming much more important, with the web poised to overtake newspapers as the second largest US advertising medium by revenue behind television. While there is some absolute growth – and the Guardian has reportedly seen a 100% annual increase in digital revenue – this change in relative status is also a function of the collapse of print advertising.

3. Paid content strategies show few signs of success

At the beginning of this year a US survey showed that amongst the handful of domestic newspapers that had erected paywalls, only a tiny proportion (2.4%) of print subscribers were willing to hand over money for access. In the UK, the decision of The Times to go behind a paywall has led to the loss of 90% of the site’s users and scared off advertisers – meaning that any additional revenue from the small number who sign up will easily be offset by lost advertising. The experience of the Belfast-based Irish Times, which attracted only 1,215 paid subscriptions from its 45,000 circulation, suggests the limits of paywalls are apparent in a variety of markets.

4. The disruptive power of the Internet continues to grow

The decline of legacy media has been underway for a very long time and predates the Internet and the web. However, the expansion of a technology that collapses the cost of distribution means industries predicated on the control of distribution are losing their base.

In June this year Cisco forecast that global Internet traffic would increase more than fourfold by 2014. This amount is the equivalent of 10 times all the traffic traversing Internet Protocol networks in 2008. Driving the growth is the expansion of online video, which will make up 91 percent of global consumer IP traffic by 2014.

For an example of what this means in practice, consider the recent observations from the online video rental firm Netflix. Founder Reed Hastings revealed the economics of digital distribution: “It costs us about a dollar, round-trip, to send DVDs by mail. It costs us less than a nickel to deliver by streaming.” That means a switch to video streaming – which is coming – would reduce distribution costs by 95%. Given that Netflix spends $600 million a year on the postal service and pays for hourly labor checking DVD quality, that is a considerable saving (except for those working in the postal service or checking the DVDs). This means, as Ken Doctor explained, that “in the new world the costs evaporate — and quality and timeliness improve. For news publishers, the switch to digital media offers huge savings, at least 60% and probably more.”

However, it’s vital to remember that the Internet is not a universal facility. The number of global users has expanded dramatically in the last decade to 2 billion, but global penetration covers only 29% of the world’s population.

5. The end of print is now conceivable

Publishers and editors of major newspapers are now speaking about a time when their publications will no longer be printed. Last month Arthur Sulzberger told a seminar that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” Both the Guardian and Times editors think their current printing facilities will be their last, and that the life-span of these is “telescoping quite dramatically,” while the Financial Times is already reducing some print output.

6. There are no game changers leading to a shiny new business model

Many responses to the revolutions in the media economy have been framed by the desire to find the ‘game changer’ that will ‘save journalism,’ with the iPad being the device that in 2010 has most often borne these hopes. As a proud new owner of said device, I can see the appeal of some the better apps. I think it opens up new possibilities for the creative presentation and distribution of information, and I’m looking forward to more and better efforts to produce compelling multimedia for this format. But a number of available studies suggest that even if the revenue from magazine apps on the iPad exceeds a billion dollars, that will not resuscitate an entire industry given that is what Time Inc. (of which Time magazine is just a small part) made in a little over one quarter.

More importantly, though, we have to see devices like the iPad as another mode of distribution among the many channels for information now available. And we need to understand how the ecology of the iPad is one of a closed economy, cut off from the open web where things are easily linked and always searchable. There is little doubt the app economy is significant, and Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff (not to mention Jeff Jarvis) are right to call attention to the way it differs from the browser-accessible web, though it is just a bit early to proclaim the death of the open web.

Those who want to place the future of their entire industry in the iPad’s basket are surely heading for a fall. To get a better return from publisher’s apps, a group of twenty US-based photo agencies recently formed an alliance to press for higher fees based on additional usage. That’s not an unreasonable notion in principle, but the logic behind their position was stunning for its ignorance of the dynamics of the contemporary media economy. One of the agency bosses behind this alliance told Press Gazette:

We all strongly believe that this platform as a walled garden could be the saviour of declining legacy print publications. A lot of the publishers think so too…we see this as a way to work with the publishers to work on a business model that works for both parties.

In a nutshell you have an example of the thinking that has perpetuated a large part of the contemporary crisis – defend declining outlets, have faith in a walled garden that limits accessibility, and think about business models is in terms of a single business model tied to an established mode of distribution. But – the disruptive power of the Internet continues to grow because of the way it has solved the problem of distribution, so no business model predicated on control over a mode of distribution can succeed.

7. The future is bright

Despite the downturn and the persistence of legacy thinking, the future for the production and distribution of compelling stories and important information is bright. The creative possibilities enabled by digital technologies, the open web and the app economy – in association with those legacy publications now looking to a future beyond print – are being continually enlarged. If we pursue multiple modes of distribution and make them serve the modes of information, then, in conjunction with new ways of thinking about business models, we are in for an exciting if bumpy ride.

Featured photo: Bsivad/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism

Photography has always been associated with death. The French painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead” after he saw his first daguerreotype. Whatever the provenance of that quote, miniature portrait painting was replaced by new photographic technologies, even though their long exposure times meant, as Geoffrey Batchen has written, “if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.” And with the rise of digital technologies in the 1980s and 1990s the discourse of photography’s death gained new life, as various commentators declared that the ease of image manipulation meant that photography’s documentary status had come to a terminal end.

As a specific practice within the broad field of photography, photojournalism has had its death proclaimed on numerous occasions too. In the 1950s the influential curator and critic John Szarkowski declared that photojournalism’s heyday had lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. For those who didn’t accept this early cessation, the closure of Life magazine in 1972 was taken to be the moment of morbidity. Continuing signs of vitality have often been met with other declarations of death, as in The Digital Journalists’ January 2000 editorial (which was revisited in recent articles here and here). In the run-up to the 2009 Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan The New York Times weighed in with a “lament for a dying field.” Then in August this year, Neil Burgess – who has managed a number of prominent agencies and is an agent for Sebastiao Salgado and others – finally decided to call it: “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.”

How can we understand these repeated death certificates? What drives these declarations when there is abundant evidence of the continuing production of new photographic stories? I want to examine these questions by thinking through the definition of photojournalism and some important moments in its history. I then want to suggest that if we appreciate the difference between a mode of information and a mode of distribution, we can understand much better exactly what is supposed to have been killed.

What is photojournalism and when did it live?

‘Photojournalism’ is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and many – like Christopher Anderson and Martin Parr – are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice in which someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary photography, editorial photography, and the like, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

The history of photojournalism is well told in Mary Panzer’s introduction to Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955, a book published by Chris Boot for the 50th anniversary of World Press Photo. Beginning with the Illustrated London News in 1842 and the first mechanically reproduced photograph in The New York Daily Graphic in 1880, it is clear that photojournalism has been profoundly influenced by new technologies and the modes of story telling they make possible. The arrival of small 35mm cameras in the 1920s, combined with the emergence of picture magazines in Germany, France and the United States in the 1930s, meant photo stories were more easily produced and published.

It did not take long, however, for the commercial constraints of these media outlets to grate with photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith’s resignation from Life magazine in 1955 after an editorial dispute came at a time, Panzer notes, when “most of the leading photojournalists were already freelance.” In the 1960s, wanting to exercise their editorial freedom photographers who started out working for magazines took advantage of reduced printing costs and started to bypass periodicals by publishing books. This was a significant development, as Panzer notes:

In retrospect, the point when photojournalists chose to publish their work in their own books coincides with the moment when the form began to outgrow its origins. A creation of the press, the photojournalist was beginning to claim a role beyond it.

Combined with the creation of galleries specifically for photography and increased interest from museums in the practice, visual story-tellers now had multiple avenues along which their work could travel. Indeed, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, a show currently at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, makes the case that socially conscious photojournalism has flourished independently of the print media for decades.

Modes of information and modes of distribution

Central to understanding the current status and potential futures of photojournalism and documentary photography we need to always keep in mind the distinction between modes of information and modes of distribution.

Social media consultant Richard Stacy has provided what I think is the most succinct way to understand the defining characteristic of the evolving media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.

This is because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution and collapsed the cost of printing, as I discussed in my series of posts last year on the revolutions in the media economy. The web – the hyperlinked network of sites accessed via the Internet – offers a historically unparalleled opportunity to have a mode of distribution with global reach at virtually no cost (at least assuming access to computers and broadband, something that does have a price and is yet to be universal).

This repositions any debate about the ‘death of journalism’ and the ‘death of photojournalism’. We need to understand that journalism is the information and newspapers are the means of distribution. Equally, photojournalism is the information, and newspapers, magazines, books, and galleries are the means of distribution. There are profound changes underway in the modes of distribution, but this does not translate into the end for the modes of information.

So let’s come back to Neil Burgess’s recent declaration of photojournalism’s death. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, Neil was talking about the ‘death’ of a mode of distribution:

Today I look at the world of magazine and newspaper publishing and I see no photojournalism being produced. There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.

You can see how Neil ties photojournalism directly to magazine and newspaper publishing. He recognizes that visual stories are being produced, but because they are being enabled by sources other than magazines and newspapers, for him they do not count as photojournalism. He then underlines this by declaring:

We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether…there is no journalism organisation funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so called news organisations.

Even in its own terms, Neil recognizes (as he told the Foto8 Story is Born seminar in London on 1 October) that this is too bold a statement, as there is still the occasional piece commissioned by a news organization.

But even if news organisation offered no current support, Neil was wrong to suggest that as a mode of information photojournalism was no more. Photojournalism – or documentary photography, or whatever name we want to give visual story telling about the world – is not defined by its paymaster and mode of distribution. As David Walter Banks of Luceo recently observed, “It is absolutely ridiculous to say that photojournalism is dead…it’s definitely changing, but I think that’s exciting. The modes of delivery and consumption are changing, but there’s a lot of great work being done.”

If photojournalism had been left to the magazines and newspapers over the last fifty years it might very well have died. Richard Stacey knows why  – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”

That fact that as a practice, as a mode of information, photojournalism and documentary photography is very much alive is because over the last fifty years it has not tied its entire future to modes of distribution that are now undergoing revolutionary changes. That future has many challenges, but it is a future that has already moved well beyond the fortunes of newspapers and magazines.

References:

  • Geoffrey Batchen, “Ectoplasm,” Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (London: Chris Boot Ltd, in association with World Press Photo, 2005).

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Thinking freely: New business models for the digital economy

Everything costs something and no body wants to work for nothing. This statement of the obvious drives those disturbed by the impact of the Internet on business models for information industries. Individuals declare that they won’t give their work away, critics claim someone has to pay for content, and insiders (like the editor of Photo District News) repeat hoary old adages such as “no one will buy the cow if your giving the milk away for free.”

Free. If there’s one word that divides people and raises hackles it’s ‘free’. Things do cost and we do want to get paid so how can free make financial sense? Like all contentious concepts, free has lost much of its meaning in its transition from economic idea to bête noir of traditional business. It is time to go back to the beginning and appreciate what ‘free’ involves and for whom it makes sense. I will be using Christopher Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price as a guide, which will take us to some unexpected places for those who think its argument is no more than its title.

***

The ability to charge directly for something depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. If you are producing something that is scarce you can price your product in a way that those operating in an abundant market cannot. If your company manufactures exclusive, unique sports cars you can demand a high price. But if, like most information businesses, you operate in competition with numerous content providers, you cannot charge scarcity prices (Free, p. 127). We might think that The Times offers something unique and can therefore price itself accordingly, but its news coverage is not sufficiently different from its numerous global competitors to justify its readers paying a markedly higher price.

For an information business in the digital economy, where information is formed through bits, and the cost of distributing bits is near zero, the ability to charge scarcity prices is further diminished. It is here the virtue of the web leads to an economic conundrum. The web has collapsed the costs of production and distribution for anything made up of digital files, thereby expanding the bounds of creativity, communication and collaboration. If maximizing the reach of information is the goal then the web is an indispensable and unavoidable tool. However, the digital capacity that so enhances circulation also undercuts the capacity of content providers to charge directly for their commodities. By largely removing the barriers to entry, the web has enabled the number of content creators to expand dramatically, thereby increasing competition and ending scarcity. At the same time, the end of those entry barriers makes paid content a difficult proposition. As Anderson argues, “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint” (Free, p. 173).

***

When we read that free is “the inevitable endpoint” it seems impossible to square the circle and reconcile this with of our starting point – that everything costs something and no body wants to work for nothing. But this is where we need to pay closer attention to the details of Anderson’s argument. Far from arguing that all things are given away and no one earns a penny, Anderson proposes that we stop fighting the disruptive powers of the Internet and find ways to harness its virtues so that creativity can be rewarded.

This means that free is not the business model. Aside from the fact that we are not searching for a single, universally applicable business model, Anderson makes clear that “the most interesting business models are in finding ways to make money around Free” (Free, p. 14). Throughout Anderson’s book he repeats the point that Free is not enough and cannot be pursued alone. Free always works in conjunction with Paid, has to be matched with Paid and should make Paid more profitable (Free, pp. 70, 153, 176, 240).

The close and necessary relationship between Free and Paid might surprise those who relied on reviews of Anderson’s book for their understanding of his argument. Perhaps the most prominent of Anderson’s critics – Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker – argued that “Free is essentially an extended elaboration of Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that ‘information wants to be free.’” Here we have a misreading based on a misunderstanding.

Like many, Gladwell only quotes half of this now infamous mantra. What this selective understanding always leaves out is that Brand – who founded the Whole Earth Catalogue and The WELL and was a significant figure in the early days of the web – identified the tension between the ease of distribution and its impact on value. Speaking at a 1984 hacker conference, Brand declared:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Few recall the beginning of this quote, so there is a chapter in Free exploring Brand’s statement, which Anderson says has become “probably the most important – and misunderstood – sentence of the Internet economy” (Free, p. 96). In a later conversation Brand demonstrated for Anderson what he meant:

The physical world analogy, [Brand] said is a pub. It provides a place for community and conversation, but it doesn’t charge for that. It just charges for the beer that lubricates it. ‘You find that something else to charge for…you always wind up charging for something different from the information’ (Free, p. 100)

The business models that evolve around the relationship between Free and Paid will therefore use indirect means for reward. This means that although Free looks like something novel and untested it effectively draws upon the established approach we know as cross subsidy.

What Free does do differently, however, is use the web’s ease of circulation and collaboration to create the probability that people might pay for something that is unique and considered relatively scarce. Although Free is not the business model, Anderson outlines some basic principles for any business model using Free as its starting point. These include:

  • Build a community around free advice, content or information
  • Collaborate with that community, getting feedback from them that enhances the free content or information being offered
  • Offer different or special versions of the free content or information provided and let those with money buy them
  • Build in a substantial profit margin to the limited products in order to pay for the production of both the abundant and scarce versions

This, then, is the much talked about “freemium” approach, where Free leads to payment for premium. It builds on the established idea of “versioning” whereby similar products in different versions are sold to different customers at different prices (Free, pp. 69, 165, 176). And it covers the full range of consumer psychology so that everyone from the person who wants something that is abundant for nothing, to the client prepared to pay for something similar but which is scarce, can be part of an information business’s constituency.

***

Does this approach work? The experience of the music industry says yes, and Anderson cites the oft-quoted Radiohead model in his book. For their album In Rainbows, Radiohead put it on-line prior to the standard CD release and gave fans the freedom to download then pay what they wanted. Zero was an option and some got it for free while others were prepared to hand over $20. In addition the band offered a deluxe box set at $80 each, and all of the 100,000 available sold quickly. The result was that Radiohead sold three million copies of the album across all formats (online, physical, deluxe), with the money made just from digital downloads prior to physical release exceeding the total from their previous album in all formats. Even more importantly, their subsequent concert tour was the biggest ever, and with the top bands now earning four times as much from events as from selling and licensing music, Radiohead reaped the rewards of extending their reach through free, on-line access to their music.

Mike Masnick at Techdirt has distilled the experience of Radiohead and other bands such as Nine Inch Nails into a “formula” for a business model that echoes Anderson’s principles:

Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model ($$$)

Masnick’s report offers a dozen detailed examples of musicians and companies that have embraced this approach and generated handsome revenues that reward them for their creativity even though they are not being paid directly for their content.

This embrace even extends to benefiting from the file sharers who are pilloried for the revenue they supposedly steal from content producers (something that motivated the controversial Digital Economy Bill in the UK). Masnick argues that the music industry needs to give up on the pursuit of new copyright laws, licensing schemes and DRM because of the way they inhibit connections with fans. A number of studies demonstrate that the “pirates” spend much more on legal music than regular consumers, and in his book Remix, copyright specialist Lawrence Lessig argues the downturn in physical album or single sales is not attributable to illegal copying. As such, prohibitions on sharing music are designed to defend the traditional recording industry with its business models based on the control of distribution, but get in the way of expanding the overall music industry, which is thriving like never before.

Can this approach work for industries other than music? Again, the answer is yes. Evidence from the book world shows that releasing free e-book versions of titles generally leads to increased sales of physical copies. Photography is also well placed to benefit. Cory Doctorow has argued that the more copies there are in the digital era the more valuable the non-reproducible becomes. This means that as digital copies of images proliferate – making both the image and the photographer better known and creating a community of interest in the process – the more a small but significant number of people will pay for “talismanic items” like signed, limited edition prints. This was borne out by a recent remark from Ben Burdett, director of the Atlas Gallery in London: “we sell to people who fall for individual images, especially well known images people recognise. They sell most easily because when people see them, they know and love them already.”

***

Getting to grips with how Free works requires strategic thinking freed from its established ways. Some of the hype around the arrival of the iPad has come from those who see it as a chance to correct “the mistakes” publishers made in the early days of the web (see the Photo District News editorial from February 2010). But imagining that there could have been world where every reader or viewer paid publishers directly for all their on-line content betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Internet means for information industries. The web is an intrinsically open system, and new ventures would have emerged to provide quality information even if all the legacy companies had retreated behind pay walls from the outset.

Content creation has to be paid for, but in the digital world of information abundance that revenue is no longer going to come principally from direct payment. Free is part of a larger business strategy that leverages the web’s virtues for circulation and collaboration in pursuit of greater rewards, while recognising that we cannot (and should not) fight the impact of the Internet on distribution systems. Free does not mean giving everything away for nothing; it means creatively pursuing indirect mechanisms and cross subsidy to reap the benefits of the new media economy


Photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³/ Flickr

This was written as a guest post for Fast Media Magazine, and appeared there on 12 May 2010.

Categories
education media economy

How the social media revolution challenges the university

Recent changes in media brought on by developments in the web, its impact on established news outlets, and the rise of social media have dramatically altered the ecology of information. Its time to starting thinking what this means for universities.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on “revolutions in the media economy” (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) detailing the changing context for us all, including universities (the focus of part 4). I had begun to think through these issues last summer and my first take on them was aired at a June 2009 workshop on “Affirmative Critique” at Durham University that explored the work of Jane Bennett and William Connolly.

For the university, the new ecology of information means possible changes in the ethos of academic life, including the transformation of both teaching and academic publishing. For example, Jeff Jarvis, whose thinking has influenced mine over the last year, recently told a TED conference in New York that the lecture model is “bullshit.” Moreover, given the prominence now being accorded to “impact” in the future audit of UK academic research, we need to consider how we might rethink the creation and circulation of critical work produced in our universities.

My colleague Stuart Elden, editor of the important geography journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, suggested I write a commentary for the journal based on my contribution to the workshop. This has now been published and you can access it here. The publishers have made it open access beyond their normal subscription pay wall (though in the first version of this post that link was not functioning properly).

In the commentary, I ask:

  • What happens to the university when we move from mass production to the link economy?
  • What does it mean to go from broadcasting to engagement?
  • Why does academic publishing subscribe to pay walls?
  • How can we really have an impact?

Embracing the dynamics of the social media revolution in the production and distribution of information generated through our work in universities would be a major political step towards opening up the academy and enhancing its impact. I don’t have the answers, but I hope I have posed some of the questions that will get us to think about this unavoidable challenge.

Categories
media economy photography

The Digital Economy Bill: against creativity and democracy

The Digital Economy Bill (DEB), now being rushed through the British parliament, embodies an impoverished understanding of the web and its implications for creativity.

The DEB will put in place a system to defend the position of established media groups (the recording giants of the music and film industries) and individuals who have become fabulously wealthy through their control of creative content (think Simon Cowell). It passed the House of Lords on Monday, and is already into its second reading in the Commons. The government is trying to get it far enough along that it becomes part of the legislative “wash up” as this parliament winds up before the election in May. The speed of its passage is preventing proper consideration and debate by the elected chamber, and is serving corporate interests over and above popular concerns.

The focus of the DEB is on those who illegally download digital files, and seeks to punish them in extraordinary ways – after a couple of warnings, internet service providers will be forced to cut the internet connection through which file sharing occurred, regardless of whether the individual, business, library, school or university providing that connection had anything to do with the download.  And to guard against future technological changes that might promote file sharing, the DEB cedes extraordinary powers to the Secretary of State (currently Lord Mandelson) to alter copyright law in any manner he/she sees fit. Unsurprisingly, ISPs and Internet companies are strongly opposed.

The best way to get a quick grasp of the issues is to watch this 9 minute video fronted by comedian and activist Mark Thomas (and note, in particular, Billy Bragg’s and Cory Doctorow’s observations):

What the DEB fundamentally misses is the way the web has transformed the creative landscape. The government should have spent more time reading the work of influential Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, the man behind Creative Commons.

Lessig wants a workable system of copyright, but one that understands “the essence of practical reason in the digital age” is “if you don’t want your stuff stolen, make it easily available” (Remix, p. 46). He asks: “what should we do if we know that the future is one where perfect control over the distribution of ‘copies’ simply will not exist?” His answer – the response to an unwinnable war is not to wage war more vigorously, but to devise a system of copyright that does not criminalise normal behaviour. (Remix, xviii-xix).

The DEB is waging an unwinnable war on behalf of the established producers. Central to the government’s position is that downloading and file sharing threatens the established creative industries. But does it? In Lessig’s book Remix (pp. 302-303n) he cites some studies that demonstrate there is no statistically significant connection between downloading and a drop in commercial sales of films or music. One of these says that Internet piracy accounts for less than a quarter of the drop in music CD sales – meaning that three quarters of the decline comes from commercial reasons for which the established companies are responsible. The DEB defends the collapsing business models of the big players in the film and music industries while endangering the virtues of the web for new forms of creativity.

Proof of the government’s flawed motives is evident when you consider other aspects of the DEB. While keen to defend copyright for major entertainment corporations, the government has been equally willing to strip copyright protection from photographers. The provisions of the bill that deal with “orphan works” delegate to the Secretary of State the power to transfer the property right to copy to someone other than the original owner. While that may have merit when it comes to historical works where owners cannot easily be traced, the wholesale change to copyright it proposes has rightly drawn the ire of photographer’s groups.

The only explanation for the government’s contradictory approach to copyright in the DEB is the power of corporate interests who want to punish file sharers. Even if the DEB passes, it won’t succeed in ending illegal downloads. That doesn’t make such activity right, but, to go back to Lessig’s arguments, why seek to fight an unwinnable war that will result in numerous innocent casualties? Why defend corporate copyright but not the photographer’s? Parliament needs to have the time to ask these questions.

If you are concerned about the provisions and passage of the DEB, then write now to your local MP (go here) and make your concerns for creativity and democracy known. A campaign is underway.