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
photography

This photo is not just what it is: reading the World Press Photo debate

What can Samuel Aranda’s 2011 World Press Photo of the Year tell us about how we view photojournalism?

For this post I’m not interested in whether it deserved to win or didn’t deserve to win, or the details of what it means or what it doesn’t mean. Anyone who wins an award for one picture selected from one hundred thousand deserves our congratulations, and anyone who works in situations as difficult as Yemen deserves our respect.

Rather than dealing with the photograph itself, I want to focus on the subsequent debate about the photograph. I want to take a step back and ask: what does the conversation prompted by Aranda’s winning photograph tell us about the conventional way of understanding such images?

For Aranda, such debate is unlikely to be the issue. When asked by the British Journal of Photography if the Pieta-like form of the image was deliberate, he remarked:

It was not intentional…You know how it is in these situations – it was really tense and chaotic. In these situations, you just shoot photos. It is what it is. We’re just photographers. I consider myself just a worker. I just witness what is going on in front of me, and shoots photos. That’s it.

Aranda’s description of his modus operandi embodies one of the most treasured assumptions about photojournalism: that it is a window on the world, transparently witnessing a moment before the lens.

The production of an image, however, is just that: the production of an image. Reality is not copied by the camera, it takes on meaning through the whole apparatus of photographic practices that culminate in – but are not limited to – someone releasing the shutter. Photography is much more than what the photograph ‘is’. The meaning that results in part from the image is not limited to either details within the frame or the intentions/self-understanding of the photographer.

We can see that in debates like the very one prompted by the award for Aranda’s picture, a debate that Martijn Kleppe has curated at bit.ly. The fact that the New York Times (which first published Aranda’s picture) instantly cast his photograph in fine art terms as “painterly” shows how even the industry’s readings quickly move beyond naturalism to aesthetics. “Painterly” may be one of those oft-repeated and rather tiresome labels, but the Lens blog’s invocation of the idea should lay to rest the misleading notion that news pictures are somehow beyond aesthetics.

If you go through all the posts discussing Aranda’s photograph collected by Kleppe, the variety and richness of the interpretations is remarkable. People have understood it as a Christian icon, a 19th century orientalist painting, a sculptural form, a depoliticization of the Arab Spring, evidence of the hegemonic Western eye, a sign of a bloody conflict, a rendering of universal humanity, a personal moment of compassion, an affirmation of the strength of Islamic women, and an image whose beauty forces us to look.

This range of readings demonstrates neither a problem with the photograph nor a failure of criticism. To the contrary, it shows how photographs are polysemic and polyvalent – as part of their condition, they are inescapably open to multiple readings, and can often sustain different if not contradictory readings. The proliferation of clashing interpretations demonstrates the naturalist faith is untenable. If a photograph were just what it ‘is’ there would be nothing to discuss and the pictures’ public role would be minimal at best.

Robert Hariman is right when he says,

we need to see through symbols, but in both senses of the verb: to use them to see more than we might see otherwise, and to recognize and look past their limitations to see what they would distort or occlude.

The disparate readings of Aranda’s photograph, taken together, contradictions and all, are thus helping us see through symbols, in both senses of the verb.

The lesson from the debate about Aranda’s winning photograph is that even with press pictures we see through symbols. Such photographs are inescapably symbolic. We might think they illustrate the news through a simple process of depiction, but it is much more common that they function as symbolic markers. Indeed, the New York Times original publication of Aranda’s photograph is a case in point – it accompanied an October 2011 article that led with US drone strikes in Yemen even though the picture’s subject was injured by Yemeni government forces.

Nor is the symbolic nature of this picture a function of Western concerns or readings. If you consider closely the quoted statements of those Yemenis speaking approvingly about Aranda’s picture, they talk of how they, their country and their struggle have been and should be represented. In the words of the Yemeni blogger Affrah Nasser,

it sums up what the Yemeni nation and the rest of Arab (and non-Arab) revolutionary nations have gone through in pursuit of democracy and freedom.

It doesn’t get much more symbolic than that.

This photograph, then, is not just what it is.

And that opens up the way for thinking differently about the function of photojournalism, which is something I will write about in the future.

Photo: screenshot of http://www.worldpressphoto.org/, 20 February 2012.

Categories
photography politics

Thinking Images v.25: Iran as perpetual enemy

Iran has a prominent place in America’s geopolitical imagination. The Shah assumed absolute power after a 1953 coup engineered by the UK and the USA removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, only to be overthrown twenty five years later in a revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mutual animosity was secured through the 1979 hostage crisis, during which US embassy staff were held captive in Tehran for 444 days. Add to that Iran’s lamentable human rights record, and concerns over its regional military posture, and Iran has long been a part of the ‘axis of evil’ around which the US structures its strategic outlook.

Against this backdrop are occasional attempts to offer a different view of Iran. The Atlantic’s In Focus 6 January gallery “A View Inside Iran” is one such effort, with 42 pictures from agency photographs capturing prosaic scenes over the last year. This is a good and worthwhile mining of the visual archive to make a general point. It is structured in terms of implicitly providing the inverse image to the stereotype. Other than two shots of crowds engaged in Islamic rituals (#6, #19), we see individuals, artists, sports people, and religious minorities (including Christians and Jews) going about their business peacefully. Against the vague notion of Iran being backward, we see common markers of modernity, including city scenes, internet cafes, people on mobile phones and market traders. To ensure balance, the captions are careful to note the contradictions of Iranian life. The July 2011 photo (above) by Reuters’ Caren Firouz shows mother and daughter Shahrzad and Noora Naraghi practicing on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran. After detailing their commitment to the sport, it states “women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran.” Likewise, the Raheb Homavandi photograph (#41) of the internet cafe makes clear how official censorship works.

Another challenging view of Iran emerged this week through Tyler Hicks’ extraordinary images of the US Navy’s capture of Somali pirates, and the release of thirteen Iranians the pirates had held for a month. Detailed in a series of revealing images, and supported by the vivid writing of C.J. Chivers (here and here), this event would have likely gone unrecorded had Hicks and Chivers not been on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. I was interested to see one reader’s comments on the Chivers/Hicks story, marked as a ‘NYT pick’:

This was a great saga, proving the greatness, compassion and the ability of our military and our values as the most blessed nation on this earth. We show kindness even to our enemies. What sacrifice our armed forces made and courage they displayed!

This rescue notwithstanding, and in contrast to the benevolent American exceptionalism imagined by this reader, US policy towards Iran remains hostile (as does Iranian policy towards the US, Israel and others). Indeed, there are worrying signs that Iran is being embedded in a bellicose narrative reminiscent of the run up to the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Before Christmas US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta conducted a network television interview on board the US nuclear command aircraft (the “Doomsday Plane”), to make the point that the US would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran and that all policy options for responding to a potentially nuclear armed Iran were on the table. He reiterated much of this message yesterday in another CBS interview. And in an unfortunate echo of the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times has been called out for misleading readers by overstating Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

More complex, nuanced photographic accounts of Iran – including those of the many fine Iranian photographers, such as Newsha Tavakolian – are not going to halt misleading journalism or militaristic policy in its tracks. But they might just make some of us pause and think about Iran’s automatic status as a perpetual enemy.

Featured photo: Noora (right) and Shahrzad Naraghi practice on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran, on July 3, 2011. Shahrzad Naraghi started riding motocross eight years ago to spend more time with her daughter Noora who became interested in the sport after watching her father compete in races, and began riding motorcycles at the age of four. The pair raced against each other at first and in women’s only motocross races in Iran in 2009. In 2010, Noora travelled to the United States, completed training courses and raced in competitions sponsored by the American Motorcyclist Association. Women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran. Copyright: Reuters/Caren Firouz.

Second photo: In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month. Sailors detained the Somali pirates in a small skiff. Copyright: Tyler Hicks/New York Times, 6 January 2012.

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.21: Seeing the dead

When should we see the dead?

In this photograph of a Libyan rebel surveying a possible massacre site we are confronted with an unusually graphic portrayal of war dead. (This picture ran in The Guardian print edition on 29 August (pp. 14-15), appeared online, along with a similar image from the same photographer that can be seen in a New York Times gallery here). The charred remains of people whose identities are unknown embody the violence of a regime entering its last days and seemingly bent on revenge.

Coverage of the Libyan conflict by the mainstream press has, like the coverage of most recent wars, been relatively sanitised when we consider the number of graphic pictures in relation to the scale and intensity of the fighting that has left thousands dead. If you scroll through any of the recent photographic galleries from the conflict (see the New York Times presentation of “The Battle for Libya” for example), pictures of the dead are a minority of those on display. And when the subject is broached, its often done at a safe distance (as here), via partial or camouflaged disclosure (as here) or through traces like the blood-stained uniform (as here).

The reasons for this relative sanitisation of war are many and varied. In cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is connected to the formal restraints of embedding. Allied forces put considerable effort into avoiding the production and publication of photos showing both military casualties and civilian deaths. In the case of Libya, where the nature of the conflict is different, we might expect to see more given that “foreign bodies” are sometimes easily shown.

The fact that we still don’t see much demonstrates how the mainstream media operates within an economy of “taste and decency” that regulates the pictorial representation of death and atrocity. Although conventional wisdom often portrays the media as ‘blood thirsty’, in his book Body Horror, John Taylor offers an assessment that is still valid:

Displays of the horror and hurt of bodies are a measure of the industry’s mix of prurience and rectitude. The press errs on the side of caution in depicting death and destruction. It is careful to write more detail than it dares to show and often uses the metonymic power of photographs to remove harm from flesh to objects. When the press decides to picture bodies, the imagery tends (with notable exceptions) to be restrained. Newspapers do not revolt audiences for the sake of it. On the contrary, disgust forms a small part of the stock-in-trade and papers use it sparingly (1998, 193).

Should we see more of the consequences of war? Overall, I think so. Obviously the amount and presentation has to be carefully handled in order to avoid gratuitous displays. Anything that could attract the mis-used descriptor of ‘porn’ has to be avoided. But images that serve the story, helping to offer a more complete account, are important. Pictures that are displayed for their own sake, and without which there would be no story, should be avoided.

An example of the latter was the Daily Mail’s recent focus on the death of an aerial stuntman. Without both still images and video (which I refuse to watch) that story would not have been globally reported. Contrast that focus on a falling man to the US media’s avoidance of the Twin Towers jumpers on 11 September 2001. Richard Drew’s now famous photograph appeared only once in the New York Times despite the fact some 200 individuals decided to leap from the World Trade Centre rather than face death in the buildings. Their painful choice was part of that horrendous day and Drew’s photo, calling attention to an important dimension of the event, deserved to be seen more.

Equally, Sergey Ponomarev’s powerful picture from Libya demands more attention. Without it the numerous words detailing unwarranted killings can wash over us, while the television images rush by us. Making us pause and think is an important part of photography’s function, even if the event it points to is hard to stomach.

Featured photo: A rebel inspects at least 50 burned bodies, said to be civilians killed by pro-Gaddafi soldiers, inside a warehouse in Tripoli. Copyright Sergey Ponomarev/AP

For a more detailed analysis of this issue, see my article “Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research, 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Categories
photography politics

Imaging famine: How critique can help

What is the point of critique, and how can it help produce better visual stories?

According to Jonathan Jones (writing in the Guardian on 22 July) all the sophisticated critiques of photojournalism are pointless when it comes to picturing famine:

It seems shocking that commentators…wasted their breath on the ethics of a photograph instead of urging action to deal with the suffering it showed. The fact that people far away can see with visceral immediacy the facts of a crisis like the one now hitting the Horn of Africa is one of the most optimistic aspects of the modern world. Consciences are awakened by the camera.

Jones’s own critique is simplistic – either you see or you don’t, visibility is better than blindness, and images provoke conscience. The last point demands more consideration, but in casting the issue in terms of a simple either/or proposition of seeing or not seeing, Jones misses the big picture. The issue is HOW we see, what effect does a particular way of seeing have on our understanding of the issue, and how might we see more effectively?

I’ve been debating related issues with Jon Levy, and yesterday we participated in a productive OPEN-i forum that revealed both much common ground and some continuing differences. As a result I wanted to set out a series of propositions that encapsulate my thinking on how we can contribute to a better visual account of famine.

1. Critique is not negative, and does not involve blaming photographers.

A critique is an intervention in established modes of action and thought. Such interventions try and disturb those practices which are settled, untie what appears to be sown up, and render as produced that which claims to be natural. There is an ethical imperative behind such interventions, a desire to open up possibilities being foreclosed or suppressed by that which exists. Intervening involves a questioning of what is established, that questioning follows from a concern or dissatisfaction with what is settled and appears inevitable, and creates the possibility for the formulation of alternatives. We can’t know where we are going unless we understand where we are now and how we got here. And although discussion necessarily proceeds through examples of particular images by individual photographers, it is not about accusing practitioners of bad faith.

2. There is no distinction between an event and its representation.

The reason we begin photographic critique with images, the individuals who make them and the institutions that distribute them is because they offer a way into thinking about the visual economy through which a disaster like famine is made real for the majority of people. Few if any of us have direct experience of disasters, so we necessarily rely on mediated knowledge. That means our reality comes through representation. NGO officials understand this. As Don Redding once observed, “the construction of the event (the humanitarian emergency) becomes the event – for the purposes of public opinion and policy flow.” To engage the event, and how we should respond to the event, demands an analysis of the event’s representation (some of which is discussed in posts reflecting on recent photographic and broadcast coverage.)

3. Famine is made real through a particular visual tradition, and we continue to see it.

The 2003 cover of the New York Times magazine above, with 36 portraits of malnourished children from dozens of different countries over a 50-year period, illustrates the dominant way of representing this sort of disaster. It has been common from the nineteenth century, as we showed in the 2005 Imaging Famine exhibition.

In the current picture galleries from East Africa, we see much of the same (see herehere and here). There has been little if any evolution in the way famine is represented. The problem is that these images individualise an economic and political issue, and focus our attention on passive victims awaiting external assistance.

In the OPEN-i debate Jon argued that these photographs “show you what’s going on.” I think that the stereotypes are politically necessary in certain contexts, and it’s possible to make a case for their use, as Tyler Hicks and Bill Keller of the New York Times have done. But the major problem is that the stereotypes do not show us what is going on. They show us only the end of a process. They show only the final, fatal stages of food insecurity. Most of the issue remains obscured by their continual reproduction.

4. Famine is not a natural disaster, and photography needs to get to grips with this.

While the fact East Africa is suffering the worst drought in 60 years provided the hook for most recent coverage, the disaster is not natural. Indeed, few if any disasters these days are natural. When an earthquake of the same magnitude kills hundreds of thousands in Haiti, but less than a hundred in San Francisco, the differing death toll is not simply a result of the earth moving.

According to the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, “this crisis is manmade…Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”

Famines, paradoxically, are also not simply the result of food shortages. As Cambridge lecturer David Nally observes, during the Irish famine food exports continued while people starved, and Bengal in 1943 (memorably recorded by Werner Bischof) saw hundreds of thousands perish even though that part of India had its biggest rice harvest ever:

The historical study of famine shows that the people of countries that are nominally resource-rich can starve because those resources are extracted to meet the needs of a global economy rather than the nutritional needs of local populations. The recent use of African land to grow crops for biofuels is particularly instructive: filling the tank of a sport utility vehicle, for instance, uses 450 lbs of corn – enough food to feed one person for an entire year. Thus policies designed to enhance the ‘food and energy security’ of relatively affluent places, such as Europe, can compromise the security of peoples in Africa. Today, as in the nineteenth century, life and death decisions of a terrifying scale are woven in the fabric of international economic relations.

These issues cannot be encapsulated within a single photographic frame, and representing them in their complexity is not simply photography’s responsibility. But I don’t see any examples from the current crisis in East Africa that even gestures towards these larger issues. Of course, correct me if I am wrong.

5. What now?

With more than 12 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and some areas of Somali having more than 40% of children under five suffering from acute malnutrition, their situation has to be pictured.

But, as with the coverage of Japan, Egypt and Libya this year, East Africa is being covered by a relatively large number of excellent photographers that surely means there is scope for someone to do something different. Do all of them have to go to Banadir hospital in Mogadishu to photograph fly blown, emaciated children? Could not some of them record audio as well as shoot photos so we can hear from the people affected? Can’t their editors push for alternatives and offer greater support to achieve them? Is it beyond our collective capacity to follow the leads from critical questioning and see what’s really going on with famine?

Categories
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

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
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

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

Caption: Orich Florestal (left), 24 and Rosemond Altidon, 22, stand on the edge of their partially destroyed apartment of Port-au-Prince January 9, 2011. Photo: Allison Shelley/Reuters.

One year ago this week a massive earthquake struck Haiti killing 230,000 people. Media coverage of the disaster was both extensive and intensive. One year on, the international media has been running stories marking the anniversary. This week we have seen (amongst many others) visual compilations from media outlets like The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, Time, and from INGOs like UNICEF, not to mention Christian Aid’s sponsorship of Wolfgang Tillman’s unremarkable snaps.

Thinking about these journalistic memorials, and looking back at the original coverage, what are some of the on-going issues relevant to the photographic coverage of disasters? This post will be far from either a comprehensive account of all the concerns or a comprehensive review of all the relevant pictures, but will raise what I think is the most important question – how can visual storytellers report context?

In addition to the legions of print and broadcast journalists who flew into Port-au-Prince in January 2010, more than 80 photographers arrived to cover the aftermath. As the Reuters photographer Jorge Silva observed, the situation they found was overwhelming and overpowering. By and large the images they produced were individually powerful records of destruction and suffering.

The photographer Daniel Morel – a resident of Port au Prince who contributes to Corbis – produced what became the iconic image of a dust-covered survivor being pulled from the wreckage. Morel (later embroiled in a legal fight over the misuse of his image by AFP and others) was critical of the motives of many who came to cover the crisis:

Since the earthquake, I’m documenting what happened for the next generation. I’m not taking photos for a contest or for a prize. I’m taking pictures for history. I want the next generation to see more. I want the next generation to feel it — what happened.

CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was one of those Morel derided for being outside the story and playing with the people, and BagNewsNotes provided a compelling shot-by-shot critique of a Cooper report. But Cooper was just one of the reporters characterising post-earthquake Haiti as a ‘lawless jungle‘ populated either by pathetic individuals who could do nothing but wait for external assistance or by ‘savages’ taking advantage of anarchy. Inevitably, there were media critiques about the prevalence of “pornographic” pictures, the misleading use of captions to direct meaning (as in the description of survival tactics as “looting“), and predictable public lamentations from newspaper editors about the difficulties of using graphic images (see the New York Times public editor, the Washington Post public editor, and this overview of the issue. For my take on the presentation of death in the media, see the essay “Horrific Blindness” here).

However, the major problem of this early coverage was that it proceeded from a false premise. The earthquake in Haiti was not a “natural disaster.” Of course it was triggered by an event in nature, but the consequences of that event were a result of economic, social and political factors. When an earthquake of the same magnitude struck California in 1989, the death toll was 63 not a quarter of a million. It was social infrastructure and economic well-being that produced such radically different outcomes. Seismologists say buildings not earthquakes kill people. But how does one picture that when a population has been decimated?

To be sure, in situations like the Haiti earthquake we need photographers recording the immediate aftermath. In terms of the immediate response, I wouldn’t’ disagree with the thrust of Jorge Silva’s reflection:

Many people ask if journalists help in disasters. I don’t think we help directly. Our job is to trigger the response from institutions that do. This is what motivates us to come to these places, to point the eyes of the world toward people who are suffering and clamoring for help. We have to sensitize people to the situation through our pictures.

But does it take 80 international photographers producing noticeably similar images to do this? Michael David Murphy identified numerous redundant images coming out of Haiti, and suggested that one way to avoid this in future would be to create a pool system:

Why don’t media outlets join forces to divide and conquer the enormity of a situation like Haiti’s? Media outlets could assign individual photographers to follow one aspect of the Haiti story, and the story could be published by all participating outlets.

The multiple images of Fabienne Cherisma, a young woman shot by police, were a poignant conjunction of the issues of redundancy and death. In what was an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, Pete Brook spoke to many of the 15 photographers who made pictures of Fabienne and analysed the issue in a series of important posts. (See also the open-i discussion of this, and for the photographers’ response to the issue of how many covered the disaster, see “Too many angles on suffering?“).

Image redundancy can be a problem, but not one that should lead to a structured pool system. We need multiple perspectives of the same event so that we can establish a “concordance of evidence” and avoid an individual photographer being falsely subjected to charges of manipulation. However, in a situation like Haiti, given the numbers of photographers there, surely we can have multiple perspectives and different stories that probe the context?

The piece that still stands out from the original coverage of the earthquake is Peter van Agtmael’s “Convoy to Nowhere” which reported on the frustrating passage of an aid shipment. Its effectiveness comes from having identified a larger issue beyond immediate suffering, produced a series of pictures, and provided captions that helped establish a narrative into which those pictures are embedded.

Photo: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos for The Wall Street Journal

The bulk of daily photo/journalism exists in – and produces – an “eternal present” where things that are immediate, here and now, drive the images and stories. Once the initial moment has passed, what we need are stories that move beyond frozen time to investigate the history, context, and implications of what we have witnessed.

One year on from the earthquake, how to the reviews stack up in this regard? There have been some excellent features that tackle the issue of time and context head on. NPR’s David Gilkey revisited some key locations and produced some ‘before and after’ dyptichs, The New York Times has an interactive using satellite images of Port au Prince to show the environs before the quake, immediately after and now, and BagNewsNotes marked the anniversary with two Mario Tama photos from the same location a year apart.

Most of the retrospectives paint a picture of a country still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake. In large part that is because Haiti is still struggling. Only 5% of the rubble has been removed. Only 15% of houses have been rebuilt. Countries that promised large sums of aid are yet to deliver. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) has been criticized for failures in governance, and the thousands of NGOs have been slated for lack of coordination. All this means 810,000 Haitians currently remain in temporary camps, and three quarters of them are likely to be still there at year’s end.

If there is one visual form that should be able to address this challenge of detailing context and contesting the ‘eternal present’ it should be multimedia (by which I mean photographers using audio and video in addition to their still images to tell stories).  However, I have not found many examples to review (if you have links do pass them on). Khalid Mohtaseb’s short film started a vigorous debate about “cinematic journalism”. Although Mohtaseb said he wanted to tell a different story it was in effect a technical exercise rather than a journalistic account. Benjamin Lowy has just released a short film with images from early 2010, but it lacks any sense of a narrative. The best collection I have seen is AlertNet’s 12 portraits of people affected by the disaster.

The international community managed the initial emergency response to Haiti with sufficient effectiveness to get aid to millions. Likewise, photojournalism managed to offer its form of the emergency response, ample documentation of the suffering and devastation. What the international community has not done is carry through on its promises of reconstruction and redevelopment. And what photojournalism has for the most part not done is turn its attention directly to that failure and the wider context. Both are relatively good at responding to crises, and less good at producing long-term commitments and perspectives.

After the earthquake Magnum Photos established an internal fund to support in-depth coverage of Haiti for the next twelve months. It is not clear if this resulted in any new work (though I will be asking them). Has anyone else produced a visual story that dismantles the sense of Haiti’s eternal present and addresses the context of its current situation?

Categories
photography politics

Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

The global controversy surrounding Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables is a moment in which media, politics, visual culture and war intersect in complex ways. There has been no shortage of good commentary on the story, as evidenced in the range of views curated by Alex Madrigal’s post “how to think about Wikileaks”. What I want to do is contrast the visualization of the story with some the main elements, some of them somewhat buried, in the current coverage.

Coverage of the Wikileaks this week has been a classic case where a political story is personalized to the detriment of its context and complexity. As Michael Shaw noted, Julian Assange has been demonized as ‘public enemy #1’ via an oft-repeated screen shot from Interpol’s most wanted web page, and then criminalized through ‘perp walk’ photos from his court appearance in London. One Reuters photographer was open about how his portraits of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson were designed to capture the supposedly covert nature of the organisation.

I have no view one way or the other on the sex crimes Swedish prosecutors allege, other than to make the obvious point that we should regard someone as innocent until proven guilty after due process. What is telling, though, is the way Assange’s private issues have become the focal point over and above the larger public questions of diplomacy and war. In part that is because of the way his London court appearance intersected with the extraordinary and escalating rhetoric from America that he be charged with espionage or treason, dealt with as an enemy combatant or terrorist, or even assassinated. The effect has been to make the story a media event driven by a personality rather than an account of the larger issues at stake.

Although it too centres on the person of Assange, Peter Macdiarmid’s July 2010 photo of the Wikileaks founder at the Frontline Club in London (featured above) places him in a relationship with three elements that direct us to the context of the overall issue. Assange is holding up a copy of The Guardian displaying a front-page story on the earlier release of the Afghan war logs. He is standing with his laptop. In the background is Don McCullin’s famous 1968 photograph of a shell-shocked marine from Hue in Vietnam. Signifying, first, the relationship between Wikileaks and its media partners, second, the role of the Internet, and third, the historical memory of the Vietnam War that hangs over current American military operations, this picture provides the basis for reflecting on some crucial elements in the Wikileaks story. I would emphasis six points:

  • The leak of the war logs and diplomatic cables came from within the US military, with an army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, the suspect. Manning was one of 3 million people cleared to access the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors to distribute classified material. In July this year The Washington Post published a remarkable investigation, “Top Secret America,” on the rise of the clandestine arm of the security state in the wake of 9/11. It revealed that more than 850,000 Americans have “Top Secret” security clearance, which is a level above the diplomatic traffic Manning could allegedly access. Given the number of people involved, the only question is why there has not been a leak like the war logs or diplomatic cables earlier.
  • Wikileaks is a web publisher and not an espionage or hacking organisation, making calls for Assange’s prosecution for spying or treason ludicrous. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court held that while it was a crime to leak classified material it was not a crime to publish that material once leaked. In the current story, Wikileaks occupies the position held by The New York Times in 1972, so that all journalists should be chilled by the threat to free speech that US politicians are now making. Shutting down Wikileaks is on a par with shutting down a major media company. The next time the same politicians demand that countries like China cease Internet censorship and back a free press, what do we think the response from those countries is going to be? Journalists involved in “shameful attacks” on Assange should think very hard about this.
  • For both the war logs and diplomatic cables story, Wikileaks has partnered with major news organisations like Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. If Assange is in the sights of the US politicians riled by the most recent leaks, what about these organisations? Senator Joe Lieberman has already called the New York Times publication of some of the leaked material “an act of bad citizenship.” What does that say about the state of the free press in his eyes? Where does that leave American moral capital the next time they want to press for international press freedom?
  • While many have claimed Wikileaks is ‘indiscriminately dumping’ all 250,000 cables on the internet without review, one of the least recognised parts of this story is that Wikileaks is publishing the cables only after its media partners have reviewed them and written about them. Moreover, when Wikileaks does publish the cables it does so with the redactions made by those media partners. (The Guardian explains how it does this here). So at the time of writing, Wikileaks (as the picture above from its site makes clear) has released only 1,203 of the 251,287 cables contained in the leak. This makes the coverage of the cables a prime example of networked journalism from which all partners, including the public, win. (Though note how even this positive commentary perpetuates the myth of the document dump).
  • Efforts to shut Wikileaks down – apart from failing to understand its role as publisher rather than spy – are failing because of the willingness of many to establish mirror sites on the Internet where the material can be accessed. At last count, there were 1,368 mirrors. Here, then, is a good lesson in the open structure of the Internet. You can close a domain, but you cannot remove material from the system if others a willing to host it. The more domains you close the more mirrors will appear. There are also many other organisations and sites similar to Wikileaks, such as cryptome.org, that don’t have the same public profile but can host leaked documents.
  • The structural impossibility of running someone off the Internet means that state authorities will try and find new ways of exercising power. This is where the pressure on companies to end commercial relationships with Wikileakes comes from. US authorities and politicians have pressured Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa, among others, to cease trading with Wikileaks and these companies have all to readily complied. This is a form of indirect power in which private actors become “points of control” for state policy. This also means that so long as “cloud computing” is a commercial operation there are going to be potential limits to openness in this system.

In 2009, Wikileaks and Julian Assange won the prestigious Amnesty International New Media Award for exposing hundreds of alleged murders by the Kenyan police, an act which led to a United Nations investigation.

Other releases have included a list of websites banned by the Australian government, copies of the Scientology “bible”, and emails from inside the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. When Wikileaks focused on foreign regimes it was a beacon of freedom. After its releases this year, it has become an entity ‘at war’ with the United States and its allies. In moments like these we need to understand the context, retain a critical perspective, and avoid the personification of the issue.