How can they fire the photographers? Easy.
“How can they do that?” asked a number of journalists, friends and readers who called or wrote to express their outrage. “Yes, it’s awful,” I agreed. “But, actually, it’s easy.” Here’s why:
Notwithstanding my profound personal respect for photojournalism and photojournalists, the fact is that relatively cheap, reliable and easy-to-use technologies like smartphones, Photoshop and Instagram make it possible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to shoot, sweeten and share a picture whenever the impulse strikes.
The explosion in citizen-generated images has been, well, explosive. The number of photos published to the web is running this year at 530 million per day, or more than a 10,000% increase over the 5 million pictures put online each day when the iPhone debuted in 2007, according to Mary Meeker, a partner at the KPCB, a leading Silicon Valley venture firm. It is important to note that the chart below illustrates traffic at only Facebook, Flckr, Instagram and Snapchat. Plenty more images are turning up in lots more places.
It’s not just photos. YouTube reports that 100 hours of new video are uploaded every minute, as compared with 10 hours of new video per minute back in 2007. That, of course, is a tenfold increase.
Even those who dozed through Econ 101 should know that rising supplies reduce the price that consumers are willing to pay for everything from apps to zucchini. For those who snoozed a bit too much, here’s what you would have heard:
When a marketplace is flooded with a particular product or service, the primary factor determining the value of the item in question is how much of it is available. Economists call this phenomenon “commoditization” and the affected goods and services are called “commodities.” Example:
Because one bushel of wheat is as good as another (the fancy word for this is “fungible”), the only matter left to decide in the fast and furious action at the Chicago Board of Trade is how much a bushel is worth at a particular point in time. When wheat is in short supply, prices rise. When there is a surfeit of wheat, prices fall.
Now, it’s safe to wake up. We are going to talk about photographers again:
The exponentially expanding supply of user-created images means we have come to the point that all but especially unique images are commoditized. As predicted here in 2007, this makes photographers “the most endangered species at our newspapers.”
The explosion of content in the digital media, of course, doesn’t stop with images and video. It extends to news, information, opinions, self-published books, music, data and just about anything else that comes to mind.
While the wave of user-generated content may be a bonanza for consumers, it is proving to be disastrous to the livelihood of professional content creators like the photographers at the Sun-Times.
Once the managers of the Sun-Times concluded that they could get all the photos they needed at no additional charge from iPhone-packing staffers or the web, they summoned the photographers to a hotel ballroom in early May and fired them. The deed was copied rapidly by a small chain of papers in Georgia. And it is likely to be repeated again.
To be sure, there are tons of journalistic and aesthetic arguments for why you cannot value a photo – or its taker – in mere dollars and cents. But we are talking business here. And all media companies are businesses that have to make ends meet, expressly including non-profit news ventures that intend to be around for the long term.
The rules of natural selection require a company to make a sufficient profit to sustain the business from one year to the next. Otherwise, the business goes out of business. If profits are insufficient (or, worse, absent, as evidently is the case at the privately held Sun-Times), then managers have an unambiguous obligation to take the steps necessary to try to turn the red ink to black.
The once-enviable profitability of newspapers has sagged severely since the industry’s aggregate advertising revenues began plummeting from the record $49.4 billion achieved in 2005. Today, ad revenues are less than half of what they were in 2005 – and still falling.
When managers can’t turn around sales, the only other path to profitability is cutting expenses. The practice has been burnished to perfection at most newspapers in the last few years, where publishers have, among other things, scrapped Christmas parties, reduced health benefits, mandated unpaid furloughs, shrunk the newshole, outsourced ad production, eliminated TV books, cut newsroom staffing and/or abandoned seven-day home delivery.
The axing of the photo staff was hardly the first economy employed at the Sun-Times, as the publishing company has sought profitability in the face of steadily shrinking advertising revenues. The paper’s many publishers over the years have fired staff, shuttered profit-challenged suburban editions and turned over printing and distribution to the Chicago Tribune, the paper’s arch foe. Even the outsourced printing arrangement has been troubled, according to media reports that the Sun-Times has been late in paying its bills. The Sun-Times recently told the Tribune that it will terminate the agreement in 2015.
While the elimination of the photo department at the Sun-Times was painful to behold, it is a logical outcome to the inexorable trends that are unhinging the legacy media businesses:
∷ First, the various digital technologies have empowered anyone with a computer, smartphone, tablet, camera or (soon) Google Glass to be a publisher.
∷ Second, consumers are exercising that power with a vengeance.
Before the days of auto-focusing and image-stabilizing digital cameras, photography was as much a science as it was art. To produce a great picture, photographers not only had to be in the right place at the right time but also had to make instant calculations regarding the speed of the film loaded in the camera, the amount of available light, the appropriate shutter speed and much more. Using viewfinders instead of digital displays, photographers had to approximate the composition of their pictures. In the days before rapidly advancing 35-mm. cameras, they didn’t have the luxury of squeezing off a series of shots in hopes of catching the action. They had to make a single shot or two count. And, of course, there was no Photoshop to fix your mistakes.
In short, you had to know what you were doing.
Today, anyone who can point and click can take a halfway decent picture. Maybe not a great picture. But, as the owners of the Sun-Times apparently believe, one that is good enough. (This Tumbler site, which compares and contrasts the photos of the Tribune and Sun-Times each day, would take issue with this thesis.)
While the epic surge of information includes equally epic amounts of drivel, you can’t blame digital entrepreneurs and profit-pressed publishers for using the ever-more-sophisticated digital tools at their command to extract a sufficient number of useful nuggets to put out what they hope will be commercially acceptable publications. And the web is the ideal place to scrounge up free content:
Most of the photos and videos on the web are published openly, where they are easily discoverable through search engines and can be freely accessed for print, digital and broadcast use. Although the creators rightfully could demand compensation for the reuse of their original work, most are thrilled to see it published – and few are willing or knowledgeable enough to expend the time or money necessary to press a copyright-infringement case. Further, publishers and broadcasters can assert, quite legitimately in most cases, that the use of a newsworthy picture pulled off the web is fair use, and, thus, exempt from copyright protection in the first place.
While a piece of clipart or a photo captured by a harried reporter on an iPhone may not be Pulitzer-worthy, the images can plug a hole on the website or tomorrow’s front page. So, yes, it is possible to get good-enough content to put out a publication.
The question that cost-conscious publishers and broadcasters have to ask themselves, however, is whether “good-enough” content will be good enough to sustain the value of their franchises in the face of growing competition from the digital media.
Grappling with some of the most extreme and prolonged financial challenges in the business, the managers of Sun-Times are betting that the occasional sub-par image won’t matter to readers and advertisers, let alone Pulitzer juries, whose approbation is not likely a major consideration in the paper’s business model. The Sun-Times brass evidently is reasoning – and not unreasonably – that few people walk up to a news stand to compare the photos in competing newspapers to decide which edition to buy.
Unlike a new handbag or pair of shoes, newspapers are consumed as a matter of habit. In communities where there is only one newspaper – and that’s the case in most of them – the choice is even simpler: You either read the newspaper or not.
In the absence of alternatives in the pre-digital era, it was a safe bet among publishers that their unique and inexpensive compendium of news, want-ads, sports, features, coupons, stock prices and TV listings could attract the large and valuable audiences that they – and, more importantly, their advertisers – wanted to reach.
Today, the infinitely richer, unquestionably more convenient and usually cheaper flood of content coursing through the digital media has usurped the previously unmatched bundle of news and commercial information once delivered by newspapers.
In other words, the digital media have commoditized news, entertainment and shopping. Except for a handful of technically recalcitrant individuals who still depend on print, no one needs a newspaper to be well informed and well entertained. You only buy a newspaper if you want one.
How have publishers responded to this profound existential challenge? Not well.
Unable to stanch the 50%-plus contraction in sales since 2005 and desperate to sustain a rough approximation of 20% and 30% pretax profits that newspapers produced in their halcyon days, most publishers have watered down and hollowed out their products to the point that discerning readers can see that newspapers ain’t what they used to be.
And recent research proves that newspaper readers are indeed discerning. A year ago, the Pew Research Center reported that only 29% of Americans had read a newspaper in the preceding day, as compared with 56% in 1991. In July, the Gallup Poll reported that only 9% of Americans identified newspapers as their primary source for news, as compared with 21% for the Internet and 55% for television.
Publishers cannot be blamed for the latency of print, which puts newspapers at an insurmountable disadvantage to smartphones in quoting stock prices or covering breaking news. And newsprint can’t be faulted for failing to compete with the multimedia razzle-dazzle of a tablet.
But publishers can be faulted for the perverse logic of thinking that they can compete with the growing array of digital competition by making their print – and corresponding web and mobile products, which generally mirror the content of print – less complete, less competent and less compelling than ever.
The insidious and unrelenting erosion in the quality of the nation’s newspapers is not only painful to news professionals and dangerous to the health of our democracy. It’s also bad business, because, in the long run, inferior products hardly ever succeed.