“There’s a bit of an exploitative relationship between citizen journalists and news organizations. You have to know enough to ask before you can get paid.” — Steve Myers, Managing Editor, Poynter.org
“It certainly has swung too far in one direction. Whether it’ll ever swing back or not, I don’t know.” –Stanley Forman, Photojournalist
When an amateur photographer stumbled onto an accident scene in 1953 and snapped a photo of a man being rescued from the side of a bridge, she was considered a witness. She was awarded $10 for winning The Sacramento Bee’s photo competition that week, and later won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography. Today, Virginia Schau would be called a citizen journalist, and she would have thousands of eager, unpaid colleagues in the United States, perhaps millions around the world. She would be a source of frustration for professional photographers, and a source of revenue relief for news organizations. She would also be part of an evolving media business model that may soon reach its peak.
News organizations have historically paid for photos and videos they want. Abraham Zapruder, a 57-year-old salesman who happened to film the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, sold all rights to the footage to Life Magazine for $150,000, the equivalent of roughly $1 million today.
When 22-year-old Louise Macabitas took a photo of a police officer spraying protesters in Davis, California, her photo appeared in newspapers, television stations, and websites across the country. She wasn’t paid at all.
“The standard price for a photo or video starts at $0,” said Steve Myers, managing editor of Poynter.org. “You have to know enough to ask.”
In fact, said Macabitas in an email, few organizations even asked permission to use the photo. “But that’s alright,” she wrote, “since my original plan with that photo was just to share it among my Facebook friends and spread awareness on what was happening at school.”
It’s the kind of comment that drives WCVB-TV photojournalist Stanley Forman up the wall. “They’re so excited to be published, they’re giving it away for free,” he said in a phone interview, referring to amateur photographers, citizen journalists and witnesses who happen to have a cell phone camera and capture a shot of something newsworthy.
“It’s killing us,” Forman said, “and they’re everywhere.” Closer examination of Macabitas’ photo shows just how right he is.
“I notice 15 cameras pointed at the cop-only ONE is a professional photographer,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute, in an email exchange.
“This speaks loudly to what is happening in our world,” he said. “As newsrooms downsize, more people who are not traditional journalists capture and document the world around us.”
When CNN laid off dozens of photographers, editors and others in November, senior vice president Jack Womack wrote an internal memo to the staff that blamed the move on increasing user-generated content, social media, CNN iReporters and affiliate contributions. CNN gets more than 3,000 iReport contributions each month. CNN did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I’ve seen the memo,” said Myers, “and I think this is the first time we’ve seen someone state this openly that layoffs are due to citizen journalism.”
“I heard about that, and I just said, personally, I think it sucks,” said Forman. In a recent blog posting, he described a fiery crash in the middle of the night. When he got to the scene, as the photo below shows, the flames were already out.
“I knew right away to get what I could of the aftermath then start the search for someone who had some good visuals,” he wrote. “I was across the street from the damaged cars when this young fellow found me and told me about his video, the car fully involved in flames and the driver running around on fire.”
After 45 years in the business, Forman wrote, he realizes he can no longer beat the competition.
“The competition is anyone who has a cell phone, smart phone or any other portable device, which takes stills or video,” he said. “Not only do I try to get there first I have to be first in gathering other people’s stuff.”
“If you cover breaking news in just about any local market, you’ve probably had to come to terms with a new reality,” she wrote in a recent blog post entitled Everyone is a news photographer. ”Someone else is going to get pictures before you do. Their video may not be as good as yours, but they’ve probably captured something you’ve missed.”
Then, Potter asks a key question: So now what?
Photographers and former photojournalists like Bob Cooley have dire predictions. In an online response to a story about the CNN layoffs, he wrote, “We saw this trend start about ten years ago with still photojournalists. First we were asked to write copy… Next it was having to shoot stills AND video at events… Next it was layoffs, with point-and-shoots given to writers.”
Pointing to the number of newspapers that have folded in recent years, Cooley said broadcasters will follow the same path. “At some point these outlets will cannibalize themselves as well,” he wrote.
But not everyone feels the news industry is doomed. Challenged, yes. And evolving. But not necessarily doomed. The key to success, say some experts, is for the pendulum to reach its peak, and then head back in the other direction — eventually settling on a business model that’s based on a collaborative relationship between professional and citizen journalists.
“The CNN move was strange,” said Tompkins, “on the one hand laying off full-time photogs while still hiring producers. I suspect they will do what other networks have done, that is to hire a lot more outside photogs as freelancers rather than fulltimers with benefits. I would not read more into that move than is deserved — not yet anyway.”
He added, “Broadcast stations are still, for the most part, fairly healthy and in 2012 will see a nice revenue growth from political spending.” Down the road, he expects to see a team effort in which “the journalist has to verify and make sense of what the citizen purports to see and know. If we only just pass along the eyewitness account, we are not performing journalism, just distribution.”
Myers said the infusion of digital tools and online technology has forced changes in what he called the “economics of news.”
“CNN has been relatively forward-thinking in its approach to citizen journalism,” he said. “They mix iReport content (from unpaid citizen journalists) right in with the professional CNN content. But it’s not so simple as you hand a camera to someone and then you fire a journalist.”
Instead, he said, CNN is leading an evolution that brings citizens and journalists together. “Maybe someone who’s a professional is asking questions, applying analysis, debunking information that was wrong, while a citizen journalist is getting the first photos from scene. One doesn’t replace the other.”
As for the value of what citizen journalists contribute, Myers said, “There’s some education that will begin to take place.”
Forman agrees, adding that at some point the public will begin to realize they are giving something away to a large corporation that is turning a profit on it.
“I can’t beat you people. You’re everywhere,” he said. “In some cases, you have some very valuable pictures.”