Photojournalism finds itself in a cauldron of change. Keep moving must be our mantra, for to stand still in this business today is to die.
I worked in the music business for a decade—at Sony Music, its Columbia and Epic record labels, and as an artist manager with such clients as Lenny Kravitz—before joining the business side of VII Photo Agency last September. As the music industry underwent a major upheaval, executives tried to hang on to the old business model, managing to alienate customers, artists and distributors all at once. Some in the industry realized that they either had to adapt to the digital business environment or die.
Record company executives realized too late that they had been in the plastics business all along, producing the containers in which music had been sold: 45s, LPs, cassette tapes, CDs. Their product was actually little more than packaging and promotion. Now music didn’t need their packaging—or their promotion. Art existed as art. Record labels were no longer the only game in town. Competition for what they packaged arose everywhere—from concert promoters like Live Nation to artists who no longer wanted to or needed to cede control of their work to anyone. The record business died as the digital music business was born.
Photojournalism finds itself at a similar juncture now. That’s why I’m at VII—to bring to the table what I learned from the music industry’s transition as we figure out how to meet the challenges—and seize the opportunities—of a rapidly changing environment. Here are a few hints I’ve already passed along:
- Grab opportunities to develop relationships with consumers.
- Embrace the business-to-consumer model.
- Interact with consumers. Ask them what they think and want.
- Give it to them.
- Don’t sue your consumers.
- Don’t ignore what they’re telling you.
- Don’t underestimate their power and influence.
- Don’t try to force an unwanted product down their throats.
- Don’t lose sight of the value of people who care so much about your content that they spend energy finding it for free and sharing it with their friends.
- And don’t wait too long!
The Value of Partnership
So what happens next to photojournalism? There is no panacea, only an amalgam of opportunities.
At VII, when a project idea surfaces—whether from one of our photographers, someone on staff, or a potential partner or former client—our wheels start turning. Our first thought is not necessarily about which magazine will publish the photographs; instead we are more likely to seek out partners, possibly a nongovernmental organization, maybe a corporation. We think about a range of media where the story might be told—from Web sites to TV. Connections from my music industry days come in handy when we decide to reach out to theater companies, video game developers, and music entrepreneurs. Most gratifying has been the positive reception we’re finding to collaborative ideas that don’t have much of a track record.
The take-away lesson for me is this: There is a market; it’s just not the same store.
Print publications are unlikely to disappear, given the devotion of those who enjoy the sensory experience—the feel of flipping a page, the smell and sound, or just the act of buying a magazine at the corner newsstand or hearing the thud of the morning newspaper as it arrives in their driveway. They will pay for this experience and advertisers will pay to market to them. Print publications have been our clients for a very long time and they will continue to be so.
It’s also likely that we will be working with newspaper and magazine publishers in new ways. For example, VII is collaborating with a Danish company, Revolt Communications, to develop a proprietary technology called VII Player. Once up and running, this player will enable our photojournalists to be publishers in their own right and work as true business partners with those who distribute their work. The VII Player will bring our agency revenue from affiliate deals and advertising.
Once VII’s photographers create multimedia content—and this player will offer them easy-to-use editing tools while they are on assignment—our business partners will work on distributing it to customers. And when customers then click on these images, they’ll be taken to other related content and products, such as books and prints, which are sold by VII. With this player—which is really “a site within a site” offering connections to the business world—VII can explore ways of establishing corporate sponsorships and affiliate marketing packages as well as selling advertising space.
Marketing Visual Media
For photojournalists to do what they do—often in faraway places, for long stretches of time, and with an abundance of danger—they need financial support. Yet the digital marketplace doesn’t lend itself to this. Digital consumers expect and want to get news and information, including visual storytelling, for free. Is building pay walls a viable business strategy? The debate rages on. On places like YouTube and Facebook people (estimated at 400 million) are building their own distribution networks and becoming their own network executives. People publish photographs and direct traffic to them.
With what’s already happening online, the pieces may be in place to create an early adopters program in which incentives and rewards are offered to users who share professional content.
Marketers are constantly looking for new ways to deliver messages and create brand awareness. In his keynote address at ad:tech in November, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, one of the world’s largest communication services and advertising companies, spoke about the blurring of lines between editorial and advertising. Given that it’s advertisers who pay for pages to exist in newspapers and magazines, is it more of a conflict if photojournalists work with them directly? It could be if images get used in deceptive ways, for example, or are cropped in ways that don’t consider the photographer’s perspective and intent. But when the photographer is made a genuine partner, the likelihood of this lessens.
Key to our success will be remembering that our business is journalism—the stories and the photographs (accompanied now by audio and video) we produce—and not the newspapers and magazines in which much of our work once appeared. It’s time to think creatively and deeply—perhaps together as an industry, more likely on our own—about ways to foster innovation, continue what is worth keeping, and marry the two in fresh forms on new platforms. Along the way we hope we find business strategies to support our ambitions.
Ian Ginsberg is the director of projects and partnerships at VII Photo Agency.