Posted by: structureofnews | May 13, 2011

Good ‘Nuff

I was talking to a veteran photographer at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong not long ago; we were discussing how once well-paid photo gigs (and contracts) were falling by the wayside.  More precisely, he was lamenting the days and talking about the unappreciated value professionals brought to the table, and I was listening.  Or drinking.  Or both.

Not that I’m unsympathetic; after all, the same forces that are undercutting professional photography are also undercutting text journalism (although, I suspect, not so much data and visual journalism, or at least data- and visually-skilled journalists – I’ll have to dig more into that in some later post.)

But the lamentations had a familiar ring.  It’s not just that the main employers of news photographers – newspapers and magazines – are in trouble and hence aren’t in a position to hand out generous contracts.  It’s that the economics of “good enough” have undercut huge parts of the business – not just for photographers, but for text news as well.

Which is to say: It’s true that professionals – photographers, journalists, chefs, manicurists – do much better work than the average person.  But sometimes you just don’t need that quality of work, and “good enough” is good enough.  If you want to grab a quick ham sandwich, you don’t need to pay for a Michelin-starred chef in a wood-paneled restaurant to make it.  You’ll get by with the so-so deli down the street.  And with the web allowing more and more people to try their hand at more and more things – both as professionals and as hobbyists – customers are trying out their services and discovering that they don’t always need top-tier work.

Exhibit A in this is Time’s cover from late 2009 on – appropriately enough – The New Frugality.  The basic image comes from a stock photograph, taken by one Robert Lam, via iStockPhoto.   Price?  $30.  This, naturally, didn’t make the professionals particularly happy.  One sample comment :

“Who is the IDIOT that is happy he got paid $30 for a TIME cover? I have had TWO EDITORIAL TIME FRONT COVER STORIES and I can tell you that once the money runs out YOU CAN”T BLOODY EAT THE MAGAZINE! I am sorry but anyone that accepts this kind of payment has absolutely destroyed the viability of this industry.”

Leaving aside the invective, the comment is accurate – this does destroy the viability of the industry.  As do unpaid writers who post for free on the Huffington Post.  Or here, for that matter. 

But what are you going to do about it?  You can’t legislate higher prices, no matter how much you rail against amateurs stealing your livelihood.  And you can’t – nor should you – stop people who want to take photos (or blog) from doing so, even if it means undermining your industry.  It’s a better world (at least theoretically) when Robert Lam, who apparently owns a furniture store, can get a shot printed on the cover of Time.   Or that an army of bloggers can track and post of natural disasters.  Better that than an accreditation process that only allows officially-certified people to sell to media outlets.

Still, as the veteran at the FCC was saying, professionals are better – they take better shots, they’re more dependable, and so on.  All true.  The problem is that, for lots of uses, we don’t need that quality of work.  We need “good enough” work.  Whether or that “good enough” is worth $30 or $3,000 is another issue, but It’s probably not at the higher end of that scale.

That’s not to detract from the great work that professional photographers do, including putting themselves in harm’s way, sometimes with tragic results.   The problem isn’t in their skill, commitment or passion; it’s in how the market has changed how it values the work they do.

And so it is with text journalists, who are finding out that, in many cases, their finely-crafted account of the school board meeting, while possibly superior to a hand-cranked version put out by an education enthusiast, isn’t superior enough to command big bucks – or at least big enough bucks to keep food on the table.

And that, while great stories – like great photographs – will command great attention and hopefully great value, much of what we do is generate day-to-day stuff, not unlike stock photography, that tides us through the times in between.  And if that business goes away, the economic model starts to collapse.

So what’s a photographer to do?  One route is teaching. Slate profiles David Hobby, a former Baltimore Sun staffer who now runs a very successful business teaching lighting techniques.   Another is to go higher-and-higher end, as the photographer in the FCC was doing – working closely with clients who valued his work enough to pay him top dollar for shoots.

But as the Time cover illustrates, even the top-end jobs are getting more and more competition from amateurs.   It’s another reminder that we can’t keep doing what we do and insist we get paid what we used to get paid for it, simply because it’s good – even if it is.  We need to rethink what we do, so we’re less in competition with “good enough.”


  1. I’m a computer scientist (day job: AI research; side gig: games) and the same sort of thing has happened in our industry. The preponderance of free software siphons the lifeblood out of the industry.

    The big players strategically devalue the work of their smaller competitors, either by creating or sponsoring high-profile open source projects (Oracle, IBM, etc) or by releasing fifty different “loss leader” products for every profitable product for sale (Google, Microsoft, etc).

    So, the major brand-name software companies can make enormous amounts of money, while the rest of the industry withers and dies.

    In my view, this is the same thing happening throughout the entertainment and publishing industries. When the big players consolidate (getting bigger and bigger by gobbling up their only serious competitors), the rest of the competition becomes microscopic in comparison.

    In my view, “good enough” isn’t the problem. The problem isn’t that TIME paid $30 to a stock photo agency for their cover art. The problem is that TIME is one of the few remaining gigs where a photographer can find work. Consolidation of the industry is the real problem.

    • I don’t disagree broadly, although I’m not sure it’s really about monopoly or scale players subsidizing businesses to drive out competition – lots of industries are getting disrupted along these lines, both as barriers to entry fall, and what Clay Shirky terms the ‘cognitive surplus’ kicks in and more and more non-professionals jump into various fields. Regardless, there’s not a lot we can do about this – it’s a fact of life. So the question is, what niches can professionals occupy, what markets can they serve, and generally where can they go where their services are more highly valued?

  2. WHAT!

    Major media avoiding paying for “high quality” content and instead using stuff from the Internet? That’s outrageous. Everyone knows that high-quality, original content only comes through the postal service and is produced only in print form and written by full-time journalists and shot by full-time photographers.

    Seriously, though: what’s called for here is a better licensing scheme for stock photos. The photographer could have been paid a lot more for his placement on the cover of a high-distribution magazine, IF iStockPhoto had had the appropriate licensing tier set up.

    • It’s probably true that he could have got more for his photo; but of course even if he – or iStockPhoto – had a better deal in place, there’s still the issue that there’s a huge pool of potential competitors out there, happy to undercut him. It’s hard to recreate the monopoly/cartel/limited pool of suppliers in this brave new world.

  3. […] to torture a restaurant metaphor again.  This apropos of the recent post on how the economics of “good enough” are undermining the business models of journalism, and […]

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