Archive for May, 2009
We’ve all heard pitches like this before: If you value the media, buy it.
Columns and reports around the new and old media lately have espoused a pay-for-access model on the net that reflects how the media has functioned for a few centuries. I agree, but I’m not going to repeat that sentiment.
But how many of you — students in particular — actually buy the products for which you aspire to work?
If you’re like I was as a student, your daydreams drift to National Geographic contracts, Time covers, regular newspaper paychecks, magazine spreads, museum collections (and now) online galleries shown by major URLs. We want this work. We want recognition for seeing the world intensely and making compelling images that touch our readers. And we most certainly want to get paid for it.
We lament that budgets are tight, outlets for work are small or underpaid, and jobs are disappearing. And not that our subscriptions would make even the slightest dent in the problems of the media, but I see a hypocrisy in our actions. Wish as we might to earn money from the media for doing good work, do we actually buy those products?
I looked down at coffee-slopped, crumb-scattered pages of the papers this morning and smirked.
While we lament, we don’t subscribe. It’s expensive to have the New York Times land on my doorstep each morning, but it’s nothing compared to the money I’ve earned from them in the last 20 years. I am one of those people who saves National Geographics and grabs Time, Newsweek and US News off the grocery store rack to browse over lunch and toss in the recycle bin a half hour later.
I even pick up the local free “shopper” rag in any town I find myself because you can learn a lot about a community from what they’re selling.
Why do that when I can get most of that stuff on the Web for free?
Because I can slop breakfast or lunch all over them without having to send hardware in for repair. I can flip through copies as the Thousand Island drips from my reuben, smearing all over the latest Nachtwey essay. I scribble notes in the margins on stories I’d like to chase. I cut out and tack up images that inspire me. I roll them up and stuff them in my back pocket while I stroll. I relish that the ads don’t pop up, flash, scroll, or shout at me. And if still I had a birdcage…
But the reasons for you should be deeper than old-fashioned practicality. We need to be steeped in images to produce good work. We need to know what is being done out there. We need to have our mental libraries filled with ideas to use, alter or steal outright.
You can do that well on the Web too. It’s a magnificent at-your-fingertips resource with better volume of material presented in more interesting forms. There you have instant and unprecedented access to the entire world’s media. It’s a beautiful thing. But I know that many of you don’t really even look there, and fewer pay for content.
Spend time with the media no matter the form. Proudly pay what you can for the great work being done out there. Browse, explore, slop, spill, clip, print, pay a little. Consume what you hope to produce for yourself — from the scrappy local paper to Newsweek. And by doing so, your ideas and understanding of our craft grow. And you do your tiny part to help the media recover.
I did have a bird many years ago, and we would play “Birdcage Bingo” with my clips. I’d slip them into his cage and let him tell me what of my work he liked and what he didn’t in a game that was a simple variation on cow pasture bingo. Maybe someday I’ll try that with the Web…
There must be something in that name…
When I first started my freelance career in Brazil 15 years ago, a wizened, only-slightly-older-than-me freelance magazine writer named Mac Margolis — now a Cabot-Prize-winning Newsweek correspondent — gave me his formula.
He said his method was to report a story once and sell it as many times as he could. He would write a version for Time, another for The Economist and a third version for an airline in-flight magazine. He would focus the same story on the specific area of interest of each magazine. He’d sell the stories to publications around the world where multiple languages opened a new non-competing market for each story.
To smart fingers on a computer keyboard, this model could work well for Internet journalism where pay per story may be quite low, but the market is huge.
In the changing landscape of journalism economics, I can promise one thing: In the short term my students who are indefatigable journalists will be freelancers. Jobs are few, far between and disappearing. Though that may turn around at some point, it’s hard to know when.
However, hunger for content should not disappear. There is now an infinite amount of space available to publish meaningful work. Some pays, some does not. But for a committed journalist of any flavor, the stories are out there and the means of publishing have never been more open or easy.
Building a freelance business is not much different than building any other business. It takes an impressive investment in time and money to really get a good start. I know a few photojournalists who have evolved into freelancers over a lengthy amount of time, but the majority did it the way I did: With sweat and credit-card equity.
What I love
I can imagine no other profession, and many of you may feel the same way. As both a staff photojournalist and a freelancer I have seen the world the way few can. I’ve been to the very last polar spits of North and South America, to Europe, South Asia, and Africa. And I’ve not just visited those places. I’ve lived them through the generous subjects who let me deeply into their lives. My days are as different as there are people and jobs in the world.
I have taken this positive risk in my career: I have lived thoroughly now, figuring I would probably sacrifice later. That’s the reverse of the typical “wise” American formula. I would not trade this life for anything.
What I would change
Having freshly paid off my student loans and with a paltry $2,000 in the bank, I quit my fair-paying job and ran off to Brazil to be a freelancer. My scheme was to live cheaply in Brazil’s struggling economy while I covered a fascinating continent. But right as I arrived they fixed that economy and suddenly Rio was as expensive as New York. I quickly built up credit card debt to communicate with editors, ship film, fund the travel to cover stories on spec, and even pay the high local rents.
I was successful in building a business that still runs. But paying that debt has limited many things for me over the years.
For those of you starting a business I have these “do as I say, not as I do” recommendations:
• Borrow as little money as possible. With stagnant freelance journalism rates you would have a more difficult time growing your way out of startup debt. If you do need to borrow, look for alternatives to credit cards to finance your work. Ask about other non-revolving loans from banks if you must. Those loans have a closed end. Borrow from family and friends only after deep reflection on what that debt may do to a valuable relationship. Nothing gets in the way of personal relationships like money.
• Analyze every expense. Photographers tend to be gadget heads. We want the latest and coolest stuff, from killer cameras to cool phones and fast, sleek laptops. They are exciting! But you need quite little to do the job — one small camera body, a couple lenses and a flash. A modest laptop will generally do the job too.
Editors very rarely care how the job is accomplished. They only want it to be done to their liking. There are many ways to light a room, shoot in the dark and tone a photo with a very polished look. As a young freelancer you’ll have more time than money, so use that time to figure out cheap working methods.
You don’t need 25 megapixels. Even the ambitious standards of high-end photo agencies can be met with 10. Newspaper and most magazine gigs can be happily met with 6 megapixels from a five-year-old digital camera. Film can easily meet all of those. There are bargains in used gear.
Though software like Adobe’s Creative Suite is the industry standard, there are more good image editing software solutions out there than I can count, and many of them are free.
Buy equipment only when you have repeated need for it and it will with certainty pay for itself with new work. You can always rent it for that odd job, and can probably be reimbursed for the rental by your client.
As you travel, find stories along the way to report and sell. Cartier-Bresson street photography will add to your portfolio but not give an immediate return on the investment. Do that and cover a story you could sell at the same time. Small stories are good. Ambitious big-idea stories are better done near home.
Think of this business the same way you would if you were opening a store, starting a consulting business or building another kind of Internet startup.
• Invest (actual money) in your future. You may be 22. You may feel 22. It may be four decades until you think you might retire on your vast laurels as a great photojournalist or documentary photographer. But take it from me, age advances faster than you think it will. Offset some of that risk you are itching to make by covering your old age with IRAs and other retirement plans now. Peel off ten percent of your earnings (that’s so little) to an untouchable account.
Running a business is more than a full-time job. You’ll have big tax bills to pay, health and life insurance to cover, equipment to maintain, marketing plans to build, archives to backup, and research to do — all over and above the maintenance of your creativity and attention on crafting valuable work. One thing often forgotten in that mix of things-I-should-have-done-yesterday is to plan a future.
Our friends and loved ones who follow a more traditional life plan — one in which you sacrifice and save now to fund travel and leisure in old age — would never be able to handle the risk we tend to take. But we need to learn from them too. Be smug about the places you’ll go while you’re young, and how deeply you may interact with the world. But while you do it, keep your debts as low as you can and squirrel away some money starting now so you can smile from your Paris apartment when you’re old.
I and my fellow inmates will applaud you.
An interesting Adam Liptak analysis of Obama’s recent reversal on releasing torture images:
Week in Review
New York Times
Just a brief note today to congratulate my former student Kathryn Cook on acceptance to this year’s Joop Swart Masterclass, held for a very select very few by the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam.
And to Luceo’s Matt Eich and the rest of the honorees.