When the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff…
In the space of a few days, two major newspapers have been sold from their corporate entities to billionaires. On August 3, The New York Times Co agreed to sell The Boston Globe to John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, for a pittance of $70m. And on August 5, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos agreed to buy the Washington Post for $250m.
Earlier in the year, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, investigated buying the Tribune Company, which operates the Los Angles Times and Chicago Tribune.
The investment thesis remains a bit unclear. Newspapers aren’t like professional sports teams (another billionaire must-buy), which seem to inevitably appreciate in value. In the case of the Kochs, it was speculated that they were looking to advance their conservative agendas against a mainstream media that is alleged to have a liberal bias. But for Henry and Bezos, the logic isn’t as obvious. Of course, it would be silly to assume that these billionaires have no agenda or desire to influence how they are perceived in the press. Only time will tell.
For Bezos’ part, he said in a statement:
“The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”
His plan also involves retaining the entire 2,000 person staff – at least until he has more of a plan.
It’s patently clear that the old school model of newspaper distribution and revenue generation is broken. Printed circulation has been on the decline for well over a decade, and the classified/ad model has been in a tailspin. Consumer consumption of news has moved from a few central sources to a bevvy of websites, many with dubious journalistic standards. Aggregation sites (e.g. Huffington Post) and crowdsourced sites (e.g. reddit) have become front pages for many looking for sharp snippets of news. An optimist sees billionaires taking a civic interest in journalism. And in the case of Bezos, it’s exciting to see an entrepreneur who disrupted another industry (whether it benefits workers is another question, but I do know that I can order almonds in my underwear at 2am for next day delivery), take an interest in this one.
It isn’t unheard of for a billionaire to take an honest interest in journalism. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar created “Civil Beat,” which is dedicated to “public affairs reporting about Hawaii.” The economics of that business are unclear, but the online news site is providing longform journalism on a variety of topics that the Honolulu Star Advertiser (the hometown paper of record) cannot or will not cover.
But what does this all mean for photojournalism? As we saw with the Chicago Sun-Times, the photo department is often the first to get hammered when budgets need to be cut. This is even true at publications like Sports Illustrated, which historically relied on original photography as their very raison d’etre. Will these new owners see photography as anything but a commodity that can be easily culled from wire services like Getty Images, Reuters, AP, and the like? Or will they value original photography and re-establish a strong visual heritage?
I am skeptical.
When I look at publications that are known for incredible photography (e.g. The New York Times Magazine), I cannot help but think that that phenomena is the result of a bull-headed advocate (i.e. Kathy Ryan) rather than a top-down directive. And I suspect if you asked the readership what they like so much about the Magazine, photography wouldn’t rank near the top 5. It isn’t that photography isn’t appreciated, but it seems more common to associate with particular columns (e.g. “Lives”) or a specific writer (e.g. Chuck Klosterman). At publications known for photography, good photography is expected. It is not, I suspect, something that the public would fight for.
So it’s hard to imagine that a disruption of the existing businesses would prioritize photography as a way to upend revenue and profits. Not even two Pulitzers for Feature Photography could save the staff at the Chicago Sun-Times!
Even nouveau photographic treatments on the web, like The Boston Globe’s popular “The Big Picture,” predominantly use wire photos. Assuming Bezos uses Internet metrics (e.g. bounce rate, time on site, referrals, etc) as a basis for his “experimentation,” it’s still hard to believe that original photography will play a big part of that equation. No one will run an A/B test on original vs. wire photography. It’s too subtle a distinction.
This is a bit ironic given that the best Boston Bombing photos came from the Globe’s John Tlumacki. But had he not been there, news outlets from around the world would have run something from AP and we would have been none the wiser.
Still, I hold some hope for the simple reason that sites like Facebook and Google+ have created increasily photo-centric designs. Huge “cover photos” have become the norm, photos and video “pop” from our newsfeeds, and consumers check apps like Instagram/Vine/Snapchat religiously. Facebook centimillionaire Chris Hughes purchased the New Republic last year, and hired the first creative director in the publication’s 100 year history who designed a homepage that now features a 1200px image (ok, it’s a wire image). Granted, that business hasn’t turned a profit yet, but at least it’s an honest start.
We are (increasingly sophisticated) visual consumers and the main problem with the traditional news media is that they simply haven’t figured out how to play the way the new kids do. But these storied newspapers now have a billion ways to find out.