What Happens When a Major Photo Magazine Shuts Down?

What Happens When a Major Photo Magazine Shuts Down?

Last week, Emerald Expositions, the owner of Photo District News (PDN), announced that PDN would no longer publish new content online or in print. The magazine had been a staple of the professional photography industry, particularly for advertising and commercial photography. PDN’s articles covered a wide range of topics that included gear announcement, industry news, and the venerable PDN 30 which identified and showcased emerging photographers. In addition, PDN produced a number of photo contests including the PDN Annual.

Sarah Jacobs and I discuss the issue in our latest podcast. Subscribe at Apple PodcastSpotifyStitcher or your favorite podcast service.

In an online statement, Johanna Morse, Senior Vice President, Conference Development stated:

“The photography industry has undergone significant changes since PDN was first published in 1980, and the needs of professional photographers have changed along with it. By adjusting our offerings, we can further our mission of providing streamlined, cutting-edge resources that help imaging professionals of all levels achieve their goals and live their passion.”

Emerald will instead focus on their trade show business which includes PHOTOPLUS in New York and WPPI in Las Vegas. The economics of producing large trade shows with thousands of attendees paying several hundred dollars undoubtedly produces a better return on investment than running a magazine.

The move isn’t surprising given the niche audience that PDN served, but its death is still tragic given its long history, and because the change signals shifting industry that relies more on social media engagement (i.e. likes) than actual journalism. 

Why didn’t PDN react sooner?

PDN surely saw a flattening followed by a decline in its subscription base that probably started in the late 1990s. But like many print publications, it wasn’t able to pivot enough to be anything other than an online version of a print publication. A crop of talented sole proprietors built million+ followings through YouTube channels and satiated a younger generation’s predilection for video. Gear reviews, for example, have almost completely moved to video. Sites like PetaPixel based their business off content aggregation and ad sales using only a barebones staff.

Of course, changing business operations is easier said than done. Smartphones have decimated the hardware industry and the ancillary industries like magazines that supported it. But could PDN have been more experimental and riskier when it became clear that the magazine was dead? Or was it a foregone conclusion?

They introduced a paywall for their content, but as Sarah points out in our latest podcast, “Game over. Especially for young, working photographers – they don’t want to pay for that subscription.” Millenials and Gen-Z might be frugal, but they arguably also didn’t think the content was unique enough to warrant a subscription. 

PDN 30

In recent years, Editor in Chief Holly Hughes had steered the PDN 30 to a more diverse and representative list. Not diversity for diversity’s sake, but because new entrants into the industry weren’t like the homogenous white male of the 1980s. Digital tools lowered the barrier to entry and the traditional apprenticeship system – which started to fray as downward pricing pressure made photography less lucrative – meant that younger photographers were carving their own career paths without a template.

The future of PDN 30 is unclear, but it’s likely dead after celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019. Some may celebrate the demise of what PDN 30 represented – namely a list created by an industry gatekeeper. But I lament the loss because it helped created a collective memory for the industry – one that was representative instead of definitive – and through careful curation, allowed photographers to get a feel for how emerging photographers were seeing the world around them. The list of alumni from the past 20 years is a who’s who of inspirational photographers – many of whom are still in the industry.

There are few printed photo magazines remaining

In 2017, Bonnier shut down Popular Photography (the largest circulated magazine at the time) and American Photo. In an internal email to employees, Bonnier CEO Eric Zinczenko wrote:

“Unfortunately, the photo industry is an example of where this disruption has forever altered the market. The rise of smartphone-camera technology and its increasing ability to capture quality photos and video and instantly share them socially has dealt the photo industry formidable challenges. For our brands, these industry challenges have left us with insurmountable losses in advertising and audience support.”

The same note could have arguably been written in 2020 to describe the conditions that led to PDN’s shuttering. 

Outdoor Photographer allegedly has the widest circulation of any photo magazine (Disclosure: editor Wes Pitts teaches with me at the Summit Nature Workshop), but has really steered away from pretty pictures to more conservation issues to attract and retain a more engaged audience.

Magazines like The British Journal of Photography and Aperture continue to serve niche and arguably more visually sophisticated audiences, but with comparatively expensive subscription prices. How long can they sustain themselves?

A number of curatorial-style magazines have emerged in recent years that feature contemporary and cutting-edge photography. Tidal, Brick (a literary journal with a heavy photo focus), Office (a lifestyle magazine) – but they tend to be more like vanity projects than traditional publishing companies with ad sales teams and editorial teams. That isn’t to say that they can’t be influential in the industry, but their viability is uncertain.

What will we miss?

Like a local newspaper shutting its doors, I can’t help but wonder what we are losing when niche publications cease to exist. Does industry journalism get reduced to tweets and the occasional Medium post? Do we relegate ourselves to watching YouTube videos with forever sunny hosts reviewing the most expensive gear possible? Or will something substantive eventually rise in PDN’s place?

I won’t be holding my breath as I cross my fingers for a new day.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Donna werner at 2:11 pm

    Sadly this magazine has been going downhill for years. I can dig up some old back issues and they were nice big, thick magazines with longform stories and lots of inspiration. Yup many of them were pre internet days. I feel the same way about the one from NPPA as well. film days and before the internet.

    • Edward Greenberg at 2:04 pm

      The unfortunate and simple fact is that the number of assignment photographers with studios, part time assistants, dark rooms etc has been declining for years for a multitude of reasons. Photographers who could not make a living in NYC where PDN had much of its audience have left the area or the business entirely.

      As a NYC based law firm representing photographers,models, model agencies and related occupations for 41 years, we can attest that over that period of time the cost of doing business in NYC has risen dramatically while licensing fees, stock payments and assignment fees have plummeted.

      Our clientele was once 70% NYC area, 20% SOCAL and a smattering of other places all over the globe. Now 25% of our client our NY METRO based (meaning NY now includes Yonkers, Westchester, NJ, Rockland County and Nassau County) 60% are in Fl, NC, SC, GA and TX, 5% in SOCAL and the balance in Indonesia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean.

      Once the industry changed, stock income disappeared, price plummeted, digital photography created by amateurs was distributed “for free” the type of photographers who would compose PDN’s prime demographic disappeared from the business and/or had no need for the publication.

      There are fewer professional photographers by number and only a tiny percentage of those remaining find PDN’s contents relevant to their new careers in niche photography industries – like photographing classic cars, Little League games, weddings, year books, local businesses, portraits, pet photos etc. Large and medium former clients now have in house shooters and thus the former rank and file of PDN subscribers are simply no more.

  2. Marian Kraus at 11:05 am

    Thank you for this entry. Sad to see them go….have been a subscriber for years. Will be missed but the tidal wave has been rolling in upon all of us in the industry, like you say since the late 90’s…sometimes we suck air through a straw and at other times we can take a deep refreshing big breath. The balancing act continues and at the core is fun as it mirrors the stark ‘realities’ of life.

  3. Carl Seibert at 5:47 pm

    If business results are any guide, fact-based reporting is no longer a desirable enterprise. Ignorant opinions based on “alternative facts” or nothing at all, (or paid shilling) cost little to nothing to produce, return an almost infinite margin and seem to be well accepted in the marketplace. How can a legitimate publisher compete with that?

    So, this is no surprise. But, as other posters have noted, it’s very sad. We are all – whether we admit it or not – poorer as a result.

  4. Ray Vaughn at 4:57 pm

    The good days of the likes of PDN are long gone and never to return. For years I received
    Range Finder (RF) magazine. Where once it was full of informative content, it is now
    merely a shell. Foto Life is on life support.

    Those publications were akin to LP album sleeves. The were a joy to hold, look at the
    covers, and, read the liner notes over and over. You could place it a picture frame
    and mount it on the wall. The magazines were not tossed in the trash bin.You held
    on to them sometimes for decades.

    At 76, I don’t see those day returning during the rest of life.

    • Terry Tinkess at 12:53 pm

      If Emerald Expositions expects to achieve an acceptable level of profititability from PPE and WPPI, they will have to put the brakes on what seems like cost saving measures at both. I realize you have to introduce new voices, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer seminars from some of the more popular and successful photographers. That seem to be completely eliminated at PPE 19 and it appears to be also the case at WPPI 2020. It certainly is possible that many of these name photographers have price d themselves out of the market, or just aren’t available but I know personally I am far more willing to invest money in airfare, hotels and the time required for the opportunity to learn from someone who I hold in high Regard. I don’t need to spend that amount of money for a simple trade show, the cost far exceeds any saving I might realize for making purchases on site. Free doesn’t matter as much to me as paying for something that I really want to see or hear.

  5. Olivier Laurent at 5:19 pm

    I actually see British Journal of Photography (full disclosure, I used to be the news editor for BJP) and Aperture as two magazines that have successfully pivoted in how they cover the photographic industry, relying less on advertising (at a time when it was becoming clear that such revenue streams would dry up because of camera companies’ lack of foresight to the rise of smartphone photography) and more on subscriptions and partnerships to sustain their operations. That has meant a change in their editorial focus, with more resources put into long-form stories, with an embrace of creativity in photography over technique.

    As a result, they become more niche, but also, I feel, more timeless. A reference, in a sense.

    No matter how influential and iconic PDN was (I remember the days when Daryl Lang broke news on a weekly basis, setting the tone for most discussions in our industry) I feel it stayed the same for too long, with too much of an emphasis on the technical side of our industry. Of course, I’m not faulting the writers and editors because, from experience, they often are the ones who want to innovate when publishers are too wary of any change to the status quo (until it’s too late).

    I predict that BJP will be around for many more years to come (it has survived for more than 166 years already) and the same goes for Aperture.

  6. Marc Hartog at 3:55 pm

    It is indeed very sad when an industry voice like PDN falters. As Olivier (my much missed former colleague at British Journal of Photography) states it is necessary to change with the times and find new ways of engaging your readers – and also new ways of sustaining the business. BJP’s income used to come from job advertising (gone), display advertising (gone) and people buying the magazine from news stands (almost gone).

    Change creates problems but also opens the door for opportunities for those prepared to innovate. We are becoming a multi-faceted platform to help photographers succeed – the magazine will always be an important part of that, but has to form part of a broader offering otherwise it becomes almost inevitable that it would be yet another on a growing casualty list of once great titles, and that would be tragic.

  7. barbara nelson at 5:04 pm

    PDN was a very professional publication. good edits, covered all categories, Holly did a great job of managing all. It is quite sad that magazines and good newspapers are loosing out to tweets and multiple posts – most of which are not researched.

  8. Jorge Parra at 8:55 pm

    I am one of the few ( my guess) that will not miss PDN at all..

    The super-elitesque position that the magazine has had for the last decade was totally out of sync with the reality of the markets, and much certainly it did not make any sense to keep reading the so-called “success” stories of one photographer each month, while hundreds of shooters were collapsing in a collapsing industry, where the disruptors broke down the entry barriers to the point of not even require of talent to get in, and NOTHING of this sort was ever discussed on PDN.

    Same thing happened with the Photographer’s Trade Organizations, which have been rendered useless given their approach to the digital disruptions, and to date, only PPA, an organization more focused on social end events photographers, keeps growing and thriving, while entities like ASMP, EP, APA, etc, more focused on Commercial, Editorial, and Advertising shooters, are just a shadow of what they used to be, with no influence on anything, losing membership at sad rates and meant to disappear for good, all for the same reason as PDN: avoid discussing the reality of the markets, not helping their members to succeed in changing environments, not helping shooters explore their creativity more than anything else, and they just forgot about all this, to focus on their own survival, which did not work just the same!

    The question every shooter asks is obvious: What are they doing on my behalf? What are they useful for? Why shooters will pay a yearly or monthly fee to get nothing but a few discount benefits?

    In many fields, photography is meant to vanish, at least it’s perceived value is going away, and only a few areas will survive, therefore, many shooters have to confront themselves with that reality, find whether their “good ol'” niche is still sustainable or not anymore, embark into creatively revamping their careers or else, change directions adequately, before collapsing.

    When you see former stellar shooters, former leaders, working in Real Estate, and not precisely taking pictures or shooting video, we should all know it is time to rethink our careers, and this has been happening for years now!

    The plain, simple and hard truth that no one wants to openly discuss.

    Goodbye PDN, !! You won’t be missed

    Regards

  9. Koa Feliciano at 6:51 pm

    I’m sorry to say but I will not miss it. I stupidly subscribed for about seven years and gave it up once I realized that the magazine catered to the upper crust photography market. The magazine 100% ignored the little to mid-grade photographer. In other words, they treated themselves as cultured swine. My money was accepted even though I was not ever part of the club nor would I ever be. Many felt that way and simply left. I was one. On average, I subscribed to eight photography magazines at a time. I now subscribe to only one and that is Rangefinder (because it’s free) and even that one has dwindled in size and content. Cell phone cameras are eating the industry alive. Does anyone evn know that stand-alone cameras even exist anymore? Cater only to the professional and you will lose out to everyone else. Sorry, PDN. But you cut your own throat. You forgot about the little guy and the little guy forgot about you.

  10. Mitch Wojnarowicz at 4:34 pm

    As a former staff photojournalist, I bristle at the word “gatekeeper”. Those of us toiling at publications worked to bring our audiences carefully curated content.

    PDN always did tend to take a top-1% view of the industry and could have pivoted to be more inclusive of middle and smaller markets and niches. I realize the title was taken from the top 1% of the marketplace’s image makers – the photo district of NYC- but heck, it became PDN and was no longer Photo District News a long time ago. TLC is a still viable TV network (sorry for the comparison with a once highbrow channel that is now schlock TV) which no longer caters to learning, but is still a channel. Maybe PDN should have reimagined their business and not believed themselves to be in the business of printing a magazine … about the highest end advertising photographers.

    Thing is, just like being a photographer today, there is always somebody out there who will provide it for free. And the marketplace will always respond to the path of least friction, which is now a free YouTube video.

    Finally, the legions of photographers I once knew in my early days, back when PDN was a newspaper tabloid that arrived all crunched up in the mail here in the ‘arctic wastelands’ of Albany, are long departed from the industry. Just as an industrialist callously told me that there “was no more need for the main street” after selling out and moving a large manufacturer elsewhere with it’s attendant decimation of the local economy and population, there is no need any longer for the “Main Street” of the photo industry.

    Though I like to believe they could have changed that by going online, eliminating print, shifting to social and video and doing some other sort of black magic that seems to be required to be in business today.

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