How come painters of past centuries used to paint saints all the time? (Because they were sponsored by the church).
People working in communication know well that the content transmitted by traditional media MUST support the advertisers. The reason is simple: without advertising traditional media could not survive.
Here are a couple of experiences that I had:
Uncovering the truth
I am glad to witness that more and more people are getting tired of the manipulation and distortion of information and that big names in journalism are now revealing the truth.
British reporter and former Journalist of the Year Nick Davies is the author of Flat Earth News. The award winning book extensively analyzes falsehoods and distortion in the media, describing what he calls “the mass production of ignorance”.
Another great read is the in-depth article “Revolutions in the Media Economy” by David Campbell, professor of Cultural and Political Geography at Durham University. He explains how “recent history suggests that much reporting promotes the interests of those in power (…) or recycles PR material” and gives a wide-angle overview of the dynamics of the current system and the deep transformations now underway in the news industry. What kind of future are we heading for? Journalists, photographers and creative minds will find his exploration very inspirational.
- Part one – The context of crisis
- Part two – The changing structure of information
- Part Three – Photojournalism’s future
- Part four – Disturbing the university
Money is a need
Writing an article often requires a lot of research, contacts, traveling, fact-checking, interviews and data review. The shooting of a picture, where the work of several professionals may be needed, can be even more complex and expensive.
In order to avoid the limitations imposed by advertisers, the production and publication of content would need to be entirely independent of their funding. But without the money of advertisers, how would it be possible to pay for the work of photographers, journalists and creative minds?
San Francisco based Spot.us is pioneering what they call “community powered reporting”. On their site they collect donations to fund reporting on important topics. A few dozen people willing to donate $10-$20 each is enough to hire a freelance journalist to investigate a local issue.
WikiLeaks is doing the same, on a much bigger scale. They fundraise for international investigative journalism and do exposés on the untold stories of corruption and other dirty issues. On November 19, 2009 the National wrote: “WikiLeaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years”.
An even more extreme example comes from 48HRmag, a glossy magazine that was put together over one weekend by a group of San Francisco media friends. The contents were developed selecting among 1,500 submissions collected through social media. In a couple of days the magazine sold over 1,000 copies for $10 each. The San Francisco Weekly blog has published the story of its creation.
Is this going to be the new way photographers, journalists and creative professionals are going to get paid for their work? In certain cases I can imagine that this trend will grow, in others I am afraid not.
The concept of crowdfunding (fundraising via social networks to support a project) was born before someone thought of using it to fuel reporting. It sounds really great but it’s not as easy as one might like. (By the way, Spot.Us is already opening to sponsors, giving up the advertising-free business model).
These websites support individuals in search of financial help:
Multimedia journalist Annabel Symington decided to use KikStarter to fund the first part of the Guarany Project, a documentary about the challenges facing the Guarani Aquifer in South America. “While KickStarter give you the platform”, she says, ”they make it very clear it’s up to you to market it”. In other words, she found herself doing a lot more than she imagined. “Through this project I’ve become a brand designer, a social media guru, a public speaker and an event organiser. You name it, I think I’ve done it”. Her experience is reported in Next Generation Journalist written by digital storyteller Adam Westbrook who explories ten different potential new scenarios for our profession, or ten new ways to make money in journalism.
The book is rich of basic information, innovative ideas, practical tips, interviews and useful links. Professional storytellers who are wrestling – like me – with the new challenges of our profession, will enjoy reading his reassuring and inspiring optimis.
The magic number
Rob Haggart, in his popular blog “A Photo Editor”, was already pointing out in 2008 that the way most photographers are pursuing their careers needs to be considered obsolete. Forget about selling your work to important publishing companies, magazines are dying anyway. The solution, he explains, lies in publishing your pictures for free on the net as much as possible and creating a group of fans that will buy your prints, books, lectures, workshops and personal commissions. Of course you need a certain amount of supporters. According to Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, your goal should be to have 1,000 True Fans, and he explains that theory in excruciating detail on his blog. Most of the comments that follow, even the most recent, are very enthusiastic about the possibility of making a living from the support of your admirers. Other posts from people who already actually depend on their fans in order to stay in business show a more realistic view. Musician Robert Rich shares his experience and, among other things, writes that he has “less time in the day to actually create new art (half the day doing email is not unusual)”.
Multimedia is the answer. Or is it?
Photojournalist Ed Kashi has a different view. He believes that the future lies in multimedia (here is a great example of what he means), therefore storytellers need to reshape the way they produce and edit their reports. And who is going to buy their work? In a March 2010 post on The Nieman Journalism Lab blog (a platform dedicated to figuring out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age) Kashi states, “No longer will a magazine’s pages be assumed to be the final destination for our images. We must think instead about having our story or set of our images resold in different markets around the world—and this includes a foundation’s Web site, an NGO’s annual report, or a charity’s external marketing”.
The option is certainly intriguing, but it might sound a bit too optimistic to all the photographers who are now struggling to pay their bills. Most of the time, humanitarian organizations ask for volunteer contributions. Maybe that’s why a September 2008 editorial in The Digital Journalist suggested: “In our view, there is only one way: Philanthropists must come to the rescue”.
Your point of view
Are you a photographer or journalist wondering, like me, about the future of our profession, the transformation of the information industry and the increasing confusion between editorial content and advertising? Please join the discussion. I know that the question on the table sounds a bit too much like: “What economic model is going to replace capitalism?” Still… this is what we are facing now.
Maybe we don’t fully see it yet, but this might be the greatest opportunity to separate information from advertising and get rid of the need to glamorize every piece of news in order to meet the standards of today’s magazines. Maybe this could be an opportunity to find a totally different business model and escape the limits imposed by publishing companies connected with those in power. I like to think that the mess we are in has the potential to lead us to a totally different balance. There are some encouraging signals, let’s see what follows.
Meantime if you have a great project in the news and information field, Journalismfund.eu is distributing grants to journalists who have a good idea for an investigative story but lack time or money to carry out the research. Another option is the Knight Foundation that holds a yearly contest called the Newschallenge with the promising slogan: “You invent it. We fund it”.