The rise of the citizen journalist is not a new phenomenon. People have been witnessing and taking pictures of notable events for a long, long time. And they’ve been selling them to traditional news organizations just as long.
But professional photojournalists, and more recently videographers, have continued to make good livings at a craft that helps inform the rest of us about the world we live in. That craft has never been more vibrant, or vital. But the ability to make a living at it will crumble soon.
The pros who deal in breaking news have a problem. They can’t possibly compete in the media-sphere of the future. We’re entering a world of ubiquitous media creation and access. When the tools of creation and access are so profoundly democratized, and when updated business models connect the best creators with potential customers, many if not most of the pros will fight a losing battle to save their careers.
Let’s do a little time travel.
This movie camera captured the most famous pictures in the citizen-media genre: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder, the man pointing the camera that day in Dealey Plaza, sold the film to Life Magazine for $150,000 — about half a million dollars in today’s currency.
In Dealey Plaza that day, one man happened to capture a motion picture — somewhat blurred but utterly gruesome nonetheless — of those terrible events. Zapruder’s work, by any standard we can imagine, was an act of citizen journalism.
Now consider what media tools people carry around with them routinely today — or, better yet, consider what they”l have a decade from now. And then take yourself, and those tools, back to 1963.
Dozens or hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza would have been capturing high-definition videos of the assassination, most likely via their camera-equipped mobile phones as well as devices designed to be cameras and little else. They’d have been capturing those images from multiple perspectives. And — this is key — all of those devices would have been attached to digital networks.
If soon-to-be-ubiquitous technology had been in use back in 1963, at least several things are clear. One is that videos of this event would have been posted online almost instantly. Professional news organizations, which would also have had their own videos, would have been competing with a blizzard of other material almost from the start — and given traditional media’s usually appropriate reluctance to broadcast the most gruesome images (e.g. the Nick Berg beheading in Iraq), the online accounts might well be a primary source.
(Less germane to the topic here, we’d also soon have a three-dimensional hologram of the event, given the number of cameras capturing it from various angles. And we’d probably know for sure whether someone was shooting at the president from behind that famous grassy knoll.)
Consider, as well, how we might remember the horror of September 11, 2001 under similar circumstances. Recall that people inside the World Trade Center towers and on the four hijacked airplanes were making mobile-phone calls to loved ones, colleagues and authorities. Suppose they had been sending videos of what was going on inside those buildings and planes to the rest of us? The day’s events would go into history with even grimmer — and even more human — detail.
Now consider another famous picture, the one at the left. It’s the single image that we will most remember from the July 2005 bombings in London. It was taken by Adam Stacey inside the Underground (subway), as he and others escaped from a smoky train immediately after one of bombs exploded.
Again, the production values of the image are hardly professional. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the utter authenticity of the image, made so by the fact that the man was there at the right time with the right media-creation gear.
In a world of ubiquitous media tools, which is almost here, someone will be on the spot every time.
And there will be business models and methods to support their work.
Today, YouTube is the site of choice for all kinds of videos, including newsworthy ones such as the recent abuse-by-taser of the student at the University of California, Los Angeles (more than 764,000 viewings as of today), and the racist nightclub rantings of Michael “Kramer” Richards (more than 1.2 million viewings). Both were captured by mobile-phone video cameras.
Others will make their way to sites like the newly announced projects such as YouWitness News (a joint project of Yahoo and Reuters), or operations like Scoopt or NowPublic. They and other companies want to be aggregators of, and in some cases brokers for, citizen-created media. (Disclosures: I am teaching a class with Yahoo’s editorial director, and I’m an advisor to NowPublic.)
If reputable photojournalists face big changes, so do the paparazzi who capture celebrities’ public (and sometimes private) doings. Bild, the trashy German tabloid, asks its Leser-Reporters to send in their own pictures — and pays handsomely. (I’ve been told, but haven’t verified, that some of the professional paparazzi are submitting photos this way, because they can make more money than through traditional dealings with the newspaper.)
The business part of this is important. I’m highly skeptical of business models, typically conceived by Big Media Companies, that tell the rest of us: “You do all the work, and we’ll take all the money we make by exploiting it.” This is not just unethical.. It’s also unsustainable in the long run.
Not every person who captures a newsworthy image or video necessarily wants to be paid. Stacey’s picture was widely distributed, including onto the front pages of many newspapers, in part because he put it out under a Creative Commons license allowing anyone else the right to use it in any way provided they attribute the picture to its creator. There were misunderstandings (including at least one use by a photo agency that apparently claimed at least partial credit for itself), but the licensing terms almost certainly helped spread it far and wide in a very short time.
The problems this trend will create are not trivial. One is that democratized media tools also include easy and cheap ways to fake or alter reality.
The picture at right circulated widely around the Net after Sept. 11. It purportedly shows an airliner about to hit a World Trade Center tower, with an unlucky tourist having his picture taken just before the moment of impact. The photo is fake — a composite created by a not-so-funny prankster. It was quickly debunked (see this Snopes urban-legends page, for example), but not before a lot of people were initially fooled. Some who saw the “photo” are probably still believing it was authentic.
To weed out the phony stuff, we’ll need to combine traditional means of verification with new kinds of reputation systems. It won’t be easy, but the need for such methods is plain enough.
So, back to our friends, the professional photo or video journalists. How can people who cover breaking news for a living begin to compete? They can’t possibly be everywhere at once. They can compete only on the stories where they are physically present — and, in the immediate future, by being relatively trusted sources.
But the fact remains, there are far more newsworthy situations than pro picture takers. In the past, most of those situations never were captured. Not any longer.
Is it so sad that the professionals will have more trouble making a living this way in coming years? To them, it must be — and I have friends in the business, which makes this painful to write in some ways.
To the rest of us, as long as we get the trustworthy news we need, the trend is more positive.
Remember, there was once a fairly healthy community of portrait painters. When photography came along, a lot of them had to find other work; or at least their ranks were not refilled when they retired. Professional portrait photographers, similarly, are less in demand today than a generation ago. But portraits have survived — and thrived.
The photojournalist’s job may be history before long. But photojournalism has never been more important, or more widespread.
UPDATE: The comments are producing some fascinating material. Please take a look.
Some folks are misinterpreting what I’ve written. (Part of this is my fault, for not being crystal clear at the top that I’m talking about spot (breaking) news; I’ve fixed that — and also changed the title of this posting to say “Decline” instead of “Demise” as suggested indirectly by a commenter.)
I’m not saying all professional photojournalism will disappear. Great feature photography is a special skill that amateurs won’t match anytime soon, if ever. There will be many cases, as well, where even the pros get in place to capture the spot-news picture.
But they won’t be able to be everywhere at once. And in an era when news organizations are whacking away at staff as fast as they can, the pressure to use what the community can provide will be irresistible given the money it will save.
I’m not saying this evolution is an entirely positive development (though it will help in some circumstances). I am saying it’s inevitable.
Also: I’ve corrected Nick Berg’s first name, which I got wrong in the original piece.
And, welcome to Slashdot readers, whose comments are well worth a look, too. Thanks as well to BoingBoing and Romanesko readers who followed links here, and to the many others who linked to this post.