In the Digital Race, Publishers Lose Sight of Quality


Photography, like most industries affected by a center of gravity shift to digital, has seen more than a migration from film to data packets. It has also experienced fundamental shifts in how publishers select images.

From Best to Fastest

For a long time, the key factors in purchasing a license for any photograph were its quality and relevance to the intended usage.

Cost, because it was perceived as a tool of value, was not an issue. Magazines had no problem spending a lot of money to send photographers around the world in order to get the best images.

Magazines competed to drive newsstand sales with the best cover image. Having the best photo was a badge of honor.

With the transition to digital, getting the image faster than the competition became more important than having the best picture. Let’s not send a photographer; we’ll just pick a photographer who is already there and get the images up fast.

That lasted a while. But as equipment became cheaper and easier to use, more and more photographers and would-be photographers entered the competition for the fastest image.

Since it is impossible to transmit an image before it is taken, the competition hit a wall where everyone found themselves at the same level.

From Fastest to Cheapest

So what happened next?

Prices dropped.

The competition, as well as publishers’ usage decisions, shifted again — this time to finding the cheapest images.

Today, this is where we are. Decisions are no longer made on the quality of content but on its cost.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re the next Cartier-Bresson. If you are too expensive, you won’t get published.

If the photo budget is already spent on two or three subscriptions to photo agencies and your images are not part of the “feed,” forget it. You might as well go fishing.

Editors will like your images; they just won’t use them.

What the readership of magazines does not see is that they are paying to read publications that do not show them the best pictures, but rather the cheapest.

In essence, the audience is being deceived. Don’t magazines attract your attention with the promise of delivering what they consider the best content? 

As far as photography is concerned, they don’t deliver on this promise. They don’t even try, in fact.

The image-purchasing process is now confined to a pre-established budget. No longer do publishers believe that great images can define their brands and boost their readership. They now view them as overhead.

This is sad; great images are shot every day that are not being seen because of this tyranny of the corporate wallet.

Another Shift Coming?

I think there may be another shift coming, however.

As magazine and Web site publishers continue to think in terms of broadcasting (one to many), our world is changing to social (many to many). Consumers are evolving from passive participants to active contributors.

As this migration deepens, more people will search for their own sources of photography — which they will then share with others. They will bypass the publishing world to view images they like, rather than those force-fed to them by penny-pinching corpocrats.

It is no longer viable to assume that consumers will just passively absorb cheap images. The barriers that kept image suppliers invisible to readers have fallen, permitting them, for the first time in the history of photography, an unprecedented access to the source.

They can see where publications get their content and make their own decisions about what they want to consume.

The next shift is that photographers and photo agencies will find profitable ways to supply their best images directly to readers — offering a compelling alternative to publishers who are no longer interested in the best, only the cheapest.


2 Responses to “In the Digital Race, Publishers Lose Sight of Quality”

  1. I sure am looking forward to the days when quality comes back as the driving force in selection of photography. I'm growing tired of seeing cell phone shots as cover images for breaking news. I want to see an artist take photography on location and in the story that is being told.

  2. While would like to agree with Paul, I think there are additional factors that contribute to the decline of photo rates.

    These are difficult to overcome: declining readership and ad revenue for magazines reduces their budgets -- people are reading paper publications less (and reading less, period). People are migrating to the internet as their media preference. And the internet is not as demanding on technical quality as print.

    When combined with cheap, high-quality photo gear, the internet's lower technical requirements, lower barrier to entry/publication and the public's fascination with the technology of photography, an enormous volume of images will always flood the market.

    Lower prices are inevitable and I don't see this changing soon. I don't see "many-to-many" being the paradigm shift resulting in a resumption of high-priced images, especially on the internet. We've all grown up with the idea that anything on the internet should be free. Where and in what form will the revenue come from? Will it be enough to compensate photographers for the cost of producing the image and paying the mortgage?

    I personally would love to be proven wrong on this!

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