As most photographers on Twitter likely know, Twitpic is a service that makes it easy to post images to Twitter, and to view and comment on photos from your Twitter account. It’s also emerged as the trendy new candidate to kill old-school spot photojournalism once and for all.
Ben LaMothe at Online Journalism Blog sounded the alarm this way:
For small and mid-size papers, getting art for a story could be as easy as doing a TwitPic search by keyword and see what pops up. If a user-taken photo of an event pops up, you could contact the author, ask for permission and post it. At worst, they’d ask for a small fee, which when paid would still be a money saver compared to sending a photojournalist to an event.
Same Song, Umpteenth Verse
We’ve heard this tune before, of course — many times. Dan Gillmor, the influential technology writer and founder of the Center for Citizen Media, was pounding nails in the coffin of the professional photojournalist in 2006, when he wrote about the power of crowdsourcing:
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 … 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 … The photojournalist’s job may be history before long.
Fast on the heels of Gillmor’s photojournalism death notice came the buzz about a little Scottish startup called Scoopt, which was going to enable the “crowd” to turn its cell-phone news photos into cash. The startup got so hot so fast that Getty Images felt compelled to scoop it up early in 2007.
Scoopt’s Promise — and Its Reality
In September 2007, I had the opportunity to chat with Scoopt founder Kyle MacRae, who admitted that his startup was still in the proof-of-concept phase, despite Getty’s financial investment. The buzz about Scoopt was that it could become the chief mechanism by which camera-phone users disseminated their spot-news pics to traditional media organizations — and got paid for it. But the reality never caught up to the narrative.
For starters, only about five percent of pics submitted to Scoopt were taken by camera phones. And a good portion of those who submitted pics to Scoopt were sending in amateur red-carpet shots and other photo-op images that did not compete very well with what the pros turned in at these same events.
Where were all the breaking news photos that were going to make spot photojournalism obsolete?
Getty Images apparently wondered the same thing — and shut Scoopt down in February of this year.
The Last Straw
Daryl Lang of PDN analyzed Scoopt’s failure this way:
We need to look at how people behave when they’re lucky enough to get a hot news photo. When a random citizen snaps a photo of something amazing (like the water landing of a passenger jet in the middle of a major city, for example), some kind of storytelling instinct kicks in. They want to tell as many people as possible, as fast as possible. They may also want to make money off their work, but that can come later.
Lang tellingly pointed out that when citizen journalism made perhaps its most spectacular splash ever — when amateur pics of the U.S. Airways “Miracle on the Hudson” blanketed print and broadcast media in January — Scoopt failed to offer a single image of the event on its site. (This may have been the final straw leading to Scoopt’s shutdown.)
Instead, news outlets picked up a number of images posted on social networking sites — including, most famously, an image that Florida tourist Janis Krums posted to Twitpic from his iPhone.
Krums cut a deal giving the Associated Press rights to distribute the photo — although, of course, many blogs and media outlets ran the picture for free without seeking Krums’ permission.
The AP Should Do What?
So, that means the future isn’t Scoopt — it’s Twitpic, right?
In the wake of the U.S. Airways story, Rob Haggart of A Photo Editor recommended that the AP go out and buy Twitter. As he put it:
The AP should buy Twitter and Twit Pic because they’re proving to be the place where news breaks first.
Well, as they say, that’s an idea.
Unfortunately, the AP would have absolutely no idea what to do with Twitter and/or Twitpic if it did buy them, just as Getty Images had absolutely no idea what to do with Scoopt.
If It Doesn’t Scale, It’s Going to Fail
OK, so let’s assume that nobody buys Twitter. Or Twitpic. Or PicFog, the Twitpic search engine that photo buyers could theoretically use to purchase spot news photos.
Could these companies — yes, they are currently three separate entities — come together to create a system where, say, the AP could buy the rights to use a photo like Janis Krums’ online, rather than having to track him down individually and make him an offer? In other words, could they make citizen journalism transactions like this one scalable?
Because if not, all this Twitpic talk is just more empty “social media rules the world” blather.
Kyle MacRae of Scoopt had it right when he told me in 2007 that scalability is the key to making citizen photojournalism a real business. He explained that scaling through technology was critical to building a business among local newspapers — where a publication might only be willing to pay $20 for a freelancer’s image.
It’s one thing when you’re Janis Krums and you’ve taken the citizen journalism photo of the year; the AP will make a phone call for that one.
But what about all those local-news images of housefires and car crashes and bad weather and other spot news that would form the core of any business that distributes citizen photojournalism for profit?
Would the AP or even the local gazette bother to try to track down and cut a deal with the amateur photographer in those cases? Would the photographer care enough about the 20 bucks to break away from whatever they’re doing to sign the paperwork?
A Citizen Journalist? Who, Me?
So scaling is necessary. But there’s another roadblock to scaling, beyond any technology considerations. Even if you create a site that makes it incredibly efficient for news organizations to buy spot-news photography and amateurs to sell it, would the amateur even know about this incredibly efficient site before it was too late?
In other words, the shelf life for breaking news pics is very brief — sometimes hours, or even less. Most people like Krums don’t think of themselves as photographers, and certainly don’t expect to be an eyewitness to a huge news event. Would they bother to look for and register on a citizen journalism site, where there would obviously be terms and conditions to agree upon before any money could be exchanged (even if this site were Twitpic)? Or would they simply upload their pics online as quickly as possible to share them with their friends?
Last time I checked, Flickr, for all its 3.6 billion images and Yahoo money, has still been unable to create a legitimate photo-licensing revenue stream — unless you’re counting that deal with Getty Images.
And Twitpic is going to be the place where newspapers go to buy their spot new photos?