03 September 2009

A New Model for Journalism: VII

PDN just published a very interesting interview with Stephen Mayes of VII Photo Agency about the future of photojournalism, but many of his comments relate to the future of journalism generally. While some journalists are still squeaking that the big papers need to reassert some imagined monopoly and rebuild pay-walls around the business, more rational people recognize that model is dead. As Mayes says, "I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion."

But Mayes says VII is finding a new model already. A biiig pull:

    SM: [The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.
    When you boil it down, what VII does is integrity. That issue of believability is exactly what VII does. We express it photographically, so it’s all revealed through photographs, but actually what is valuable to VII is integrity. When I look at an environment where there’s absolutely too much information, information becomes valueless. What everyone is suffering from is that a photograph is just more information. It becomes very hard to put a price on it because there are too many pictures out there, but if you suddenly start rethinking it and saying, “We’re not selling photographs, what we’re selling is believability,” then actually we have more value than we had before. VII offers a benchmark, which now has increased value because of all the information that’s out there.
    PDN: That being the case, do you envision that consumers will pay for it somehow online?
    SM: No, and I think that’s where the confusion is. I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion. What I’m seeing now, increasingly, is that other people will pay for consumers to have that relation, so long as it’s a shared interest. Again, that whole notion of, “Will the press re-inflate if users are charged for content?” Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But I think it’s also missing the point on some level.
    We’re coming from a model where we’re all selling units of intellectual property, and we’re all struggling with that, the prices are going down, and it’s getting harder to sell that stuff. But you step back a little bit and you see the exact same problems being encountered in the music industry. They used to sell albums, that was their unit, that doesn’t happen anymore. You see it in the movies, the model is changing, you see it in literature— culture-wide there’s a shift away from that notion of a vendor selling that unit of intellectual property, and it’s moving away from the model of a buyer buying intellectual property. Because all of this stuff is available for free, so why should they start paying for it? But there is still value there, and the exercise that I’ve been engaged with for the last two years is identifying that value, and having found it, coming up with a way to monetize it.
    And hence you end up with these expanded partnerships where VII works with Human Rights Watch, VII works with the International Committee of the Red Cross, VII works with Time magazine and at the same time there’s a different value that we’re applying to each of them. We each share a common interest. I’m not selling something. There’s an ethical question at VII, and it may be different for a different agency or a different photographer. But with VII it has to be about believability, it has to be about partnering with the right people and not selling photographers down the line just to make money, but actually partnering them with people they believe they can work with to fulfill the things that those photographers believe in—and finding a commercial angle to them.
    As long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble. Everyone’s complaining that it’s difficult to make a decent living selling photographs. But what I see are much bigger revenue and distribution opportunities, working in a slightly different model.

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