Testing new funding models for photojournalism, Part I

As most people know, an increasing number of news organizations are abandoning in-depth reporting in favor of entertainment and celebrity stories. At the same time, the few media that remain dedicated to serious journalism are weakened by dwindling circulation numbers, a loss in advertising revenue and an awkward transition from print to web.

Over the past several years, most photojournalists have experimented with new ways of sharing their pictures with the world. Whether through their own individual websites or free online sites like Lensculture, Foto8, and BlueEyes, there are now more ways than ever to display and share visual journalism. As a consequence, it is now quite easy to find quality photojournalism without ever picking up a newspaper or magazine. Unfortunately, not nearly as much innovation has taken place to fund these photo stories as has taken place to display them. Aside from obtaining a grant (or taking on a side job), there are very few ways to replace the funding that major news organizations once provided to cover conflict, foreign affairs and investigative stories.

If one takes a look outside the narrow field of photojournalism, it is clear that other realms have developed alternative funding models. In broadcasting, we find that NPR and PBS rely mainly on donations from their listeners and viewers. Kiva is an excellent micro-lending site that links entrepreneurs in developing countries with lenders. In 2007, the band Radiohead released music and listeners could name their own price. Spot.us relies on crowdfunding to pay for local news reporting in northern California.

It is high time that photojournalists also experiment with alternative funding models. Over the coming months, I will be testing a variety of methods and sharing the results here.

As a first step, I am participating in the beta testing of a new social micro-payment called Flattr. If you register with Flattr, you choose to pay a small monthly fee. You decide the amount yourself, and at the end of the month the fee is divided up between all the pages you choose “flatter.” Click below for a quick video explanation:

Since the platform is still in testing, you need an invitation to register.* (You can now register here.)

*UPDATE – Aug. 12, 2010: Flattr just went public, and anyone can now register without an invite.



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  1. quizbo

     /  10 August, 2010

    A writer like Jaron Lanier may seem a bit pessimistic about the future of the creative class when he calls them “the new peasants” in You Are Not A Gadget. Nevertheless, I think he makes a valid point that unless creative products are delivered through some kind of proprietary media like a theater or paper book, it’s going to be extremely difficult to charge for them. In the web as it’s developing, aggregators make money by attracting enough eyeballs (and thus advertising dollars), while individual creative contributors are left in an growing field with diminishing resources, “animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.”

    I think you point the unpleasant reality yourself in discussing photo sharing websites at the top of this post. The increased need for self-promotion within creative circles has led to the classic surplus question for consumers, “Why buy the cow if you get the milk for free?”

    While I applaud services like Flattr, and wish creatives like you much success in using them, I suspect the psychology of charity differs substantially from that of investment or consumption. Small funds channeled through micro-lending are still investments whose impacts can be tracked, and whose returns are material. Micro funds channeled through micro-charities are unlikely to be either psychologically tangible for donors or satisfying for recipients in developed economies. I think the success of these ‘models’ will require a large-scale rethinking of the concepts of charity or patronage, which doesn’t seem to be happening at this point.

  2. As a reference, here is a NY Times review of Jaron Lanier’s book.


    I disagree that a large-scale rethinking of the concepts of patronage is required for new models to work. Take a look at documentary film making, which is photojournalism’s close cousin. It is funded in different ways across different cultures and markets: through charity donations on PBS, through government collected taxes on BBC and ARTE, through subscription fees on HBO, through cinema ticket sales in some rare cases, and through crowd-funding on sites like Kickstarter. It turns out that many documentaries do not rely on advertising or DVD sales, so proprietary media is not always important for the funding model either.

    • quizbo

       /  11 August, 2010

      With the exception of sources such as Kickstarter, I would argue that the funding of documentary films is not so much representative of the success of a new model of funding, as it is the success of documentary filmmakers utilizing well established funding models. Additionally, viewer donations to PBS, taxes to the BBC and ARTE, and subscription fees to HBO seem to work because they are payments for the entire service of the network. I can’t imagine a PBS funding drive, much less a cable subscription rate, that would work if viewers had to choose the individual producers, reporters and editors to fund. Even more troubling in its implications for new models, only about 55% of total PBS funding comes from viewer donations. Venerable programs like Frontline secure even less of their operating costs from viewers (hence the thanks to the McArthur, Ford and Gates foundations before “viewers like you.”)

      I don’t want to argue against new funding models, or be overly pessimistic about their chances of providing meaningful support to artists such as yourself. It just seems that when it comes to funding the creative class, high levels of market fragmentation don’t seem to translate into broader economic opportunity.

      I know this under the label of ‘testing’, so this may be an unfair question to ask at this point, but do you know any photographers who make their living, or even meaningfully supplement their income from alternative models?

      • If you have extra time on your hands, you are quite free to write hypothetical academic theses about why new funding models don’t work and post them to the comments section on a daily basis. Alternatively, you could actually take the initiative yourself and come up with some new ideas, or you could meaningfully throw your support behind the people that have.

        By testing these ideas in the real world, we can gather enough empirical evidence to see what works and what doesn’t. I don’t think it is tremendously helpful to bog down into pessimistic speculation before the results are in. If everyone remained stuck in such negative thinking, we would still be watching newsreels paid for by Hollywood studios as the only source of visual journalism. Media and funding models adapt, so must we.

  3. quizbo

     /  12 August, 2010

    I’m don’t want to shoot anything down before it gets going, and I think you’re absolutely right to try lots of different things and see what works. My questions weren’t motivated by the hope people don’t experiment or innovate, but rather that they think a little more about why innovations and experiments are likely to succeed or fail. That sort of approach seems worth the minor intellectual effort, even if it brings some minor intellectual discomfort in the process.

    I don’t have any novel solutions to the financial problems of photojournalism any more than I have a grand plan for saving newspapers. For my part, I still buy newspapers at the newsstand – even ones that occasionally carry your photos.

    My apologies if you felt put upon here. I can assure you I’ll stop cluttering your blog with interaction now. Best of luck.

  1. Testing new funding models for photojournalism « tomas van houtryve | The Click
  2. Tomas van Houtryve experiments with alternative funding of photojournalism | dvafoto
  3. >Re: PHOTO » Blog Archive » Flattry, Theiving and Photojournalism
  4. Photographers Doing it for Themselves, but at What Cost? | Jasmine DeFoore | Photo Marketer, Editor, Mentor
  5. New funding models, Part III – VII The Magazine and One Month with Flattr « tomas van houtryve | journal
  6. What’s FLATTR ? « sebastienvanmalleghem

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