As USA Today's freelance photographers toil away, chasing the newly minted boys of summer, look for an angle during the NCAA playoffs, or carefully lighting the latest celebrity for the front page of Life, the penny-pinching tighwad bean counters have foisted upon the desk editors of the "Nation's Newspaper" the latest rights grab that has riled up many a photographer. I've had several requests -- "John, you gotta comment on this...".
Mind you, I hold little ill will against the assignment editors, and other folks of the photo department out in the newly built tower that overlooks some of the most expensive real estate along the Dulles Corridor towards Tysons Corner and Silicon Alley, where AOL makes it's headquarters (but not for long). Someone, somewhere deep on a sub-level, looking to buck up to an office with a window, got a new CPU that could handle the more advanced features of Excel, and tweaked a formula that said that the chain could save untold dollars just be changing a few lines in their photographer's contracts. Now, this accountant trainee is hoping to see some daylight. Have we not forgotten about how the accounting departments of the likes of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, brought scandal and disaster to their name? Not all brilliant ideas put forth by the accounting department result in things that are good for the company. This latest one - stripping revenue from photographers, and failing to account for increases in expenses over the last decade, is just the latest idea that they dreamed up to avoid being outsourced to India, and justify their existence. The latest contract language is about as good an idea as throwing a cross-stitch across your rectum.
I've seen more than an image or two of mine grace the pages of USA Today, and USA Weekend, and I've read the contract, and here seems to be a few sticking points:
In over 20 years, USA Today's only increased their assignment fee from $225 to $375. Wahoo! Who's shooting those assignments? I'd guess people who expect revenue on the back end from stock. No more.
It used to be that the compensation for transmitting made sense, since we were scanning and transmitting. However now, it's $25 for however many images they want. Does that justify a high speed wireless card, and your time to do so? Well, there's a problem, because you have accepted "day rate", as your mode of business, meaning they have you for eight hours. So, when you cover an assignment goes an hour, or six hours, they still have you (in their minds) until the end of an eight hour day. So, the $25 is not a compensation for your time, but rather, a subsidy of your equipment costs to do so. In their cover letter, they continue the misuse of the term "day rate". It should be described as an "assignment rate". Being "on assignment" means making photos, or travelling to make photos, or back from making photos. Doing post-production isn't the same in my book. It should be seperate.
Gannett also wants all rights, forever, and can use your images in not just editorial, but also advertising, without additional compensation. Anything Gannet deems they want to use it for. So, when USA Today wants to use your photos, either in context, or as a stand-alone image to advertise it's paper in an elevator on the screens there, in airports on billboards, on buses, transit terminals, and so on, you're SOL.
You grant them a 30 day exclusive. And, if you shoot RAW, you MUST ALSO send those, along with JPEGs. That's gona bog down your high-speed connection!
You're also subject to a half-day rate of $250. And, while a half-day MIGHT work for an 8am-noon assignment, or a 6pm-10pm assignment, when that midday assignment from 10-2 comes about, you're doing a half-day that precludes you from actually doing a full day for anyone else. Nice! I do hope that our friendly photo editors don't hand out too many of those half-dayers and instead opt for all full day assignments. I guess it all comes down to how you clock your time. I'd say that, like a plummer, you clock door-to-door. Meaning, that once you leave your home, the clock starts, and it does not end until you are home safe. 4 hours and 1 minute? Yep, that's now a full day in my book.
The contract also states: "you agree to provide USA Today with ALL of the Works you take while on assignment regardless of the form of those Works (e.g. photographs, video, audio, digital files, negatives, transparencies), so that when you begin capturing audio and video for them, you have to manage all that as well (for no more money), and that time is coming sooner rather than later.
Wait, though. If you're a staffer, keep reading. This is where it goes south for you. If enough of the freelancers sign this thing, that's gonna make your lifespan as a staffer that much shorter. Some other bean counter is cross-comparing that nice salary, gear allowance, and your vacation/401k/health insurance against the daily cost of a freelancer, and these cuts affect you. Believe it.
Wait, though. If you're an editor, keep reading. It's going to get harder and harder to find consistently qualified photographers. Maybe not this year, but with $5k camera expenses needing to be made, how long before your photographers are shooting with outdated equipment, and you're then forced to go to your pals at the agencies to get those images that everyone else is getting, making your paper look that much more like the rest of the newsprint out there? What when your freelance pool becomes a puddle, and then you can't get assignments covered?
I know that if the editors received well written letters of objection from it's freelancers, en masse, they'd carry your water the rest of the way. They'd take those objections to their superiors, who would push back at the sub-level accountant trainee's boss, saying "hey, this won't work. We are getting too much push back from our vendors." However, are you willing to push back? If not now, then when? Your letter must outline that the changes to the terms of the contact are unacceptable, and push your income level below cost, and, as such, you cannot continue to work for them, and then you must mean it. It must be a personal e-mail, professionally presented, and not some cut-and-paste job from something someone else wrote.
Let's applaud USA Today where it's deserved. They are not demanding copyright. But, well, that's like being a victim of spouse abuse and saying to the judge during a trial - "but he only beat me where I could hide it with clothing." You should not be thankful for copyright retention, it should be a given. You should be able to be a spouse with the given that you're never beaten. Even if every other news organization doesn't demand copyright, that does not mean USA Today's not demanding it should be cause for celebration. In the middle east, it's normal for men to beat their wives, but that doesn't make it acceptable by any stretch. So, one-handed applause from me on copyright retention.
If photographer's don't stand together, then we will fail alone. As I cited in a pervious post recently, you can either be a good example of a horrible warning.
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