Monday, April 2, 2007

USA Today

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.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Unknown said...

Just remember to railroad that cross stitch, John. You can ask around the office for what that means. ;)

Anonymous said...

>>Let's applaud USA Today where it's deserved. They are not demanding copyright.<<

Dont see much use for the copyright if youve assigned "all rights " elsewhere... which would of course also include your own portfolio usage etc. etc.

Anonymous said...


Your comment about well written letters reminds me of USA Today a couple of years after they started. I used to do fair amount of shoots for them at that time and it was always one time editorial use. someone in the accounting department (maybe the child of the new contracts author) decided a wfh contract would save the company a lot of money.

I received mine in the mail around noon EST, picked up the phone immediately and called the head of the photo department to complain. His answer was that they had already had so many complaints the contract was DOA.

It took all of 4 hours for the photographers to kill the contract. It will be interesting to see how long, if at all, it takes photogrpahers to refuse this contract and kill it.

Chip Mitchell

Anonymous said...

Gutted again!

Too many took the NYT contract and have the nerve to show their faces in the daylight.

Whether or not it sticks, trickle down will occur.

Tar JH for the fine read.

Mark M. Hancock said...

I'm with you on the point of the post. However, the line about the Middle East isn't true (and borderline racist).

Anonymous said...

You can shout from the mountian top all you want. These weak "News Photographers" will accept this deal as they have other bad deals in the past; and they'll like it.

Oh sure they'll all bitch and moan about it over coffee, but they'll swallow the bitter pill like they have in the past.


Because; they're too whimpy to walk away.

They can go out and shoot a wedding or another photo gig (usually doing it for far below the going rate) and make the money up while cutting the throat of another photographer who is willing to walk away from a bad deal but charges the going rate.

Photojournalists have always done this and they always will.

steve lefkovits said...

I think this post is right on as far as it goes. I think anyone in the news business has to confront the fact that anyone in the news business is also in the advertising business. Print advertising is declining across the board, and the lucrative classifieds that drive newspapers are declining fastest as Craigslist and eBay perform that function better and cheaper.

As a result, the cost side of the newspaper business is being squeezed. All content creation is being outsourced and done cheaper and cheaper as a result of external pressures. It's not just USA Today of course. And it's not just the photo departments.

What mystifies me is why more editorial shooters aren't grabbing the internet wave and proposing alternate contracts where they get paid a portion of any image resales that occur through the publication. I live across the street from one of the nation's busiest printers of resale editorial photographs, and I can assure you that this business is booming. It's one possible way to offset some of the low-compensation contracts.

Bottom line is that technology is forcing changes on the industry that are changing the relative value of all of the inputs - downward. It's happened before - there used to be a thriving business of news illustrators until about 1940 - and will happen again.

Last point: freelancers have never been paid well at USAT or any other news organization. I was on staff at USAT 15 years ago, and as freelancers got good, they stopped working for the then-paltry "day-rate". It's hard to accept that your hard work, news judgment and aesthetic sensibilities are worth so little to a newspaper - but they are. I see many old friends who've moved into making films, advertising photography and even wedding photography because they are valued more in those venues. That's just a hard truth of economic life. As a photographer, you have to seek out high-value customers who are creating even more economic value with your product than you can. In a time of declining economics, newspapers are not where the action is.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but with your silly racist comment, you've lost a reader. While it's your blog and you're free to say whatever you want, if you were as professional as you try to make out you'd keep those kind of racist comments to yourself. For someone who professes to be knowledgeable about running a photography business (where personal interaction is a big part of the job), outing yourself as a racist probably isn't a good idea. Goodbye and good luck.

John Harrington said...

You may suggest that I am a racist, and are entitled to your opinion, no matter how wrong you may be. However, consider the following:

QURAN 4:34 - "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them."

And then read an AFP report from two weeks ago:
Thu Mar 22, 9:26 AM ET
BERLIN (AFP) - A German woman judge has refused a Moroccan-born woman permission to file for divorce by interpreting the Koran as allowing husbands to beat their wives.

And that report, from Germany, cites a Moroccan-born woman, further, charges abound about these same problems elsewhere in the Mid-East, and they are not isolated, and doing so is wrong.

Feel free to read my earlier post about the mis-treatment of Indian widows:

Unknown said...

Old media is in a scramble - we all know that. Gannett, for its part, will someday write the book on how not to run a creative content business. Many of their local papers have become comical revolving doors ... no human being can keep track of the hirings/firings/resignations in a single week. As bad as it is for photographers ... it's even worse for writers.

There's a war on creative freelancers of all sorts ... the best we can do is make sure young folk know these hard truths before entering media as a vocation.

Things will get worse before they get better ... and if history repeats, 'better' will likely include collective bargaining

Anonymous said...

I responded to USAT and kindly turned down the new contract. On one hand it feels scarey but I also feel really good. I have confidence that almost all the freelancers will turn this contract down and thus we will be able to negotiate a better more fair contract for all.
When I look at my overhead, my costs for education, equipment, more equipement there is no way I can work for what they are offering. And now that I have begun using video ---well I'm certainly not going to give that away too. It has cost me an arm and a leg to invest in and learn the new equipment not to mention my time.
I know if we stick together in these things our lives will be better.

Anonymous said...

I will not work for a ,day rateever again.
Infact I am changing my wording to be very detailed as to what kind of shoot it is.

Mark M. Hancock said...

It's unfortunate you choose to defend rather than remove a needless and incorrect line of text.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it's unfortunate that menbeat their wives, regardless of their religion.

It's also sad to see that those using the bully pulpit of political correctness; even when someone defends themself with documentation to prove their argument, can still find fault with one's freedom to express his or her's opinion.

I, unlike the poster before me; applauds you having the guts to speak as freely as the Constitution allows.

Mark Loundy said...

Am I missing something? Where was the racist comment?

Mark Loundy
Media Consulting and Video Production

xmitman said...

Lets see, the NY Times pays most freelancers a $200 day rate and no transmission fee, a very few select shooters get a double day rate. The AP claims all rights and only allows you to use photos you do for them for a portfolio. You can't even sell a print for personal use. The Boston Globe, with a day rate 50% higher then the NYT now also keeps all rights but allows you to resell. The NYT also allows you to resell but can reuse at will with no further compensation. There is no future for freelance news photography.

My advice is to find a good staff job. Don't expect to make a career out of freelance photojournalism. The cost of buying two camera bodies and a few lenses, a flash and a laptop are now only a few thousand dollars. The supply of competent enough shooters to do the job has at least tripled in the last five years so don't expect pay conditions to improve.

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