Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Staff Photographers - An Endangered Species

This isn't the first time I've written about the demise of the employee photographer (aka "staff photographer"), nor, sadly, will it be the last.

I was, at one time, a staff photographer for a magazine. So was this other guy. Rather than let one of us go, they offered us both 1/2 time. I said yes - panicked that I was, he said no, and left. I thought this meant I could stay. I was wrong. this began a rushed effort to become self-sufficient and a commitment to be my own boss. It certainly didn't come at an opportune time, but with Corporate America, they never do.

Previously, I wrote about Time Inc's staff-slashing (And The Staffers Go Marching One By One... , 1/21/07), hence the parodied POTY cover that ran with that piece, and appears here again.

Since then, many staffers have been let go.

(Continued after the Jump)

The Washington Post - again - has offered buyout packages to their staffers. Here's the deal, generally speaking: We pay you $X per year of service, and we guarantee you 100 days as a contract/freelancer for one year, and, I think it happened that you also got your gear (yes, that would be the gear that's old and worn out - think maximum shutter actuations). To be sure, they're turning out amazingly talented photographers - perhaps even pulitzer winners - without the skills to remain in business as photographers. No website, aged gear.
These people are my friends, and the bean counters at the paper have determined that they can (supposedly) get the same talent from their $200/day (or less) freelancers. THINK AGAIN. Oh wait, The Washington Post Co no longer considers itself a media company, but an educational company (
Washington Post Company Now Skooling U, 11/24/07). The sad fact is that the deal they've put out looks great with the lump sum payment, and the year's contract for 100 days looks like a good deal, but it only really answers the "will I still be able to shoot if I leave..." question, and what they're paying for a day is below most anyone's CODB. Those bean counters are counting on the short term lump sum to make the deal look better than it is.

Also the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, and recently, the Seattle Times. While speaking at the just finished tour of ASMP's Strictly Business 2 program, there were a number of currently full-time employed staff photographers in attendance. I say to them "good for you for taking control of your future."

Back February of 2007, I wrote - How to Do It Without Ruining It For Others, which, while it was more directed to the amateur/pro-sumer, it could well have been titled "How to do it without ruining it for others, and yourself", and then the nuggets that are in there could be extracted as they apply to the staffers.

First things first - get your own website. Get either, or, or something close. Don't cheap out on the site, get a good one. Yes, liveBooks, or hire someone who knows how to design a site that is modifiable so you can update it easily. Budget between $3k and $5k for this. Get it up now.

Talk to your colleagues in your community. First apologize to them if you were doing those "gravy" jobs for $200, when they should have been more appropriately priced at $750, and then ask them what the proper going rates are for photography in your community. Think about those figures, and see how they work for you. They're probably rates you think are high, but really have taken into consideration the CODB in your community.

This isn't going to get better, it's going to get worse. More papers will slash staff. Oh wait, it just happened again - Tampa Tribune Offers Buyouts To Half Its Staff ( reported all around by Editor & Publisher & NPPA & editorsweblog & A Photo A Day, & PDNPulse). Taking that one step further - more papers will take advantage of unsuspecting freelancers who will use their meager bank accounts and savings to subsidize these newspapers.

If you see a staff photographer, send them this link. Tell them that you care about them and want them to continue to do what they love, and if they don't look out for themselves - NOW, and prepare for the forthcoming cuts, no one will.

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.


argv said...

In an effort to be conscientious about not tooting my own horn, I'd like to suggest my website's "business section" as a resource for these very photographers. the URL is

I started writing about this very topic 10+ years ago, when I was just a hobby photographer, but was hearing exactly the same stories (almost verbatim) in the mid 1990s. This was from a group called "EP"--the "editorial photographers"--who were disgruntled (to be generous) about losing their jobs, getting lower pay, and trying to compete with the emerging competition from hobbyists and semi-pros entering into the market. (These people were there, largely due to the explosion of digital cameras and the use of the internet as a form of distribution. A phenomenon that is now commonplace today.)

As a hobbyist myself, but one with significant business background in the tech world, I was stunned as to how unprepared pro photographers were for really making it "on their own" without the umbrella organization as a shelter. So, I started writing ...and writing... and writing... long articles, helping photographers understand not just "what to do" to help build a self-sustaining business in the internet age, but to understand the new kind of business principles that go with it. Principles that do not apply when you're a staff photographer.

By following my own advice, my own photo hobby turned into a pretty major business. And, publishers started coming after me to publish the very material on my website. I was willing to allow the material to be published provided that I was able to keep the exact same material online, available for free, for those who really needed it. This has been the case for every book I've done (now four).

If there's one underlying theme that any photographer who has to go out on his/her own needs to understand, it's that the business ideas and principles you once thought were economically viable as staff photographers no longer apply as independent freelancers. What john recommends about building a web presence is true, but it's a "task." The real work is the new understanding of business ideas that will determine success or failure.


John Harrington said...

Dan -

I wholly believe that there is a huge amount of valuable content on your site, and yes, people should go check it out!

- John

AdvRdr said...

As a 'staff' photographer now looking for work - I whole heartedly agree with John. After 28 years of shooting and photo editing for newspapers, wire service and internet giant -- I find myself without proper gear and business knowledge. It's difficult an daunting -- and a wee bit scary.

A good source for photographer based websites that don't cost thousands of dollars is

For $100 you can purchase a great looking site with client proofing and if you don't have a website host, they'll do it for $100/year.

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Anonymous said...

Great post John, I sent this posting to some of the photo J's at my local Gannet Paper. Thanks for the post. I hope it will not hapen but you never know.

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