Sunday, March 1, 2015

Staff vs. Independent - Why Staff Photographer Jobs are Declining and What to Do About It

There has been much ado in recent years about the overall decline in the number of staff photographer positions at newspapers, yet an anecdotal observation of these same newspapers shows they are publishing the same number of photographs in print, and even more images are being consumed online.  The dire declines in circulation of a newspaper is irrelevant to the number of photos used, it's the same paper (save for the instances where there's also a reduction in page count) just fewer copies are printed. So why are staff photography jobs being slashed practically everywhere you turn?

It's simple math really.

Consider the cost of a staff photographer. Let's break it down using validatable figures:

The mean wage of a news photographer is $43,090 (US Govt DOL, here).  To outfit that photographer with two cameras, lenses, etc, is roughly $10,000 a year (updating, replacing, new, repairs, etc) and about $3k every three years for a new laptop equates to $1k a year for a computer, and a smart phone at $100/mo which allows you to transmit photos, or $1,200 a year.  It also takes approximately 151 square feet of office space per employee (see here for details) and at $23.23 per foot (see here for details), or $3,507.73 per month to provide an employee with a desk, chair, parking, shared cost of a break room,  etc, so that's $42,092.76 a year.  The average person drives about 12,000 miles a year. For a photographer, who is always driving to every assignment, that's low, but let's use that low figure. That equates (at $0.57mile, the IRS  rate) to $6,840 a year. The cost for their employee benefits works out to be 1.25 to 1.4 times the salary (see here), so on the low end, benefits and taxes cost the employer $10,772.50. For futher review, MIT has an interesting outline of costs, here). And a paid employee typically has two weeks vacation, so they work 50 weeks a year.
$  43,090.00 Base salary
$  10,000.00 Gear
$    1,000.00 Laptop and software licensing
$    1,200.00 Cell phone (not incl. office desk line)
$  42,092.76 Office space
$    6,840.00 Vehicle (or reimbursement allowance)
$  10,772.50 Benefits
As such, the average cost, per week, to have one staff photographer with gear and desk and car is 2,299.91 over 50 weeks.  Every day of a 5 day week, that's $459.98. Even if  you want to debate the cost of the office space, and say it's $0, the daily cost of the staff photographer is still $291.61. It's not $0 though, and accounting and HR don't think it's $0, so don't make an argument that you'll likely lose on this point. (FYI - for those of you in the Washington DC area, where the mean salary for photographers is $66,130, that's benefits of $16,532.50, and with DC as the most expensive place for office space, at $48.96 per square foot, that's $88,715 for your office space. As such, the total cost is $190,417.50, or $761.67 per day 5 days a week.)

It doesn't matter if it's a slow news day.  That is a hard cost for an employee whether they are shooting or not. The rights that photographer grants are work-made-for-hire. They do not own their photographs, the employer does. They pay you every day regardless of whether you're shooting, sick, on vacation, on a comp-day, preparing your entries for a contest, booking your itinerary for your next assignment, or editing your photos at your desk.

There is not a single wire service or newspaper that pays $459 (or more) for an independent photographer. In fact, there are many who pay less than the cost of renting the equipment.

The same rights that the employee grants to the outlet are being demanded - and provided - by the freelancer. This means that the outlet has just as many rights to the visuals produced as they did with their employee.

In addition, these independent photographers are available, in abundance, on an as-needed basis. Why obligate a company to paying for someone 5 days a week when you only need to pay for someone when you need them to actually produce?

What can those in the industry do?
(Continued after the Jump)

What's a Photo Editor to Do?

Photo Editors want the ability to produce excellent results for their newspaper, on a consistent basis. The viewing public, in a landmark survey conducted recently by the NPPA bears out the importance of professionally produced images (more here). The churn in the independent photographer causes the photo editor to spend an inordinate amount of time constantly finding new photographers as others fail and drop out of the profession. The constant learning curve for these new photographers means lost time and dropped balls when it comes to working with them for the company.

A Photo Editor can be certain that a combined review of costs of an employee by both the HR department and the Accounting Department will result in the comparison of the employee versus independent costs of producing visual content.

A Simple analysis shows that if an as-needed photographer costs $250, and an always obligated employee photographer costs $459, why would the employer pay the higher rate? This does not take a rocket scientist to figure out. The Harvard Business Review (here) references that, without severance, it's near impossible to cut costs by 30%. The shift from $459 to $250 is a 54% cost savings, even considering you had an independent photographer working every day. That number can significantly increase if they are only working as-needed, not every day. (For those in DC, that's a 77% cost savings at $250 when the per-day employee cost is $761.)

As difficult as it sounds, one of the administrative obligations of a Photo Editor (or at the very least, the Director of Photography), should be to know the total cost of their department, factor in the value of each producing staff photographer every day, and then pay the independent photographers a rate that is at least equal to the cost to the company of the employee, if not more.

Yes, it's clear that this is not as easy as it sounds. However, if you want a department that will continue to exist, This is necessary. That also means if you value your own job, you should be doing this, or, you may lose your own job. If  you doubt the veracity of this concept, look no further than what happened at The Washington Times (here), and the Chicago Sun Times (here), among many others. Next, ask yourself, at the figures above, would any independent photographer be "living the high life"? They need benefits just like you have. They need an office space just like you have.

In order to preserve the ability to produce great content for your outlet, knowing the cost to your company of an employee allows you to ensure that you are doing the best service to the company.  Cost-cutting is not always what's in the best interests of your company, and when you cut too much, quality suffers. In the current environment, cuts have been so extreme, that quality has suffered.

Your department often sets the rate they will pay. Set one that ensures the quality and consistency of your outlet, not to mention survivability. As a side benefit, the photographic community will be better off as well.

What's a Staff Photographer to Do?

A staff photographer who knows what their job costs the company they are working for should look at an independent photographer working for less than that figure, as similar to a "scab". What's a "scab?" (see here) Simply put, it's someone who is putting the job of the employee (almost always a union employee) at risk during a strike, where the employees are fighting for their jobs and fair pay.  An independent photographer who works for less than half of what it costs your employer for you to do your job is, quite simply, putting your job at risk. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is lying. Countless other photo departments can prove this point. Just ask around. There are many out-of-work former staff photographers  who can validate this point.

Staff photographers should encourage independent photographers to demand a reasonable pay. They should educate their Photo Editors and Directors of Photography about what the independent photographer must do to pay their bills.  They should not facilitate photographers who are cheaper than them in getting work, it's cutting their own throat, with a very slow bleed-out.

What's an Independent Photographer to Do?

First, any independent photographer should know what it costs for them to be in business for a day. An easy calculator to figure this out is provided by the National Press Photographers Association - here - and once you know that figure, you should stick to it and not charge less. In addition, when a photo editor asks you to do a job that requires special equipment (a telephoto lens, satellite phone, remote cameras, and so on) you should be billing a rental charge for the extra equipment. Make sure you are clear that you can bill for mileage associated with the assignment, and then do so. Ask for a production day to be added to your assignments for booking travel, doing research, scouting, and so on. Ensure that you can bill for parking and other expenses - don't eat them - and then bill for them. In the end, the higher your final bill the easier it will be for the client to justify their own staff, and yet you will also be making more money - because you won't be "eating" the costs for things associated with the shoot that the client should be paying for.

In addition, independent photographers should be helping those coming into the profession to understand all that is involved in the costs of being in business. Just because a newly minted photographer fresh out of school has a camera mom and dad bought them as a graduation present doesn't mean they shouldn't be factoring in the cost to replace that equipment when it breaks in a year. Just because they remain under mom and dad's insurance for a few more years doesn't mean they shouldn't be factoring in the costs of health insurance and savings for when they have their own policies.

A rising tide raises all ships.  The field of photography is not made up of people with yachts, vacation homes, and new cars every few years. Helping photographers so they can have a retirement, afford a family, and pay their bills, and avoid living down to the "starving artist" lifestyle, means that everyone wins.

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