By paulgillin | August 3, 2009 - 10:11 am - Posted in Fake News, Hyper-local

Mark Glaser takes a look at Demotix, the citizen photo agency we told you about in April. Demotix is the second notable startup to take a crack at monetizing citizen photojournalism, following on the heels of Scoopt, a site that brokered the work of amateur journalists to major media organizations and split the revenue with the photographers. Scoopt was acquired by Getty Images and shut down early this year.

Demotix scored a coup with its exclusive photo, taken by local resident Bill Carter, of the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates.

Demotix scored a coup with its exclusive photo, taken by local resident Bill Carter, of the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates.

Glaser quotes Scoopt co-founder Kyle MacRae commenting on the futility of trying to break through the media establishment and create a name for oneself. “”It’s hard to get sufficient awareness to stand even the remotest chance that the next punter to witness a newsworthy incident will have heard of Demotix, and know how to submit a photo or video quickly,” he says. Another former Scoopt editor is quoted as saying, “There are no universally accepted destinations for newsworthy citizen media.”

The rather pessimistic tone of this article strikes us as premature. One heard many of the same quotes about the online bookselling, auction or search engine businesses in the mid-1990s. For example, at one time there are more than 500 online auction sites.  Today, there is one.  Early markets are freewheeling and chaotic. The more promising the market, the more entrants compete for the prize.  This is healthy.

First-Movers Don’t Win

The demise of Scoopt, which may actually have been killed by Getty as a defensive move, is entirely in line with the way technology-driven markets develop.  In fact, first movers rarely win.  They are either too early to market or make too many mistakes to reach the finish line.  Most of the most successful mainstream technology brands today were second or third attempts at their markets.  The iPod was about the 10th entry in the portable digital music field.

Whether or not Demotix is successful is not the issue.  The real question is whether citizen photojournalism has a future.  Our opinion is that citizen photojournalism will be so successful that conventional photo agencies will be struggling with irrelevance within a few years.

This is because cost and technology barriers have fallen.  The quality of the average $300 digital camera today rivals that of high-end professional equipment that cost thousands of dollars a few years ago.  What’s more, the cost of taking a digital photo is effectively zero, meaning that access to equipment and capital is no longer a barrier to entry.

Professional photographers were paid to optimize the use of a scarce commodity, even if individual photo negatives have low value. Photojournalists carried several thousand dollars worth of camera bodies around their neck along with a collection of expensive lenses and boxes and boxes of film. Their skill was knowing the exact moment and angle for a photo.

Today, photography is basically free. People snap away to their heart’s content because it costs them nothing. The chance that a non-professional will take the right photo at the right time is orders of magnitude higher than it’s ever been. Photographers don’t need expensive dark rooms or processing anymore.  Photoshop can make even terrible photographs acceptable.

Quality Conundrum

But what about quality? Surely, the work of professionals will continue to command a premium.  Perhaps, but the premium will shrink over time, at least in the case of photojournalism. Some of history’s most famous news photos are grainy black-and-white images shot under poor lighting conditions.  They’re famous because they captured a moment in time, not because they’re beautiful.  The democratization of photography makes it inevitable that future memorable images will be increasingly captured by nonprofessionals.

Amateur photographers don’t attach high value to their work because they haven’t been taught to do so.  If they can make a few bucks off a picture, so much the better.  Someone will figure out how to make this process a no-brainer and will make a lot of money from it.  Once enough amateurs are profiting from their photos, word of mouth will take care of building the brand.

The market for professional photojournalism is primed for collapse. Plunging technology cost has eaten away at barriers to entry and given even novice shutterbugs a chance to compete. Whether Demotix or somebody else profits from this development is irrelevant. Someone will hit the market at the right time with the right service.  The fact that this company may be unknown today is an important.  Remember that a decade ago, very few people had heard of Google, either.

Canoe at Sunset

Like it? Use it. It's free under a Creative Commons license. Photo by Steve Jurvetson



This entry was posted on Monday, August 3rd, 2009 at 10:11 am and is filed under Fake News, Hyper-local. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment

  1. August 10, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    […] Photojournalism’s Coming Crisis | Newspaper Death Watch. […]