Full Disclaimer: I have invested in Apple stock since the early 2000s and, therefore, have a financial interest in the company doing well. However, nothing I write is done with the intention of influencing anyone in any matter except as it relates to photojournalists ability to make informed decisions in hopes they can sustain a freelance career.
Apple announced today that their new AppleNews+ app will offer 300 mags/newspapers for $9.99, including Sports Illustrated, People, TIME, The New Yorker, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and more. At at a time when print and even some digital only publications (Buzzfeed, Vice Media, Huffington Post) are contracting, journalism must consider the opportunity to partner with a technology leader whose distribution options are massive despite previously perilous experiences with Facebook.
Finding new ways to reach readers is, obviously, key to creating revenue for publications. And when publications are doing well, more assignments should, theoretically, flow through to photographers. Any distribution channel that opens the spigot to more viewers has to be given consideration, if not openly embraced, for we’ve all seen what happens when fewer viewers are engaged. I have felt firsthand the impact of a profession bleeding revenue (and readers) and watched as many of my clients, including several of those mentioned above (Sports Illustrated, TIME, People) cut back on photo assignments, cut back on bureaus (TIME closed their LA based, West Coast Bureau about 10 yrs ago) and ultimately cut back on content including photography (Sports Illustrated is now a bi-weekly). I don’t have to connect the dots for you, but suffice it to say that less content in any publication means less assignment work for photographers. The answer to our profession’s troubles has really never changed from day one of the digital transition. Publications need to develop ways to reach the audience glued to their digital devices who consider tabbing between news websites as archaic as visiting a newsstand. Perhaps using a bundled approach is an opportunity to pick up new readers who move between their phones, tablets and computers throughout the day. So what impact will that have on photographers?
Well, to start, this is the perfect time for photographers to make sure they understand the rights they’re providing any assigning publication. As publishers push into new relationships with platforms to deliver their content, they must acquire the rights from the content creators (photographers and writers). Most often, the photographer grants those rights up front prior to ever working with the publication. As was the case with TIME Inc and Sports Illustrated in 2016, a new photo contract vastly expanded the rights photographers had previously granted. Within six months of the new contract taking effect, TIME Inc began announcing “brand extensions” and new distribution partnerships in an attempt to reach a massive digital audience. In other words, TIME, People and Sports Illustrated could not have entered into agreements to more broadly distribute their published content without first having acquired the rights from, among others, photographers. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that every photographer read and understand the rights being granted before you take the assignments. As students of my workshop are well aware from the real examples I provide, some contracts use complex, legal language to ascertain rights while others provide simple, easy-to-understand terms. Whatever the case, if photographers choose to simply sign what is placed in front of them, they might be leaving real licensing money behind.
So how do we reconcile Apple’s “Netflix for News,” as some have called it, which will offer an incredibly wider distribution network for publishers of our work, with photographers rights to be compensated for their content? Well, let me first reiterate that photographers, like publishers, need their work to be seen and publications will live or die depending on the level of distribution and readership. That being the case, photographers have to fight for a piece of the pie in order to sustain a viable career.
Simply allowing the vast distribution of one’s work without any restrictions is a recipe for financial failure. Don’t believe me? Ask any publisher what the single most devastating event was in the transition from print to digital and they will ALL tell you the failure to charge for the content. Simply allowing it to be distributed on the web free of charge was devastating. Photographers shouldn’t make the same mistake. The solution is hardly complex and is something I’ve pointed out several times during the contract portion of my workshop.
I have several client contracts that never needed any negotiation. They state clearly under the Rights Granted section that the publisher retained unlimited rights to use the photographers “in original context” of the story. This is key and allows for the publisher to place the content for which the photographer was hired into new platforms like Apple News + without any issues while also allowing the photographer to charge a fee for any use of the image outside of the “original context.” Why is this so important? Because many publications will reuse photographs created from previous assignments to create new stories, anthologies, special editions and follow-ups to feed the many distribution channels now in play. Think of it this way: If National Geographic hires you to shoot a story on gentrification of Sunset Boulevard for the October, 2019 issue, that’s great. Rights to publish that story should allow them to run the photographs across all of their platforms including print, web, Nat Geo app, pdf and now Apple News+. However, if National Geographic then decides to publish a piece in July, 2020 on the Top 10 American Tourist Attractions and wants to use a few photos from the Sunset Boulevard story, they should not be able to use them without paying a licensing fee because such use would fall outside of the “original context” clause.
Allowing for unlimited use “in original context” permits publications to openly seek and engage in new distribution platforms like Apple News+. It also allows for the photographer to retain the opportunity to earn a little bit of licensing revenue for additional use of the photographs at a time when expansive use is growing along with new platforms. In other words, it’s a fair compromise and one that every photographer should seek.