Freelance and the Future of Media

One of the most iconic photos of our time was shot by a freelance photographer, Richard Lam.

Report: CNN Lays Off Roughly 50 Editors, Photographers And Other Staffers

 

I got turned on to this story early today when Russia Today anchorwoman Kristine Frazao tweeted a link to a story detailing CNN's plans to lay off 50 editors, photographers and other staffers.

This got me thinking, what IS happening over at CNN?  Come to think of it, what's happening across the media space in general?

The article quotes a CNN representative as saying,  

"Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company."

Translation; "We figured out that Saddam's execution, much of the video from 9/11, 90% of what you saw out of Katrina, the Egyptian AND Libyan revolution and Gaddaffi's last moments were shot on cellphones or small personal cameras.  So what exactly are we paying so many professional shooters and editors for?" 

THAT, my friends, is what it looks like when a major media outlet realizes what the rest of the internet figured out a decade ago.  The paradigm has shifted and content creation has become decentralized.  We are living in a world where the end user actually creates much of the media they consume.

CNN has been incorporating this user created content into its daily feed for a few years now via it's iReport feature, which allows citizen journalists to get airtime on the network.  It was a brilliant move and has given the network an edge by sourcing a nearly limitless supply of cameras everywhere on the planet and allowing them to pull content directly into their news feed faster than ever before.  CNN realized that whenever something interesting happens, the average person's first instinct is to pull out their camera phone.  This instantaneous content creation yields much more interesting points of view than the old method of dispatching a local news affiliate to the scene and waiting for them to get their shit together.  What's more - it's cheaper, hence the downsizing.

The masses are realizing that the future of media is now in the hands of the creators, an astounding shift in power away from centralized outlets.  This is most recently evidenced by the blogosphere's embrace of the Occupy movement, which the mainstream media largely ignored until recently.  This begs the question: who's really getting hurt by this paradigm shift aside from staff photographers and videographers and who stands to benefit?  According to a 2006 PBS report, the percentage of Americans that reported watching the CBS, ABC or NBC evening news had plummeted from 60 percent in 1993 to a mere 28 percent in 2006.  By 2011, mashable.com reported that 41 percent of people sampled got their news online.  That's nothing compared with the astounding 65 percent of 18-29 year olds who reported getting all of their news online. That's bad news for most major outlets who now find themselves competing with the entire blogosphere.

News outlets aren't the only ones facing the harsh realities of a complete paradigm shift.  "America is facing an information war ... and we are losing that war." That quote came from Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State as she spoke before the Senate foreign relations committee. She was addressing the fact in just the past few years sites like Wikileaks and groups like Anonymous  began routinely throwing the dirty laundry of governments and corporations out into the echo chamber of a hypercharged blogosphere for all to see.  Dirty laundry, I might add, that you WERE NOT getting from the crack teams of reporters at the major networks.  Ominously, once Wikileaks started lifting up everyone's skirts, it took less than 12 months before we started hearing chatter about an 'internet kill switch' and renewed discussions about the 'perils' of net neutrality.  Once governments and corporations wake up to the true uncontrollable power of user propagated news they start to get nervous.  I only mention this to illustrate the fact that what we've witnessed is a true paradigm shift and not simply a business decision by the brass at a major news outlet.   

What does all of this mean for the average photographer?  I'm still not entirely sure.  I don't think anyone is just yet.  While anyone CAN create content, it still must be crafted into something useful or entertaining and THAT part still takes considerable talent and experience.  In just the past few years some amazing opportunities have emerged here, just check out the amazing work that media badass Shane Smith is doing over at VICE or what happened with The Young Turks after youtube sensation Cenk Uygur refused to sell out for a golden wonka ticket at MSNBC.  I think we are witnessing the birth of a new generation of media outlets, built entirely for a post TV culture. It's official: the internet has swallowed everything.

Commercial photographers should do well in this new environment.  The rapid inflation of the internet has lead to more numerous and highly demographic-specific advertising than ever before, so those who know how to position themselves properly stand to benefit from increasing opportunities.  A perfect example is the trajectory of Terry Richardson's career.  Just what other opportunities are out there remain to be seen but one thing is certain; the days of getting a gig as Rolling Stone's staff photographer (Annie Leibovitz) are long gone.  From here on out if you want to make a name for yourself the name of the game is freelance. Develop your audience, serve them well and become as visible as you can in this ever more populated media space.  However it all shakes out it's going to be one hell of a ride.

Shoot first,
-C