It happens every time there’s a major news event. While journalists scrabble around for their passports and photojournalists curse the weight of their equipment, citizens at the scene start telling the world what’s happening.
During the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, it was Twitter that came of age as tech-savvy Mumbaikers reported on the gunmen’s progress and the commandos’ response. During the London bombings, it was the photos snapped on mobile phones from inside Underground tunnels as passengers abandoned trains that captured the mood of the moment.
Each time, bloggers rave about the power of citizen journalism and editors point out the importance of checking sources, sorting through the material and having trained professionals on the scene to ask the important questions and gather all of the information necessary to understand what’s happening.
Citizen News Photos are Invaluable
But those same editors then buy citizen images because they understand that while it’s impossible to have photojournalists at every site all the time, everyone now has a camera on their phone. The images might not be as perfectly framed as those shot by professionals, the focus might be off and the quality lower than they’d like but as a first impression, photos captured in the initial minutes of an event are invaluable – and therefore worth buying.
It’s why Getty bought Scoopt, a service that channels camera phone images to the media, and it’s why Turi Munthe, a journalist and author, and Jonathan Tepper, a former finance executive, have launched Demotix. Not for the money, of course, but to promote global communications and fill the information gap left by shrinking foreign news desks.
“Demotix was founded on the basis of promoting freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” Jonathan told us by email. “Demotix is also global in scale. We have photographers and visitors to the website from every corner of the globe. We won’t turn down photos of a drunk Lindsay Lohan, but that isn’t why we’re running Demotix.”
Perhaps not, but it’s the financial value of the images that will most motivate people to submit them and it’s also why photo editors will be buying them. After all, to claim in an age of blogging that the mainstream media has a monopoly on free speech is to miss the point of citizen journalism. Anyone now can get information – and images — to the public. But only the mainstream media can supply a large audience and large payments too.
The site works in the usual way. Anyone can register and upload their photos. The images themselves don’t have to meet any specific quality requirements. Camera phone snaps are as acceptable as 12 megapixel monsters; they just might be harder to sell. And images on any topic are welcome.
“Demotix is looking for every kind of pictures — Politics, Economics, Sports, Arts, etc.,” says Jonathan. “The kind we are most interested in are striking pictures that tell a story. There is always demand and a market for good reportage.”
He seems to be right. Demotix quietly launched a beta in December and has since collected a thousand photographers and “a few thousand pictures.” It’s also racked up a number of sales to major outlets. The UK’s Daily Telegraph, for which Turi writes a blog, bought this image of North Korea, and the BBC used this video footage from Demotix of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg who was killed in Mumbai.
The More Common the Image, the Better it Needs to Be
The differences between those two sales though are telling. The subject of each was rare but while the video footage looked like a home movie, the shot of North Korea – which was less rare – looked as artistic as it was photojournalistic. The more common the subject of the image, the better it needs to be.
The prices for images vary too. Demotix charges media companies the same sorts of prices that they would expect to pay editorial photo agencies and takes 50 percent of the sales price. Basic editorial print usage ranges from $150 to $500 depending on the exact use; exclusive photos are a matter of negotiation.
“[W]here there is a market for it, the sky is the limit,” Jonathan said.
Demotix states explicitly that it’s not just not a microstock service, but is “the opposite of microstock in that we look to get the best deal possible when licensing images.” In addition to making its inventory available for buyers to browse, the company’s sellers also hit the phones to known buyers when a particularly good image comes in. That means images might do more than sit around waiting for buyers, and when they do sell, they’ll go for more than a buck.
But citizen agencies like Demotix are also the opposite of microstock in a couple of other important ways. For one, a smaller percentage of the images submitted are going to sell. (Oleg Tscheltzoff, CEO of Fotolia once told us that microstock has 40 million potential buyers. Editorial images have a much smaller market.)
And for another, images that don’t sell right away are unlikely to sell at all.
“Editorial images are perishable and editors need images when they need them,” explained Jonathan. “[T]hey don’t have time to sift through the Web and find two-penny images with cheap photostock agencies.”
That means a large inventory of old editorial images isn’t going to be worth a great deal. But it also means that the supply of sellable images shrinks as quickly as it grows, avoiding the fall in prices that has hit the stock industry.
Selling a news image is always going to be a hit-and-miss affair. Asked for examples of images that have sold to the mainstream media, of the “few thousand” images in its inventory, Demotix only pointed to two, and one was a video. (Although Jonathan did indicate there were others.) If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, then sending your photo to Demotix – or Scoopt for that matter – might be a good place to start. But if it hasn’t sold quickly, then you should probably be looking at other ways to monetize the image… like placing it on your own ad-supported news blog.