Demotix might just have created a new revenue model for editorial photographers and aspiring photojournalists. The crowd-sourced news agency, which has licensed images to publications and outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and the BBC, is to begin paying contributors a share of its advertising revenue.
The company has partnered with Guardian Select, MessageSpace and Google to place ads on all the site’s story pages and news hubs. Demotix will work with the advertising agencies to make sure that the ads are relevant and ethical, and the photographers will receive an 80 percent share of the revenue generated by the ads on their pages.
Demotix was launched in 2008 by CEO Turi Munthe, a journalist who had worked for The Economist, Slate and the Financial Times among others, and his fellow Oxford University alumnus Jonathan Tepper whose background was in finance. The aim was to promote citizen journalism around the world as a replacement for the decline in foreign news desks. The company received praise for its ability to distribute images during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict, when accredited journalists were excluded from the region, and in July 2009 Demotix received the only image of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates as he was arrested for disorderly conduct. Prices for licenses are set at rights managed rates rather than royalty free microstock fees. An exclusive can sell for over $6,000, of which Demotix takes half as its commission. In March 2011, the company signed a deal with Corbis which now helps distributes Demotix’s images to its clients.
The new plan is intended to supplement image sales and to provide a way to monetize non-buying users who visit the site in search of news content.
“Many of what we consider our very best stories are not picked up by mainstream media,” explains Tom Barfield, Demotix’s community manager. “As traffic to Demotix grew, we began to realise we were becoming a news outlet in our own right, and that we could monetise this through advertising. That, finally, gives us the possibility of rewarding those extraordinary stories that nobody has bought but that make Demotix as varied and wonderful as it is.”
Top Photographers Only
The ad revenue won’t be paid to all contributors however. Demotix currently has 25,000 registered users of which 5,000 are active. Demotix will only share advertising revenue with the 100 photographers who have brought in the most unique visitors.
“We want to be paying out a usable amount of money,” says Tom Barfield “We have a very long tail which means that any other revenue-sharing model would result in thousands of payouts of fractions of pennies.”
The list of eligible contributors will be assessed on a monthly basis, so it’s likely that at least those at the bottom will change frequently. The number of eligible contributors may change too as the site grows, provided that the paid amounts are always meaningful. Demotix currently receives 400,000 unique visitors a month who generate some 1.3 million page views. That represents a growth rate of 120 percent over 2010.
Demotix wouldn’t reveal the number of page views currently received by the 100th most popular contributor on its site nor would it state the costs paid per mille by advertisers for the kinds of subjects covered by its photographers. If all page views were spread equally among the 5,000 active contributors though then each would receive a paltry 260 views a month. On iStock however, just 1.6 percent of contributors are responsible for half the company’s sales. If that rate of activity were replicated on Demotix then the top 100 contributors – 2 percent of active users – would be sharing around 650,000 page views a month. If news content receives about $6 for every thousand impressions then those top 100 photographers would be earning an average of about $312 per month.
Those are back of the envelope figures, of course. The gap between the amounts earned by the most popular Demotix contributors and those who just squeaked onto the list is likely to be substantial. CPMs of $6 may be optimistic too and Demotix’s long tail may be longer than that of iStock. But the top photographers on the site may well find themselves pocketing sums that provide more than a useful secondary income.
Gaming the System
The danger though is how that will affect contributions. Most of Demotix’s traffic comes from search engines so the company will be advising photographers on the use of good text, titles, captions and keywords to increase page ranking and improve views. They’ll also encourage them to use social media to alert their networks about uploaded images. But contributors now have a reason to do more than just optimize their contributions and spread the word.
Replying to comments on the company’s press release, Tom Barfield noted that Demotix chose to rank contributors by unique visitors rather than page views because it understood that people might try to game the system by clicking multiple times on their own page. Once photographers realize that certain subjects are more popular than others, produce more visitors and generate higher CPMs, there’s a good chance that some will start targeting their photography towards those topics. The under-reported stories about distant events, ignored by the mainstream press – and which Demotix was created to report – may now receive less attention from its photographers than in the past, affecting Demotix’s balance as a news site.
More worrying though is the admission that Demotix has so many popular and interesting stories that aren’t selling. The site might have been created to replace the falling numbers of foreign news desks but it hasn’t been able to create a demand from mainstream outlsets willing to pay for all of the images that people want to see. For photojournalists, licensing usage through companies like Demotix might be one way to sell their photos and crowdsourcing sponsors may be another. But giving away a view of the photos and earning from the advertising looks like an important and unavoidable additional approach.