Everyone’s a critic, and a photographer, apparently

Know I’m over a week late to this, but I wanted to at least briefly weigh in on this article BU professor Dan Kennedy wrote for Nieman Lab last week about a young photographer whose photos of conservative politicians are in high demand – yet all he asks for is credit through the Creative Commons license.

The article was posted last Tuesday and almost instantly the comment section turned into a war between professional photos and the “amateur” blogger types.

The Creative Commons license website has a much better explanation than anything I can write, but basically it’s a way to share intellectual property like photos for free, as long are you are properly credited. (There are some subtleties, for instance you can choose a license that allows for commercial use or limit it to nonprofits, etc.) Flickr and Vimeo have big Creative Commons communities, and you’ll occasionally see photos on blogs, newspapers and TV station websites with Creative Commons photos.

But Creative Commons is just the mechanism, there’s a bigger issue at play when it comes to media, and that’s where to draw the line between professional journalists and contributions from citizen journalists as the industry reinvents itself.

When I was the editor of the Duxbury Clipper, and I’m sure this is the same for a lot of weekly and smaller newspapers, I depended on submitted content. When I say depended, I mean depended. I was the sole staffer for a two-section paper that ran 50-plus pages. I had a part-time sports reporter and basically one freelancer. Every week I looked at a lot of blank pages that weren’t getting filled unless I got some submissions from the community, in the form of pictures, announcements/write-ups, columns, event briefs, etc.

By “submitted content,” I mean material sent in by readers that received no compensation. At the weekly, this was things like photos from a high school award banquet, Rotary Club news, travel stories, historical articles, a little bit of everything. And there were times I felt a little guilty not being able to pay people who were doing a not-insignificant amount of work.

There’s probably always been some aspect of that at weekly, small-town papers. But now you’re seeing the user-submitted trend creep into bigger media outlets. CNN has the iReporters (that’s a great example because the cable channel is making it sound as if these folks are on the payroll.) I’ve seen reader-submitted photo galleries on sites like the Boston Globe and local TV stations. And many newspaper sites have legions of “community bloggers,” most of whom are unpaid.

I don’t think news orgs are doing anything wrong by the submitters when they use such content. That person gets something out of the deal, whether it’s clicks on personal blogs, exposure for themselves or their organization/event, etc.

The real question is it fair to the professional journalists who are getting squeezed out because management’s getting people to do their jobs for free.

Bloggers/commenters aren’t replacing reporters because it’s not really the same material. (Although there are examples where commenters and readers drive a lot of the conversation, like Boston’s Universal Hub, and the founder/site owner plays referee in addition to his original reporting.) I think as newsrooms shrink, people more people will be asked to submit their own write-ups. That’s an effect of journalists losing their jobs, not a cause.

I think the trickiest part of this is photos/video. Amateur photographers aren’t ever going to produce work to rival the quality of the top photojournalists. But with advances in camera technologies, it seems like everyone’s an aspiring photog these days. There’s a lot of passable work out there, and passable may be good enough, especially for smaller outlets.

I think media outlets have to draw a line. User submitted content works great for certain types of stories. Severe weather and breaking news are good examples, because even a relatively large staff can’t be everywhere at once. The best photojournalist in the world can’t get video from a breaking news scene the way someone in the thick of the incident can. I also like it when people do the whole, “Share your memories of …” thing, it’s good reader interaction. But there are other stories where you really need trained professionals doing the reporting, sorting through information and putting things in context. So I hope newspapers recognize that photojournalists are journalists too and their work needs to be valued and respected. But if some of those angry commenters under the Nieman Lab article are working photogs, they might have a reason to be worried.




About justingraeber

PR pro and media geek. Sucker for new technology, gadgets, social media, etc. Dad. Red Sox fan. Remembers way too many MST3K quotes.
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