By Mark Loundy
We see them inside the entrance to every Wal-Mart — Senior citizens trading their old-school charm and manners for minimum wage, working as greeters. They welcome customers into a vast retail utopia where goods attract buyers primarily because they are inexpensive.
The Happy Face has been knocking prices down for stock photography as well. Editors, seeking "good enough" art for highly art-directed layouts, are shopping only by price. The mega-agencies are making up for the price-cutting by upping their cut of the take. 90% of the revenue in some sales now goes to the agency. Photographers who once saw six-figure annual returns are seeing them slip lower and lower.
Meanwhile, the major stock agencies are seeing record revenue and record stock prices.
Wal-Mart can offer low prices because it buys in massive quantities and has squeezed out much of its competition. Some major stock agencies have adopted similar methods by buying-up smaller agencies and reducing the photographer's cut.
It makes more and more sense for photographers to do their own marketing and pocket 100% of the sale. If you do join an agency, don't be buffaloed by big names. Shop carefully and try to develop your own niche. The Stock Artists Alliance and Creative Eye are worth checking out. Generalists at large agencies have a tougher time competing.
Be careful that you don't become a minimum-wage greeter for a mega-agency.
It's right out of a 1950s science fiction movie. The mad scientists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are breaking new ground. They're trying to convert their staffers into independent contractors. No, they're not using that two-chamber contraption that Jeff Goldblum used in The Fly. They've got something much more sinister.
This July, employees at the AJC were asked to sign an agreement taking financial partial responsibility for lost, stolen or damaged company equipment. By signing, they give the paper permission to withhold money from their paychecks to pay-up Staffers who wish to use company equipment have to sign.
AJC Managing Editor/Operations James Mallory said that nobody has been threatened with termination if they do not sign, but when I asked what would happen to a photographer who used only company equipment and opted to not sign, he refused to answer.
According to the agreement, staffers also agree not to leave equipment in their vehicles. Somehow I don't see a shooter lugging a 600 and a studio lighting kit to a ribbon cutting. But that's what you'd have to do if you needed them for your next assignment. If the paper requires increased security it should pay for secure cabinets to be installed in photographers' vehicles.
What the heck does this have to do with freelancers, anyway? Replacing company-owned equipment is the responsibility of the employer. Bearing the risk of ordinary journalistic use is part of the cost of doing business and part of the privilege of being a highly profitable multi-million dollar media company.
Dealing with irresponsible employees individually is also one of the ordinary functions of a business. Creating a blanket policy that transfers normal business risk onto the pocketbooks of all employees is an incremental move toward transforming employees into independent contractors and continuing the widespread dilution of the editorial freelance market.
And that is a bad thing.
(Correction: In an earlier version of this column, I mistakenly referred to Corbis as one of the agencies that had reduced the photographer's cut of sales. In fact, Corbis continues to split stock sales 50-50 and splits assignment fees 70-30 in favor of the photographer. And that's a good thing.)