Where Have The News Assignments Gone?

Posted on 11/21/2000 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



November 21, 2000

One of the important services an agency provides for editorial shooters is lining up

assignments, or expense guarantees, from magazines on breaking news events. Without such

minimum guarantees it is difficult for many freelancers to justify covering news events.

Many Sygma photographers claim that since Corbis took over the frequency of such

guarantees has fallen dramatically. This affects the overall income of photographers.

There have also been reports that in the future when no magazine is prepared to

underwrite a speculative shoot, Corbis will not independently fund such shoots as Sygma

had in the past,

Charles Borst, Executive News Director of Corbis Sygma in New York says, "We will indeed

provide expenses for future shoots. We heavily subsidized a NYC based Sygma freelancer's

trip to Israel last month, and most recently subsidized Sygma/Newsweek photographer David

Kennerly's trip to Vietnam with President Clinton. If we didn't subsidize travel, we

might as well fold up our tents and just sell rapidly aging stock. I have, and will

continue to subsidize travel whenever there is a potential sale to be made."

He also pointed out that earlier this year Corbis funded a major shoot by Ilkka Vinonen

to examine the state of the world's water. Vimonen traveled to Africa, Asia, India and

Israel for this project.

Borst acknowledged that there has been a falloff in magazine assignments in the past

year, but says this has been industry wide, not just at Sygma. "This has not been a huge

news year. There was little interest in the political campaigns, there was no interest

in Clinton because he was not running, and there was no major story overseas. In

addition, the big news magazines seem to be moving away from covering hard news and more

toward what we call 'infotainment'," Borst said.

Logical as this all seems, photographers can't help but be concerned when one of the few

assignments that does developed is passed to a newspaper, and its staff photographers,

rather than to a Sygma freelancer.

When the election problems in Florida developed Corbis Sygma got a guarantee from TIME to

provide coverage. The only Corbis photographer in Florida at the time was under contract

to Newsweek on a totally different story, and could not shoot for TIME. To lock in

coverage for TIME Borst called the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. In the

past Sygma had picked up pictures from this paper on the Elian Gonzales "rescue," various

Cuban boatlifts and other South Florida and Caribbean-interest stories. It is a common

practice of stock agencies to pick up, and market pictures from newspapers, worldwide,

when an event is over and done with and there is no possible way of having their own

photographer provide coverage.

The Sun-Sentinel had eight photographers spread throughout South Florida covering various

aspects of the story. TIME magazine gave Corbis/Sygma a guarantee for first look at the

pictures these photographers produced. All this is accepted normal procedure for an

assignment agency and is certainly the way Sygma has operated prior to the Corbis take


However, the next step is what has many Sygma photographers hopping mad. Borst wanted

coverage in Tallahassee, but the Sun-Sentinel had pulled their shooter back home after

the first two days. Sources in South Florida tell us this was because the Sun-Sentinel

has put a hold on all travel assignments for the rest of the year for budgetary reasons.

Instead of trying to find a Sygma freelancer who would be willing to fly to Florida to

cover this event, Borst offered to pay for the airfare if the Sun-Sentinel would send one

of their photographer's to Tallahassee. "I had to make a judgment call here, and the

Sun-Sentinel photographer was already familiar with the story and the players, having

covered it from the beginning. I didn't feel I had any better options available at the

time. In 99.9% of scenarios, I'm able to work things out to the benefit or our Sygma

photographers, and those who've known me for a while can attest to that. In this case I

had to make a judgement call on how to provide TIME with the best possible photos on a

developing news story. In the long run, a happy customer will keep coming back, and

99.9% of the time I'll be able to turn that into an opportunity for our shooters. This

scenario was the exception, not the rule," Borst said.

As it turned out the Sun-Sentinel photographer stayed on the assignment for about two

weeks and is being replaced today (Nov. 21st) by Sygma photographer Shaul Schwarz from

New York. Schwarz was in Israel on assignment when the story broke.

The Sun-Sentinel gets expanded coverage for their newspaper, and 50% of any fees

collected by Corbis for the pictures generated. The Sun-Sentinal splits their percentage

with their staff photographers who are also on full salary for the newspaper. The Sygma

photographers get to sit home and wait for the phone to ring.

Some Sygma photographers wonder if anyone is thinking of them, or if the motivation is

entirely one of how Corbis can make the most money. Borst says, "The profit motive is

not necessarily bad. If we keep our customers happy in the long run that will result in

more income for our photographers."

Sygma wants their photographers to focus more toward conceptual and infotainment

subjects, and put less emphasis on breaking news because that is the direction their

customer are taking. They have beefed up their sales force. When a client calls for an

archive photo they try to push them toward an assignment. They believe these are the

things that will generate more assignments and revenue for Sygma photographers.

Copyright © 2000 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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