Locals’ cut-backs leave snappers out of pocket

ANTON RIPPON reports on the trend for local newspapers to use photographers’ work without payment

It was a grizzled old reporter who once told me that “a man who works for nothing is never out of a job”. So it seems that there may be a growing number of freelance photographers who will never be unemployed – providing they stop annoying newspapers by submitting invoices.

All this for 25 quid a picture: Phil Noble and the lot of the pro sports photographer, from Reuters' blog
All this for 25 quid a picture: Phil Noble and the lot of the pro sports photographer, from Reuters’ blog

Recently, the Sports Journalists’ Association was approached by a freelance snapper – he’s not actually bothered to join the SJA, so we won’t give his particular cause too much publicity – over a little issue he has with a regional daily in the north-west.

It turns out that our photographer used to receive £25 a shot for shots of non-League football that he supplied to said paper.

At the time he was studying for a FDn in Photographic Media, so while the fee didn’t actually fall into the category of “nice little earner”, we assume it at least helped with nights in the student union.

But when he was in his final year at college, the newspaper informed him that it could no longer pay freelancerss for their photographs that appeared in the paper. So this particular freelancer – and we assume others – stopped submitting photographs. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

That was a couple of years ago, but last month our man was surprised – not to say a little annoyed – to see a photograph of a footballer that he’d submitted in those halcyon days of “the cheque’s in the post, thanks very much”, re-appear in the paper, unaccredited to him.

So he did what any of us would have done: he sent an invoice. Which was ignored.

Actually, when I say that he was surprised … well, he probably wasn’t. Just annoyed. Because it wasn’t the first time it had happened following the decision not to pay freelancers.

This time, though, the photographer asked the SJA for advice. We asked him what the NUJ made of it all and although he hasn’t supplied an answer, we would assume it would be “not very much”.

In the meantime we want to know if this a developing trend. We already know that, last year, regional newspaper group Archant dumped many staff photographers when it launched its witness24 platform designed to allow readers to share pictures and videos with its newsrooms as well as with their own friends and followers.

We are aware that other local papers have also resorted to cutting their budgets for freelance contributions, especially photography, and often in sport, where keen volunteers at local sports clubs aided with digital cameras are often able to provide some sort of imagery to wedge between the local cricket scoreboards and finishing times from the schools’ swimming gala.

This week, Neil Turner, vice-chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association, told “Newspaper production is, and always has been, a matter of balancing a range of conflicting demands. Saving money versus employing the best people is the single best example and we are in a phase of the economic cycle that places this dilemma at the front of the minds of everyone involved in the newspaper industry.

“There are four major downsides to the use of readers’ pictures. The first is that the quality of the pictures is all too often sub-standard. Secondly, too few editors are checking the provenance of the images – too many are not what they appear to be, and the ethical concerns over the taking of the pictures exercised by professionals are often ignored.

“Thirdly, newspapers are employing fewer photographers and paying them proportionally less than they ever have done, whilst giving control over the visual content of the paper to people with far too many other tasks to give the pictures the attention that they should get.

“Finally, the overuse of poor quality pictures makes the newspaper concerned look cheap and lowers production standards which has to effect circulation.”

That last point is telling: last week Archant announced a 40 per cent drop in its profits and yet another “rationalisation” that will lead to the loss of another 24 editorial jobs.

It’s often occurred to me – and, no doubt, to you – that reducing the quality of what you’re selling might just lead to selling less of it. Just a thought …

Turner said: “It will come as no surprise that the BPPA is in favour of using professional photographers and paying them properly but we have to recognise that newspapers have been using readers’ pictures for a number of years and that it can give them three distinct advantages in this climate where newspaper revenues are falling at an alarming rate: they get free or very cheap content; there is always a very high possibility that a member of the public will be on the scene of an incident before a professional photographer; and editors are using the inclusion of readers’ pictures as a way on engaging with their readership by giving them a sense of involvement in a similar way that readers’ letters always have been a staple feature of newspapers.”

James Foster, the former editorial director at Archant Norfolk, would agree with that second point. Launching that witness24 platform, he told “Our best reader picture of 2011 was of a burning bus. By the time our staff photographer got to the scene, the fire had been put out.

“Both pictures are great, but the flames made it so much more dramatic and unless we invent a time travel machine, we always risk missing those pictures.”

But when you’ve made most of your staff photographers redundant, then you’d better hope that when that bus bursts into flames, a helpful local armed with a smart phone happens to be wandering past.

Even then, pay heed. Turner again: “On balance, most newspapers are degraded by the over use of poor quality pictures. The budgetary advantages of using free pictures are wiped out by the damage done to the look and feel of the publication.

“We will never go back to a time when newspapers employed large teams of staff photographers but we could soon be at a point where someone in charge in the local and regional press realises that they are losing one of their most valuable resources.”

  • Are you a professional photographer who is no longer being paid for your work for some newspapers? Are you a local newspaper sports editor who has to apply new budgets that stop you from paying for contributors’ work? Post your views and comments below, or write in confidence by email to

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