In “an age of ubiquitous images”
At the start of this year, I wrote an editorial on how to write for DigBoston that proved quite popular and led to an increase in the number of article pitches we get from freelance journalists weekly. But it also led a growing number of photographers and illustrators to ask, “Hey, what about us?”
In answer to that question, I have the unfortunate duty to be the bearer of bad news. In the form of a statement I made several days ago while speaking to a class of MassArt first-year students: “We live in an age of ubiquitous images.” As such—in a news industry that has fewer and fewer jobs for talent, and smaller and smaller budgets for content—images are a distant second consideration after reporting when it comes time to decide what content to pay for.
With millions of photos and thousands of drawings being produced daily worldwide, it’s inevitable that an ever-growing array of them are available for free. Even for commercial use. Amazingly, despite that fact, unscrupulous news outlets will still steal whatever they want and damn the potential lawsuits. Because few people making images have the ability to sue. And if they sue, they aren’t going to get much in the way of damages even if they win.
For outlets like DigBoston that do care about creators’ rights, there are still so many ways to get free images for our articles that it makes little financial sense to pay for most of them. In a period when we’re still a small operation… and every dollar counts. As we continue growing, we expect that situation to change. Which has certainly been what we’ve been explaining to people in the last two years since my group took the publication over. It’s a goal for us to pay the best money we can for all the content we publish—unlike all too many outlets with much larger budgets.
But we have to survive long enough to grow to the point where that’s possible. And we can’t survive if we overspend our limited news budget to expand the amount of visual art we commission. Although it’s worth mentioning that all top DigBoston staff have multiple skill sets. Including art. Publisher John Loftus has a fine sense of design. Ditto Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone, who also makes fun collages for many of our articles. And I’m a photographer with an MFA in visual art that does shoot for Dig from time to time. So we ourselves create images for our own publication.
Moreover, like many other commercial news outlets, we do have a small group of photographers and illustrators that are “close in” to us. People that have been working with the Dig for a long time—back to the relatively flush years when the paper was larger and advertisers were easier to come by. They are extremely experienced and at the top of their game; so we do indeed pay them. For images in beats that they dominate like concert photography. Or for special issues when we can budget for major illustrations and photoshoots. But we’re talking about five or six people tops. With maybe a few more occasional contributors that we pay more rarely. Otherwise, a few regular cartoonists fill out our paid visual arts roster.
And that’s all we can afford to do. Now, a city like Boston—with colleges like MassArt cranking out hundreds of highly trained artists every year, many of whom try to stick around for at least a few years—has large numbers of people qualified to work for a publication like ours. It is also home to many more artists without much formal training. Some of whom are actually better than many formally trained artists by our lights. Since they focus from day one on trying to sell work made for paying markets.
From the perspective of myself and the other DigBoston execs, we’re having several solid photographers and illustrators a week sending us their portfolios and resumes in hopes of getting work with us. But we can’t afford to hire them.
What, then, are the options for enterprising Boston area artists that want to get paid contracts with the Dig, yet don’t want to wait for some misty future when we’re larger and richer and can afford to commission all our photos and illustrations? Happily, all is not hopeless:
1) Pitch standalone works of visual journalism. Photo essays and illustrated news stories that we can pay for out of our reporting budget. If you can construct a narrative with images (and some text), then we’re far more likely to be able to buy your work from time to time. If you have a reporter that you can team up with, all the better. Email pitches to [email protected] to reach both Chris Faraone and me.
2) Intern with us. The main advantage of interning with us for two or three months is getting to know the Dig staff—and a better sense of how we operate and what the openings are for photographers and illustrators. We allow both college students and working adults to apply. It’s also worth mentioning that, if you’re good enough, we may put your work in the running for an annual award from our trade association—and we will start paying you. One of our recent interns actually won the 2018 award for best cover illustration. A nice resume stuffer to be sure. As are a few clips with DigBoston. Email [email protected] if you’re interested to throw your hat in the ring. Just remember that our internship program is increasingly competitive, and that we do not accept all applicants.
3) Partner with us. If you’re part of an upcoming nonprofit art show in the Boston area, we are quite willing to run free ads and copy in support of it. That could result in your photography or illustration getting some exposure in our pages—sometimes even on our cover—although we tend to help larger community efforts like Somerville Open Studios, not individual artists. Email us at [email protected] for more info on this potential opportunity.
There’s one other thing we can do that might help. Dig management is also the leadership of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ). The main mission of BINJ is to pay reporters to produce long-form investigative news articles. It should be possible for us to look for grants and donations aimed at supporting the work of local photographers and illustrators, too, and syndicating that work to DigBoston and other news outlets in BINJ’s regional network. The same way BINJ helps syndicate investigative reporting around Massachusetts. If any of our readers are aware of nonprofit funding for that kind of endeavor, please let us know. We’ll also start looking over the months to come, and report back if we get anywhere.
Which is a great example of why we’re building a hybrid for-profit/nonprofit enterprise, come to think of it. To properly fund a contemporary news organization “by any means necessary.”
Addendum: A note of appreciation to PhD student Julie Zollmann and professor Kim Wilson of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University for inviting Chris Faraone, Haley Hamilton, and myself of BINJ and DigBoston; Sarah Betancourt of CommonWealth magazine; and Beryl Lipton of MuckRock to spend a day talking with Fletcher master’s and PhD students about investigative reporting research methods. We had a blast, and look forward to doing more events together in the future.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.