Meet Jaymie Baxley. Photojournalists throughout the nation first heard his name last month. They’ve hated his guts ever since.
And it’s my fault.
Baxley is a reporter for The Pilot in tiny Moore County, North Carolina. Back in July, he told me about a common problem in his neck of the woods…
I constantly see small newspapers across the state sharing articles with photos that were clearly yanked from Google Images without the photographer’s permission. Speaking from experience, many of these smaller papers don’t have the money to hire photographers or to subscribe to stock photography services. Knowing their stories won’t gain much traction on social media without art, the reporters simply grab what’s available online without checking the digital usage rights.
Baxley proposed an ambitious solution: “A repository of free-to-use news photos could help keep those tiny newsrooms from being accused of theft or getting slapped with cease-and-desist letters.”
We’re talking about photos of yellow school buses, rusty parking meters, and hands holding everything from money to microphones. Basically, Baxley wanted to offer original stock art for news reporters– for free.
So I introduced Baxley to a friend of mine named Sharon Dunten. She’s an edgy grandmother in Atlanta who runs a one-woman journalism site called Sizing Up the South. It’s just her and a rotating college intern.
Baxley had already posted some of his own photos on his personal website and invited everyone to use them. I offered to cover any costs of expanding and marketing this “free photo repository.” Dunten promoted Baxley’s idea via her popular newsletter a couple of weeks later, assigning the story to her intern.
Within hours of sending out that newsletter, Dunten and Baxley were in the viewfinder of photojournalists around the country. And the picture wasn’t pretty.
“It is you fucking journalists that have caused this problem,” read one comment on Sizing Up the South’s profile on Baxley.
“I am deeply concerned, frustrated and angered by Jaymie Baxley’s free editorial image database,” read the first email Dunten received. It was from a staff photographer who argued…
This database reinforces the already prevalent idea that our work has no value and that we do not need to be compensated. I am curious how your publication would feel about a database that gives away stories for free.
…and my first thought was: If newspapers keep tanking, there may indeed be a database that “gives away stories for free.” But for now, the problem is much simpler: Small newspapers can’t afford photographers. They can barely afford reporters.
Still, it’s a defensible argument. Insulting a college student isn’t. Baxley was most upset at the photographers who shot the messenger.
The Baxley profile was written by an intern named Tori Collins, a student at Georgia State University.
“The worst comments, and I’ll trust your discretion here, were the ones aimed at Tori,” Baxley emailed me. “My beat brings a lot of hate mail, so I’m used to being disparaged. But when I saw people slamming Tori, I was livid. I don’t care how bitter a person is about losing their job or the de-valuing of their profession. It’s disgraceful and selfish to belittle a student journalist.”
Baxley is a little naive to trust my discretion, but in this case, I won’t repeat what some photographers said about Collins. But I do want to repeat Baxley’s experiment.
Baxley backed down after he said, “I was taken aback, for sure.” He removed all the free photos from his personal website.
“My photographs were mostly pedestrian shots of North Carolina buildings and landmarks,” he explains. “They were file art that I assumed would be used primarily as teaser images for certain articles on Facebook. An advance for the state fair, for example. The usefulness of my idea was somewhat limited, so I didn’t view it as being harmful to photojournalists. Most news stories require timely, context-specific photographs, which is why photojournalists are invaluable.”
Unlike me, Baxley feels bad about his fleeting effort.
“By donating my own work, I simply hoped to make life a little easier for overburdened reporters who are now forced to find art to accompany every article they write,” he said. “It seemed like an uncontroversial volunteer project. Many disapproving photojournalists quickly, and rightly, admonished me for failing to realize how the idea might exacerbate the issue by giving media conglomerates another tool to justify layoffs.”
Baxley even told me, “I feel ashamed for not being more sensitive to the plight of displaced photojournalists.”
I’m ashamed of the photographers who piled on a small-town reporter with a big idea. So I’m picking up where Baxley ran off.
Shirts for Shots
Let’s help reporters who need general images to promote their stories – nothing high-res that greedy newspaper publishers can steal for their print editions. Because the NPPA is right.
That’s the National Press Photographers Association, which last month interviewed Baxley. NPPA president Michael King was quoted…
There’s a growing unwillingness of American media companies to invest money in maintaining or growing the human and technological resources necessary to take great pictures of the world around us.
…which is true. I don’t want to help “media companies.” I want to help stressed-out reporters.
King also said this about Baxley…
The service he was trying to get off the ground would have further devalued our craft.
…which isn’t true at all. Not even close.
What Jaymie Baxley tried – and what I’m reprising with some pals – won’t harm a single photojournalist. No one is getting laid off because we’re offering images for stories that don’t have any art.
What will that look like? Here’s an example from Baxley’s own paper…
That image runs above almost every single web story about the meetings of the Pinehurst Village Council. If those stories run with some generic pictures of, say, dollar bills or construction equipment – or whatever the hell the Pinehurst Village Council is talking about that evening – it’s not worth all the photo vitriol being spewed this the past month.
The NPPA punched down when it beat up Baxley. In her post, NPPA editor Sue Morrow wrote that when she heard about Baxley’s idea, “My head wanted to pop off. …. I took deep breaths to calm down because it’s not the NPPA’s intention to be a flame-thrower on social media.”
But the NPPA doesn’t intend to put out the fire, either.
“We don’t exist to beat up on people,” King wrote in that NPPA post. “I’m sure Jaymie got more than his share of that already — I think some of it was overboard and unbecoming.”
Some of it?
Light and dark
“Photography is valuable,” King wrote. “Audiences can distinguish between professional and amateur images.” He’s right. They can distinguish. They just don’t care anymore.
This devolution of photojournalism is akin to music streaming.
When I was a kid, everyone aspired to buy high-end audio systems, with speakers three feet tall and a cabinet full of components. “Hi-fi stereo” was the goal. Today, I advise a college newspaper where the students listen to Spotify on their laptop speakers. The audio quality is decidedly low-fi, but the tradeoff is that they can hear almost any song ever recorded.
The same thing has happened with photography. Even the smallest newspaper site posts stories so often, they need many more images than their print versions ever did – and they don’t expect every one to be a gem.
Alas, the NPPA attacked a grassroots effort to fill a gap its members never occupied. Web stories about city commission meetings need art, and it’s not economical to send photojournalists to shoot a half-dozen old farts sitting on a dais.
If anything, the NPPA needs to find a Spotify solution for photographers. Maybe that’s a stock-image site that profits NPPA members instead of, say, iStock or Getty.
Maybe the NPPA will work with me on our little experiment. That’s why, the moment this post was published, I emailed NPPA editor Sue Morrow. Maybe we can chat without her head popping off.
Let’s see what develops.