Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
3 mins read

Free photos: short term benefit, long term curse?

Earlier this month, The Poynter Institute, an esteemed global voice on journalism, published an article about how journalists ‘can use a variety of websites to add visuals to their work for free’.

The Institute subsequently came under fierce criticism from a number of sources, not least some of their own readership, who pointed out that at best the article was ‘naïve’ and at worst had one respected Poynter collaborator questioning ‘whether I can continue my relationship with them’.

The controversy drills down to two issues. Firstly, what particularly incensed journalists was the suggestion that perhaps ‘photographs are just there to serve the wordsmith and their needs….just a necessary evil to attract eyeballs and generate clicks’. In short, an entire profession was being denigrated.

Secondly is the issue of getting something for free. As one commentator wrote in Medium, ‘instead of competing and paying for the services of the best photographers and writers, like yesteryear, publishers have as good as abandoned them,’ before adding, ‘Publications today are trying to sell chicken soup without the chicken’.

But here’s where it gets interesting. In a gentle rebuttal to some of the criticism, Poynter makes the point that, ‘Like many digital newsrooms, (we do) not have an editorial employee dedicated to visuals….we subscribe to AP Images and turn to them first to find appropriate imagery for our stories, but often find that their photographs aren’t good fits for our articles’.

Poynter continues, ‘We frequently hear from reporters that many of their stories lack visuals, often because of strapped resources and too few visual people on their team……and so we sought to provide them with some options, especially for illustrations and stories without obvious photo cues’.

However, their killer line is this: ‘But these realities, understandably, offend many in our business’.

In an industry undergoing such dramatic disruption and digital transformation, it’s understandable why resource-strapped independent publications go down the route of either low cost or free stock images.

It’s also easy to see why some commentators view this as ‘flawed because it’s looking to help journalists survive in a broken system that doesn’t deserve to survive. At the same time, it accepts that system as the new normal’.

But perhaps this new normal has to be accepted? And adapted to? At least until a sustainable solution is found.

This certainly isn’t an argument that is going to go away anytime soon, especially as the next generation of image websites such as StockSnap, Negative Space and Unsplash offer such a compelling array of stunning imagery – for free. These sites are simply getting better, and larger.

Perhaps the last word should go to Sue Morrow, a visiting professional at E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Writing in Poynter, admittedly, she states, ‘journalism of now is a team sport and until we make a practice of teamwork, we will continue to experience fallout among our peers — the people who need to come together…..Let’s be solution-based instead of an echo chamber’.

We await Poynter’s next article on the topic with interest. But after the latest controversy, it might be a while coming.