Photojournalists barred from selling reprints in Illinois

…in certain circumstances, that is.

This entire article rubs me the wrong way. Summary:

  1. News photographers, especially high school sports photographers, have been barred from access to sports games if their paper sells a lot of reprints online or if they won’t sign a form promising not to sell reprints.
  2. Some of these photographers directly make money from reprint sales; one from the Daily Southtown called a picture of a softball team cheering “the money shot.”
  3. The Illinois High School Association (IHSA), says this is necessary to protect the contract they have with VIP, a PR company hired to specifically take shots to sell to students and parents; revenue is shared with the school district. “We don’t have a problem with you giving them away or doing photo galleries online,” Anthony Holman, assistant executive director of the IHSA, told Bloomington’s Pantagraph last November.
  4. State Representative Joe Lyons has introduced House Bill 4582, which states that no school or school organization “may infringe upon or attempt to regulate in any manner the dissemination of news or the use of visual images by the news media…” which isn’t really what’s at stake here, is it? What’s at stake is the COMMERCIAL use of visual images by the news media.

There are so many things wrong with this. First, the IHSA is stepping way over its bounds. It doesn’t have the right to tell a newspaper what they can and can’t do with their photos. (The Illinois Press Association sued the IHSA to get access to the state football finals and lost the case. Has everyone in Illinois lost their minds?)

But on the other hand, a newspaper isn’t in–or shouldn’t be in–the business of selling reprints. Yet some are: “[V]isit the Web site of what’s now the SouthtownStar and you’ll see the paper means business. ‘Welcome to Southland Photo­Shoppe,’ it says. ‘Your shopping choices range from traditional prints to T-shirts, mugs, computer mouse pads and other items on which our photos are imprinted.’ A simple eight-by-ten is $25.” A newspaper is a public benefit, I believe the term is. It’s like a subway system or a museum in that it provides a value far greater than its monetary worth to shareholders. (Unlike subway systems and museums, newspapers aren’t kept afloat with government money. Probably a good thing, but the Beeb hasn’t often let me down…)

Alas, the sad fact of the news industry is that papers have to pursue outside interests and investments to remain viable. The Washington Post company owns Kaplan. The New York Times has Gannett owns a job site for nurses? (What? That one came as a surprise for me, too.) So if a small paper in Peoria (or whatever) needs an extra $2000 a year to keep afloat, it’s sad, crass, but necessary. I just somehow feel that the value of the”money shot” picture is more than the photograph itself. Does seeing yourself (or your kid) on the front page of your hometown newspaper not count as a value-add anymore? Isn’t that worth more than a framed photograph? Isn’t there a way for papers to capitalize on this without becoming commercial?

In the end, nobody wins here. As Lyons says, if VIP ever decides it’s not making enough money and pulls out and there’s nobody to take pictures, “Badda bing, badda boom, you’re taking your own photos.” News organizations that have been made to feel unwelcome for years are not going to flock back to take pictures of the high school chess club.


  1. Chris Combs says:

    Newspapers have always been in the business of selling reprints. That’s not justification, just simple fact: back-issues and prints and file lookups cost money, because it costs man-hours and storage space to have the archives in the first place.

    You can’t contend that printmaking is a fully automated process; you know fully well how long it takes to make a good print of a photograph. A photograph as toned for newsprint doesn’t really have much in common with a photograph toned for a print. More work, more time.

    Newspapers are in the business of providing content. They’re not really in the business of providing things, so expect a thing to cost you more than a quarter…

    Providing content for free on the Internet is one thing; providing access to the materials that were used to create the content is another entirely, which is essentially what you’re buying with a print — an exceptionally fine-quality product crafted from the original JPEG or negative. Providing a 500px sRGB JPEG is not analogous to providing the original photograph; nor is providing a newspaper analogous to providing a print.

    If the newsprint’s good enough for you, you can always buy that from the Reprints Department of your newspaper; or pay more to get a good print from the Photo Department. Critiquing the availability of photo prints is akin to damning Target for having two vacuums, one cheap and one expensive: you are under no obligation to purchase the pricier one, but it’s available to those interested parties that understand the distinction.

    As Ansel Adams famously said, the negative is the symphony’s score; the print is the performance. You’re buying more with your $25 than a click of the “Print” button.

    (And the argument of a newspaper as public institution, “Paper of Record,” is a slippery slope; are reporters required to provide all of the historical facts that they garnered for an article? Putting on the historian’s hat suggests that entire interviews or anonymous sources should universally be revealed for the greater good.)

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