May 12, 2016

As Stringers Replace Photojournalists, New App Finds a Niche

Reporting Texas


When Beau Mossey pulled over on the side of a San Marcos highway during a rainstorm in March to shoot photos of the Guadalupe River flooding, he felt like he had stepped into a scene from “Nightcrawler.”

In the 2014 film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a freelance cameraman, or stringer, who shoots footage of crimes and accidents and sells them to news stations. Unlike Gyllenhaal’s character, Mossey, a 24-year-old Texas State University student, had no intention of tampering with the scenes he was shooting. Yet he couldn’t help feeling a deep thrill, even as he stood on the highway, soaking wet in sweatpants and rain boots, taking one shot after another with his iPhone.

Despite no formal training in photography, Mossey managed to sell a couple of his photos for $20 each to a Fox News station through Fresco News, an app that allows news stations to crowdsource photos and videos of breaking news events nationwide. It was launched late last year.

“I was looking online for part time jobs, different gigs of all different sorts, and I ran across an ad for Fresco that was saying ‘get paid to take photos,’ ” Mossey said. “I clicked on it and I read a little more about what it was and I really just associated it with the movie “Nightcrawler.” That was the first thing that came into my head.”

Johnathan Hamiter, head of marketing and community at the New York-based Fresco News, called the app “an Uber for news.”

News stations post assignments on the app, while users take photos and videos that meet the requirements and upload them to the app. If the news station uses them, Fresco News is paid $75 per video and $30 per photo. Out of this, the photographer gets $50 for a video and $20 for a photo.  Users retain copyright of their content with the stipulation that they won’t sell it to anyone else for at least 48 hours after it is purchased. Newsrooms that buy are permitted to edit the content as long as they run it with proper credits.

Hamiter said the app is a win-win. It allows news stations to meet tight deadlines with good quality content. The app’s default camera settings ensure users take high-resolution photos that are good enough for professional use. At the same time, Fresco News helps “citizen journalists” get paid and credited for their photos and videos. There are other, more traditional, image-buying sites, including Getty Images and AP Images. And there are many avenues for news organizations to receive images from “citizen journalists.” Individuals may send the images directly to the newsrooms, or the news organizations may take the images off of Twitter or Instagram for free. But Fresco provides a different model: the user gets paid.

The notion of citizen journalism is almost as old as journalism itself. Publick Occurrences, the first American multi-page newspaper, published in 1690, used to carry a blank last page for citizens to write in their own news before passing along the publication to friends.

Recent advances in digital technology, especially the smart phone, have made citizen journalism a lot easier – and practical for professional news organizations to rely on. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, people emailed accounts of their personal experiences to news organizations, which ran them alongside their professional coverage. Videos and photographs taken by eyewitnesses have been broadcast in the wake of tragedies such as the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 2013 Moore tornado in Oklahoma.

But the rise of citizen journalism has come at a cost to the ranks of professional photojournalists, who have seen jobs disappear.

“They’re taking out their cameras and snapping everything. It was just a matter of getting people to take that leap from putting photos on Twitter to putting them on Fresco,” Hamiter said. “I think this is definitely the next wave of photojournalism.”

Fresco News is being used in major cities across the United States, including some in Texas, according to Hamiter. During South by Southwest in Austin this year, the app’s users made more than $1,000 total from content sales.

“With people in and out of the conference, [news stations] got access to a lot of content they wouldn’t have had otherwise – selfies of people with celebrities, backstage shots, little things like that,” Hamiter said.

When record-breaking rains hit Houston and the city experienced severe flooding in late April 2016, Fresco News sent out a call. According to a post Fresco creator John Meyer wrote on a Facebook group for Fresco users, Fresco News Community, more than 1,500 photos and videos of the storm were uploaded. The post was accompanied by a video montage of Fresco content: people kayaking up flooded streets, cars submerged under murky brown water and people carrying animals away from the water.

Fresco News has entered into an agreement with Fox stations nationwide. Hamiter said the company aims to build the world’s largest network of citizen journalists.

Besides responding to posted assignments, app users can also upload unsolicited photos and videos of breaking news events, to be purchased by interested news stations. “As more and more people start [doing so], we’re going to be able to break stories with it,” Hamiter said.

The success of Fresco News, and the popularity of citizen journalism, coincide with a sharp decline in the ranks of professional journalists in recent years. Photojournalists have been the hardest hit: American newspapers trimmed the number of photographers, artists and videographers by 43 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.

Journalism schools and colleges are adapting their programs to ensure their students graduate with the right set of skills for the emerging market.

Anderson Thorne, a photojournalism professor at the University of North Texas in Denton said he teaches students freelance skills and connects them with freelancers as often as possible.

Thorne has created a student-run photo agency at the university that teaches students to work with clients and learn high-quality photo skills, which, he said, transcend the “sexy technology of the moment.”

He said the standards for great photography need to rise as it gets easier to shoot photos.

“I can see that much of the tech push…. in the past decade has been at the expense of high quality photography and storytelling for the sake of convenience,” Thorne said in an email. “Many media outlets are comfortable making that compromise, but a photojournalist will have a hard time finding a meaningful career in that compromised space.”

Carolyn Yaschur, a former photojournalist who now teaches multimedia journalism at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., said citizen journalism “is great,” but emphasized that professional training in photojournalism remains crucial.

She pointed to a study by the National Press Photographers Association, which found that nine out of 10 times, people are able to tell whether a photo has been taken by a professional or an amateur.

Yaschur began her career in photojournalism in 1997 with analog cameras. Digital technology was around, but not everyone was making the switch.

While working in Washington, Yaschur remembers taking a ferry to and from Mariners games every few hours because she had to return to her office to meet deadlines. Now, photojournalists can file photos from the field, and citizen journalists help broaden the coverage.

But Yaschur said that professional training not only involves skills like photo composition and visual storytelling, it also includes an awareness of the ethical obligations of photojournalism, such as not manipulating a scene or posing.

“A trained photojournalist with an iPhone,” she said, “is still going to do a better job than a regular person with an iPhone.”

Though Mossey, the Texas State University student, hasn’t been paid for another assignment since the flooding, he said he still goes out and shoots assignments he finds on Fresco News. Although he sells concessions at sporting events and leads tours on his university campus, freelance photography was a good way to earn some extra money, he said.

“It’s definitely a good gig for a college student,” he said. “It’s a good way to earn some extra money and it’s fun.”