The great demise of print media and, subsequently, photojournalism, has been talked about ad nauseam for years now. Frankly, the debate has grown a bit stale. Even before the recent economic upheaval, no one really had any answers, the questions continue to change, and while it’s clear that the traditional outlets, such as newspapers, used to channel visual imagery are facing heavy challenges, the countless photographs that are produced, circulated and consumed every year leave no doubt that there’s still plenty of value to be found in the work of a visual storyteller. It’s just that figuring out how to assess that value with a number and dollar signs seems to be throwing the industry off.
As evidence, though, that photojournalism is still very much alive, DPP talked to Stephen Mayes, managing director of VII Photo Agency, and Scott Thode, editor of VII The Magazine, which launched earlier this year. The online magazine is a platform designed to give VII’s photographers, some of the best working today, more of a voice in terms of deciding what stories to tell and how best to tell them. But the goal is twofold in that they’re also looking to develop a new business model that actually pays the photographers for the work they do. As they explore a number of initiatives and possibilities, they’re finding some surprising new partners in unexpected places.
DPP: Describe the magazine now.
Scott Thode: Basically, I think the magazine is a great experiment in developing a new way of looking at long-form photojournalism—not just photojournalism—but journalism in its own right because I think the photographers would all say they’re first and foremost journalists. We’re trying to create a whole new way of putting together all the different formats that we have at our disposal, including still photography, writing, video and music. We aren’t a news machine, and that’s a big distinction that has to be made. We aren’t going to try to compete with The New York Times or AP or any of these groups. But what we can do is say we have an issue here, there are things going on in the world, and you need to know about this. We want to educate, entertain and illuminate. In my mind, when I’m editing a story, I want people to understand what the story is about, but nine times out of 10, I’ll go for the emotional jugular. I want people to feel something, and that could be to make people laugh just as easy as it is to make them cry. Having all of these things at our disposal, other than just a simple slideshow, we can create something new and a different way of seeing the world.
The other thing you’re going to get is the voice of the photographers who are on the ground, who are there, who know these stories. They’re incredibly articulate. They will spend years or months working on a story. They do their homework.
Stephen Mayes: In a way, the traditional magazines, even at their peak, were only offering a very particular slice. The way pages work, not only was the traditional photo essay very much beginning, middle, end, but best case was maybe eight pages. That’s not a lot of space, actually. And people now do dig deep. We know from people’s web habits that if they’re interested in a subject, they will want a lot more stuff. So we think this is really a liberation. While some of the changes are very painful in the industry, it’s also opening new doors, and we’re coming at it very much from that perspective. It’s not about trying to fill in a gap of something that’s been left. It’s actually that we suddenly have an opportunity to do something that we always wanted to, but never really quite had the platform.
Thode: It’s not filling in a gap because there’s no gap to fill in. We’re just trying to create something totally new. We aren’t looking to replace print media or anything like that. There’s this sense that there’s a whole new way of approaching a story now that really opens us up to a whole new way of working and thinking and seeing and in getting the stories out there.
DPP: What’s the feeling among the photographers?
Mayes: This is very much an interim; it’s a transition period. The old is dying and the new is coming. It’s kind of the darkest hour at this moment. This is the most difficult moment to get through. There’s a very clear ambition on the part of the photographers to be moving forward and to create new ways of telling stories and create new businesses. But the other aspect of this ties into the founding of VII, which was fairly innovative way back in 2001. It was designed to be an agency with some kind of a difference. Most notably, they wanted to keep it technologically enabled and light in infrastructure. So from the very outset, they had always thought of this as being an agency that’s trying to do things differently. So the challenges that are facing us, and the opportunities that are coming with them, are actually very welcome to the photographers. We could wish it would be a smoother transition, but it’s a transition, and they totally get that and are embracing it. Even those who aren’t immediately participating for various reasons because of time or adjusting to new formats, they’re all looking with huge interest and are very supportive.
DPP: Fast-forward a year from now. Where is VII The Magazine?
Mayes: It’s very much a learning tool. We start from a position of being fairly confident about what we think will work and how we think we’re going to get there. But we’re also super-alert to the fact that it will change and evolve in response to reality. We’re moving slowly because we’re listening quite hard and we want to get some responses. We want to see how people work with the magazine, as partners and as an audience and as photographers. We want to know how all the parties respond and work with it before investing too much. We expect it to be accessed from many different websites, indeed not even websites at all; we’d like it as an app for mobile platforms and online platforms, as well as specifically web platforms.
In terms of content, some of the things Scott is working on developing are ideas about what else we might include and how this could look regardless of whatever platform it’s in.
DPP: What’s the response so far?
Thode: There’s this rule that no piece on the Internet should be more than a minute-and-a-half or two minutes, and yet we’ll put up a nine-and-a-half-minute Chris Morris piece on the oil spill down in the Gulf and it will get an incredible amount of attention. There’s something here, there’s a need here. Obviously, people are finding this interesting. There’s an audience. We just need to find it to move forward.
Mayes: We’re not attempting to reach a huge general audience. We’re being specific about trying to reach people who are really interested in the medium of photography and, of course, the stories behind the photos. [Ashley] Gilbertson did a piece on a call center for military veterans—a suicide helpline for people with PTSD. It published simultaneously on the front page of The New York Times and on VII The Magazine. The New York Times, without a doubt, gets many more readers, but the magazine actually had more responses, and what that speaks to is an engaged audience. It’s not that we want the world’s biggest audience;
it’s that we want a really interested audience, and that’s part of the commercial structure in that having a very refined audience makes for a relatively straightforward advertising sale.
DPP: Who are your partners?
Mayes: One of the things that I find intriguing is that our development partner is an ad agency. It’s surprising when you think of VII being very full on in the editorial world. The assumption would be that we would want to go to a publisher or somebody in the editorial market. But a lot of publishers are struggling and don’t have the answers. More to the point, ad agencies are very results-oriented. They’re not trying to shoehorn an old product into a new skin. They’re just using whatever works. And that, to me, is one of the exciting things about where this whole new world leads us in these very surprising partnerships. There’s no compromise involved. We’re not selling ourselves to anybody. There are no editorial issues. It’s just saying here’s the machinery, this is what you can do with it. It has led to some quite innovative thinking. The problem is that, because it’s an innovative strategy, it’s quite difficult to roll out because, with every partner we talk to, there’s nothing to point to. We can’t say it’s a little bit like this and a little bit like that. It’s its own thing. Once we get people’s attention, then they’re very engaged.
The whole process is exciting, and it comes back to exploration. At this point, we don’t know how it’s going to work. We have our ideas, but at every step we’re finding opportunities. Amidst all of the negativity and fear about what we’re losing, there’s something else happening. Yes, we’re sad to lose all of that, but there are interesting and unexpected things coming out of it, for example, starting a magazine with an ad agency that’s not about advertising. People I really wouldn’t have expected to work with have suddenly become interesting and enriching partners. It’s that notion of finding what we can do together that we couldn’t do on our own. The challenges facing us are how to develop a commercial model, but also to look at what it is we were commercializing. The role of photography, and photojournalism, in particular, has to change as we move into the 21st century. So it’s not only how do we continue to make a living; it’s also what are we actually making a living by. All of that’s leading to new and surprising stuff. Some of it will work and some of it won’t, and at the end of the day, we’ll know more than we did last year.
Check out VII The Magazine at www.magazine.viiphoto.com.