Most people don’t know much about Bill Gates’s other company. I didn’t, either, until a few months ago. I was only a teenager when my fellow Washington Stater bought the famous Bettmann Archive in the ’90s. Beyond that ancient headline, I hadn’t a clue about Corbis.
I got a quick education.
Corbis is a copyright business. Its many divisions do music licensing, “talent management” and product placement, among other things, but its chief product remains stock imagery. One thing Corbis hasn’t done, as a general principle, is news. Its past ventures in that area have reportedly resulted in walks-outs, lie-ins and naked protests, once-prestigious agencies “killed”, bankruptcy, disappeared executives and “shocked” journalists confronted with contracts stating they were not, nor did they intend to become, journalists.
Now, I doubt Bill knows, but Corbis is currently botching one of its latest acquisitions, a very promising news startup called Demotix.
Demotix launched in 2009, a crowdsourced news agency with an underdog spirit and big clients like the Guardian, the Telegraph, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the Wall Street Journal. Anyone can join Demotix; last I checked, it had 36,000 contributors, many in places where traditional news organizations have stopped fielding bureaus. A small team, based chiefly in London but ranging as far away as Bangkok and Peru, scoured thousands of uploads every day for the most newsworthy images. After a quick verification and edit, Demotix sells those pictures; 50 percent goes back to the photographer.
With so many publishers, journalists and techies getting lost in the woods on the great snipe hunt for “monetization”, there was obvious appeal in that simple, workable business model. Corbis bought Demotix shortly before its former CEO, Turi Munthe, hired me last November.
I was its editor in chief, until last week. Mine was a new role. I was not a picture editor – I’ve never been anything but an amateur photographer – but a journalistic overseer in charge of contributor relations and training, editorial planning and newsgathering, and the overall presentation of the Demotix website itself. My challenge was to raise the overall standard, and it was a novel challenge, since we ran at once on a shoestring and at a massive scale. Some contributors were amateurs, some were old pros, some spoke English, many didn’t, some were in it for the money, others out of passion, and a few were scoundrels to be rooted out and sent packing.
Big job, steep learning curve, no safety net – and lots of fun. At first.
I gave notice at the end of March, on Turi’s last day in the office. The timing was no coincidence: With his departure, Corbis was ready to make big changes, changes which the new management had elected not to share with employees.
I think my former colleagues understand my reasons for leaving. It had been a rough few weeks. Much to my surprise, however, a Corbis manager called after receiving my terse notice letter and asked me to take a couple of days and reconsider.
I thought it was strange how, all of a sudden, Corbis management was in a mood to listen. They’d heard our concerns before but seemingly paid no mind.
Before I go on, I want to be clear: My reasons for resigning have nothing to do with Demotix. I absolutely respect and admire my former colleagues there. All credit belongs to them, and to the photographers. The important work was done before I showed up.
My decision had everything to do with Corbis management.
I’m going public now now for two reasons:
One, because it’s not too late to do some good for Demotix and its contributors, many of whom work in dangerous situations with little support, routinely taking risks that Corbis managers, in their myopic focus on numbers, ratios and margins, never seemed to appreciate. I came to think of Corbis management as the budding Robert McNamaras of photojournalism.
Two, because when you leave a job after five months, people get curious. It’s on me to explain what happened.
There are some lessons in all this about “the future of journalism,” company culture, startups, the freelance economy, the widgetization of intellectual work, the harmful side-effects of extended exposure to corporate presentations and emailâ€¦Â but it’s too soon for me to write about any of that.
I do plan to go back to writing, though.
Why not start with a listicle?
In ascending order of outrageousness, my reasons for quitting:
5. Corbis management put profit above everything.
Corbis managers were very clear that their company’s first priority was making money. That’s understandable: Corbis’s longstanding failure to turn a profit is famous in the industry. I am not so naÃ¯ve as to think that profit isn’t a big concern at any corporation, even one owned by a man who likes to give his money away.
The problem was that Corbis management wanted Demotix to share their own short-sighted profit obsession, in ways I felt would be totally counterproductive. We were told, for instance, to think more about the concerns of media buyers (who pay Demotix) and less about our photographers (who Demotix pays). That’s not what I signed up for. Freelancers are pinched already, and I felt that if Demotix was no longer seen to offer a better deal, they’d find one. So much for making money.
4. They said we’d stay independent, then proceeded to interfere.
Although Corbis management described their role as facilitators, not micro-managers, they quickly made impositions affecting the day-to-day operations of Demotix. Mine was not the only department affected by their meddling. In my case, though, management interference most often meant demands for certain stories to be covered. I tried to help out with those requests where I saw some news value in them, but often that was not the case. I know this did not endear me to certain people.
Corbis management didn’t seem to understand or care that it was my job to exercise independent news judgment. Did I expect otherwise? Well, yes.
To reiterate: Editorial integrity was not a concept that heavily burdened the minds of Corbis management. Had I stayed on I imagine this would’ve become an intractable problem. I was advised to be flexible. I’ll do my stretches at home, thanks.
3. They wanted celebrity fluff at the expense of hard news.
Demotix built its name on what Turi called “street journalism”: hard news from far-flung corners, locals doing local reporting. But Corbis managers wanted to focus on a narrow conception of â€œwhat sells.â€ That meant, for instance, having Demotix photographers cover certain product launches: advertising as news, news as advertising. It meant covering more limited-access, Official-At-A-Podium and red carpet-type events.
And that in turn meant less time and attention spent covering anti-corruption protests in Bangladesh or contested elections in Kenya or neo-fascist movements in Greece. Those were the type of stories I loved to see on Demotix, and the fact that we featured them so prominently on the website kept contributors coming back with more.
Fact is, those international hard news stories did sell, and sold often. But it’s no secret that on a per-image basis, famous faces will always bring in bigger dollars than pictures of poor people. So I understood where management was coming from. I just didn’t want to wind up spending my days pushing freelancers to stake out some reality show star’s hotel, on spec. The strange thing is, Corbis already has people for that. Before it bought Demotix, Corbis bought a paparazzi agency, Splash News, which is something like the Blackwater of the celebrity-industrial complex. Why not leave it to the experts?
2. They broke apart our team and redefined our jobs.
We’d been a fairly flat and democratic organization. Our system worked. But Corbis required Demotix to conform to its corporate heirarchy, I imagine so that managers could have something to say about us in meetings with other managers. Big mistake.
The final straw, for me: Corbis management devised a sweeping reorganization plan for Demotix without bothering to share the details with employees. We eventually got a glimpse of the planned changes when a slide from a management presentation was leaked to us. That was how I learned I would no longer be editor in chief, but assigned to some vaguely defined new department that didn’t include news. Other departments were similarly scrambled. And parts of the plan were far more reckless and ill-considered.
1. I thought their plans were dangerous.
I strongly felt the Corbis management plan for Demotix would’ve not only dismantled our news operations, but potentially put journalists at risk. Demotix has in the past had at least one person on duty 24-7, editing stories as they comes in and keeping an eye out for developing situations. The Corbis plan, however, left nights and weekends largely uncovered. Obviously, that would dramatically slow our turnaround time for breaking news. Worse, I feared, the coverage gaps could leave Demotix unable to respond to a contributor in trouble. As it was, we couldn’t always offer help directly – and certainly not as much as we’d have liked. But with the structure that Corbis management proposed, I expected we’d be caught flat-footed by every emergency.
I gave notice the day I saw the new org chart. A couple of days later, I wrote a detailed memo explaining many of the unresolved problems I saw with the changes, including examples of some very real “health ‘n’ safety” concerns (to borrow a local phrase). I know it wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that those issues were raised by Demotix to Corbis management.
Among other things, I asked who, under the new structure, would be there to dissuade inexperienced freelancers from pursuing dangerous assignments they aren’t prepared for – to put safety over sales?
This, I noted, is not a hypothetical problem. News organizations will still pay for the bang-bang, they just don’t pay enough anymore to cover the true cost of obtaining hard-to-get pictures. As a predictable result the trend in war correspondence is toward young freelancers hoping to make their name (and anonymous local stringers). Many don’t realize quite how cheap their lives are to the industry or that, in today’s conflicts, a press card is a big red target as much as it is a badge of protection.
I also wanted to know who, going forward, would express condolences if and when a contributor is killed while taking pictures? Would anyone from Corbis call the family?
I never got a response.
The silence from Corbis management put to rest any second thoughts I might’ve had about leaving a job I enjoyed.
If Corbis at a higher level wants to do right, and prevent yet another acquisition from going sideways, I offer a simple solution: let the remaining Demotix employees decide how Demotix should run, and grow. They did just fine on that score before Corbis decided it knew better.