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Are Getty Images and Corbis getting too big?

On the day Getty Images announced the $200m purchase of Wireimages, to strengthen its position in multimedia material (Press Gazette), Lewis Blackwell, group creative director of the giant photo library, was defending their policy of acquisitions.

Last month Eamonn McCabe, former picture editor of the Guardian, wrote about the move of the Sygma picture library from its central Paris base. Sygma was bought in 1999 by Corbis, owned by Bill Gates of Microsoft.

McCabe was worried about the concentration of pictures under the control of Getty Images and Corbis. He wrote:

Today, the small family structures that still exist, and the mergers of photographers or co-ops, are faced with a colossal challenge: to convert quickly to digital in order to sell across the internet, or be reduced to the status of a museum. In the late 1990s, Sygma did not have the required money, but Corbis had the investment capital at a time when the work of over 10,000 photographers had to be digitalised to compete with the other major player in the global photography library business, John Paul Getty Jnr….
Getty and Gates are buying up photo libraries by the day, in order to one day own every photo used on the web. They already own between them a third of the world’s images, a fact that has to worry photographers. Gressent, the archive manager, is reassuringly passionate that the photographer will be king in his new library. At least the images by the 10,000 photographers who worked for Sygma are safe and in order, thanks to his team.

Yesterday, Blackwell responded in the Guardian saying that in the “vast, globalised net marketplace, photographers and collection-holders alike gravitate to companies such as ours because they offer the expertise to deliver image content into the right hands”.

He pointed out that Getty Images was not owned by John Paul Getty Jr, denied that the two giant companies owned a third of the world’s images and concluded:

Consumer choice now rules the market. Large players can only be successful if they offer something better than what is easily available in numerous places elsewhere on the web. The photographer remains king in this new environment – in fact photographers now have more options for sharing or making money from their work than ever. That’s something that anyone who cares about photography, and the impact it has on our lives, should celebrate.

There is no doubt that giant libraries made life easier for picture researchers and their employers but global dominance worries me.

Third Webby in a row for Guardian Unlimited

Winning the Webby award for the best newspaper website for the third consecutive year is a great achievement for Guardian Unlimited. The others on the shortlist were the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

The New York Times won the Webby for the best business blog with its Deal Book, a large-scale group blog. Both the Guardian (Comment is Free) and the NYTimes (The Caucus) were nominated for best political blog but the award went to Truthdig.

Later: I missed out the fact that the Guardian was also nominated in the podcast category which went to National Public Radio.

Murdoch aims to crown career with the WSJ

At the age of 76 Rupert Murdoch is showing no sign of slowing down. The question today is can he crown his career with a spectacular purchase of the Wall Street Journal, the second largest paper in the US?

With the controlling Bancroft family divided he stands a good chance of succeeding. The family said yesterday that it intended to cast “slighly more than 50%” of the voting stock against the $60 a share offer for Dow Jones, publisher of the financial paper. According to the WSJ that suggests about 80% of the family voting power is against a deal.

The family control depends on super-voting “B” shares with carry 10 times the voting power of “A” shares in Dow Jones. Yesterday two-thirds of the “A” shares changed hands as the price shot up by more than a half to $56.20, many of them going into the hands of investors who are likely to press for the sale.

Other businesses may decide to make bids but some of the suggested contenders have ruled themselves out of any contest.

Murdoch is moving to counter suggestions that he would influence editorial policy by offering safeguards including a separate board for the WSJ.

Jeff Jarvis and the undermining of journalism

Reading Jeff Jarvis at his Buzzmachine blog and his Guardian column I sometimes find things to agree with but the strongest sense is that he is on a mission to destroy journalism. He so often seems to want to undermine the imperfect practices of journalism that have developed over centuries that it is as if there is a Dalek loose on the web.

What I mean by journalism is the gathering and sifting of facts and opinions, cutting through the noise to present a coherent story. The outcomes of this process vary which is why it is important that there is a range of organisations carrying it out. Some will have been misled, some will be biased, some will have made mistakes and some will have found different facts and opinions. Over time readers decide which of these sources they mainly choose to trust. Readers, listeners and viewers who are more media literate will look at the output of several organisations and reach their own conclusions.

This week Jarvis starts his Guardian column (also at Buzzmachine) thus:

The fundamental architecture of news has shifted – again. We’ve already seen that news organisations’ exclusive hold on distribution and content creation has dissolved. But now it appears that their pre-eminence as news gatherers is also challenged, especially during breaking news events. So during big news stories, what is the role of the journalist now? To link, it seems.

Certainly the architecture of news is shifting as it did with the penny post and the telephone but faster and with greater effect. I am not sure that news organisations ever had an “exclusive hold on distribution” but a much wider range of the source material of journalists is now easily available to most.

“Witness reporters” have new tools (audio recorders, video cameras and mobile phones) and can distribute more widely through blogs, Facebook, YouTue and other channels that Jarvis mentions.

In the early days of newspapers they depended on letters from “witness reporters” brought by stage coach or sailing ship: letters from people on the scene have continued to be a valuable source until recently and people phoning home continue to be important.

As Jarvis points out, most of the students at Virginia Tech who posted on the web were simply saying “I’m OK, Dad” and their audiences did not come to them with “journalistic expectations of completeness, verification, and identity”. He says that before reporters (he uses the pejorative “news vultures”) arrived at the university, news organisations depended on these accounts. The stories were already there and Jarvis asks: “What was big media to do, then? Link.”

Of course, linking has has to be an important part of the way journalism is done now. But Jarvis takes this argument further and suggests that technology now makes it possible for the “witness reporters” to stream live from the scene. He asks: “What does big media do when there is no time to vet and verify? They’ll have to issue caveats. And link.”

In these circumstances reporters have always used material prefaced by a phrase such as “according to unverified sources”. But they have also sought to verify and to filter out the gossip and outrageous surmises which surrounds every major event. Similar criteria have to be applied to linking.

Jarvis takes his linking argument further and discusses the Washington Post story about the treatment of Iraq veterans at an army hospital. The NY Times was criticised for not not running a story of their own quickly enough. He says: “The Times was better off linking to the Post and saving its reporting resources to uncover its own critical stories. The Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, to journalism at its source.”

I agree a quick story quoting the Post as the source and providing a link is right. But not to follow up, checking the story and seeking new information, would undermine the whole basis of the way journalism has, and should continue to operate.

Most stories which hold authority to account, as the Walter Reed hospital did, develop as more reporters carry out their own investigations. It is the pressure of intense investigation by the media which unearths new facts and detail which lead to getting things done.

As for the assertion the Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, that must come from some other world. Scoops are part of the fight for circulation and unique users which, in the end, pay journalists.

Jarvis argues that newspapers should stop wasting resources covering what everybody else is covering. Again, there is truth in this. A media scrum is often unproductive and a reporter on the scene should know when to call the office and say: “I”m leaving the doorstep to the agencies and going to talk to some people who I hope will give us a fresh angle.”

So to Jarvis’s “new rule for journalism: do what you do best. Link to the rest.” That, surely, is why news agencies were invented.

I have no argument with Jarvis’s call to work co-operatively with witness-reporters, community members, experts, people who publish on their own, finding and sending readers to the best and most reliable among them. This is a way to release staff to concentrate on new areas and the things they do best.

But simply linking sounds rather like a combination of blogging and Google. I don’t think that is what is wanted from trusted news organisations. And I very much doubt if it will fill many pay packets.

And yes, I am writing from the perspective of a reporter. I also believe that it also serves the reader best.