At ‘New York’s Picture Newspaper,’ photographers trade dark looks

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When Alexander Hitchen assumes his new post as photo editor of the Daily News, he will inherit a small fleet of freelance photojournalists who feel as if they've just had the wind knocked out of them.

The paper's pool of regular freelance photographers, including more than a dozen who work full-time hours for the tabloid on set day-rates but are not salaried employees with benefits, were recently asked to sign a new contract by July 31 in order to continue receiving assignments after that date. They find certain aspects of the contract, which was shared with Capital, to be onerous. In particular: It reduces the ability of freelance photographers to resell their work, something that has long been considered a staple of their compensation because the base pay is relatively low.

The four-page document was handed down from the paper's legal department several weeks ago. Hitchen, whose hiring was reported by Capital on Tuesday, is expected to begin sometime in the coming weeks. (Photographers are still awaiting a formal announcement.)

"The fact that it's being pushed before Hitchen starts makes us wary, as we have no real advocate at the top," a source told Capital.

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According to several people familiar with the situation, some photographers were about ready to walk this week, while others wanted to arrange a sit-down with Daily News brass in hopes of reaching a compromise. They gathered last weekend to discuss possibly bringing their concerns to management, but most of them have ultimately decided it is better to sign the agreement than risk losing work, sources said.

"The whole thing is totally unconscionable," said a person who will be affected under the terms of the new contract.

The main sticking point is the seven-day exclusivity period, which stipulates that freelance News photographers must wait a week before re-selling their work to non-competing outlets like celebrity magazines and syndication services. (As is standard with this type of arrangement, New York publications like the New York PostThe New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Newsday are entirely off limits for resale, as are certain national and international titles including Mail Online, The Daily, "or any newspaper, website or service affiliated with News Corporation"; places like Us Weekly and Polaris Images, however, are kosher.)

Many freelance photographers, who at the News are paid between $175 and $250 a day, rely on resale income to supplement the modest daily retainer. But resale prospects diminish with a photo's age.

"Breaking news items aren't gonna be hot for very long," said a veteran New York photo editor who would only comment anonymously. "They're basically locking their freelancers out of syndicating their work."

Under the previous agreement, the exclusivity period was 48 hours, sources said. For a comparison, the Post's exclusivity period was reduced to 24 hours after a similar dispute played out there not long ago, according to a person with knowledge of the paper's photo contract. The News contract grants copyright ownership to the freelance photographers while reserving the paper's right to reproduce or sell their works "provided that ... Publisher will pay you 50% of its gross receipts from such sales."

These photographers, who are considered freelance, or "permalance," even though they maintain regular shifts five days a week or more, are also jittery about sections of the agreement that emphasize their roles as independent contractors working without any of the safety nets afforded to staff photographers and other salaried employees. For instance, by putting their signatures on the dotted line, they agree to "indemnify" the News against potential litigation—like, say, if one of them was sued for surreptitiously taking a picture that could be perceived as a privacy invasion. 

"The language is particularly strong this time," said one source. "All the time, we're put in positions where we could be arrested or assaulted"—as was demonstrated when Alec Baldwin decked a freelance News photographer last month—"and they're making every effort to say, 'The buck stops with you.'"

Earlier this year, in the days right before Colin Myler was named editor-in-chief of the News, freelance photographers were expecting either to be cut loose or moved into full-time staff jobs, as was the case with a handful of permalance reporters. But the change never happened. One also hears whispers of pending employment litigation by freelance photographers against both the News and the Post, which has a similar permalancer system, though sources generally aren't willing to discuss such cases on the record (or even off of it, for that matter).

Some News photo-permalancers are proceeding with caution.

"There are certain things I'm not gonna do anymore," said one of them.

"Practically speaking, it means we're not going to be sneaking into hospital rooms anymore," another predicted, half-jokingly. "A lot of us are going to be very selective about our assignments, and taking fewer risks."

And yet risky assignments are precisely what News photographers must be anticipating from their incoming boss. As a former National Enquirer reporter who was on the team that broke the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter scandal, Hitchen is no doubt familiar with stake-outs, stalking and other types of aggressive assignments that could land you on the wrong side of someone's fist. Nor is Myler, formerly editor of the defunct British phone-hacking tabloid News of the World, a stranger to such tactics. Lurid celebrity stories, meanwhile, have become more numerous under his stewardship.

There's also some concern that Myler might think there are too many photographers running around the place in general. During a companywide "town hall" on Tuesday, he pointed out that the News has 18 staff photographers, whereas he said there are only five at News Corp's surviving British tabloid, The Sun, according to people familiar with the meeting. Myler made that remark in the context of illustrating that the News is not running on a skeleton crew, these people said.

Reached for comment, a spokesman for the paper would only say: "The Daily News does not discuss personnel matters."

In other news about the News, Tom Sullivan, managing editor for production and a long-time employee of the paper, has been let go, three sources told Capital.

"There's a lot of institutional memory being lost," said one of them.

Earlier this week, the News fired its political editor, Ian Bishop, after he clashed with Myler over coverage.