Time frugal cover.png A fierce and fascinating debate has broken out over the cover photo on Time magazine’s April 27 print edition. Time paid a pittance for the picture — at least a pittance next to what big magazines normally pay for cover art — and that’s made a lot of professional photographers furious.

They should get over it. But they and their gifted-amateur and part-timer peers — especially the ones capturing breaking news events — should start agitating for some better marketplaces than the ones available today. More on that below, but first some background:

The marketplace for photography in the Internet era has changed irrevocably. In 2006, I argued that the professionals who will feel the pain most in the short run are the folks who shoot spot-news pictures. I said, in part:

They can’t possibly compete in the media-sphere of the future. We’re entering a world of ubiquitous media creation and access. When the tools of creation and access are so profoundly democratized, and when updated business models connect the best creators with potential customers, many if not most of the pros will fight a losing battle to save their careers.

This was bad news for them, I acknowledged, but not for the rest of us — because someone with a camera (probably part of a phone) almost always would be in a position to capture relevant still photos and/or, increasingly, videos of newsworthy events. We’d have more valuable pictures, not less, and production values would take second place to authenticity and timeliness.

I also said that staff feature photographers were in less trouble. The Time cover suggests that I was premature in that assessment, though I do believe that great artists will always have a market for their work.

The rub, as anyone who spends any serious time on Flickr already knows, is that amateur photographers are doing incredible work. Few of them can match the consistent quality of what the pros do, but they don’t have to. Every one of us is capable of capturing one supremely memorable image. Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it on Flickr or other photo sites including the stock-photos service where Robert Lam listed the picture that ended up on Time’s cover. Lam said that he was paid $30 for the photo, according to this conversation thread on the Model Mayhem photo community site, which includes some strenuous objections from pro photographers.

It does strike me as absurd that a huge magazine with huge circulation can get an image like Lam’s for so little money. But that was his choice, and it was Time’s choice to take advantage of the low price he was asking.

Just as some people gladly take the New York Times’ absurdly low pay when their freelance articles make it into the paper’s news and op-ed pages, some photographers gladly sell their work for peanuts to Time. They have their own reasons, which can range from getting valuable exposure — so they can (try to) charge more for subsequent work — to not needing the money staffers and more famous people can demand.

This gets trickier, it seems to me, when it comes to breaking news, where news organizations derive enormous benefits from having the right image or video at the right time and too frequently get it for less than peanuts. Indeed, practically every news organization now invites its audience to submit pictures and videos, in return for which the submitters typically get zip.

Which is why we need a more robust marketplace than any I’ve seen so far — namely a real-time auction system.

The sites currently promoting citizen journalists’ work don’t offer anything of this sort, as far as I can tell. This isn’t to say I don’t like those sites, which include NowPublic and Demotix, because I like them a great deal. But someone needs to go further.

How would a real-time auction system work? The flow, I’d imagine, would go like this:

Photographer captures breaking news event on video or audio, and posts the work to the auction site. Potential buyers, especially media companies, get to see watermarked thumbnails and then start bidding. A time limit is enforced in each case. The winning bid goes to the journalist, minus a cut to the auction service.

The premium, then, would be on timeliness and authenticity. One or two images/videos would be likely to command relatively high prices, and everything else would be worth considerably less.

Eventually, someone will do this kind of business — which could also be useful for eyewitness text accounts of events. For the sake of the citizen journalists who are not getting what they deserve for their work, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

(Cross-posted from Mediactive)

For more on Demotix and citizen photo agencies, check out this article from MediaShift by Mark Glaser.