Getty Images sharpens its focus
Seattle Times technology reporter
Several weeks ago, Jonathan Klein, the chief executive of Getty Images, spent an entire weekend at home fielding calls from Iraq.
One of his news photographers was embedded with a Marine unit when it came under heavy fire near Nasiriyah. Another photographer was traumatized after being robbed by bandits. Yet another had been missing for 10 hours when Marines recovered him hiding from his attackers in a field.
It seemed an odd confluence of events for the Seattle company, best known for selling stock photography and film for advertisements and movies. Yet, in the past year, Getty has become as visible for news, sports and entertainment photography as it has for selling digital images of sweating pears and city skylines.
"As a CEO," Klein says in a British lilt, "it's been fascinating."
Getty Images has gained increasing presence on the front covers of newspapers and magazines since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the nascent photo-news service took a series of widely recognized images of the World Trade Center's twin towers shortly after the second plane struck.
Earlier this month, Getty significantly extended its reach when it partnered with French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) to share distribution of its news, sports and entertainment photos. Under the deal, Getty will distribute AFP's photos in the United States and Britain and AFP will distribute Getty's photos to its daily newspaper subscribers in the rest of the world.
What's more, the company has received recognition from its peers, recently winning 11 National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) awards — almost triple any of the established wire services — including magazine photographer of the year.
"I think the reason that Getty's picked up so much steam is because they've got excellent photographers working for them," says Clyde Mueller, former the press-association president. "As a result, the playground, or the resources (for news outlets), have been greatly expanded."
Richard Ellis, Getty's vice president of news development, spent a decade running various international bureaus for the Reuters wire service, including operations in New Delhi, Beijing and Moscow. In 1997, he founded Washington, D.C.-based Newsmakers, the first Internet photo-news service.
Getty subsequently purchased Ellis' business and put him in charge of its news, sports and entertainment photographers, and hired well-known AFP photographer Michael Sargent to handle the business. Getty hired a base of 100 photographers, many of them from Newsmakers, and created free-lance relationships with 150 more.
Ellis, who is based out of New York, says his concept was to offer fewer pictures, already edited into a package and delivered from a different perspective.
"If you take elections in Belgium, most Americans don't care about who wins," he says. "We might give you a couple of brief pictures (of the winner), but we're concerned with what's the story behind the election. We might look at the social issues and economic issues and present that side of the story so (news outlets) have more of a choice than the obvious story."
Getty said it has garnered subscriptions from all the major U.S. newspapers and news magazines, and its photos appear on a regular basis in publications abroad such as The Australian, Der Spiegel in Germany and The Sun in London.
Jim Wilson, the New York Times chief picture-assignment editor, says the turning point came during the Afghanistan incursion, when Getty photographers began producing a number of powerful images. That event, he says, helped build its service.
"Generally, they are players," Wilson says. "They want to be perceived as players and they definitely are."
Indeed, the transition hasn't been effortless and Getty has constant reminders that it's still a newcomer.
Sued for access
In February 2002, the company sued the Department of Defense to join the national media pool for Operation Enduring Freedom, the name for the country's war against terrorism at the time.
The pool, made up of photographers and TV and print reporters, had special access to military events with the understanding that it share material with other news agencies that belong to the pool — a common practice in the news industry.
And while Getty had two embedded photographers during the U.S. war with Iraq, it still hasn't received the same media access to other government entities. It has access to the Pentagon and Buckingham Palace, but not the White House or 10 Downing St.
"It's an ongoing battle," Ellis says. "We win one battle and move on to the next."
Nor is Getty the only new player to emerge. Seattle-based Corbis, owned by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, has spent the past three years building a news-, sports- and entertainment-photography business with purchases such as the prestigious Sygma and Saba news-photography collections.
Rick Boeth, who worked two decades for Time Magazine and now is Corbis' global news director, says its approach and audience are much different than Getty's.
Corbis uses strictly free-lance photographers who retain the copyright to their photos — while Getty free-lancers do not. Meantime, its biggest clients are magazines and it sees its future supplying still images to cable, TV and the Internet — not newspapers.
The division represents 10 percent of Corbis' annual revenue, which is an estimated $128 million. Corbis is a privately held company and does not disclose financial figures.
"We do constantly update daily feed of news events, but we don't just key to the five biggest stories," Boeth says. "We are looking to provide the news, supplemented by high-end first-class photojournalism on assignment."
Getty's news, entertainment and sports-photography business represents roughly 10 percent of the company's overall revenue, and Klein says it has room to grow. Getty's overall revenue — the majority of which was made selling conceptual images of people and objects for use in ads — grew by 3 percent last year to $463 million vs. its photo-news division, which grew nearly 20 percent.
Its stock closed last week on the New York Stock Exchange at $29.60, roughly 23 percent off its 52-week high.
And while the photo-news business carries lower margins than the company's main business, Klein makes no illusions about how his new division's credibility will help it eventually sell more stock photography.
"How many organizations do you know can afford to place an ad on the front of the New York Times?" Klein says. "When Getty appears over there, or on various publications, that's very valuable for us."
In the short term, the company measures its success one magazine and newspaper cover at a time. Joe Raedle, the Getty photographer embedded with the Marines that were ambushed near Nasiriyah, was hit by mortar fire in the back and knee. His photos were carried on 42 front pages the next day and on the cover of Newsweek.
Meantime, Klein continues to make decisions that remind him the face of Getty has significantly changed. Recently, he signed off on the purchase of an armored Land Rover for photographers in southern Iraq. While the war is over, his photographers are still under constant threat.
"A friend of mine wrote to me: 'What does it feel like to be potentially responsible for somebody getting hurt or worse?' " Klein says. "It has introduced issues we hadn't known."
Monica Soto: 206-515-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org