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Are Online Photo Sites a Revolution? Or Just Plain Revolting?



And strangely enough, during the month of December, tales started circulating about carnage at the dot-coms. Not just the photo.coms, but all dot-coms of every description. Previously an alluring bet for the gamers in the casinos of Wall Street, they suddenly were on the skids, broke, anathema to those giddy gamblers who make and break companies with their venture capital.
Were the photo.coms merely swept-up in the same phobic awakenings that made so many speculators so suddenly so sober? Or was there something about the photo group in particular? That question, like swamp gas, has risen into the air, but only so high. And facts are obscured in its shroud. The only thing we can say as fact is that a lot of people say it's curtains for the upstarts.
A lot of people have a lot of jobs, and the moneywell's full of cinders, in the opinion of most we spoke to. Is this good? Not really. But given the timeline, it certainly is revolutionary.

Why?
As the founding editor of one of these sites, I lament the apocalypse allegedly befalling them. As an on-line journalist, I was able to show my readers test-report pictures in greater quantity, and in more ways of viewing, than any print publication can provide. I was able to report breaking news the instant it broke. I was able to hotlink articles directly to related articles, simplifying my readers' search for knowledge. The Internet is a liberating medium for a journalist, and I got great satisfaction thinking I was doing my best job ever.
But the editorial departments of photo.coms that had Ôem didn't directly contribute to the revenue streams of these companies. A good group of tutorials, reviews, and news attracts visitors to the site, but the visitors don't pay for the articles. They pay for the photo coffee-mugs, the photo T-shirts, the photo greeting cards. And this kind of business model, in the minds of many, created more of an economic trickle than stream. Then there were the ways the newcomers tried to attract the public.
"They gave away free server space," said John Knaur of Olympus America. "They gave away free articles. They gave away free processing and printing. How did they think they'd make money, if they gave everything away?"
The answer to that is the old one. They could make it up in volume. Ka-boom.
"The people running the dot-coms are Internet people," said Lance Braithwaite, one of the founders of Hyperzine (among the first Web-based photography publications) who characterizes himself as "A Technical Editor who has dabbled in Internet publishing." "They seem not to have realized they've entered a form of publishing. It's a new form, as far as the delivery system is concerned, but it's still publishing. This is how the public will perceive it, and this is what the dot-commers are missing. Their information has to be accurate, insightful, targeted to a specific audience, and most of all, readable. And this is not always the case."

Experts need not apply?
There does seem to be a conceit among many of our latest captains of industry, that you don't need to know anything about a business to run it. Hire a few experts, stick Ôem in a room, throw some money at Ôem, get Ôem going. If you want to impose your ideas as a publisher even if you're not qualified to do so, you outrank Ôem and do so anyway, secure that the experts will call room service to clean up any mess you leave behind.
In all fairness to these folks, we have to consider today's axiom, that any company really has two markets. There's the market composed of the end-users of the company's products, and there's the market composed of the folks with the deep pockets and the Lotto fever.
This is how we arrived at the mind-stretcher of the age, the value of a company's stock vastly exceeding the value of the company itself. Like so-called precious metals and gems, the functional application of the item is relatively limited. It becomes worth as much as it does, because enough people agree to make it worth that much.
And then they agree not to make it worth that much, and all fall down.
The photo.coms, particularly those with their own bricks-and-mortar lab operations, remain as promising as ever, as service providers to the public. But that only addresses the actual company again, not its stock. The stock may still make good investments, but the investment guys are driven by hysteria. They must have hysteria, in order to keep operating. And the hysteria seems to have turned away from the photo.coms.

The rumor mill.
Rumors first began circulating about photohighway.com a few months ago, citing layoffs and cutbacks. The site had one of the better editorial departments, its PhotoTimes having evolved from Hyperzine under the guidance of Larry White.
I followed-up those rumors with photohighway's official PR contact, who reassured me that the downsizing was merely an efficiency step, that the Australia-based mother company wanted to consolidate its U.S. offices, that really only one or two marketing people had been laid-off because they now represented redundant capacity.
When I called back two months later, the official PR contact was no longer with the company. The gent who answered the phone gave me the number of the new official PR contact. I put in a couple calls to her, and finally was told that she, too, had been "terminated."

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