Collector pays newspapers millions to digitize vintage photos

For many newspapers, digitizing decades of photo archives is important, but not urgent; always a goal, but never a priority; a great idea, but a huge expense. That’s why so many editors over the last few years have been so eager to do business with John Rogers, a collector from Little Rock, Arkansas.

In 2008, Rogers paid $1.62 million for a Honus Wagner baseball card.  The next year, he began proving to the newspaper industry that he was equally serious about acquiring vintage photographs when he struck a deal to buy up the archives of the Detroit News. It was the first of several agreements Rogers would reach with newspapers over the coming couple of years, and he appears to be ready to do much more such business.

Finding a photo more than a few years old had always been an adventure at best, according to Bob Houlihan, Detroit News director of photography. “We’d hoof it up to the fourth floor, get through somewhere on the order of 25 filing cabinets, scan it, caption it and go about our merry business.”

Digitizing the archive was something the News had always wanted to do, Houlihan says, but by his estimate, it would have cost between $1 and $5 per photograph to do it right.

There was no cost to dealing with Rogers. In fact, he paid the paper – though neither party will say how much – then took the originals and began providing digital copies, along with metadata that has made use of the archive a snap by comparison with the past.

“It now takes 10 or 15 keystrokes instead of an hour of research,” Houlihan says.

The News sold its photos as collectibles only. It did not transfer copyright and can still sell copies – more easily, in fact. Other newspapers have done business with Rogers on different terms – terms Rogers and the papers tend to keep to themselves.

“We’ve given seven-figure checks to papers and we’ve done deals where there was no cash involved. The majority involve some cash,” Rogers says. “We’ve never had a paper yet permit us to divulge what we paid.”

Some, like the St. Petersburg Times (owned by The Poynter Institute), won’t even say where the hard-copy originals end up. “We want to be sure to honor the terms of the agreement,” says Research Editor Tim Rozgonyi. He is effusive, however, on the advantages of digitization.  Hard copies, Rozgonyi says, “are only as accessible as the degree to which they were indexed. That was done by people and you can’t compare that to full-text indexing of metadata. The searchability is orders of magnitude better.”

Rogers says his newspaper partners all feel that way, whatever the specific terms of their agreement. “They put value on the fact that we’re going to provide them several million dollars in services,” he says. He also provides information that, to a news organization, could be priceless.  “Every shred of metadata is made available, including handwritten information on the back of photos.”

Along with the Detroit News and St. Petersburg Times, the Rogers Photo Archive now lists in its collection the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, the Detroit Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Journal, The Denver Post, the Denver Evening Post, The Sporting News and Sport Magazine.

Rogers started acquiring large photo archives from individual photographers about a decade ago and says, over a period of six or seven years, he collected about 3 million images, initially from sports photographers. “It was a lucrative business and it was enjoyable.”

He says his collection now comprises more than 10 times that number – about 35 million images, according to Rogers, of which he owns or shares copyright to about 25 million.

“We’re patiently building the world’s largest repository of vintage photography,” Rogers says. He acknowledges that it can’t always be all about writing checks and acquiring collections. At some point, he does expect his collection to begin bringing money in, not just inspiring him to spend more. “If we’re not making money, I can’t continue this, but what’s driving this is my passion for photography.”

Rogers says his phone is “ringing off the hook” with interest from other newspapers, and he’s convinced he’s found a way to marry his love of images to the needs of newspapers and their desire to digitize.

“What’s driving this is not economics, what’s driving it is that I’m a photo nut. If I can, on the side, have a business model that works,” Rogers says, “then all the better.”

Digitizing a newspaper’s entire archive is labor-intensive and time-consuming, typically taking the better part of a year, and sometimes more.

Rogers’ archivists carefully pack up each collection and transport it to Arkansas, where they scan each hard copy, front and back, and painstakingly compile caption, date, content, source and other data.

“Imagine doing that with a million-plus photos,” says Rozgonyi of the St. Petersburg Times, who began the project last fall and expects his final files back later this year. In the meantime, he says, the newspaper maintains access to its photos. “We’re able to tell them we need a photo and get it almost immediately, even during the process.”

No editor could hand over his newspaper’s entire archives to anybody without some qualms, no matter how worthy the project or carefully negotiated the terms. Rozgonyi says talking to Houlihan was hugely helpful in allaying any fears the Times might have had.

The Detroit News, as the first paper to do business with Rogers, had no such references to check. As “due diligence,” Houlihan says, he went to Little Rock to check out Rogers’ operation himself. The News also parted with only a third of its collection at a time. That was mostly for logistical reasons, Houlihan says, but was also a little less scary than giving Rogers all of its photos at once, “in case his warehouse burned down or he got hit by a bus or something.”

Houlihan expects to get the last of his digital files back later this month. He has great confidence in Rogers now, but remembers what it was like to watch those first crates go out the door in the hands of strangers.  “There was a definite pucker factor.”

Once hard copies reach the Rogers facility in Arkansas, the work is sometimes complicated by the condition of original photos. “We go into these archives,” he says, “and the majority, unfortunately, were not kept untouched. There are large gaps or it’s stored in a basement and has water damage … Most have not been preserved the way they need to be.”

Rogers gets especially excited about the restoration of photos from the first half of the 20th century that were routinely defaced by editing marks made in grease pencil and other damaging materials. He gushes about seeing faces – from gangster “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn to future President John F. Kennedy – once whited out, now recovered by his archivists.

“It’s our history. It’s America,” Rogers says.

He is equally passionate about unpublished images and unprinted negatives. “A photographer might go on assignment and shoot 100 images and print only one of them,” Rogers says. His goal is to have them all.

Kenny Irby, Poynter senior faculty for visual journalism, says that sort of buried treasure in the form of unpublished photos can make history, as did Dirck Halstead’s famous image of President Bill Clinton with intern Monica Lewinsky. “He made the argument that, had he given that image to Time magazine, nobody would be able to find it.” Halstead had it in his own archive because he kept his outtakes, Irby says.

Irby also understands what he calls “the further commoditization of photography,” including the aggressive marketing many newspapers now undertake of historic and popular images from their archives – something Rogers’ deals not only allow, but facilitate.

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds is blunt about the need for newspapers to leverage their assets wisely.

“Newspapers are just not earning enough to keep quality up and to invest real money in all the things they know they need to be trying — mobile, tablet apps, etc.,”  Edmonds says. “So they are very big, and have been for several years, on selling off non-essential assets or businesses.”

And not just photo archives, according to Edmonds. He offers as an example Scripps’ sale of rights to certain comics. Finding new revenues that protect priorities, says Edmonds, “That’s going to help them get to the digital future.”

Rogers’ first newspaper partners at the Detroit News say they are already seeing benefits, both journalistic and commercial.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in print sales — Motown stuff, ’67 riots, sports, etc.,” says director of photography Houlihan. The only downside he sees so far is the ease with which he can now lose himself in the archives – these days without hoofing it up to the fourth floor.

“I go in for stuff and come up for air three hours later because I’m so mesmerized by what I’m finding.”

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