Getty-AFP Alliance Alters Wire Competition

By: Jay DeFoore

(Photo District News) Getty Images and Paris-based wire service Agence France-Presse (AFP) have entered into a distribution agreement that could mark a fundamental shift in competition among the wire services.

Officials from both companies are not painting the deal as a merger or acquisition, but rather an alliance of two companies with similar goals and complimentary strengths. Under the agreement, Getty will have exclusive rights to market AFP images in North America and the U.K. In turn, AFP will market Getty’s photographs from North America to daily newspaper subscribers throughout the rest of the world.

The period of the deal is for three years, with both parties having an escape clause after 18 months if expectations of the agreement are not met. Once the deal clears regulatory hurdles, AFP plans to scale back its U.S. operation, including its sales and marketing force, photo editors and stringer network. Staff photographers who previously shot sports and entertainment will shift to full-time news coverage. AFP Chairman Bertrand Eveno says the deal allows AFP to focus on general and political news while gaining wider exposure in U.S. newspapers.

“My business is not to be a marketing organization in the U.S.,” Eveno says. “My business is to shoot pictures. I’m ready to spend a lot, but I’d prefer to spend on what’s important for me and not to spend outside my focus.”

In front of a meeting of AFP staffers, Eveno said the deal would save the financially strapped wire service around $5 million, mainly through cutbacks. He also thinks Getty’s marketing muscle will result in greater market penetration and revenues for AFP in the U.S. and U.K.

Getty is a relatively young player in the news business, and hasn’t had time to build up the vast network it needs to be a global force in news. The alliance will give Getty greater news coverage throughout the world and will help it compete with AP and Reuters, its two main competitors. AFP, which has been in business since 1835, also has much to offer in terms of pool access and relationships.

“They’re in every major pool, and the pools are increasingly important worldwide,” says Getty CEO Jonathan Klein. “They’ve been in those pools in some cases 30 or 40 years. They have very long-term relationships in all sorts of places that we’re only just beginning to get into.”

AFP’s strongest coverage areas are in South America, Europe, and especially the Middle East, which Klein says was a major reason why Getty pushed for the alliance.

“The major theater for global news for the next several years is likely to be the Middle East,” Klein says. “As a French company, their connections, their access, and their relationships in the Middle East are extremely valuable.”

So far Getty’s and AFP’s clients say it’s too early to tell how this will affect their service. Michelle McNally, director of photography at Fortune magazine, says as long as the production doesn’t fall off, she doesn’t see any problem with the deal.

“AFP is strong in international news. Their American coverage wasn’t what we went to them for,” she says. “Internationally, they are really cutting edge. They’re in a lot of places no one else went.”

While Getty staffers have been cheerleading the deal for months, several photographers and editors on the AFP side have spoken out in opposition. Some of AFP’s photographers have cautioned that the deal could prove disastrous if the two companies part ways and AFP no longer has credentials to sporting events such as the Master’s golf tournament and the Super Bowl or entertainment events like the Oscars and the Grammys. Front-row access and credentials don’t come easy, they say, and AFP could be shut out from those events if the companies part ways.

Another obstacle to the alliance will be unifying two disparate business cultures. AFP is first and foremost a news service, providing text and photography primarily to newspaper clients. Getty has a variety of commercial interests, including marketing deals with the NBA, NFL, and a variety of other corporate clients. The news division only comprises 9% of Getty’s overall sales, and some AFP photographers think Getty’s commercial deals and adherence to the bottom line compromise its journalistic ethics.

“I have to admire Getty for going balls-out and attacking the market, but the bottom line is you have to question their ethics,” one AFP stringer says. “Is it ethical to have a [business] deal with the NBA if you’re covering the NBA on a regular basis?”

The final hurdle to AFP’s plans may come from the company’s union. AFP officials want to eliminate several jobs in its Washington, D.C., bureau while moving a handful of editors to New York to work in Getty’s office. AFP guild representative Rob Lever says he is currently looking to see if the proposed workflow share is allowable within the terms of their contract.

“We have some concerns that this may be taking jobs that are in-house and giving them to a subcontractor,” Lever says, adding that the arrangement may not be in compliance. “If they farm out the photo desk to other companies, it raises the question would they farm out other core elements like the news desk?”

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