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Interview: Catherine Gluckstein, VP, Getty Images: Cit-J Business Hard To Find

When Getty Images bought iStockphoto for a reported $50 million in 2006, it was the big photo wire’s entry in to pro-am microstock. When it scooped up Scottish citizen photo-journalism site Scoopt a year later, it was a tentative grab at gathering user-generated news pics. But Getty’s decision to shut Scoopt this March said plenty about how the notion of harvesting content from the former audience has evolved…

Citizen journalism is a tough one – it’s hard to work out what the business model is,” Catherine Gluckstein, Getty’s New York- and Calgary-based iStock VP, tells me during a visit home to London.

No room in the middle?: “There are absolutely opportunities in user-generated editorial, there are a whole range of vertical products you could launch – but a lot of people who take the pictures are not necessarily trying to monetise them – it works best when they send them to the news organisations. Look at the plane that landed on the Hudson – with the way the social media work so fast now, the shelf life for these images is so short.”

Pro-ams more profitable than cit-Js: While the vogue-ish cit-J start-ups of 2005 and 2006 aimed to be intermediaries between news witnesses and newsdesks, most amateur snappers, in fact, send material direct to the likes of CNN, Sky News and the BBC. Few, with exceptions like Demotix, are making a go of this original model.

But, for Getty (NYSE: GYI), iStock, is profiting more healthily from more timeless, creative pictures – shot by a community of 80,000 pro-ams, who receive up to 40 percent commission, and sold to users from $0.95 each. Gluckstein is forecasting 2009 sales of $200 million, up from $23 million when iStock was bought in 2006 – that’s a lot of micro pic payments.

Don’t Getty’s traditional pro photographers feel threatened by upstart amateurs? “No-one’s an amateur if they’re selling a photograph,” Gluckstein says. “With the development of cheaper, better cameras, the gap between amateur and pro has become closer.” But don’t photo upload sites like Flickr, already frequented by many high-end photographers, already have a hold on this market segment? “They’re an important part of the landscape and a huge driver of traffic for us,” Gluckstein says. The pair have an arrangement by which Getty hand-picks photos to re-sell from Flickr users, but Gluckstein didn’t have stats to hand on how successful this has been.

Internationalisation: Next will come improvements to iStock’s search function and – after recently opening a Berlin office with five people servicing Germany, France and Italy – more internationalisation, a matter of translating the website and presenting it in “culturally-sensitive” ways. “: “A German customer doesn’t necessarily want to use, say, an image of an American bottle of beer. There are absolutely other European markets we’re obviously looking to service, putting a person there 24 hours a day to pick up the phone.”

Life magazine reborn: If iStock is about selling digital images to online customers, then Life.com, the infamous but defunct photo magazine revived in March through a Getty-Time Inc. JV, is a print-on-demand e-commerce play. The site carries ad slots but most, at least on my visit, were self-referential. Gluckstein, also Life.com’s CFO, says the site clocked 10 million page views a day after launch and is now at hit 100 million per month for a time, plus gathered nearly 700,000 Twitter followers. “Social media is a massive traffic driver. Celebrity news is the most popular channel on the site…”

Noting the recent reawakening of the pay-for-content debate, Gluckstein says Life.com Getty tried it with a set of pictures showing Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but it didn’t work out so well. Right now, Life.com visitors can order Life photos on mugs, mousemats, books, t-shirts and in frames….

Print your own Life: This Q4 or next Q1, Gluckstein reveals, Life.com will partner with HP’s MagCloud to offer users a personalised “timeline” – they will get to print their own edition of Life magazine comprising a selection of catalogue images and their own uploads.” It’s a play for the birthday gift market, and may come in time for Christmas. But, while this new-look Life.com has affiliate relationships with stablemates Time.com and CNN.com, there are still no third-party deals.