Recently, the publishing enterprise known as Sports Illustrated undertook one of those routine organizational changes, eliminating its staff photographers. According to the magazine’s director of photography Brad Smith, “There was a decision made through the company (Time-Life) to restructure various departments, including at Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately economic circumstances are such that it has cut the six staff photographers.” He added that the company plans “to re-evaluate what’s best for the magazine, not just financially but also content-wise. Our commitment to photography is as strong as ever, and we will continue to create the best original content possible.”
In short, a business based on presenting photos to interested readers decided it would no longer employ photographers. I admit this development may have a bit more importance to me than to many readers; I’m in that same business, more or less, as the photographers whose work was the very subject of the brand name. There are changes in media and marketing of course, and readers certainly have detected this over recent years.
There is some jest to be had at the crazy logic of a pictorial weekly off-loading its photographers while asserting its “commitment” to photography, but what draws me to this example is the internal point, that the business is re-evaluating “what’s best for the magazine, not just financially but content-wise.”
“Content” is something that most businesses understand as “product”: it’s what they produce and that customers receive. Media companies may be on the spot right now, but it’s the same spot that manufacturing firms find themselves in all the time. Who buys your forgings? Why do they buy your forgings? Will they buy your forgings next month? Next year? Why, or why not? Do you have a plan to carry you through?
The reason this example matters to me, and should matter to you, is that it is a reminder that no matter what we do or how well we do it, we need others to confirm our efforts in order to hold our position in the market. This is the burden that market-based economics places on all of us, which by comparison to alternative economic system is not too much to bear.
Over much of my life, however, the burden was made less obvious, less onerous, because there were social and commercial fixtures — schools and universities, local governments, newspapers and broadcast networks, industrial and retail enterprises — that not only upheld the standards of the market but reconfirmed its legitimacy by carrying out the roles defined for them. This social and commercial infrastructure was the evidence of our civilization. It helped to form our self-awareness; it gave us direction in times of confusion. And, within this infrastructure it was possible for individual people and enterprises to distinguish themselves by demonstrating themselves worthy of personal and public trust. That was the basis of success.
Most of what remains of this infrastructure is in the minds and behavior of people who once inhabited it. We do what we can to keep up the habits of good work, but that is not enough in the face of some challenges. So much is changed now that even a business called Sports Illustrated has to reevaluate what it does and what it will do — and before admitting any conclusions on those points, it cuts loose the individuals that provided the very basis of its product.
There are reasons for all this, principally the changes in technologies that link producers and customers. Manufacturers of critical engineered parts like forgings have more advantages than many other commercial enterprises, but there are risks to our continued success regardless of our role. The turning point, invariably, is a financial one, however: your value is not determined by what you’ve done or how much you’ve earned, but on your potential for doing something more.
It’s one thing to dwell on the symptoms of this problem, but finally we’ll have to conform ourselves to the change. We cannot rely on tradition or institutions to insulate us from risk or to define our purpose. Each of us will have to be sturdy enough and worthy of the trust when the time for reevaluation arrives.