If you offered your car, say a 1998 Ford Taurus, to 100 people for free, chances are you'd get 100 takers.
If you offered the vehicle to the same group for $1000, you'd probably get fifteen or so buyers. Raise the price to $1500 (about $200 under what the free-market has settled on), and you'd probably have to approach more than 100 people to find a buyer.
Not everyone can afford $1700 for a car, and those that can afford more will probably opt for a nicer vehicle. When willing buyers and sellers interact with each other in a free market place, the price of the vehicle (or for any goods or services) is determined.
That, in a very small nutshell, is how the law of supply and demand works.
The careful reader of the words above will have noticed that everyone, whether they even want the product, is happy with free.
So where's that leave the editorial photographer?
If you're working for a national newspaper or wire service at $200/day, once you've run the numbers you're getting pretty close to free, close enough to spit at anyway. Throw in the work-for-hire agreement, and you're paying them.
Assuming the your photograph (or the Ford Taurus) actually runs, free equals a happy customer.
But it takes both a happy buyer and a happy seller to establish a true value by using the law of supply and demand, and we don't have that in the world of editorial photography today.
We do have companies with deep pockets, trying to corner the market by undercutting their competition. I suppose they hope to put everyone else out of business so that they can then name their own price.
We do have publications that have made an editorial decision that people reading their publication can't tell the difference between great content and usable content. I suppose they hope their advertisers won't notice that people have stopped reading their magazines.
We do have photographers who are giving away their work and throwing their future livelihood away, in the hope that... well, I can't imagine what good they can possible hope will come of this practice.
What we don't have is a healthy respect for the law of supply and demand.
Great photography is a luxury.
It has nothing to do with the technical quality, or how easy it is to use today's modern cameras. It doesn't matter how fast or how cheaply you can deliver it. There are really only two things that matter. How well the photographer sees (and manages to capture), and/or the uniqueness of the subject matter.
A simply recipe with an infinite number of paths to creating great works, kind of like the blues.
The luxury of great photography was once paid for through an intricate dance between publishers, advertisers, and readers which was chaperoned by the law of supply and demand. Everyone was happy, Everyone got what they wanted out of the deal.
Google crashed the party, spiked the punch, and lit the gym on fire.
Advertisers - not reaching their potential customers.
Publishers - not attracting the readers they need to sell to advertisers.
Readers - not buying any of it.
In the midst of all of this, photographers have made the collective decision, I suppose following the lead set by publishers, to try and keep their customers happy by working for free.
There are millions of examples and most of us are guilty to some degree.
The problem is, without the exchange of even a little bit of money, there's nothing to separate the good from the bad work, or to filter out the serious viewer, the person who actually wants to look at your work, from the person that just wants a free Taurus, even if its going to just rot away in their front lawn.
Lots of noise, no clear signal.
As a photographer, your work should be your work. Magazines, newspapers, publishers... all are just a means to pay for it.
If you can get a decent fee, and keep your copyright. Then do it.
If you can't get a decent fee, but can get some other type of compensation (and of course retain your copyright) then you should try that too.
Either way, you have to become the enduser of your own work. You have to somehow benefit from what you create in order to keep on doing it.
One example would be to take the Tonight Show route. If you don't have an upcoming gig to promote, say at the Toledo Chuckle's this Saturday night, or you don't have a film opening this weekend, then don't show up. There's value in what you do, whether you're a photographer, a celebrity, or both. Don't give it away.
If you're going to license images for online use, negotiate a link to one of your sites also. You must get more value out of your work, and that could be one way to do so.
If you're going to license something to one of the photoblogs out there, make sure you're doing a book excerpt, or maybe a special print offer, anything. Just make sure you have a product to sell when those hits start coming in.
Ultimately, if they want to attract customers, I think magazines (and advertisers) will be forced to pay well for great work. Still, the same avenues that magazines will use, are now available to us all. These avenues need to be pursued.
The law of supply and demand is alive and well regardless of what photographers, the photo industry, publishers, or advertisers would like you to believe. You just need to find a way to make both yourself and your customers happy, and free isn't doing the trick.