Pondering the Pool

At dinner on Sunday night the question came up: Why are the newspapers all sendin their own photographer to snap pictures of Alito? Several dozen photographers jostling to get the same shot of him walking seems wasteful. Why don’t the papers (or the photographers) agree to send one and pocket the difference? If you prefer full employment for photographers, why not send the rest to photograph iguanas in the zoo or the other humdrum things newspapers run stories about?

In tribute to Tyler Cowen’s lists, here are some theories bandied about:

  1. It’s an observation-bias-induced illusion. These manias don’t happen all that often. Most of the time, the photographers are off with the iguanas. But we only see news photos of huge gangs of news photographers when there are huge pools to be photographed.

  2. The transaction costs of negotiating comprehensive photography pool coverage don’t justify the savings. The huge news events never feature quite the same cast of news organizations twice.

  3. The fierce competition between photographers improves the quality of their photos. Sure, a few of them get elbowed in the kidneys by the others. But it keeps them on their toes.

  4. Newspaper readers have strong (if perhaps unconscious) preferences for very subtly different photos. Washington Post readers like their headshots zoomed a little closer than AFP readers do. Photographers are just catering to an incredibly finely-divided market.

  5. Readers don’t give two hoots about the precise differences, but editors do. The editors abuse their agency relationship with readers to run the photos they want to run.

  6. Papers are always engaged in pooling, but with the future, not with other papers. Each is trying to build up its own comprehensive archive; not sending its own photographer would cause it to fall behind in this cumulative arms race.

  7. Freelance photographers systematically overrate their own ability to get the best shot; newspapers systematically overrate the ability of their staff photographers.

  8. The problem statement is confused about opportunity costs. Papers need to have a staff photographer around for taking iguana pictures most of the time. But on the comparatively rare occasions when a Supreme Court nominee shows up, it’s a better use of the photographer’s time to get a redundant photo. After all, the iguana can wait.

Yes, there was a plurality of economists present. Perhaps that was why the table broke up laughing when the following formalization was jokingly suggested:

We model the optimal strategy for news photography using a simple game. In each time period, the newspaper has a choice between sending its photographer to take pictures of a Supreme Court nominee or of an iguana …