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Upper Deck wasn't interested in buying pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, so Rogers set up a website and started offering the non-sports images for licensing to publications. "Suddenly people were calling," he said. "They'd say, 'We want to use this President Kennedy image on a magazine cover.' "
Between 2000 and 2006, Rogers managed to build up an archive of 3 million images to which he owned the rights. He bought his first publication archive in 2007, when he purchased the photos of Sport magazine, which had gone bankrupt. That purchase got Rogers talking to his friend George Michael, who hosted the nationally syndicated radio show "The George Michael Sports Machine." Michael was a sports photography collector, and Rogers said it was he who first came up with the idea of buying the archives of newspapers in bulk and then licensing or parting out the contents.
"George, being that he was a media guy, had all these contacts," Rogers said. "He said the newspapers have millions of photos in their basements and they're doing nothing with them." Michael had a friend at the Detroit News. The archive was good, full of historic photos, but Rogers said Michael convinced him it would take a $1 million offer to get The Detroit News archive. In 2009, he did just that.
"I took every penny I had, borrowed the rest, and I bought the Detroit News," Rogers said. "I went from having 3 million images to having 4.5 million images. I never dreamed I could go into an institution and buy their photos." The catch, however, was that the Detroit News still needed their photo archives to operate. Part of the deal was for Rogers to digitize and return a digital copy to them within one year. The Rogers Archive had digitized 3 million images by then, but this seemed impossible. "It was one thing to digitize 3 million of my images over seven years," he said. "It was another to do a million and a half images and they want them done in 12 months."
Rogers thought the Detroit News project would be a one-time deal, so he didn't want to invest money in high-end scanners, which he said can run up to $80,000. Instead, "we went out and bought $600 flatbed scanners that could do about 600 scans a week," he said. "We had to hire all these employees to run them, and we realized pretty quick that it was going to take a lot longer than a year."
Logistics aside, the Detroit News turned out to be great for Rogers, who quickly recouped his money through sales of historic prints (including one catalogue auction that he said grossed more than $400,000) and a ramped up eBay sales presence. "We basically created the market of people buying news photos," he said. "There was always a market for original art photography, something that sells in a gallery for thousands, but there was no market for an individual who wasn't a photo buyer."
While they were working on digitizing the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press called and wanted the same deal: a cash payout for the physical archives, and a searchable digital copy. Rogers was tapped of cash by then, but banks were beginning to hear about the Detroit News archive and he was able to secure loans. He eventually bought the Detroit Free Press archive in June 2009. In the meantime, the Detroit News started putting their archives online and selling prints of historic photos.
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