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Summary:

The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to lay off its entire staff of 28 photographers was widely criticized as a knee-jerk response by clueless managers, but the fact remains that newspaper cost structures are too high, and crowdsourcing works.

You might think the newspaper industry had been so beaten up by now that almost nothing would come as a surprise. After massive revenue declines, repeated rounds of layoffs and even bankruptcies, what more could possibly happen? But this week, the Chicago Sun-Times managed to drop a bombshell by laying off not just one or two photographers, but the entire photo desk: 28 staffers. As painful as this has been for many, however, it is likely to become even more of a reality in the future — and not just for the photo department.

There’s no question that the layoffs were a hugely painful event, not just for the Chicago media but for many fans of photo-journalism. John White, one of those who was laid off — after a 44-year career at the Sun-Times that included a Pulitzer Prize win — said it was like the newspaper “pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photo-journalism.” (Some speculated that the Sun-Times might have an ulterior motive: in 2008 Newsday fired all 20 staff photographers and later rehired some as multimedia editors).

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A dedicated photo desk is a luxury

The cuts were widely criticized as a knee-jerk reaction to financial pressures by newspaper managers who don’t understand or don’t care about journalism: A photo-journalist at the competing Chicago Tribune (which has suffered through some challenges of its own related to outsourcing aspects of its journalism) called the paper’s move “idiocy,” and said the idea that freelancers and reporters with iPhones could replace a staff of professional photographers “idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best.”

The New York Times said that before the layoffs the paper had a staff of professionals with the hard-earned ability to tell stories with pictures and now it has “some freelancers and reporters toting cheap cameras with their notebooks and pens.” The writer went on to paraphrase the viewpoint of the Sun-Times presumably: “Who cares about news judgment, composition, story-telling, impact, beauty or whether an image is even in focus? Photos are just something bright and colorful to wrap the text and ads around.”

photographer

This is clearly hyperbole, of course. As emotional a moment as it might be when so many jobs are lost — and so much obvious talent — a common theme in much of the coverage of the Sun-Times layoffs is what seems like a deep mistrust of the whole idea of using freelance photographers, or the idea that iPhones used by reporters might suffice in some (not all) cases. But this is misguided: the reality is that almost every newspaper, magazine and wire service uses freelance photo-journalists, many take award-winning photos.

It’s also obviously the case that iPhone or handheld photos are often just as good — or even better, from a real-time, breaking news point of view — than a professional picture. And to denigrate “user-generated content” simply because it comes from potentially (although not always) untrained photographers is to miss the exact same point that the rest of the media industry has been missing about the value of “citizen journalism” or whatever we choose to call it.

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Outsourcing and crowdsourcing works

That’s not to say the Sun-Times handled this particular transition well, because it clearly didn’t. Jeff Jarvis says the paper was both right and wrong — right in the sense that there are more photographers and potentially newsworthy photos available everywhere, since everyone has a powerful camera in their pocket, but wrong in the way they handled the change. Instead of letting them all go, he says they should have redefined the job so that photographers would become curators of crowdsourced photos as well as creators.

It would be nice to think the Sun-Times — or any other newspaper — could convince its existing photographers to do that. And maybe some will be able to. But many professional photo-journalists would find that transition difficult if not impossible, just as many professional journalists of all kinds find it hard to admit that at least some aspects of what we call journalism can now be practiced by anyone with a functioning brain-stem, a sense of curiosity and the luck to be close to a breaking news event.

The Sun-Times, like every other newspaper, is having to confront two painful realities: one is that journalism of all kinds is no longer the exclusive purview of a newspaper and its staff — anyone can, and will, practice it, and readers will seek it out elsewhere for a host of reasons, both good and bad. And the second reality is that the cost structure of many mid-size metropolitan newspapers simply doesn’t work any more, and outsourcing is one way of handling that problem — not just for the photo desk, but potentially for copy editing and other functions as well. That is the future, whether we like it or not.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and Shutterstock / Lightpoet

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  1. Robb Montgomery Saturday, June 1, 2013

    I think what people who have never worked in this once great newsroom are missing just how strongly the guild- management issue has complicates these kind of transitions.

    It is a sad event, made even more sad by the fact that the Sun-Times original nameplate has a camera and says “Picture Newspaper.”

    You can see that iconic logo and the historic Sun-Times news photos that hang in the newsroom’s private collection here: http://j.mp/sun-times-photos

    1. Thanks, Robb — those kinds of union-management issues are definitely sort of the dark under-belly to many of the transitions we are talking about at newspapers, thanks to decades of animosity.

  2. Slats.Grobnik Saturday, June 1, 2013

    After major concessions from the Newspaper Guild in 2009, the Sun-Times returned to profitability in 2010 and 2011 on the backs of and thanks to the folks now being shown the door.

    Since Wrapports/Ferro/Knight/Kirk/Landon took over the company has tanked financially because:

    Wrapports is trying to use the ST revenue stream to support a failing startup incubator. Higi, High School Cube, Aggrego, et al.

    After a year and millions and millions of dollars, all that incubator has produced is the code to run one of the Sun-Times minor suburban publications websites:

    http://yorkville.suntimes.com/

    that took a year and several million dollars in developer salaries (yikes)…the failure of Aggrego to produce anything usable is why the Daily Splash and Chicago Grid run on WordPress.

    So to keep the fantasy incubator afloat, Wrapports is cannibalizing the core revenue producing assets, laying off those who made the Sun-TImes profitabille to support folks who have never made the company dime one and appear to have little hope of ever doing so.

    Since Wrapports took over, the Sun-Times has shed the content producers who made the product that readers wanted to buy while spending money on frivilous projects like Higi and Aggrego and the Grid/Daily Splash and a failed off-line tablet app modeled after a similar NY Post app.

    Notice none of the preceding are generating revenue but they do cost money, a lot of it. So Ferro/Wrapports cannibalizes the core, revenue producing business (the Sun-Times) to support these ancillary, non-revenue producing hobbies as well as pay salaries to the two time loser gang (failed when they were at the Trib, failed at CNC) who went over to the CST wholesale from the failed CNC after Ferro (also formerly with CNC) bought the Sun-Times:

    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/sun-times-disappoints-chicago-news-cooperative/Content?oid=5786439

    http://gawker.com/5387797/new-york-times-hires-gang-who-killed-chicago-tribune-to-kill-tribune

    The reporters and photographers and other staff that took pay cuts under Tyree helped return the Sun-Times to the black and they are now being kicked to the curb for their efforts and sacrifice so Wrapports/Ferro can pretend they are a tech startup incubator.

    1. This echoes something I’ve long thought: Newspapers and other publications go on and on about the revenue their digital operations are bringing in — modest as that might be. But what they don’t tell us is how profitable these mostly half-baked digital products are after subtracting the millions they spend to develop them.

  3. Matthew, I started writing a comment that turned into a blog post. So I’ll respond to your posting by sharing this link from Sarah Coward, a photographer who was laid off four years ago. If anything, this shows why crowdsourcing, or depending on reporters to interview and shoot doesn’t work. BTW, I’m a one-person band, so I do it all. Still, I’d rather do one or the other. The quality suffers.

    http://www.sarahcoward.net/index2.php?v=v1

  4. Suburban Survivor Saturday, June 1, 2013

    You are the first person in all this to mention Journatic, and the fact that the Tribune has done the exact same thing. The fact of the matter is that when this happens to members of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, it gets publicity and is used to rile up the members, but when it happens elsewhere, it just doesn’t get the same traction. This is the reality of the business today. A sad reality, but the reality the same. People with decades of experience are getting shown the door, and it is terrible. But the Sun-Times is not the only company doing it. And it is not only happening to one group of photographers.
    I am sure all the people who were fired when the Tribune partnered with Journatic had tons of experience and stories and families too. But they did not have the Chicago Newspaper Guild.

  5. I would safely say the layoffs have nearly everything to do with the plunge of print advertising rates and not the irrelevance of professionals. The highly integrated connected model of journalism has has 20 years to displace the hub and spoke model of old media…and it has not. Not even close. Sure there are a few different brands out there but for important news, people still go to accountable media orgs much larger than individual Facebook posts. Witness the Reddit fiasco during the Boston bombings- false info, accusations about that dead kid in RI that devastated his family and photoshopped pictures. This is why millions of people now pay for paywalled journalism.

  6. Paul Perrier Saturday, June 1, 2013

    This article is as sad and timely as a book I am working on called “Point and Shoot – The death of Photography. A memoir” that deals with this issue of how technology deleted my career as a photographer. If you think your job is immune you are wrong. Take a look at my Indiegogo site for more information. http://igg.me/p/392318/x/2505832

    Paul

  7. Fact is, anyone with a scalpel, a ballpeen hammer and a jigsaw these days can be a neurosurgeon. Citizen neurosurgery is here to stay, and the numbskulls who spent years in med school and fancy that they should have some special privilege in the O.R. simply need an attitude adjustment.

  8. Dougals Henry Mueller Sr. Sunday, June 2, 2013

    Hmm Kind of hard covering The Bears & Bulls games with an I Phone!!

    1. They will pick up AP, Getty or other wire photos, which they have already paid for. Sad, but true. The editors will not care that the competition may use the same photo, and in this case the competition still has staffers, so they will not be using the same photo.

  9. Joe Hermitt Sunday, June 2, 2013

    I only had to read one sentence to realize that you know nothing about photojournalism: “It’s also obviously the case that iPhone or handheld photos are often just as good β€” or even better, from a real-time, breaking news point of view β€” than a professional picture.”

    I am a veteran photojournalist, with 24 years in the field. The newspaper I work for cut production to 3 days per week and is putting more emphasis on the digital side. But guess what? Photo galleries are the biggest hit collectors on the website, and it’s not really close. Photojournalists are more important than ever. Younger generations are more apt to look at a photo gallery than read a 200-inch story.

    While “citizen journalists”, as you call them, can occasionally shoot a spot news event, who is going to capture the blight of the inner city? Who is going to spend countless hours following the downtrodden of our society, telling their stories?

    Not a soccer mom with an iPhone.

    1. Very true. My wife has the best iPhone in her disposal but she can’t grab a half decent one most of the time. To take good photos you need good eye, strong skills and instincts that take years to develop.

  10. IT would have been nice to keep them around, but they didn’t have the money. Business is brutal and newspapers are deciding who to push out of the lifeboat. It sucks.

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