The painful realities behind the demise of the Chicago Sun-Times photo desk

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.”


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