Blog Post

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

24 Responses to “The painful realities behind the demise of the Chicago Sun-Times photo desk”

  1. Wmdsnyder

    No Matthew, we realize youre not taking pleasure in their job loses, it’s your idea that crowd sourcing works and is acceptable. If you believe that then you have no concept of what real storytelling is all about. It’s not a police report – just the facts ma’am – but also not artsy, flowery stuff, either. That’s what crowd sourcing can’t deliver. Crowd sourcing relies on accident and spot news for it to work. News organizations don’t rely strictly on spot news. What happens the rest of the time? Crowd sourcing doesn’t cover city hall, politicians’ malfeasance, explain the latest bond issues or find the ‘right’ person to use to paint a portrait of a community. And crowd sourcing doesn’t deliver on demand. Freelancers can pick up some of the slack but they aren’t invested in the publication or the communities – they do a job, that’s it. No, crowd sourcing doesn’t work.

  2. This misguided notion of “citizen journalism” is something that only appeals to the business side, tech wonks and activists with inflated egos who think they can everything better than the pros. Yes, you occasionally get wonderful photos submitted, but it is far from a sure thing and not at all dependable. Yes, we all use freelancers, but they are a part of the big picture. Journalists are trained professionals who are dedicated to their mission. The checkout clerk with an iPhone or the accountant with a Blackberry is not going to capture the moment with any kind of journalistic sense or integrity unless they get lucky. Dumping professional photojournalists and relying on reporters takes away from the reporters’ ability to do their jobs as well. Relying on amateurs with phone cameras demeans the profession and saps the integrity we depend on for reader confidence. But then, business and gadget folks don;t necessarily worry about those things.

  3. David Sullivan

    Matthew, it isn’t that your posts on the change in the business are wrong, it’s that you appear to take pleasure in saying every day, “And you folks have to get with it because not only is this inevitable, it’s better!”
    And, no, it’s not. It’s different. Some things will be better and some will be worse. A professional staff photographer could goose the crop or frame to tell an untrue story. But to do would be a violation of an internal code for most. If I am a crowdsourcing photographer or writer, what is my motivation? Generally, it’s to point out which side I think is right, or do something sexy enough to make a sale. Otherwise, why bother?
    Also, using the Sun-Times — crippled by being looted by previous owners, the No. 2 paper in a world that has no room for No. 2 papers, saddled with a group of suburban dailies and weeklies whose economic base seems to have vanished more quickly than metros have — as an example of anything other than the Sun-Times itself is perilous.

    • Thanks, David — I’m not taking pleasure in people losing their jobs, by any means. But I do think it’s better to figure out how to adapt to the changes that are taking place rather than moaning about how the old days were better. And I’m not arguing that everything will be better in this new world either — but neither will everything be worse. I think we agree on that.

  4. The concept of crowdsourcing news is both empowering and misguided. Just because you watch TV doesn’t mean you would be any good at making a TV show. And just because you read a lot doesn’t mean you would be good at writing. Sure, cameras are ubiquitous now but to think that untrained shooters can replace professionals? It’s misguided. The old adage that you get what pay for stands true. Sure we’ll get photos, but will they be good?

  5. Morgan

    I am sorry that talented people lost their jobs. Other talented people in other professions have lost their jobs also (Don’t you read your own newspaper?) Here in Houston, the local news solicits photos from viewers. It’s not a new dynamic. I suppose there will always be photo journalists just less and less of them. I just read a long form article online by John Branch using fantastic interactive software developed by the New York Times. I believe it was brought to my attention here on paidContent? This is the future of reporting and enhancing reporting with ever improving interactive features. Hard copy news is on the demise, and if TV doestn’t develope interactive capabilities, this industry’s news and sports programming will contract also.

  6. 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.

  7. Joe Hermitt

    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 — or even better, from a real-time, breaking news point of view — 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.

    • Ben Lu

      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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.


  10. Stephen

    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.

  11. Suburban Survivor

    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.

  12. Afi Scruggs

    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.

  13. Slats.Grobnik

    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:

    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:

    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.

    • 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.

  14. Robb Montgomery

    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:

    • Mathew Ingram

      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.