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Layoffs at Sun-Times cast a shadow over newspaper media industry

A few hours after the announcement went out last Thursday that the Chicago Sun-Times had eliminated its photo department, a Chicago Tribune photographer could do little more than offer names of a few fellow Tribune photographers who might be willing to comment. There was a halting note in his voice as he apologized on the phone to me that some good friends had lost their jobs that day and that he wasn’t ready to talk.

Layoffs are frequent and while never easy, the disintegration of a long-standing basic component of newspaper journalism has created a dark cloud over the industry. In the wake of the void created by the 28 staff photographers that were dismissed last week, the Sun-Times plans to use freelance photojournalists, as well as staff, who reported are being trained in “iPhone photography basics” and video editing.

John White, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for the Sun-Times who spent 44 years with the paper told the Poynter Institute, “it was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photojournalism.”

Even photojournalists outside of the Chicago area have had decidedly strong emotions over the news. Indianapolis Star director of photography Mike Fender in an email interview called the elimination of the entire staff a “form of genocide in our industry.”

“I can’t believe they wouldn’t look at the strengths of the individuals and try to find staffers who could transition to more of a multimedia role in their newsroom,” Fender continued. “Instead they just cut off an arm of journalism with the stupid reasoning they can replace photojournalists completely with mobile phones and freelancers.”

While the sadness amongst photojournalists is apparent, Rob Hart, one of the 28 let go last week, has found a creative outlet in the aftermath of losing his job. According to Southern California Public Radio, Hart began a photo project on Tumblr soon after his dismissal, calling it Laid Off From the Sun-Times. Ironically enough, he is documenting the world with his iPhone. The irony seems to be intended, with the Tumblr tagline reading: “Rob Hart was replaced with a reporter with an iPhone, so he is documenting his new life with an iPhone, but with the eye of a photojournalist trained in storytelling.”

But although Hart has found a creative way to move on, Chicago isn’t letting this go without a fight. Poynter reported yesterday that the Chicago News Guild will picket the Sun-Times building Thursday morning. In a press release, the guild noted they would not tolerate the Sun-Times’ “illegal layoff of the company’s entire photojournalist department.”

David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus Media Research Group,and 15-year newspaper veteran, noted the Sun-Times’ decision to cut the department was a cost-cutting move. Regardless of reason, the quality of the paper is going to take a major hit. “Photographers are the most underrated contributors to newspapers and their websites. Who wants to read type without it being complemented by photos? These people are artists and very good at their jobs. When photos are taken by less than professional people it is very obvious. Freelancers and rookie photographers will not be able to fill the void that is left by hundreds of years of Sun-Times photojournalistic experience,” he said. “Good photos aren’t about luck; they are about good photographers and people who understand human nature. You don’t get that just because you hand someone an iPhone and tell them to shoot something.”

Tellingly, Sun-Times publisher Tim Knight was publisher of Newsday when it too cut its photography staff in 2008, reported Poynter. Since Knight seems to be the common denominator in this newspaper-altering development, there’s hope that this won’t turn into an emerging trend.

“A photo staff of 20 or more journalists produces a large amount of content that you just can’t replace by adding more work to reporters. Readers will notice,” said Fender. “Obviously those of us in the visual end of journalism need to work harder to show our photojournalists have value.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera


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