Economy

Cost over quality: Chicago Sun-Times fires its photo staff, and journalism’s death spiral continues

That crashing sound you just heard from the Upper Midwest was the Chicago Sun-Times throwing its photography staff out the window. All 28 of them. Pulitzers and everything. The paper explained thusly:

The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.

This seems a clear and official acquiescence to the idea that the Sun-Times presence has now crossed the tipping point, that it is more about online than it is the traditional daily paper channel. And the logic about the value of video content in the online medium is solid enough if you’re a Marketing manager, I suppose. I personally don’t usually watch videos when they’re included with news stories online because the print tells me a lot more a lot faster, but I suspect I’m the exception to the rule there.

But I suspect that the official statement is more about misdirection than it is telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Apparently the S-T is going to rely on freelancers for stills, and also they’ll make their reporters more responsible for shots to accompany the stories they’re covering. Okay.

Nobody is actually saying it, but I’m also willing to bet that they’ll be “crowdsourcing” more “content” from “citizen journalists” with camera phones.

I bought my first camera and took up photography a year ago today, and since then have cultivated a tremendous respect for what pro shooters do. Unfortunately, now that everybody in the world has a decent quality little camera in their phone, our society seems to have concluded, as a culture, that everybody is a photographer. That’s just how we think here in the Postmodern age. Everybody can be a poet. Every scribble is art. And suggesting that people with experience and training are somehow better than everybody else, well, that’s elitism that borders on the fascist, isn’t it?

But the truth is that just anybody isn’t as good as a pro, especially one who’s good enough to have earned the profession’s highest honor. Pointing and clicking isn’t the same as framing a shot and understanding how light and shadow and composition can tell a compelling story.

CATEGORY: JournalismI suspect that the real story at the Sun-Times isn’t about “bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements” or “digitally savvy customers.” It’s about cash. Because these days, that’s what all large media organizations are about. Full-time professionals are expensive and freelancers aren’t. You pay them a few bucks for a shot and you’re not on the hook for salary or benefits. When you tell the reporter to bring back some shots, one employee is doing the work of two. And when you rely on that legion of citizen journalists, well, you can pimp them for free.

As Mickey Osterreicher at the National Press Photographers Association observes, “you may end up getting what you pay for.” No doubt. Some freelancers are pretty good, but since they’re, you know, freelancers, you’re not getting their full attention. Reporters grabbing a shot while they’re there? They’re not pro photojournalists, either, and when you’re trying to do two things instead of one, the likelihood is that both will suffer. And while I guess that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of iPhones would eventually reproduce the catalogue of Margaret Bourke-White, I’m not sure that’s a winning business model.

My S&R colleague Dr. Denny has been tracking the decline of journalism since we launched over six years ago, and if you’ve followed his reports and analysis there shouldn’t be anything here that surprises you. We can also expect other agencies around the country to follow suit, so if you’re a staff photographer at the New York Times or the Denver Post or the Winston-Salem Journal or the East Bumfuck Picayune, you need to get that résumé updated (although I don’t really know where you’re going to send it). The union is going to file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, but I think we know how that’s going to turn out, don’t we?

Denny has been telling us for years that eroding the integrity of the product you’re putting on the streets has a direct long-term effect on the success of that product (to say nothing of how it impacts the public’s knowledge of the important issues that shape our shared social lives). Once again, a major news agency is significantly compromising the quality of its journalism. It may produce more “content” and it may do so more cheaply, but when news organizations are driven by their Marketing and Finance departments, the result are predictable.

In the end, understand that a major US daily just fired a Pulitzer winner. It remains to be seem how many Pulitzers the new structure will win, but the over/under is zero.

7 replies »

  1. I would add a few words to a phrase: I have been ” tracking the decline [of the business] of journalism.” I have not argued that journalism, or its civic and social necessity, has been declining. The S-T’s actions, frustratingly, are part of the evolution of the techniques of journalism. In this case, on its face, those actions show a poor integration of available technology to basic reportorial skills.

    But … I don’t think the next Pulitzer in photography will handed over to a guy with an iPhone.

    The S-T, in canning the pros with the cameras, has shot itself in several feet. Any staff photographer at a newspaper develops extraordinary relationships with officialdom — particularly police officers and firefighters. In the event of accidents and disasters, photographers who’ve invested in those relationships get the tip call long before the reporter does.

    Also: When Mrs. McGillicuddy calls the paper to ask for a print of her daughter’s great catch in a high school softball game, who will provide it? Did the S-T also can the librarian of the morgue (photo and news clipping repository)? Will the iPhone-equipped reporters have a standard means of filing and tracking the images they shoot? And how pissed will they be to have this burden added to their working day?

    It’s odd that the S-T, in its statement privileges the visual — but tosses out the institution’s ability to produce compelling visual imagery.

    This ain’t good for the S-T, and it ain’t good for the readers (oh, I’m sorry: and the online enthusiasts of motion pictures).

  2. I don’t like videos either. When I click on a link and find a video instead of a print news story, I close the window immediately.

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