Chicago Sun-Times fires photographers, gives reporters iPhone camera training

The Chicago Sun-Times has laid off its entire 28 person photography staff.

In its place, reporters are being given mandatory training in how to use their iPhone to take pictures.

The paper tries to put a forward looking spin on the situation:

“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.”

Learning how to make best use of iPhone and iPad cameras is a useful skill for journalists to have.

But as astonishingly good as the iPhone camera is, for a device crammed into a cube less than a quarter inch on the side, it is still a camera built around the constraints of its tiny size. My iPhone camera is no match for even a dedicated point and shoot camera, let alone a DSLR.

And here’s a bigger problem. It is a faint hope to expect journalists to take pictures that are as attention grabbing as those taken by professional photographers.

Photographer via Shutterstock

Photographer via Shutterstock

The Sun Times has been on a downward spiral for many years now and not just because of competition from new media. (Former owner Conrad Black was accused of looting the company while he owned it and eventually convicted on three counts of fraud (two of which were overturned on appeal).)

But it is hard to believe that the Sun Times will be the last newspaper taking such desperate measures to stay afloat. The business model for online news reporting is broken and nobody seems to know how to fix it.


NOTE FROM JOHN: I wanted to jump in for a moment, since photography is a hobby, and semi-profession, near to my heart.  No one can contest that the ubiquitousness of cell phone cameras has certainly been a boon for photography generally – and it’s made far more people amateur photographers than ever before.

But as Myrrdin point out, owning a camera doesn’t per se make you a good, or even decent, photographer.  Photography is a skill, and at its best, an art.  Just because you’re a great reporter does not mean that you’ll be an even passable photographer.

I’m still amazed when I give someone a camera, ask them to take my photo with someone, and they center the photo on our heads, cutting off out bodies, and then making half the photo sky empty sky. Or the flip-side, the person who thinks that every photo must contain the entire person, head to toe.

Now, the article noted that part of the motivation here is the increasing switch over to video instead of photos on the web.  Videography is no less a skill than photography.  Imagine the numbers of vertical videos we’re now going to have from reporters.

I absolutely appreciate the hard economic climate newspapers are in.  We, online media, are in the same boat.  I’ve written before about how difficult it is to make any online media venture sustainable economically in this new new-economy (and just because you see lots of ads on any one site, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily very expensive ads).  But getting rid of professional photographers doesn’t feel like simply “modernizing with the times.”  It feels like the media industry is dying.  And as big a fan as I am of citizen journalism, some guy with a Web site, or an iPhone, is never going to be a suitable replacement for a professional journalist, photo or otherwise.

I heard you on the wireless back in 52
lying awake intent a tuning in on you
if I was young it didn’t stop you coming through

They took the credit for your second symphony
re-written by machine and new technology
and now I understand the problems you can see

Oh oh — I met your children
oh oh — what did you tell them
video killed the radio star
video killed the radio star
pictures came and broke your heart
we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far…

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29 Responses to “Chicago Sun-Times fires photographers, gives reporters iPhone camera training”

  1. Caroline says:

    They just shot themselves in the foot. A great photo is what hooks people into reading. Now they got nothing left but more sexy headlines. This is disgusting.

  2. Sweetie says:

    Why not get rid of the reporters and have the photographers do the reporting as well as the photography?

  3. RepubAnon says:

    When graphics programs first came to computers, everyone thought that they could replace the graphic artists… some really ugly work resulted. Replacing trained photographers with reporters and iPhones will result in a similar decline. My guess is that freelancers will enter the market.

  4. Todd says:

    Wow… she’s good. I don’t think I could achieve a 1/4 of the quality she’s achieved despite owning some outstanding gear, having studied quite a bit, and being quite practiced… but I do get better every day.

    Now… a reporter with an iPhone. I can shoot circles around any of them.

  5. AnitaMann says:

    Once enough mediocre pictures show up in the news, people will become used to it and forget what a professional photo looks like… and won’t care.

  6. AnitaMann says:

    Reporters should run the printing presses too, the lazy entitled bums. And clean the floors and toilets… oh wait… kids should be janitors.

  7. TheDman113 says:

    I’m sure the photography staff knows how to type too, so maybe they
    should have fired all of the reporters and made the photographers write
    the stories.

  8. Colonel Panik says:

    News papers had two sides, editorial and publishing. Publishing (the owners) took over and
    did everything for profit, only for profit. Charged way too much for advertizing and put too little
    news in the paper.

    As to the reporters taking pics, well, some will do great, really great. Some will never get very

    good at the taking pictures and the rest will be average photogs.

  9. BeccaM says:

    Indeed. Production value. Artistic instincts. Simply knowing how to use something more advanced than a fixed focal-length smartphone camera.

    This woman here is a friend of mine — and she shows how it’s done:

    Ain’t nobody with an iPhone who can take photos like hers.

  10. ComradeRutherford says:

    I’ve worked in film and video production for decades and today it’s the same thing, “I’ve got an iPhone and iMovie, why should anybody get paid for making high-quality videos?”

    There’s a term: Production Value. Which looks better a snapshot by some rube with an iPhone, or a photograph taken with professional-grade equipment by someone for whom taking pictures has been a lifelong passion?

    But the Sun-Times is following the Conservative plan: impoverish the Middle Class.

  11. BeccaM says:

    That’s been my reaction as well, in terms of having a decent career and earning enough to pay the bills. I’ve had no choice but to diversify.

  12. Sweetie says:

    Technology will one day make all of us obsolete. This is an old theme in sci-fi, and it becomes more true by the day.

  13. Naja pallida says:

    I know how it goes. While I don’t have as much experience as you, I did conference documentation, photography, layout and design for many years, and made a pretty good living at it working for myself. But those jobs are few and far between these days, because they feel they can either just outsource it, do something like buy cheap stock photography, or foist the extra responsibility onto an existing employee for no extra pay, who can’t say no without fearing for their job. When they are willing to hire an independent contract, what they want to pay is a fraction of what it was just ten years ago. It basically forced me to diversify in the things that I do… which isn’t so bad, really, nothing lasts forever as technology improves, but I still find it sad that so many companies would rather cut corners and accept something half-assed, than pay the money for a professional to do it right.

  14. BeccaM says:

    I’m not surprised either. But I’m also seeing the general ideal of professionalism — talented people with training and aptitude — being dismissed as unnecessary, because, as you say, somebody thinks their high school kid using open source tools can do a good enough job.

    I’m a technology professional with nearly three decades of experience, backed with a college education in my specific discipline and a strong affinity for figuring things out with very little help or guidance.

    Yet more and more, I’m seeing them not just wanting to shave a few bucks here or there, but quite literally to pay me like I was just an untrained schmoe. There was this one writing project I bid a couple months ago, and I was in competition with another bidder. It turns out I came in under the other person’s bid, but only a little — which was clear evidence neither of us was off the mark in estimating the work to be done. The client objected because they only wanted to pay less than half our lowest bid amount…and eventually took the work offshore to a country where English is not the primary language.

    What’s especially sad is I know this client and company, and they didn’t used to do this. A decade ago, they were willing to pay what work was worth, and valued professionals. But no more.

  15. BeccaM says:

    I am also an “avid amateur photographer.” My personal website contains several galleries of photography and some of my photos have even found their way into children’s educational books.

    What I do is nothing compared to my wife’s work, some of which dates all the way back to the Boston Resistance movement. Incredible pictures. Later, she gravitated toward landscape and artistic photography, and away from 35 mm to become a 4×6″ view-camera expert. (In fact, one of my Death Valley photos shows her view-camera on its tripod, complete with the hanging black drape. Just seemed kind of neat.) Some of her b&w photography has even found its way into gallery showings.

    In the years since it’s become harder and harder to get the film and chemicals necessary for darkroom work, my wife has retired the view camera in favor of a digital SLR, which we try to keep upgraded to current tech as finances allow. Despite working exclusively in the new medium, her photography is still amazing. She’s a real artist. And if my photography is any good today, it’s because she taught me.

    To change gears, I’ve noticed how in the professional world, serious training and aptitudes are increasingly devalued, as if the ability to really do a job well simply doesn’t matter. A journalist is a journalist — their specialty is writing. Yet now they’re being asked to do another job for which they may have no aptitude whatsoever. And no finger-print smudged iPhone will ever match a high-end digital SLR and the pro behind it.

    We’re increasingly in a world that, for the sake of saving a few bucks and devaluing professionals, embraces shoddiness. It’s sad to see the Sun Times has done so, too.

    They can certain kiss goodbye any chances for Pulitzers in photography from here on out.

  16. Naja pallida says:

    Obviously needs more animated gifs and under construction signs. :)

  17. And that’s why I’m sympathetic. Even with our low costs, it’s very difficult to make enough to run your own business, pay your own retirement, health insurance, etc., let alone a big company.

  18. For a good example of Bob’s kid doing your web page, check out the new flickr home page. Yikes.

  19. nicho says:

    Newspapers were supported by all kinds of ads. Local merchants put ads in the local paper. Then, along came the malls and places like WalMart. They advertise in Sunday supplements and by direct mail. They also killed the local merchants. Now, what’s keeping most newspapers going are real-estate ads, which is why the newspapers are trying to breathe life into the real estate markets, and car dealers. Classified ads, as you say, were a big part, but they got knocked off by eBay and Craigslist.

  20. Naja pallida says:

    This sounds to me like the same kind of thing that happened after the tech bubble burst… oh, Bob’s kid in high school can do our web pages for us on the cheap, we don’t need a dedicated web page developer. And so many businesses, that you would think should have been concerned about having a strong public image, developed by professionals, ended up having pages that looked like utter crap, and were impossible to navigate, and had no useful features. Then they wondered why it did nothing to help their business. There was a brief moment where a lot of businesses were questioning whether having a web presence was useful to them at all.

    The internet itself is a perfect example of how anyone can take a picture, but not many people can take really good pictures. Sure, photo editing programs can sometimes save reasonable pictures, and make them a bit better, but not much can save bad pictures. These days though, a semi-professional freelance photographer is lucky to sell a scant few photos, because of the available alternatives. So many would rather settle for an “okay” image for cheap, than spent the money and get something actually good.

    Newspapers in general have been working exhaustively to make themselves irrelevant for about two decades. This is just another step to burying themselves. I can’t say I’m really surprised.

  21. nicho says:

    I wish people had made as much fuss when they fired reporters and replaced them with stenographers.

  22. MyrddinWilt says:

    Median salary for Reporter I in Chicago IL, $35K

    Median salary for Press Photographer in Chicago IL, $56K

    Digital has many quality and speed advantages over film but it doesn’t reduce the need for skill or high quality lenses. In many ways the difficulty has increased because digital distribution is a lot less forgiving than newsprint.

  23. emjayay says:

    Back in the olden days news photography required a guy with a Speed Graphic with big flashbulbs and a fedora. Newspapers were supported by classified ads, which had a monopoly on that sort of communication so charges were very high. The only way to find out stuff was having printed paper delivered to your door. Those days are over.

  24. And I consider myself a good photographer, and it’s still hard to get a GOOD photograph.

  25. Monoceros Forth says:

    The decay of newspapers continues apace. I’m reminded slightly of how my dad’s old employer sacked their dedicated graphic artist years back and told everyone to make their own charts and graphs for publications using Excel. They looked much worse, of course, but you know, anything to save paying a professional.

  26. HeartlandLiberal says:

    So, I assume the National Geographic will be firing all their photographers as a cost saving step in the race to the bottom for all our mainstream media?

    Note: John is absolutely right about photography and skills. I have been an avid amateur photographer my entire life. I have three generations of digital SLR cameras operating at the moment. And I KNOW how hard it is to take a good picture.

  27. Buford2k11 says:

    What? you have never skyped from the potty? It is somewhat embarrassing to answer the question, “was that an explosion”? “Na, the dog farted”…is the standard answer…Photography is nothing more than capturing stray and reflected photons…arranging them in a coherent presentation is the real trick…Art is Art…and everyone is now a photographer….I agree with John, photography is harder than most think. Being immersed in the photon world has given me new appreciation for our natural surroundings and the challenge of creating “ART”..

  28. Indigo says:

    Even worse is the paparazzi syndrome, Ha! Caught you sitting on the toilet!

  29. Bill_Perdue says:

    Management and bosses, all of them, are swine.

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