In a broad and shocking move, the Chicago-based newspaper conglomerate Sun-Times Media Group laid off every one of their staff photographers and photojournalists this week, laying the path for their new reliance on freelance contractors and smartphone snaps to make the news. This applies to dozens of Illinois newspapers that fall under the Chicago Sun-Times umbrella, most notably the flagship paper of the same name. In this video, CNN’s Howard Kurtz interviews John H. White, a 35-year veteran of the Sun-Times and winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Photojournalism:
White frames the situation in an inspiring and positive light, musing over the deep cultural need for talented and trained image creators to connect people visually with the world around them.
There are two types of photographs that can change the world: early, rough images from a historic event (think World Trade Center videos or the first images of the Arab Spring), and carefully crafted compositions that tell an ongoing story, such as the 1930 LIFE photo of two black men being lynched in Indiana. While hasty snapshots may suffice to deliver the breaking news of the day, the paper may suffer in the long term for a lack of visual staying power; without professional photographers to frame the day’s events in a way that resonates with the viewer using an intricate understanding of colour, form, and timing, the Sun-Times may struggle to have a real impact on their dwindling readers in an increasingly visual-centric age.
The Sun-Times made this decision based on their assessment of how the times they are a-changing – they see a much heavier online presence as compared to print, not to mention lower revenue and increasing competition from any blogger with a few thousand Twitter followers. For all these reasons, they want to cut photography costs by arming their regular journalists with iPhones, trying to get twice the work from half the staff. Many critics are condemning the choice, calling it short-sighted, but only time will tell what new strategies will be effective in the rapidly evolving world of professional newsmaking.
This is certainly a blow for any of us trying to convince ourselves that there is a future in photojournalism, but it’s hardly the industry’s death knell. It is, however, a very large experiment which can act as a barometer for the survival of news photography; if it’s successful, we may dismay to see other companies follow suit.
But, if the art of photojournalism is as intrinsic to our understanding of the world as John White believes it to be, that fact may prove these layoffs to be a grave misstep.
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