Sun-Times/Times-Picayune layoffs

Last week the Chicago Sun-Times made the shocking announcement that the entire photography staff–about 28 full-time employees–was being laid off, effective immediately. The new plan, according to the newspaper’s announcement, is to use reporters with iPhones and freelance photographers to shoot both photos and video. The newspaper defended its decision based on “rapidly-changing” business motives and the fact that audiences are requesting more video content.

Among those staffers who were let go was Sun-Times veteran photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner John White. In an interview with the Poynter Institute, White poignantly stated the harsh reality of the layoffs: “It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photojournalism.”

JohnWhite21
John H. White on Chicago’s lakefront at sunrise on Easter Sunday, April 8th, 2012.
Photo by Scott Strazzante. Image courtesy of Poynter.

Referring to the cuts at the Sun-Times as the “latest example of a disconcerting trend in American media,” Kenneth Irby, a senior faculty member in visual journalism at Poynter, writes: “professional photojournalism is being downsized and devalued, with news organizations increasingly turning to wire services, citizen-submitted content and independent/freelance contributions.”

Last fall when the New Orleans Times-Picayune moved to a digital-first model, nearly half of their staff positions were eliminated. More than 200 employees–including 80 news staffers–were let go. Among those were key photojournalism staffers: Photo Editor Doug Parker and five photojournalists, including veteran Times-Picayune photographer John MuCusker, Matthew Hinton, Scott Threlkeld, Ellis Lucia, and Eliot Kamenitz.

Quality photography is central to good storytelling. And, in fact, part of what led the Times-Picayune to take home the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in the category of Public Service was compelling photography in telling the story of Hurricane Katrina. The Pulitzer was awarded to the Times-Pic for “its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper’s resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.”

But in a recent New York Times article, Nick Bilton argues that the “death” of photography has been “greatly exaggerated.”

While there may be some truth that the still photograph is not one foot in the grave–consider the rise in popularity of the “selfie”–we must ask, but what about the death of the quality photograph?

In a sardonic blog post in response to the layoffs at the Sun-Times, New York Times Editorial Board member Lawrence Downes asks, “Do newspapers need photographers?” He quips: “Maybe the business of newspapering is so hopeless that throwing all of this ability to the curb makes sense. Professional photography is expensive, after all, and often the most widely viewed news images are amateur- or machine-made: cellphone shots and stills from security videos, as in the Boston bombing. 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. They are just digital content, and these days, as news Web sites gasp for air, content needs to be cheap.”

I’m currently working on in-depth research on this critical and timely topic. In an upcoming book chapter–through interviews with photo staffers from leading newspapers across the country–I examine the changing nature of visual reporting in the digital age.

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