Can iPhotojournalism Replace a Newspaper Photo Staff?

05Jun13

If you’ve been reading any photojournalism-related blogs or news articles, it’s likely you’re aware of the fact that The Chicago Sun-Times, the oldest daily newspaper in the nations third-largest city, has just permanently laid off its entire photo staff of 28, including a Pulitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist.

Robert Feder, a media blogger who worked at the Sun-Times for over twenty years posted this on his Facebook page:

Sun-Times reporters begin mandatory training today on “iPhone photography basics” following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.

Can reporters using iPhones replace a newspaper's photography staff?

Can reporters using iPhones replace a newspaper’s photography staff?

And with that, a dedicated staff of photojournalists with hundreds of years of combined experience is replaced by staff reporters wielding camera phones.

At first glance, this looks like yet another (desperate) cost-cutting measure undertaken by a print media company facing increased competition from online media. In justifying the move, the paper also emphasized the shift to an increased reliance on web video content to satisfy “digitally savvy customers.”

Critics see it differently, with many characterizing it as a union-busting move. Many Sun-Times stories may eventually be covered by freelance photographers or part-time employees—positions that won’t provide the salaries and benefits they once did.

Lots of thoughts came to me when I heard about this, the first being, “That could be me.”

When I first entered college years ago, photojournalism was the career I wanted to pursue. If I had followed through with that, I could have been one of those 28 people, an unemployed 50-something photographer wondering what to do next.

Rather than repeat the many objections I found online to the Sun-Time’s decision (photojournalist Alex Garcia has some particularly interesting points), I can point to two prevailing ideas that have emerged in the past years that stand out.

1.    Anybody Can Do Your Job

Years ago, a wise friend of mine pointed out that a mark of true intelligence in a person is their ability to recognize the intelligence and abilities of others. Over the past twenty years or so, this notion has faded, with less and less regard and respect given to the skills and experience a person has built up over time in a given area of expertise.

Technology has played a part in this. For example, when desktop publishing software became available, the tools of graphic production became easily available to folks who may or may not have had any real design abilities. Suddenly, anybody with a copy of Pagemaker was a “graphic designer,” and for many managers, the instant accessibility of the tools and the ability to move production “in-house” were more important than using professionals with top-notch design skills.

Photography followed suit. Today’s automatic digital cameras are capable of delivering high-quality images without much technical expertise on the part of the user. So now, everybody is a photographer simply because they can go out into the field and come back with “usable” pictures.

Recently, digital cameras were introduced that can inexpensively produce video quality that rivals that of cinema production. Of course, this means that anybody wanting to make that Hollywood blockbuster or PBS documentary can just go out and do it, right?

So equipping Sun-Times reporters with iPhones will, at some level, work—the management will get lots of technically-usable pictures from all those reporters.

But technology can’t fully replace what experience bestows over time. Reporters are wordsmiths who use verbal and analytical skills. The photojournalist works in a visual realm, where graphic composition, selection, and anticipation are used to create visuals that tell the story in a different but complementary way. A great photojournalist can operate their equipment without thinking about it, is able to quickly isolate the most meaningful composition out of what is often visual chaos, and has the reflexes to get that shot at the perfect point in time.

A newspaper staff photojournalist is also someone who works a “beat.” She gets to know the people and players within their realm of operation, teams up with reporters on a daily basis and becomes a member of that community in a way that no freelance vendor ever will.

But, to today’s management, it doesn’t matter because anybody can do that job, especially after a couple of training sessions on iPhone photography basics. I wonder what their reaction would be if someone asserted that anyone could run a multimillion-dollar newspaper operation if they read a couple of issues of Forbes?

2.    Free/Cheap Trumps Everything

By replacing their photographers with existing staff members, the Sun-Times can essentially get their photography for free or for perhaps the cost of an iPhone. This is the second disturbing trend I’ve noticed over the past decades: something that is free or cheap, even if it is inferior, will usually be preferred over anything that costs money.

This isn’t a new idea, even in the photographic field. In the early 1990’s, long before digital photography arrived, the digitization of existing photographic images was undertaken on a large scale. Mountains of CD-ROMs containing digital stock photography were offered at inexpensive rates, putting lots of photographers (myself included) out of the photo illustration business. As a professional, you couldn’t compete with a $20.00 stock image—you’d spend that much money just by loading film into your camera (remember film?). It didn’t matter to most designers that the stock images often weren’t exactly what they had in mind or the fact that the competition could theoretically use the exact same image—price was everything.

It’s taken fifteen more years before this mentality reached the news photography realm. Recently, CNN got rid of a portion of their photography staff, figuring that they could “crowdsource” free imagery that would work just as well. And now the Sun-Times. Other companies will be watching this, and if it looks like it’s working, we’ll see more of it.

And it will work, if consumers don’t care. If photographs are simply rectangular graphic elements needed to add color and break up blocks of text on a page, I guess you could get by without professionals. On the other hand, if readers demand imagery that works on equal footing with the text in telling a complete news story, camera-phone photojournalism isn’t going to cut it. My advice to Chicago consumers: Maybe you should cancel your Sun-Times subscription and see what the Tribune has to offer. I hear they still have full-time photographers roaming the streets, restlessly looking for that perfect picture.

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3 Responses to “Can iPhotojournalism Replace a Newspaper Photo Staff?”

  1. Nice respond in return of this question with real arguments and explaining the whole thing
    about that.

  2. Hi there, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar
    one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam responses?
    If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you
    can recommend? I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any help is very much appreciated.

    • Hello:

      Well, I do trash quite a few comments that appear to come from companies or have little or nothing to do with the blog. However, I have so few readers that spam really isn’t a problem for me.

      Wayne


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