The Chicago Sun-Times, once a pretty good tabloid newspaper, made some much-criticized news in the newspaper industry last month when it announced it was laying off its staff photographers.
The Sun-Times photo staff of nearly 30 included one person who won a Pulitzer Prize, considered by most to be journalism’s highest award. The Sun-Times plans to hire freelancers, who will not be members of the staff, to take pictures for the daily newspaper. The move is one of utter desperation by an organization that has fallen on hard times. Yes, practically all U.S. newspapers have cut costs and staffs in the last several years, The Spokesman-Review included. The downsizing accomplished through layoffs and early-retirement offers was the result of a sour economy and changing habits by consumers of news and advertisers.
The Sun-Times anticipates saving a significant amount of payroll costs by eliminating its photo staff and relying on much-lower-paid freelancers. The newspaper also plans to train more of its reporters to shoot photos and videos with their iPhones.
There’s no question that technology creates more options for capturing images, but the art of newspaper photography, whether it be sports, environmental portraits or breaking news, is not easily mastered.
The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words comes to mind, but to paraphrase what one blogger wrote last week, a picture that I take may be worth only 200 words. A professional photographer’s photo, on the other hand, could be worth far more than 1,000 words.
The five full-time photographers on our staff know our region better than almost everyone else on staff because they go on hundreds of assignments each year to photograph the people, places and events that make up the tapestry of the Inland Northwest.
Photographers can’t take useable photos from the office. They are often the first at the scene when news is developing. Our team knows the shortcuts, the back roads and the neighborhoods where news happens. The staff photos chronicle our times, our successes and failures; life as it is lived here.
When I first started in this business decades ago, the three-person photo staff I worked with on assignments and breaking news events taught me more than any desk-bound editor. Those veteran photographers, like ours, knew what kinds of questions to ask of people being interviewed and could anticipate what might happen next at the site of a major story.
Sports photographers who cover the teams of most interest to our readers often know what kind of plays to anticipate, and position themselves for the best shot. The continuity and skill a knowledgeable photographer brings to any scene is invaluable, especially when deadline is approaching.
In a time when visual journalism is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, it is difficult to understand why a newspaper could possibly think that eliminating its professional photographers will enhance its storytelling in print and on the Web. Newspapers today are devoting more resources and attention to visual storytelling not just in print, but on their websites and their mobile offerings.
The Spokesman-Review rebranded itself last year and now operates as S-R Media/The Spokesman-Review, a clear signal that we are more than just a newspaper. Our digital offerings on the website and mobile devices need to be more visual. Our success there is dependent on the quality of photos and videos produced by our talented staffers.
I have had occasion to remind reporters that a photographer is their best friend. The collaboration required to tell a story in the most complete, honest and compelling manner is critical to a daily newspaper and its digital tools. Of course, in these times, reporters are being encouraged to add to their skills by learning how to take basic pictures or video, but it is extremely difficult to excel at both reporting and photography.
The Spokesman-Review photo staff has earned a national reputation for its performance over the years and has captured many awards, but what’s more important is its commitment to telling stories for our readers.