Four Fired Photographers Return to Work for the Chicago Sun-Times

chigago sun-times

Last spring, The Chicago Sun-Times laid off twenty-nine of their photographers, which essentially eliminated the entirety of their photography department. Wrapports LLC, the owner of the struggling company, was quickly put under criticism and gained contrroversy aver its actions, which were made in order to cut costs. How did they plan on compensating in absence of the department? Back then, they stated their intentions to rely on “wire services and free-lancers”, while their reporters were to be trained in photography with iPhones.

This week, according to Chicago journalist Robert Feder, four of the photographers are rejoining the newspaper, while positions in other fields are being prepared for layoffs and attrition. The changes come in as a result of a tentative contract settled between Wrapports LLC and the union that represents the editorial employees of the Sun-Times. The four photographers (Richard Chapman, Brian Jackson, Al Podgorski, and one unnamed) are set to return under that contract, which is possibly the most surprising thing about it.

The conditions of the positions were given as well; the four returning photographers were now taking up what the company defines as “multimedia jobs”. The new work guidelines stress for them to have strong video skills, which I’d imagine is probably something the Sun-Times was starting to lack when they pretty much sacked their photography team.

Back when the layoff happened, Sun-Times Media released a statement to the Associated press, stating the reasoning behind their “difficult decision” being that the business is “changing rapidly” and that their readers are looking for “more video content with their news”.

The switch to iPhone journalism for the actual reporters was said to be part of a new business strategy for the newspaper, which obviously didn’t work out too well, considering they’re still looking for videographers. Things are changing in the photography world, yes; there’s less of a demand for photojournalism as a result of the rise of social media and mobile photography in general. But the Chicago Sun-Times took this as something ready to threaten their business. Because their paid circulation was in decline, they decided that people would be fine with the sacrifice of legitimate photojournalism.

Shooting photos with an iPhone is a great thing; hell, it’s a good start at even becoming a photographer if you learn the right techniques. But that isn’t what professional photojournalism is meant to be in this day and age. Photography isn’t something that you can hand to a writer and expect him to take care of. Just like the journalist has his years of experience in developing his rhetoric and syntax, a professional photojournalist has his years of experience learning things about photography that other people simply can’t do. The Chicago Sun-Times should have recognized this, and right now they look like fools because of doing so too late.

[Via Robert Feder], photo (cc) by Adam Fagen

  • Renato Murakami

    Hasty decisions made by people who don’t understand and completely underestimated the true value of those professionals. Like I said before, this is less of a sign that professional photographers/photojournalists aren’t needed anymore, and more of a sign that newspapers, as they are being made today, are a dying format.
    Don’t get me wrong though, newsmaking and journalism will always be needed no matter how much technology evolves. It’s just probably that the way it’s done today will have to change and evolve (or perhaps even devolve as some people see it).
    I can see why some newsrooms are going for amateur practices and wire services if they are anything like what’s done in Brazil: Most of the content of papers is stuff you’ll find anywhere – other newspapers, magazines, TV news, web portals and whatever.
    If you are going to only aggregate and reproduce content that comes out in other places, crappy images to tell the readers “you were there” or getting images from other sources will suffice. Will look poorly done, but just about enough.
    But if newspapers are going to really cover the journalism spectrum by going after original stories, original perspectives, and go beyond aggregation, then of course pro photographers and photojournalists are needed.

    • Maaz Khan

      I agree with most of what you’re saying. The only question I’d bring up against that is whether it’s worth it to lower that quality of images in online/non-newspaper journalism in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely gets the job done like you said, but what if it was a major news outlet that went that route? I’m talking BBC, or another source that’s highly respected. I feel like the “phone journalism” would take away from the integrity of what made that publication what it is today in the first place.

      I’ve always seen phone photography and amateur practices as extraordinary and game-changing for news circulation through social networking; and then news publishers themselves are outlets I’d hold accountable for something more professional.

      • Renato Murakami

        If BBC were to do something like that, it’d be finished! Can’t even imagine BBC without pro photographers and specially videographers…

        This phenomena seems to be more about shifting pro photographers to agencies when the publication itself (mostly newspapers it seems) doesn’t even care to produce their own material anymore. For big respectable sources, firing photojournalists and replacing them with plain journalists with iPhones sounds unthinkable.
        They’d loose a major part of their credibility plus the actual status of “source”. They’d become just another middleman business, with content that would have to be made somewhere else.
        We’re on the same page I guess.

        I think that in all countries there’s at least one or a handful of publications that knows the importance of their photography/photojournalism staff, because they are the sources of all major stories in most news outlets. Seems that it’s just the “republishing” business that’s souring with this whole thing – and then journalistic integrity as result.

        It’s a frequent discussion among journalists in which this phenomena of pro photographers lay offs is part of: direct newsmaking by “going to the streets” and getting it done versus republishing content from news agencies, the competition and worst of all – press releases. Because a good part of newsrooms today are limiting themselves to mostly do the second, which is pretty bad for everyone.

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