Chicago readers are the biggest losers as Sun-Times fires photo staff

(This post was created June 3 and updated June 4)

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been blowing up since Thursday when the Chicago Sun-Times and its affiliated suburban papers laid off more than 20 photographers, leaving only three picture editors to try to craft a visual report from wire photos, from images created by freelancers, and by using pictures made by reporters equipped with iPhones.

I went to school at Northwestern, so the strong images that appeared each day in the  Sun-Times, the Tribune and the now-defunct Daily News were a big influence on me as a budding photojournalist. I feel the same pain as fellow Medill grad Vincent LaForet, who was shocked to see the photographers he admired — his mentors — get tossed to the curb.

To their credit, the photographers took it with class. Pulitzer-winner John H. White remained positive about photojournalism in an interview with Howard Kurtz of CNN. Rob Hart started a tumblr to document the sudden change in his professional life, titled “Laid off from the Sun-Times.” Displaying an ability to smile under pressure, he has chosen to make all the images for the blog with an iPhone.

What does this mean for readers? Today’s front pages both feature strong sports photos. The Sun-Times used a wire photo from Getty, the Trib used an image by veteran sports photojournalist Nuccio DiNuzzo.

June 3 newspaper fronts from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.

June 3 newspaper fronts from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.

The real difference in visual content isn’t obvious until a reader gets to local coverage, the kind of stuff the wires don’t cover. A simple protest story provides a good example. When Roseland Community Hospital threatened to stop admitting new patients both hospital employees and people from the community made a vocal outcry. In eliminating the photo department, the Sun-Times said it wanted to redirect its resources to into producing video for the Web and planned to train reporters to do this with smartphones. But today’s Roseland coverage features no video. [UPDATE: The Sun-Times replaced a smartphone photo with a video Tuesday afternoon. The 54-second video is an excerpt of a statement made by a hospital administrator who is not identified in the video and does not provide any visual coverage of the protest.] The only visual element [on the page as it existed Tuesday morning was] a tiny smartphone photo of a wheelchair-bound protestor. The Tribune story, on the other hand, has strong stills and video made by photojournalist Antonio Perez and edited by Peggy Draver. The Trib has executed exactly the strategy the Sun-Times espouses.

The Chicago Tribune assigned a photographer and a reporter to cover the Roseland Community Hospital protest. The Sun-Times sent a reporter with a smartphone.

The Chicago Tribune assigned a photographer and a reporter to cover the Roseland Community Hospital protest. The Sun-Times sent a reporter with a smartphone.

Which story better serves Chicago’s readers? Not a tough choice.

Does this mean reporters shouldn’t be trained and equipped with smartphones to produce stills, audio and video? Of course not. Coverage will be richer if journalists have a complete toolkit, and the time and knowledge to use it. Writers should be expected to know how to produce video interview highlights and acceptable environmental portraits.

Should all still photos and video be produced by photographers? Of course not. Good assignment editors should be matching photojournalists to the stories that have the greatest visual potential. They should also be sending them to really important stories that are visually challenging. That’s the kind of assignment where a professional photojournalist can produce a compelling image while a visually challenged reporter might produce, well, a mundane photo of a protestor sitting in a wheelchair.

Most of the time visual journalists shouldn’t complain too loudly about reporters being issued smartphones. Asking a writer to record an interview highlight is much smarter than asking a video journalist to sacrifice a more content rich story to do the same thing.

Given the time and training, can writers produce good visual content? Sure they can, as the Wall Street Journal has shown on its WSJDigitalNetwork, in particular its coverage of Hurricane Sandy.

But eliminating an entire photo department — a photo department deep enough to include a Pulitzer-winner who could have left long ago but chose to stay with the paper — does nothing to benefit readers. It’s the kind of bottom line  decision that just makes a corporation look self-centered and heartless.

Chicago’s readers deserve better treatment. The Sun-Times photo department does, too.

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