Are Photojournalists A Digital Casualty?

When the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff earlier this year, arming its reporters with iPhones instead, it sparked a debate over whether if the expense of trained photojournalists is a necessity or a luxury at newspapers facing lean financial times.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and photographer Rob Hart lifts a glass of beer at the High Dive, a pub in Chicago’s funky West Town neighborhood. That picture, as they say, paints a thousand words: A few months ago, as a staff photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Hart would’ve been too busy shooting pics to hoist pints.

But that was before Hart went from reporting the news to making it. On May 30, the Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff of 28, including Pulitzer Prize winner John White, in a move management deemed essential to clear the way for more online video. The story sent shock waves through just about every newsroom in North America and far beyond media circles.

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A joke image of the Sun-Times front page circulated on Twitter after the paper dropped its photojournalists.
News staffs so expert at asking tough questions for a living now had a new, anxious one to ponder: Is the photojournalism we know as much a relic as the musty old darkroom?

"I think photojournalism is coming to a dead end, at least in the way it was practiced in the late 1970s and mid-’80s,” says Mark Hinojosa, director of interactive media at the Detroit News. As a veteran journalist who rose through the ranks as a photographer, Hinojosa says this realization saddens him. And he’s hanging on in Detroit, at least for now.

“We still have a full photo staff,” he says, “but I could easily see a day when the staff is much smaller and it’s used for big events, and the day-to-day stuff will be handled by reporters. It will be OK, but something will be lost. Why? Because a writer doesn't see the visual potential in a story, and can't always find something that's transformative.”

Look beyond the Midwest — where reports of impending layoffs currently dog photographers and reporters at the Chicago Tribune — and you’ll see much evidence that photojournalism has entered its twilight hours.

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At Cox Media Group, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will cut its 10 person photo staff in half by Nov. 1, and has offered buyouts at two other papers. And in late August, Reuters dismissed all of its contract sports reporters, replacing its feed with images from USA Today.

The numbers, of course, fail to reflect the human side of the news. “The photo staff was the heart and soul of the paper,” says Hart, who was based in the western suburb of Oak Park, Ill., for the Sun-Times’ Pioneer Press division. “We spent 100% of our working lives interacting with the community. Whether your son was shot in the face, or it was your 101st birthday, we were the ones knocking on the door asking if we could spend time with you. Not to belittle the awesome reporters, but even if you look at photos as the loss leader for the paper, we are the billboard. We get people to look.”

Image from Rob Hart's "Laid Off From The Sun-Times" blog
Yet Hart (who’s also an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) has a wicked sense of humor about it all. Hours after getting the news, he started a blog called “ Laid off from the Sun-Times ,” which begins thus: “Rob Hart was replaced with a reporter with an iPhone, so he is documenting his new life with an iPhone, but with the eye of a photojournalist trained in storytelling.”

Digital To Blame?

The punch line could serve as a poignant clarion call for an industry standing at yet another digital-age crossroad. That is: It’s easier than ever to gather news (and news images) thanks to high-tech gains. As Hart notes, any average Joe with an iPhone can do it. But do newsrooms that move too fast into the future lose storytelling muscle in the process?

Hart and his colleagues think so, and might hasten to add that if video indeed represents the road ahead, today’s photojournalists stand best poised to lead the charge.

If only it were that simple.

Newsrooms everywhere, including at the Sun-Times, are strapped for cash. The reported cuts Tribune Co. will make starting Dec. 1 total a staggering $100 million. (Tribune representatives did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

And Hart acknowledges that some photographers, like those laid-off reporters who preceded them, haven’t always been quick to embrace new technologies. He recalls a recent video editing class for photographers, offered by the Newspaper Guild, that extended over three days and taught the fine points of Apple’s Final Cut Pro X software.

“A lot of the guys in my class were terrible,” Hart says, “which maybe solidified why we were laid off.”

Meanwhile, Wrapports LLC, the privately owned publisher of the Sun-Times, cites evidence that its video-first strategy has yielded gains, based on new numbers released to NetNewsCheck. Video hours viewed since March jumped 140%, while streams viewed rose 85% between March and September. That places the Sun-Times on target to see stream views more than double by the end of October, a company spokesperson said.


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