updated 11:00 pm EDT, Fri May 31, 2013
Part of a move towards more 'immediacy,' will also emphasize video over stills
In a surprise move on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire photography staff (28 full-time photographers), telling them that the paper would go with more "in the field" pictures and video from reporters and witnesses. In a memo brought to light by rival paper the Chicago Tribune, managing editor of the Sun-Times, Craig Newman, says that reporters will immediately begin "mandatory training" on "iPhone photography basics," and that reporters will be responsible for capturing photos and video associated with stories.
While improvements in the iPhone and other mobile devices has proven a boon for capturing print-quality photos of breaking events, the idea that a reporter with no formal training or particular talent in photography could replace a professional, DSLR-wielding photographer with a phone camera and a few pointers on composition has sparked angry backlash from photojournalists, other publications and pro photographers alike. Former Sun-Times photographer Alex Garcia called the idea "idiotic at worst, hopelessly uninformed at best," but along with other laid-off photographers acknowledged that newspapers are facing shrinking budgets that have resulted in bureau closures, reduced investigative and international coverage and other moves designed to continue delivering news at dramatically reduced cost due to lower ad revenues.
The iPhone -- which is already the most popular camera of all models, according to Flickr -- offers a better camera (particularly for outdoor shots) than most compact point-and-shoots, but is still well behind even higher-end consumer cameras such as superzooms and mirrorless "four thirds" camera models, to say nothing of high-end digital SLRs, rangefinder and "medium format" cameras in terms of quality, resolution, artistry and flexibility. However, phone cameras have a serious advantage over most other forms of cameras in that they are with users at all times.
As newspapers and magazines increasingly move to the Internet -- where the standard of resolution required is less than one-fourth that needed for even basic print -- the high resolution of top-end cameras is increasingly thought to be unnecessary in a world where eyewitnesses often shoot video or photos of news events as they happen. Though often amateurish and poor in quality, having a bad photo of a breaking event is better than having no photo, goes the current thinking. Indeed, video is deemed to be preferred over just still images of an incident -- and readers increasingly want video or visual images of stories rather than detailed copy -- signalling that full-time reporters could be next on the chopping block.
The move was seen as particularly nefarious given that the paper was in the middle of negotiations with the photographers' union, yet never mentioned the possibility of layoffs. Garcia believes that after a few months -- and the increasingly negative publicity of the announcement, which was so brief that it totalled 30 seconds, included no thank-yous for in some cases decades of service and included the firing of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer -- the paper will announce that it erred in firing the full-time staff, and rehire some as part-timers -- losing the pay and healthcare benefits they had, and breaking the union for the photographers.
"Most Sun-Times photojournalists I knew, because of their decades of experience, were unsung journalists more than photographers. They knew how things worked and what made communities tick. They found stories and passed them on," Garcia wrote in a blog post for the Tribune. "They helped to shape stories, correct misperceptions and convey understandings that have deep resonance with readers. I am sure that many of their reporter colleagues would attest to this ... by eliminating their deep knowledge, connection and trust to their communities, the Sun-Times has signalled to its readership that it doesn't really care."
He went on to mention that using freelancers will lessen the community connection and increase turnover, that good reporters use an entirely different part of the brain for storytelling than photographers use to compose illuminative images. While iPhones are great camera phones, he argued that they lack telephoto lenses, manual exposure and focus adjustment, optical zoom and many other tools professionals need to see beyond the most obvious level of an image.
Reaction to the move from readers and other communities has been swift and angry. "I feel sorry for future generations," wrote one New York Times reader. "Those wonderful opportunities we have to look back on historical events large and small, to see wonderful pictures capturing events, but also human emotion, relationship [et cetera] -- will simply not be there." Proponents, on the other hand, argue that newspapers must gut themselves to the core in order to stay viable as businesses, as readers increasingly turn to free services, news summaries, video reports and other "quicker" forms of information -- or, as has become increasingly evident, drop out of paying attention to news entirely and focus on opinion-based media outlets that often play fast and loose with actual information and facts.
The news out of Chicago casts an ironic and perhaps hollow light on one of Apple's latest ads for the iPhone, touting the fact that more pictures are taken on the iPhone than on any other camera. The ad, which showcases the many types of photos large and small that users take with their iPhone, is an elegant tribute to the wonders of photography -- and was shot by skilled cinematographers using high-end equipment to give the quality look that Apple prides itself on.