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Chicago paper fires photogs, will train reporters on 'iPhoneography'

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.




By Electronista Staff
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Comments

  1. Mr. Strat

    Junior Member

    Joined: 01-23-02

    As a former professional photographer (not a journalist), I find this highly offensive. It's bad enough that every dork with a digital camera considers themself a pro, but to rely on cell phone pics taken by inadequately trained reporters, you'll end up with a rather amateurish looking publication.

  1. TheGreatButcher

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 06-11-00

    "The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news."

    I wonder where they are getting their data from. I prefer reading to video and most people I know do as well. Regardless, this is going to bring Sun-Times closer to the standard of CNN's iReport if it's not there already... and that's not a compliment.

  1. Mississauga

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-15-12

    What's next, crayon drawings? Another sign of the continued decline of demand for quality. The art of fine photography will soon be completely forgotten. This is a slap in the face of all those who have invested in their profession. I hope this "experiment" goes very badly for the Sun-Times!

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    It's the news trend towards faster and cheaper. The aim here is not to compete with LIFE photography series, but with amateurs on twitter.

    I'm not sure this is a good idea — cheap can't compete with free.

    We'll see if it works. The one-man-TV-reporter "teams" that the low-end TV stations tried for a while (one guy shouldering a cam, holding a mic, and holding an interview, replacing three guys) don't appear to have become the industry norm.

  1. Stuke

    Junior Member

    Joined: 02-11-05

    Interesting story. I believe it is a fair assessment of the true need for photographic and video graphic needs in reporting news in the evolving world we live. If digital delivery systems provided the same resolution traditional print systems did, then I'd agree with the views that quality will be sacrificed. But, life today is about getting your news in bytes and pixels, not so much as dots per inch. So 1/4 resolution is all one needs until the bytes and pixel delivery and display mechanisms can handle 24 MP images. This story has me rethinking my hobbyist photographic needs to upgrade my Sony A700 camera...why go for it when more than 95% of my photographic output is on my or others computer or tablet screen. I think the news agency has thought the same.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by StukeView Post

    Interesting story. I believe it is a fair assessment of the true need for photographic and video graphic needs in reporting news in the evolving world we live. If digital delivery systems provided the same resolution traditional print systems did, then I'd agree with the views that quality will be sacrificed. But, life today is about getting your news in bytes and pixels, not so much as dots per inch. So 1/4 resolution is all one needs until the bytes and pixel delivery and display mechanisms can handle 24 MP images. This story has me rethinking my hobbyist photographic needs to upgrade my Sony A700 camera...why go for it when more than 95% of my photographic output is on my or others computer or tablet screen. I think the news agency has thought the same.


    You're looking at the wrong end of it, though.

    The camera is 10% of what makes a good photograph.

  1. zed2002

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-01-13

    May be the next step should be to fire the whole management team and have the whole reporter team trained to use Drupal and post directly their stories and their iPhone photo/video themselves. I am not good at writing but I would love to be able to write the letter to Craig Newman and put somewhere: "...reporters will immediately begin "mandatory training" on "Drupal content management basics," and that reporters will be responsible for managing Chicago Sun-Times"..."
    Just a thought...

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    :thumbsup:

  1. Stuke

    Junior Member

    Joined: 02-11-05

    You're looking at the wrong end of it, though.

    The camera is 10% of what makes a good photograph.

    Right, so 90% is composition and lighting, so train the reporters holding iPhones about this, then tell them how to push the button on their phone. The decision I hope was also based on iPhone/phone camera pictures that were captured during the same news stories using photojournalists and somebody decided the iPhone Picts were being used satisfactorily more and more.

  1. The Vicar

    Junior Member

    Joined: 07-01-09

    Eh, just the Sun-Times being the Sun-Times. Ever since they were bought by Rupert Murdoch years ago (he later sold them off), they have been a paper for extremely stupid people, poorly-written, poorly-researched, poorly-illustrated, and poorly-run. Their editorial positions are apparently chosen to appeal to fifth graders, which suggests that their editors can't think any more coherently than their audience. And their opposition, the Tribune, isn't really much better.

    As I like to say: in Chicago, we have two major newspapers, one run for idiots and one run for conservatives; it's a terrible thing that both are targeted at a single market.

  1. jungledave

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-01-13

    I am sure that some slick business type sold the alleged managers of this newspaper on the idea that anyone could shoot photos on their Iphone and while this is possible the results will be typical of a social experiment that fails. This is often the logic you get from managers with limited field experience You see the reason why news photographers shoot images that win Pulitzer Prizes has more to due with the way their brain works and less to do with the equipment. There are scenes recorded, that is what you shoot with your Iphone, we call them snapshots, its a record of what was in front of you at that moment. Then there are "moments" that instant when a special event is captured that as they say in today's language goes viral. A reporter acting as a photographer is going to be too busy trying to scribble it all down. They usually miss the moment because they are looking at a note pad. After all they can ask someone later what happened. A freelancer is going to be on his mobile phone trying to line up his next paying gig, so he will miss it. The staffer on the other hand, if they are doing their job, sees the elements forming and waits for the image. They will select from a range of photographic equipment that has become so familiar it could use blindfolded. The focus on the "moment" will drive them to ignore all other elements, even danger. The job demands it.
    If moments are unimportant to the organization then they get what they pay for, boring snapshots shot recorded with a camera phone, usually lacking in composition and quality. The reader on the other hand is offered a less than professional product assembled by a collection of word herders.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    ^^^ that guy there gets it.

    Originally Posted by StukeView Post

    Right, so 90% is composition and lighting, so train the reporters holding iPhones about this, then tell them how to push the button on their phone. The decision I hope was also based on iPhone/phone camera pictures that were captured during the same news stories using photojournalists and somebody decided the iPhone Picts were being used satisfactorily more and more.



    The camera used is completely irrelevant.

    Look, if you're going to train somebody who's a professional at one job to be equally professional at another job, you've got a guy with two full-time professions. Most people are probably going to suck at one or the other, at least if they're forced to do both at the same time. I could probably make a decent pass at being a concert photographer, but I'm not sure my playing would be up to standard if I spent a portion of my time running around on stage framing the ideal shot and waiting for magic moments.

    The other option is to not expect them to be equally professional at the second job, which means that you have embraced mediocrity and accept a new level of suck as amateurs (and a reporter taking snapshots is just that: an amateur photographer) take over jobs that used to be done by paid professionals.

  1. quikboy

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-02-13

    That's quite sad to see. Seriously? They couldn't even keep 1 full-time photographer? Seems like the management at that newspaper must be idiots if they think they can be considered a professional newspaper with reporters using their iPhones for pics.

    They could at least provide their reporters with a DLSR, or maybe a smartphone with a better camera like the Nokia 928 or HTC One for starters. iPhone 5 takes good pics, but not in comparison to those phones.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    The technical quality will be fine for 72-dpi web publishing.

  1. andi*pandi

    Moderator

    Joined: 06-19-00

    What a sad state of affairs. I too was reminded of CNN's iReport... crowdsourcing the news. :err:

  1. kerryb

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 08-05-01

    I heard that he said to her that they did that. Oh, and here is a picture of the waffles I had for breakfast at the cute little cafe that opened up around here somewhere. News reporting of the 21st century.

  1. mac_in_tosh

    Junior Member

    Joined: 12-14-11

    Stuke: You are only looking at resolution, which is but one facet of what makes a good photograph, usually not a very important one.

  1. Jeff Simpson

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 02-23-07

    Wacky Proposal: Before getting overly-excited and make passionate predictions on the basis of no meaningful data, let's give this change a year. Really, let's review the results once they are in.

    Meet back here in a year. I think we'll be fine and don't think we will see either the flames of hell or even a hand basket.

  1. Jeff Simpson

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 02-23-07

    Wacky Proposal: Before getting overly-excited and making passionate predictions on the basis of no meaningful data, let's give this change a year. Really, let's review the results once they are in.

    Meet back here in a year. I think we'll be fine and don't think we will see either the flames of hell or even a hand basket.

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