Wrapports

Chicago Sun-Times fires its entire photo staff

May 31, 2013: 12:52 PM ET

The Sun-Times explains that jettisoning its professional photographers and having reporters take pictures with their iPhones will help the newspaper appeal to its "digitally savvy customers."

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FORTUNE -- The decision by Sun-Times Newspaper Group to eliminate its entire photography staff, with its 500 or so collective years of professional experience, has everyone wondering what could possibly justify such a move. Is it union-busting? A way to squeeze profits out of a rapidly sinking business? A genuine, if seemingly clueless, attempt to shed a fusty "old media" image and forge ahead into the glorious digital future? Sadism?

It could actually be a combination of any or all of those things. The newspaper's executives have been mostly mum, but their public statement was all about "forging ahead." Here's that statement in full:

The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.

It is unclear how, precisely, canning the entire photo staff helps the company "evolve" with its "digitally savvy customers." The company isn't otherwise saying anything. But a tweet this morning from Robert Feder, who was the Sun-Times' widely respected media reporter for 28 years until he was laid off in 2008 [update/correction: Feder actually took a voluntary buyout], puts things in perspective: "Sun-Times reporters," he wrote, "begin mandatory training today on 'iPhone photography basics' following elimination of the paper's entire photo staff."

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Aided and abetted by tech pundits and consultants who indiscriminately belittle anything perceived as "old media" and, equally indiscriminately, champion anything perceived as "new media," many newspapers have characterized their more mercenary moves as hewing to a "forging ahead" strategy. See the New Orleans Times-Picayune for another recent example of this (and how has that worked out so far? Not so well). The executives themselves might actually believe it on some level -- rationalization is a useful skill that isn't taught in business school, at least not explicitly. For profit-maximizing executives working in a business that is considered a public trust, but is also losing its economic foundations, the skill is absolutely necessary. Hence, in this case, they are able to characterize the elimination of an entire photo staff in a fundamentally visual medium as something that will help them "evolve with [their] digitally savvy customers."

Reporters, it should be noted, are in general terrible at taking pictures. Photographs snapped on iPhones by photographically inept reporters who are also trying to gather information at an accident scene, for example, are not going to impress anyone, digitally savvy or not. Journalism schools (again, often working from the addled theories of certain tech pundits and consultants) have been pushing the idea of "multimedia journalism" -- that is, having reporters take photos and shoot video. Many of them offer training in this area. Most often, this results in nothing more than one person doing three jobs poorly rather than doing one job well. It also tends to sabotage the notion that all of these are professional endeavors and to strengthen the false notion that anybody could perform any of them equally well. This reveals a shocking level of disrespect for both journalists and readers.

Professional news photographers are not only highly skilled in a technical sense (which is why their photos are so much better than what can be snapped on an iPhone by a ten-thumbed reporter), but they're also highly skilled at getting themselves into positions where they can take great pictures. They know the cops and firefighters, the mayor's public-relations staff, and the management staffs at music and sporting venues. They work their sources just like reporters do, and they know how to get officials on the scene to lift the yellow tape and let them in.

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Alex Garcia, a photojournalist at the rival Chicago Tribune, in his acid blog post about the layoffs, rhetorically asked the Sun-Times management how it could possibly think it could "deliver a product people would want by gutting the visual professionals from your news organization."

Union-busting, perhaps. The company didn't mention possible mass layoffs during its most recent labor negotiations. Garcia wonders whether the strategy is to formally eliminate the positions of the photographers and then, "months from now," announce that the layoffs were a mistake, and hire new staffers. "This time they're very different positions -- part-time positions, with little if any benefits," Garcia wrote.

All speculation, of course. Another possibility: The company is losing more money than it had expected. But that raises the question of why the company -- acquired last year by the investment firm Wrapports LLC -- shelled out nearly $3 million to buy the troubled alt-weekly the Chicago Reader last year and why it was recently mulling buying assets from the Tribune Company's creditor-owners.

No matter what, though, Garcia says the move is "bad management and not smart Machiavellian management." The move will save millions in the short run, but in the meantime it reveals the Sun-Times company's "naked disregard" for its readers. By eliminating the photographers' "deep knowledge, connection and trust to their communities, the Sun-Times has signaled to its readership that it doesn't really care. And so begins the death spiral."

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Yes, death spiral. People worried about the fate of newspapers have been arguing for more than a decade that you can't cut your way to growth. Yes, the Internet, by unbundling news from the stuff that used to subsidize it (comics, advice columns, classified ads, etc.) poses a possibly existential threat to newspapers. But making your product worse doesn't seem like a sensible response to the challenge.

And this isn't the first move toward the mediocre by the Sun-Times. Despite the fact that the Internet is rife with celebrity news, Wrapports last year hired a bunch of celebrities to write for its "Splash" product -- a web and print magazine that's about as shallow as it gets. The celebs included Jim Belushi, star of sub-par sitcoms; rapper Lupe Fiasco; and conspiracy theorist Jenny McCarthy, whose insistence that vaccines cause autism has been solidly discredited. The publication offers a "Daily Jenny" column every 24 hours. These people were brought on board even as former Sun-Times journalists were sitting in plastic chairs at the unemployment office, as reporters and editors at Wrapports' 40 suburban papers were being forced to commute downtown after the company closed their local newsrooms, and as more and more news was going uncovered in Chicago.

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