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Demise of photo staff takes the magic out of newspapers

Journalists and readers alike are still shaking their heads when trying to understand the recent decision of a major American newspaper to lay off all of its full-time photographers.

The Chicago Sun-Times announced the radical decision on May 30, a move that affected 28 full-time staff photographers.

The newspaper released a statement emphasizing the increasing importance of video in news reporting.

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

The company is also preparing to supplement its freelance staff with reporters to shoot more video and photos.

Surely, there are financial undertones to this decision. Personnel costs are increasing throughout the U.S. economy at the same time that the lingering effects of the recent recession are making consumers think twice about purchasing everything from candy bars to cosmetics.

“What this means is that readers are going to have to accept less. At some point, push will come to shove with subscribers who see the slipping standards,” said Chicago Tribune photographer Alex Garcia.

He’s absolutely right. The layoffs will save the Sun-Times money but disappoint its readers and advertisers with each turn of the press. He also suggests that the call for more video comes from the advertising community and not the engaged readers who will pay the cost of a subscription in order to view published photos as well as online galleries.

This is not another plea to keep the struggling print media afloat. Today’s print journalists are still gathering and disseminating local news, features, sports and business developments as they did 30 years ago. What is provided on paper is now obtainable on electronic devices, but we still have to go out and get it.

There are plenty of pitfalls to viewing video on websites posted by news organizations. Face it: You have to wait for the video to load and you may be greeted first by a 10-second ad for a car company. Today’s shortened attention spans are severely tested by these impediments, making the concept of video replacing professional still photos in Chicago a decision that’s difficult to defend.

“If reporters want readers to notice and read their stories, they need compelling photography to help draw viewers in,” Garcia added.

Reporters and photographers get the best results when they work in tandem.

What happened at the Sun-Times severs that bond and leaves readers hoping for the best. A local staff, experienced in their craft, makes readers thirst for that first taste of a newspaper’s coverage of events large and small. Professional photographs, unlike the most perfectly arranged written words, take you there.

That newsroom will get by with a severe disconnect that should convince other newspapers that a complete layoff of the photography department is a potentially fatal error. Staffers trying to get the story while also wrestling with a small video camera (with limited ability to zoom in on distant objects) will soon lose faith in what Sun-Times executives see as progress.

Also lost in this transition is an outlet for dramatic portraiture created by effective lighting, crisp optics and an appreciation for composition and design. Perhaps if the Sun-Times wants to “bolster our reporting capabilities,” they can send elementary schoolchildren out into the streets with a fresh box of crayons every morning.

I eagerly awaited the Boston Globe’s coverage on the day after the tragedy at the marathon as well as during the days that followed. Photography, especially spot news photography, is all about that “captured moment.”

These images have the amazing ability to tell a story and connect their subjects with complete strangers. I call that magic.


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