Friday, May 31, 2013

Did the Sun-Times just kill photojournalism?

I'm back. As usual, it is because of a major life event, or something that's pissed me off.

This time, it's the latter.

Thursday, May 30, The Chicago Sun-Times decided to lay off its entire photojournalism staff, including John H. White, one of the best photojournalists out there, and certainly the best in the city of Chicago. Twenty-eight journalists who specialize in photography lost their jobs, all because a group of greedy media owners who can't see the forest for the trees think any jackass with a camera can do photojournalism. Let me tell you something -- he or she cannot.

Photojournalism takes skill. It takes training. It takes experience. It takes talent. It requires good equipment (though today's smart phones are as good a camera in some instances than the equipment of yore). Still, it requires one to understand what makes a good journalistic photograph. It takes understanding of composition, contrast and content. It also requires a solid understanding of media law and ethics. The average man on the street with a cell phone camera has no idea what I just said or what any of that means, or why it's important. And apparently, neither do the owners of the Chicago Sun-Times.

From the photographer's point of view, no one said it better yesterday than Scott Strazzante, who posed the question on his blog "Are you just the photographer?"Of course, the answer is no, but it's often the question I was asked when I worked as a photojournalist in my early days of journalism. And, apparently, it's now the attitude of media owners, and editors -- seeing as none of the editors at the Sun-Times have spoken out against this travesty -- of the Sun-Times, and I fear, it will soon become the attitude of media owners and editors everywhere. Frankly, I expected this sooner. When Gannett decided to issue every reporter -- note, just reporters, not photographers -- iPhones, I was certain the reason was to put a camera in their hands so the Evil Empire (my name for Gannett) could eliminate its photojournalists. That hasn't happened yet, but you can bet your bottom dollar they will be observing what happens in Chicago very carefully.

In addition to Scott's excellent post (by the way, Scott was an observer, not an employee), the day after the layoff former Sun-Times photojournalist Michael Smart discussed the layoff with a Daily Herald reporter. In the story, Smart said the managing editor made the announcement in about a one-minute talk, refused to answer questions, and left the newsroom (in an aside, the managing editor, named Jim Kirk, should be ashamed. Capt. James T. Kirk would never be such a coward). The Sun-Times management is refusing to speak to any media outlets regarding this decision. Again, this is indicative they are all cowards.

The manner in which this Sun-Times went about this, in my opinion, is about as unethical as it comes, which makes me wonder if the paper has any morals or ethics in its newsroom at all, given the attitude for these principles come from the top. It seems that within seconds of the announcement (and the layoffs were immediate), the email accounts of all the photojournalists were deleted, which means the journalists laid off lost access to who-knows-what.

(Aside: My 14-year-old son just asked what I was writing, when I told him, he said, "How the hell do you produce a newspaper without professional photographers? That's just stupid." I love my son.)

The implications of this are far-reaching, especially in Chicago, where the police haven't exactly paid much attention to the First Amendment and its application to photojournalists in recent years. In fact, hundreds of reports of the police in Chicago confiscating cameras and cell phones from citizens have surfaced when they take photos at crime scenes. I imagine no one is happier to hear that the Chicago Sun-Times photojournalism staff has been terminated than Chicago's police chief, who clearly based on the intimidation of photographers by his force in recent years is plenty indicative he hates photographers. If the Sun-Times is going to rely on freelancers to get its photos, is the Sun-Times going to provide them legal representation and stand by them when their First Amendment rights are trampled by city officials? I'll wager the answer the answer to that is no. Expect the reports of civil rights violations of citizens in Chicago by the police to increase.

As a journalism professor, I have no idea right now what to tell my students who aspire to be photojournalists. The honest answer is the outlook isn't good. And it's certain none of them will have the photojournalism career that many of my friends and colleagues once enjoyed. I'll sit down with my journalism colleagues in the coming weeks and talk about what we all see as happening next. Of course, we'll all be just guessing, because this field is changing too fast to keep up.

To that end, I'll be discussing this nasty turn of events on what I think is the premier photography podcast on the Internet, Polarizing Images, next week. Check them out at and keep an eye our for next week's episode, which will be posted late Tuesday or early Wednesday June 4 or 5.

And if you have feedback on this, please post it here! I would love to hear what everyone thinks.