Scorn. Ridicule. Indignation. You name it, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ decision last month to layoff its entire photo department has been met with it, by both the public and the newspaper industry.
I can think of one way to defend this decision: Pledging to maintain the volume of professionally produced visuals by using freelancers and part-timers, while shedding expensive benefits paid to full-time employees.
Even that would be a tough sell, though.
And although the Sun-Times mounted this defense, it rang hollow when it almost immediately began teaching reporters how to take photos with their iPhones. Predictably — and rightfully — that raised the hackles of anyone who understands either the reporting or photography craft.
Among them is photographer Alex Garcia of the rival Chicago Tribune, who made compelling points regarding this mass firing in a recent blog post, “The Idiocy of Eliminating a Photo Staff”:
I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else’s job and also do yours well. Even when I shoot video and stills on an assignment, with the same camera, both tend to suffer. They require different ways of thinking, involving motion and sound.
Let’s assume Garcia takes a little relish in needling a competitor. That still doesn't make him wrong.
In fact, he’s proven quite prescient, describing in a blog post a few weeks before the Sun-Times stunning move that job insecurity is one of the most pressing concerns of the modern photojournalist. (So perhaps the blood-letting wasn’t so shocking after all.)
Technology has, indeed, made it possible for reporters or "citizen journalists" to take photos and video that enhance readers' understanding of stories. And indeed, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette expect their reporters to use their camera phones to shoot breaking news. Further, we are in the midst of an effort to ramp up our efforts in that regard.
There are good reasons to do so.
For instance, we know the digital world is also a visual one. Links posted to Facebook, for example, receive about 60 percent more clicks when posted with a thumbnail image. So even a camera phone shot of a councilman staring over his name plaque or a video of speaker during public comments make it more likely a story about a council meeting will be read when encountered on social media.
And that’s the point of the entire exercise.
But putting smartphones in reporters’ hands, in our case, is more about increasing the volume of visuals. And rather than leaning on reporters to provide all the images for our stories, our goal is to free our photographers to shoot more scenes likely to produce higher-impact images. The digital age isn't just about quantity, after all. It’s also about quality, and it will become more so as retina displays, tablet apps and mobile devices enabled to play video become important platforms for news delivery.
This brings me back to Garcia's point.
I came up in the business as a writer. I'm certainly capable of producing some cutesy videos passable enough to post on our site's Untamed Lowcountry blog ...
... but I’ll never produce the sort of high-quality video produced by our full-time photographers/videographers, like Sarah Welliver ...
... Delayna Early ...
... or Jay Karr.
A potential reporting hire needs to know his or her way around a smartphone. The ability to edit video and photos — on the desktop if not aboard a smartphone — is definitely a plus.
However, reporting and writing remain the most important qualifications for reporters.
Even those who walk in both worlds will struggle to do so simultaneously. As someone who has dabbled in photojournalism and video news coverage, I know a reporter approaches a story differently when his primary object is to produce text than when his object is to produce a video worth watching. As Garcia notes: “(T)he best reporters use a different hemisphere of the brain to do their jobs than the best photographers. Visual and spatial thinking in three dimensions is very different than verbal and analytical thinking.”
The Sun-Times seems to be banking on their employees’ ability to toggle between their left and right brains. Like Garcia, I’m skeptical that will be the case often enough for the Sun-Times to produce a product that was better than it was before.