The Idiocy of Eliminating a Photo Staff
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A picture of former Chicago Sun-TImes photojournalist John H. White, at center, hangs at the Billy Goat Tavern, a long-time gathering place for Chicago journalists. Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune
The bad management sinking the Sun-Times was on full display today. And I’m not just talking about laying off probably 500+ years of cumulative experience with a 30 second announcement in a sterile hotel conference room with nary a whiff of gratitude for years of service.
It’s about thinking you could deliver a product people would want by gutting the visual professionals from your news organization.
Some people think this was a union-busting move. You fire all the photographers, most of them unionized, by saying you are switching their duties to others. Essentially, you’re “eliminating their positions”.
Then, months from now you announce that oops, your experiment has failed. So you hire staff again. This time they’re very different positions – part-time positions, with little if any benefits.
That’s business. They wouldn’t confess to any of it, even if absolutely true. That wouldn’t play well with the National Labor Relations Board, especially after the union complained about the fact that mass layoffs were never mentioned during current negotiations. The union was as surprised as anyone.
But you know, the Sun-Times business executives spend as much time looking at numbers as politicians look at chessboards. They think 2-3 steps ahead of everyone and act dumb or go silent when confronted with accusations of ulterior motives.
The reason why this is bad management and not smart Machiavellian management is because although you’ve saved your bottom line, you’ve exposed your naked disregard for your customers.
The photographers they fired were not button-pushers, they were journalists and trusted members of their communities.
Some of them were deeply connected to areas of Chicago in ways that a freshly minted multimedia journalism graduate from New York will never be.
Everyone in the city, it seemed to me, knew John White and Brian Jackson. I couldn’t walk up to a crime scene or a neighborhood center without them receiving slaps on the back and having doors thrown open. Scott Stewart had deep access to firefighters and fire officials in the city, on a first name basis. Me? I was just some Trib schlep trying to piggyback on their reputation by standing closer to them while hoping to get a little better access or better treatment. It was maddening.
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. 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. I would also bet that some reporters will continue to call them, hoping to get a little help here and there.
By eliminating their 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.
Moreover, the idea that freelancers and reporters could replace a photo staff with iPhones is idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best. Why?
• It’s a logistical nightmare.
News is demanding. Even when you have a staff, the assignment editors want to pull their hair out. You need to have people in place on a regular basis, ready to move when assignments fall through and news happens. Assignments are not what you expect. They get cancelled, moved, dropped, and disregarded depending on priorities that change like the wind. That’s why photo departments have schedules and shifts. You can’t hope to make calls to 10 freelancers each day hoping to find a few that will cover the news. You can’t expect a freelancer to drop a higher-paying job or to get into the city from Crystal Lake when everything busts loose. Good freelancers know they’re good, and will likely drop out for higher-paying assignments.
• The IRS isn’t fooled.
The minute you put a freelancer on a schedule, train them, give them equipment or work them a majority of the week, they start to become a de facto employee.
I’ve been down this road before. When I worked at the Los Angeles Times, I was hired as a part-time staff photographer, working alongside part-time “independent contract” photographers. They weren’t independent, however, by the criteria established by the Internal Revenue Service. End result? They were all hired on staff. It has happened at other newspapers around the country. At best, a freelancer could be retained in such a manner for a temporary basis. But after their time is up, the talent churns and a work environment destabilizes.
• Reporters are ill equipped to take over.
That’s because the best reporters use a different hemisphere of the brain to do their jobs than the best photographers. Visual and spatial thinking is very different than verbal and analytical thinking. Even if you don’t believe that bit of science, the reality is that visual reporting and written reporting will take you to different parts of a scene and hold you there longer. 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.
• The brand will suffer.
You’re trusting your brand with freelancers, who are not loyal to you. Not that they’re aren’t loyal and ethical freelancers, but when you have someone on staff they likely won’t do things to get fired.
When you run freelancers around for little pay, you won’t get the best from them. It’s more of a service-provider relationship than a journalist-mission relationship. You can’t trust they will uphold the ethics that could jeopardize the integrity of a newspaper’s reputation.
• The equipment is still deficient.
An iPhone is just an iPhone. It doesn’t have a telephoto to see way past police lines or across a field, ballroom or four-lane highway. It doesn’t have a lot of manual controls to deal with the countless situations that automatic exposure will fail to capture. How many situations are 18% gray, anyway?
The reason why photojournalists have the best equipment on the market is because we use it. Our gear is put through demands that stretch camera technology to its limits by the sheer number and diversity of assignments on a regular basis.
I could go on about today’s decision, but it’s too much for me to summarize four years of blog posts about why professional photojournalists are valuable and needed.
The layoffs today were appalling, for the photojournalists whose talents and careers were buried, and for the people of Chicago, who will suffer the effects of bad management disguised as “changing times.”
— Alex Garcia