We need photojournalists

And we need to talk about keeping newsrooms together for journalism to thrive

The decision of the leadership of the Chicago Sun-Times (and its sister publications) to lay off virtually all of its photographers and most of its picture editors is simply the most recent — albeit the most extreme — example of the continued devaluation of content and journalists by those on the business side of our industry.

While the challenges faced by media companies today are daunting and well documented, and efforts to rethink old models are being rolled out almost daily, we are concerned about the unintended consequences of a decision to replace decades of photojournalistic experience with reporters with smart phones.

For several years, news organizations have been cutting space, then journalists, then repeating the cycle. This spiral leaves a string of casualties, from professional standards to communities left without advocates and readers left without compelling, engaging local media.

Some will view the Sun-Times’ move as a legitimate strategy for short-term savings. It is our hope that before others take similar action, we can use this moment to start a renewed conversation about the value of journalists and content in our business today.

As leaders of the Society for News Design, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), we intend to invite leaders across all spectrums – visual managers, upper newsroom leadership and media business leadership — to participate in a consortium on the New Values of Content at SND’s annual workshop this fall in Louisville. Our intent is to host a realistic and forward-facing discussion of how to reconcile the need for quality photojournalism, copy editing and presentation with the changing reality of the bottom line. We aim to help come up with solutions that don’t involve eliminating entire skill sets from our newsrooms.

Why do we need to talk in the wake of these cuts?

We feel compelled to point out the obvious: cutting photojournalism so radically — along with continued deep cuts into copy editing and other disciplines of visual journalism — is short-sighted because it assumes that it’s technological tools alone that make the journalism, not the judgment and training of the journalists behind those tools. Axing an entire department ignores the necessity for a variety of journalistic disciplines in the newsroom. To create compelling content and engaging journalism, a newsroom needs a range of journalists using a range of tools.

Moreover, it damages our core ability to tell stories and maintain credibility with those we serve. Professional and journalistic standards and execution are what distinguish our industry from all of the other voices in the media landscape. The people, approaches and teamwork we use to tell our stories is at the center of what sets us apart. An industry that has intellectual property as its stock and trade needs to invest in the best, not the most convenient – or the cheapest – raw material.

We are not naive to the pressure to contain costs. We understand that journalists need to develop new ways of gathering and disseminating the news, and in newsrooms around the world we have. Journalists are often the first to embrace new tools and broaden our skills in order to stay relevant. We get that change is inevitable, but that change must be smart and strategic.

Let’s take a few minutes to talk about why photojournalism is an integral part of our industry and should not be so easily tossed aside in our collective push into the ever-changing way people get information today.

  • Photography is journalism: The professionals on the Sun-Times staff were some of the most accomplished visual storytellers in the business and were steeped in the nuance of photo ethics. Reporters may miss the moment as they work other parts of a story, freelancers may or may not be bound by the same journalistic standards, and reader-submitted photos could easily come with an agenda (or digital manipulation) and a ton of copyright liability.
  • Newsrooms need a range of tools: Just because a tool is convenient doesn’t make it the best choice. A smartphone doesn’t come with a 600mm lens. It’s not going to get past the police tape, or perform in low-light situations. It doesn’t have a fast shutter or a great microphone. It’s an able adjunct, but not the solution to every challenge a journalist encounters. Newsrooms need both smartphones and high-end cameras and the journalists who know how to use them. It should not be a choice of one or the other.
  • Photojournalism is more than just pictures: Great photographs are a window into the soul of a community, not simply rectangles with which to decorate a page or attract clicks. What distinguishes a credible news site from the flood of pictures on the web is the skill and ethics of seasoned journalists behind our cameras. The reality is that the still photograph has never been more powerful than it is now.
  • Photography and video are key tools for digital operations: Photo galleries and video are consistently big draws to news websites. Closing the portion of the newsroom best skilled in creating those visual stories isn’t strategic. At best, it’s a gross miscalculation of cost versus value. At worst, it’s wrong-headed.
  • We must restore our credibility: You need look no further than the breaking news of the last six months to find all the errors the media has made in the constant pursuit to be first with news. While we are all for providing breaking information as quickly as possible, we also know it’s the journalists in the field and in our newsrooms that ensure the information is accurate. Taking large numbers of journalists out of the equation and asking those who remain to multitask more duties is a recipe for more errors, not less.

One of the best things about a newsroom is the combination of disciplines aligned in the mission to tell stories. Lopping off parts of that group risks destroying the special and important things that happen when we all work together. We’ve talked about it before. We need to talk about it again.

So, to those owners and publishers contemplating cuts in the model of the Sun-Times, we have a simple request:

Talk with SND. Talk with NPPA. Talk with ACES. Now more than ever we need to build on our ability to improve and capitalize on the content we produce. Doing that within the constraints of our business is our generation’s challenge. The Sun-Times is not an island and the pain we all felt for those 28 journalists and for the ripples of what we are facing create another chance for us to come together and figure things out.

Society for News Design
Rob Schneider, president
David Kordalski, vice president
Lee Steele, secretary/treasurer
Jonathon Berlin, immediate past president
Stephen Komives, executive director

National Press Photographers Association
Michael Borland, president

American Copy Editors Society
Teresa Schmedding, president