Critical Thinking: Is Laying Off an Entire Photo Staff Worth It?
Posted: 8/5/2013  |  By: Nu Yang
Question: In May, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff, stating it would now rely on freelancers and reporters for photos and videos. By letting go of an entire department, do you think the cost savings will justify the potential decrease in the quality of work?

Matthew Dotray, 22, senior, Texas Tech University (Lubbock, Texas)

Dotray is a double major in journalism and political science. For two semesters, he covered administration and anything related to politics for The Daily Toreador, Tech’s newspaper. He is desperately seeking an out-of-state internship for the upcoming fall semester.

After the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire 28 person photography staff in May, it became victim to yet another shrinking newsroom. Thinking about this, and trying to remember my initial reaction several months ago, I’m reluctant to admit I’m not as distraught as I should be. Maybe I’ve grown to accept this type of behavior from news organizations. After all, this is embracing the art of backpack journalism we’re preparing for in school.

I understand the power of a perfect photograph. “Tank Man” gave hope to China, “Migrant Mother” evoked sympathy and compassion for indigent families during the Great Depression, and photos of brutality during the Vietnam War significantly altered public opinion. These are only three of many examples of how a photo can change the world. No amount of written words can replace the influence of an emotional image.

With that being said, without professional photographers, the quality and impact of their images will suffer. A photograph taken on a reporter’s phone will not be winning a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon.

But newspapers all across the country are making difficult decisions, and it’s hard to critique the Chicago Sun-Times without looking at their budget and seeing what a department gains from the layoffs. If more money now goes towards hiring and financing more investigative reporters, I don’t think the quality of their work will decrease. For breaking news, yes, a professional photo is necessary. But I’d much rather have more hard-hitting content on a daily basis.

My heart goes out to the photographers who lost their job, but if someone knew exactly what decisions needed to be made in order to stop newspapers from sinking, none of us would be in this situation. Being one of the few cities with competing newspapers, it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

James E. “Jim” Prince III, 49, editor and publisher, The Neshoba Democrat (Philadelphia, Miss.)

Prince is president of Prince Newspapers and is currently serving a second term as president of the Mississippi Press Association. He began his newspaper career at the Democrat working summers during high school. An award-winning journalist, he has reported for and edited newspapers in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi and an undergraduate degree in business administration from Mississippi State University where he was editor of the student newspaper for two years.

Newspapers can’t cut their way to prosperity, maintain quality and expect to survive. While small community newspapers like ours have long relied on reporters, freelancers and even more recently readers for photos, there’s a higher expectation of quality for metro dailies. Gradually, readers will notice and knowledge of the community that makes good newspapers so good will fade and that will be reflected on the news pages.

Tablets have revived still photography and that’s something newspapers ought to be taking advantage of instead of retreating. Photojournalism is an art.  As someone who got his start in the business with a Pentax K1000 in high school before graduating to Nikons and 200mm F2 lenses shooting high school football, school bus wrecks and fires, I can appreciate a good photograph. Good photography makes a front page and a single photo can so powerfully tell a story. We’ve always designed our front pages around the art. The best art dictates our layout.

Technology has most certainly changed how we do business. An editor at one of our newspapers shot a magazine cover with his iPhone and nobody could tell the difference. The ease of transmission between readers and newspapers is amazing. At one of our newspapers, we received hundreds of reader-submitted photos from Facebook posts after a big snow and put many of them in print the next issue. One of the reader-submitted snow photos was lead art — because it was the best art.

No newspaper would ever consider letting the newsroom go and outsourcing reporting, so why photography?  Pictures are too central to the story to be relegated to a line-item that can be eliminated. In my opinion, you’re plucking out the patient’s eyes when a pair of reading glasses would do.