Shoptalk: How the Sun-Times Performed a Photographic Self-Lobotomy


By: Tony Kelly

Neuroscientists have long been aware that the human brain has a left side and a right side, each with very different functions.  

They learned this through observing people with partial lobotomies. These were persons who had, accidentally or surgically, lost one frontal lobe of their brain. It was found that the left side controls numbers and speech, while the right side controls visual information and imagination. Thus, numbers people in the business world generally value the orderly logic of their employees’ left side of the brain over the visual and what they might see as more trivial material coming from the right side of the brain.  

Which got me thinking about the self lobotomy the Chicago Sun-Times performed when it laid off its entire 28-person full-time photo staff, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, late last spring.  

Early on, as a reporter on the 35,000-circulation Davenport (Iowa) Times in the pre-digital 1950s, I began to realize that most of my editors and managers were very much left brainers. All of them would acknowledge that their pages needed a picture or two to liven up a boring gray expanse of type. But that was about the extent of their thought given to the value of journalistic photography.  

When I worked at the Davenport Times, there was just one professional photographer on staff. To cut costs, all reporters were expected to keep a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic press camera in the trunk of their car and be ready to shoot a photo, if needed. For them, the process was pretty much the same as it is for cell phone shooters now, except back then you would probably only take two shots since the camera held just two 4 x 5 sheets of film at a time. For any big news coverage, like fires or social events hosted by the wives of important advertisers, our professional photographer was sent to the job. As a fledgling reporter, on my second day on the job I was given a 20-minute crash course in the use of the Speed Graphic camera.  

At that time, journalism schools, and academic institutions in general, emphasized written and numerical information in their curriculum. When my family moved to Evanston, Ill. in 1970, we settled in a neighborhood adjacent to Northwestern University and its acclaimed Medill School of Journalism.  

By that time, I had received more than a dozen photojournalism awards and was shooting regularly for UPI and national magazines. I shot a cover story for the Sun-Times magazine section.  

Reading Medill literature, I was shocked to learn that what passed for a course in photojournalism was learning to dunk film in chemicals at a local commercial portrait studio. (I later taught visual journalism at the school).  

Of course, everyone in the newspaper business knew that a picture of a bloody bullet-riddled body or a gorgeous female celebrity on the front page would sell papers. But that kind of stuff, used mostly by tabloids, was looked down upon as “yellow journalism.”            

The fact is that some reporting, like cell phone photography, can be done so simply, a school kid can do it. Still, in-depth stories and serious photography projects take meticulous planning and intense concentration, sometimes days of it. Other times, there are only seconds or minutes available for planning and exection.  

For one person to do both word and visual planning well, especially under tight deadline pressure, is impossible. Never mind that one person is rarely gifted in both areas.  

Over the years, as a photojournalist, I had the privilege of accompanying some crack reporters. That combination is a journalism marriage made in heaven. We aided and abetted each other’s craft. I would often observe things that would help open my partner’s written story, while in the course of an interview he or she might learn about photo opportunities and bring it to my attention.                        

It has been reported that one of the reasons behind the mass layoffs at the Sun-Times was a need to move toward more video coverage. Of course the cameras carried by today’s photo staffs all have video capacity.  

To complete its right-lobe brain surgery, the Sun-Times didn’t stop at the photographers, but also got rid of its second line of visual staffers—photo editors.  

Now it only remains for the public, advertisers, stockholders and the world of journalism as a whole to watch and analyze a self-lobotomized newspaper in operation.                                                                    

Tony Kelly is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at


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