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Sherman Says: Elimination of photography staff takes the magic out of newspapers

SPRINGVILLE — Many journalists and readers are still shaking their heads, trying to understand the recent decision of a major American newspaper to lay off all of its full-time photographers.

On May 20, The Chicago Sun-Times announced the decision, which affected 28 staff photographers.

The newspaper released a statement, emphasizing the increasing importance of video, in news reporting.

“The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news,” a release said.

“We are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve, with our digitally-savvy customers and, as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”

The company is also preparing to supplement its freelance staff with reporters, to shoot more video and photos.

There must be financial undertones to this decision. Personnel costs are increasing, throughout the United States, at the same time that the lingering effects of the recent recession are making consumers think twice about purchasing everything, from candy bars to cosmetics.

“What this means is that readers are going to have to accept less. At some point, push will come to shove with subscribers, who see the slipping standards,” said Chicago Tribune photographer Alex Garcia.

He is absolutely right. The layoffs will save the Sun-Times money, but disappoint its readers and advertisers, with each turn of the press. Garcia also suggested that the call for more video comes from the advertising community and not the engaged readers, who will pay the cost of a subscription, in order to view published photos, as well as online galleries.

This is not another plea to keep the struggling print media afloat. Today’s print journalists are still gathering and disseminating local news, features, sports and business developments, like they did 30 years ago. What is provided on paper is now obtainable on electronic devices, but reporters still have to go out and get it.

There are plenty of pitfalls to viewing video on websites, posted by news organizations. You must wait for the video to load and you may be greeted, first, by a 10-second ad. Today’s shortened attention spans are severely tested by these impediments, making the concept of video replacing professional still photos in Chicago a decision that’s difficult to defend.

“If reporters want readers to notice and read their stories, they need compelling photography, to help draw viewers in,” Garcia said.

Reporters and photographers get the best results, when they work in tandem. What happened at the Sun-Times severs that bond and leaves readers hoping for the best. A local staff, experienced in its craft, makes readers thirst for that first taste of a newspaper’s coverage of events. Professional photographs, unlike the most perfectly arranged written words, take you there.

That newsroom will get by with a severe disconnect that should convince other newspapers that a complete layoff of the photography department is a potentially fatal error. Staffers trying to get the story, while also wrestling with a small video camera (which has limited ability to zoom in on distant objects), will soon lose faith in what Sun-Times executives see as progress.

Also lost in this transition is an outlet for dramatic portraiture, created by effective lighting, crisp optics and an appreciation for composition and design. Perhaps, if the Sun-Times wants to “bolster our reporting capabilities,” they can send elementary schoolchildren out into the streets, with a fresh box of crayons, every morning.

I eagerly awaited The Boston Globe’s coverage, on the day after the tragedy at the marathon, as well as during the days that followed. Photography, especially spot news photography, is all about that captured moment. These images have the amazing ability to tell a story and connect their subjects with complete strangers. I call that magic.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at
dsherman@beenews.com.
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2013-07-18 | 08:49:33
be still
Still photography. Browse through a copy of one of the many editions of the "best of" photographs of Life Magazine. You will see that photographs are in their own category of both art and journalism. They cannot be replaced by the written word, the spoken word, or the action video. A still image, captured at the right moment, hits hardest.