Friday, May 31, 2013

Do newspapers still need photographers? Damn right they do, though it is true that the role of the reporter is changing, as well; Sun-Times layoffs entire photo staff

There are times when I wish Jim Romenesko were as snarky and willing to lose readers as I am. Jim does an unbelievable great job on his new blog, did a great job at Poynter, and his original blog, Romenesko's MediaNews, was groundbreaking. Yesterday Jim was on the job again reporting the Chicago Sun-Times recent move of laying off its entire photography staff, 28 full-timers. Because most newspaper pros read Jim, and I'm sure none read TNM and not Jim, there was no reason for me to jump on the story, he had it covered.

But I waited to see if Jim would actually say anything personal about the story. He doesn't normally do this, instead making his own views known by what he posts, who he posts, and then let's the reader infer his position in this way. For instance, Jim posted a link to The New York Observer story on the layoffs which included the email from Elliott Harris, a former Sun-Times sports columnist who was laid off himself in 2011.

Harris's email in interesting, but his own post on his blog is better and more to the point:

Times are changing and photography and photographers are obsolete?

No. It’s not that at all. What the company wants is to further gut an already weakened union at the paper.

To say the folks who came up with this plan and executed it are loathsome and despicable is being far too kind.
This nails it.

The issue of unions at newspapers, and elsewhere, is almost a too hot to handle conversation in this country. According to a Gallup poll conducted last summer, 52 percent of Americans approve of unions, unchanged from the prior year. In 1957 that number was 75 percent. So it is not only union membership that it is declining, but how people feel about unions, in general.

The reason is that unions are often seen as detrimental to change, protecting the worst workers, stopping reform. All this is true, I believe. But it is also true that the death of the middle class, falling wages, the rise of the Walmart economy would not have occurred without, at the same time, unions becoming less a factor in the U.S. workplace.

I've been in management, and I've sat in on contract negotiations on the side of the union – I feel I understand both sides. (A friend of mine who is a school superintendent gets pretty worked up when the subject of teacher unions is brought up and especially when I say something in defense of them – usually while playing devil's advocate by presenting their side of the story.)

So what to do when one wants reporters to begin talking photographs and videos? Did the union object? Did the photographers say that this would be a violation of the contract? I don't know, and there are always two sides to the story, right?

But one thing for sure: it was a dumb move, a move that goes too far, and one that will damage the paper. The world may be changing, may require reporters to have different skills and bring new kinds of content to future newspaper products. But it is also true that the news is becoming more graphical, not less. So to say that this move has anything to do with the future of news is a lie – and when editors lie in public the credibility of the entire newspaper dies.

Here was the paper's own statement:
The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and 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 only way I see this move working out for both the Sun-Times management and its investors is if the paper can successfully move to a totally digital model. I don't think they can do that because there is a mismatch between its readership and the demographics needed for the move to succeed. So all the paper really doing here is cutting costs. And that, after all, is what digital first really means in the newspaper business.