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Could iPhones replace news photographers? The Chicago Sun-Times thinks so

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Image used with permission by copyright holder

Like many newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times relies on a staff of photographers to provide images for its stories. But last week the paper did something unimaginable: it laid off its entire staff of 28 full-time photographers. While it’s no secret newspapers across the country are struggling to make ends meet, the move by Sun-Times goes beyond just budget cuts. Citing a need for more video content, the Sun-Times will utilize freelance photographers and require its reporters to shoot photos and videos for the stories they cover.

“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 paper said in a statement.

So, how does the Sun-Times plan to replace this loss? According to the Poynter Institute’s media blog, media blogger and former Sun-Times writer Robert Feder posted on his Facebook page that reporters will begin a “mandatory training today on ‘iPhone photography basics’ following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. ‘In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,’ managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.”

The iPhone has become an invaluable tool for reporters on assignment and citizen journalism, especially with late-breaking news, but asking reporters to become photographers and videographers is like asking waiters to become the chefs. While the iPhone can be considered suitable for newsgathering from a hardware standpoint, the person using it is a different matter.

Photographer Alex Garcia of rival paper Chicago Tribune writes, the “idea that freelancers and reporters could replace a photo staff with iPhones is idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best. That’s because the best reporters use a different hemisphere of the brain to do their jobs than the best photographers. Visual and spatial thinking is very different than verbal and analytical thinking. Even if you don’t believe that bit of science, the reality is that visual reporting and written reporting will take you to different parts of a scene and hold you there longer. I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else’s job and also do yours well. Even when I shoot video and stills on an assignment, with the same camera, both tend to suffer. They require different ways of thinking.”

chicago-sun-timesWe hear about newspapers trimming their staff often, both the Sun-Times and Tribune included, but this move is seen as a major move especially since it’s coming from a large metropolitan paper. But it also points to the fact that more and more people are gravitating toward the Web for news, with video content playing an increasingly important role. PetaPixel also points out that the Sun-Times’ website design (shown at right) does not allow for large compelling photography, which may have played a role in the Sun-Times’ decision. Perhaps this move was inevitable, as future journalists will be required to multitask as both reporter and photographer/videographer.

According to the New York Times (via AP), the Chicago Newspaper Guild, the union representing many of the laid-off photographers, plans to file a bad-faith bargaining charge with the National labor Relations Board. No photographer at the Sun-Times was spared, not even John H. White, a longtime staffer who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1982. 

Update: We incorrectly referenced Robert Feder as a Chicago Sun-Times writer. He was formerly with Sun-Times and is now a media blogger.

(Main image via Pete Markham/Flickr)

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