I know I already posted that the Chicago Sun-Times has decided to layoff what appears to be their entire photo staff, but I’ve been processing this for another hour or so.
And, still, I’m dumbfounded.
It goes against everything we know about delivering the news, that you need to have as many channels as possible for your audience to choose from – words, graphics, photos and video.
And I’m not a video hater – I think, I know, it’s a tremendously valuable and powerful tool. But it has some significant limitations. If I want to consume my news on the L, video is out unless I have a set of noise-canceling headphones. Want to catch up on the news in the library? Doctor’s office?
The social contract says some places need you to be attentive and quiet – video, even with headphones, doesn’t work in those situations. (And this ignores this continuing emphasis on checking-out of whatever place you’re in and the societal implications of that.)
Beyond the technical/audio limitations, you still have the issue that a still photograph communicates something completely different than video, words or graphics do. It takes a narrow moment, a single angle of view, and forces you to deal with it. Forces you to confront it, forces you to process it.
Yet it lets you do that at your own pace. You can spend three seconds or three hours studying Eddie Adams’ Streetside Execution photo, but the video is only 15 seconds long. (Did you even know there was footage of that scene?) Yeah, you can rewind, but that’s a re-experiencing of the moment, not a deeper look into it.
Let’s go further, into the ethical implications of this. I’ll start by admitting that ethical transgressions have happened with staff photojournalists at numerous publications, but if you’re relying on independent contractors for the bulk of your images, how do you verify their authenticity? Heck, The New York Times has a hard time verifying whether the images it chooses to run in a special section of their web site are accurate and truthful – is the Sun-Times going to employ an army of picture editors and forensic analysts to check the authenticity of every image planned for publication?
There’s a legitimate argument that the need for staff photographers to cover breaking news no longer exists. And I agree with that – there are enough people on the street with cell phone cameras that we will rarely get those intense, early moments as quickly as they will.
But for general assignment news, sports, features, entertainment, etc. – your photo staff is the only part of the newsroom that is always, ALWAYS on the street, working with the public. You can take a picture with a phone, but you can’t take a picture on a phone.
How will you find stories if you don’t have people on the street? Is an independent photographer hired for a day going to have any institutional memory? Are they going to be fully invested in your organization as a staffer should be? Are they going to see the slight changes in the fabric of your community that indicate deeper issues?
This isn’t a knock on independent photographers – there’s a definite need for them to cover special topics. But never, never for general news assignments – that’s insane.
If you want to be your community’s main source of news, if you value being a part of that community, then you put the resources into being a major part of that community – you put YOUR people on the streets. You train them, you coach them, you support them, you encourage them, you get them to drink your Kool-Aid and believe in your brand.
I can’t process this any more. It makes no sense.