Not really going to post this. Too many words.
I had to respond after listening to the hosts on the MacBreak Weekly podcast talk about the Chicago Sun-Times sacking their entire photo department and training reporters on iPhone photography.
And before we get started: While I disagree with their statements, I respect Leo Laporte, Alex Lindsay, Andy Ihnatko and Rene Ritchie.
I’ve transcribed their statements to the best of my ability. To hear it in full: episode 353.
LL: We’re the ones who are always saying… the new media’s taking over, and then when actual people lose actual jobs there’s a little bit of, uh, annoyance. Although I never hear this when reporters get fired. Reporters get fired all the time but for some reason the photographers… people like photographers.
We have never seen an entire department get sacked like this. It’s an incalculable loss of institutional knowledge, experience, and spirit.
LL: And some made a very good point that it’s a visual age we’re moving into and maybe those are the people to keep. … I think we all understand that an iPhone is not going to replace…in the hands of an amateur is not going to replace a DSLR in the hands of a pro.
Next to speak is Alex Lindsay. I’m going to disagree with Alex quite a bit in this post. But again, that doesn’t mean I don’t respect him. I think he’s just out of his element here. For example, he’s going to guess that it cost the Sun-Times as much as $195,535.71 per year to employ each photographer. Very doubtful.
AL: But here’s the math, so, 28 people probably runs total costs of employment is probably between ten and fifteen thousand dollars a day you know, when you really do the math, so, so… what you need is you need a handful of great photos for the front page and then you need, you know, the, the, the, folks who are writing the articles, while you’re there, take a reasonably good picture because most of the, most of the pictures you see in a newspaper…
Wait, you think that reporters go into the field? (No offense, reporters. I know some of you want to leave the office!)
AL (continued): so most of the pictures that are being taken for a newspaper are just the person who was there and of course you hire a professional photographer to do it but you don’t really need that to cover, like we were here, here’s the picture of this person, and a lot of that could be done with a very base level.
Who are the consumers looking for “very base level” content? It’s called mediocrity and it’s a dead end for any publication.
Quality is more important than putting up several short blog posts every day. As online media evolves, we will realize that all pageviews and hits are not the same. There are some readers that are more valuable than others, especially in an advertising-based scheme.
Quality content is one thing that traditional outlets can bring to the table consistently. The former Sun-Times photographers are putting out work at a much higher level than your average Instagrammer and it makes a difference to how your site looks and the way readers judge the quality of your site.
AL (continued): Now you definitely need high quality ones, but I think that if I were, if, if I were thinking about the way their management is talking about it, is hey, I’d hire five guys every day, you know, five different guys every day…
I love this one! What manager, in any company, is going to hire five different employees every day? In news we’ve got deadlines hitting every minute. Let’s say Friday night there’s a fire downtown. Will a freelancer be sitting at home, ready to go? Or would you rather have an on duty staffer ready to go? (No offense to freelance photographers. I love you all.)
In photojournalism you need people who can deliver, consistently, every single day, every single assignment. They need to understand your system, your ethics, and your needs. They need to have a certain level of equipment and a range of lenses that are not affordable on a freelancers’ income.
LL: Or use freelancers, right?
AL: They would be freelancers. What I’m saying is that I’d hire them, I’d hire different people every day to take pictures of the big stuff.
This idea of a different set of shooters every day is like a heroin piñata to me, I just can’t stop hitting it. I’ve managed photo staffs. If I had had to farm out every assignment to a shifting list of freelancers? Wow.
AL (continued): So I don’t think they’re going without. I don’t think the paper is suddenly going without any photographers. I think what they’re talking about is by moving to freelance they’re able to save a lot of money rather than having people on overhead.
Save some money, but your visuals are going to go to shit and readers will flee. Those 28 photographers know Chicago. They knew their communities, who the last several mayors were, who to talk to when something happens, the fastest way to get across town, etc. You can’t replace the institutional knowledge of a staff.
The photographers I work with (and the photo staffers in the office who we couldn’t do our jobs without), know everything about Utah. We have been everywhere, we’ve met everyone, and we’ve seen it all. That gives us an advantage over anyone working in our territory who hasn’t been on the ground here.
Without a photo staff, you can rely on wire services to send you photos of sporting events and big news stories. But those wire photographers (no offense, wire photographers) have not been following the local college football team all year long. They probably don’t know the people in the community in the same way. We prove this every time we send a photographer to an out-of-town college football game or NBA playoff game. Because we know the team and the stories we get photographs that aren’t on the wires. I could show you dozens of photos from University of Utah football games that no wire photographer ever shot or even saw. But I knew the team, and I knew that when that one kid ran back a kickoff for a touchdown near the end of a game in Colorado last year, it wasn’t just another touchdown. It was an NCAA record. None of the other photographers had a clue. Not their fault, they just hadn’t covered the team like we had.
AL (continued): Secondly, I definitely think that the most likely thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to look for people who really have that you know, “predator” background where they’re going to be able to shoot video, shoot stills, and probably be able to write.
Extra skills are always good. But when it comes to writing, good luck. We still employ some of the best writers around. “Probably be able to write” is not near good enough at a top level news outlet.
AL (continued): I mean, if you look at bloggers, there’s an awful lot of people that are posting to G+, posting to blogs, these are people who can write, they can shoot, they can shoot video, they can do all those other pieces and so, so, the um, there is a generation of, of media artists who are able to do an awful lot of these things and I think that what they’re looking for is to translate that. I mean this is something that’s happening every, every print industry. I mean I have a very high profile magazine, I’m not going to get into who it is—
Why not? Tell us who it is, because I have never heard this story. And I would have.
AL (continued): brought all their photographers in and basically said, “you need to be ready to shoot video when we put you in the field, if we’re going to send you somewhere in the world to shoot stills, we expect video,” and you know, a big chunk of their folks just walked out saying, I’m going to go do something else.
If a group of shooters from a top magazine actually walked off the job for any reason, I would have heard about it.
There has certainly been some resistance toward video, but also a lot of photographers who have embraced and mastered it. Every shop is different. We’ve also seen many in the industry realize that videos are not always the best or even most profitable approach to all stories. Photo galleries are engaging readers in a big way.
LL: My suspicion is A. If you’re going to be out of work, the best thing to be is a good photographer.
AL: I would not agree.
Alex is right. These days, everyone in the world who is not a staff photographer is an out of work photographer.
AL: You have to be able to do both video and still.
LL: I’m just saying, compared to a reporter… We see reporters get fired by the hundreds all the time. A hundred reporters got fired when Rupert Murdoch shut down The Daily, but I didn’t hear screaming horror over it.
There is always media glee when Murdoch fails. Not saying that’s right. But the job losses were talked about, and mourned.
RR: We’ve been doing that all the time, blogging at least, we would go to CES, we covered it for many years using iPhones or whatever platform phones, in order to dogfood it. One person would write, photograph and video, and do exactly that.
Okay, but that’s not what we do. We aren’t doing a bunch of two paragraph blog posts on things like Sony’s latest flat panel display and the release of a new Xbox accessory at a trade show. Professional photojournalists are covering things like families dealing with autism, communities dealing with horrific levels of street violence (Chicago, for example), or the local high school’s soccer game.
AL: Well and I’ve found that even the stuff that I’ve shot at NAB or CES with my iPhone and my headset, I like better, it’s just a lot less work for me to walk around and shoot video. You know, it got the information across.
At this point host Andy Ihnatko, who writes for the Sun-Times is finally on a good line…
AI: (having technical difficulties): I just had two major reactions to this. 1, I was really, really disappointed, bordering on offended, by all the people who decided to not talk about the real story here and turn it into the far more fun and linkable soundbite – the Chicago Sun-Times thinks that a reporter with an iPhone can do the exact same job as a professional photographer with an SLR. Drop that piece of that bloody chicken to the alligator pit and watch all the photo blogs go hmrph hmrph hmrph.
Andy then drops out, having more technical difficulties. Really unfortunate. He’s a smart guy, even though this first quote was pretty defensive of his employer. Because that is pretty much what they said by firing every professional photographer in the building. If they don’t think the reporter and iPhone can do the same job, they have said that the two approaches are of the same value to them in terms of money.
LL: I also look at the Boston Globe, which has the Big Picture, and it’s fabulous. They have really great, full-time photojournalists and they have a beautiful visual thing, they have an app… they have a website, and the pictures that come from those journalists are stunning and brilliant and so maybe that’s the other way to do it is to monetize better with the visuals that you’re getting from these guys. But I agree, $15,000 a day is a lot.
Yeah, it is so much “a lot” because it is a number that Alex pulled out of the air.
RR: And also, we have been putting those, the real-time journalism, I mean they’re running photos of people with iPhones on the scene, on the ground before the reporters or photographers get there. And also in emerging markets…those are probably the cameras they have and how they do news gathering to begin with. They kind of skipped over the high end equipment.
AL: And again, I think that there are a large, uh, number of events that you see covered in a newspaper that just don’t need a professional to take pictures of. It’s just coverage. If a magazine or a newspaper… We’re talking about a daily newspaper, what it needs to tell the story and the issue is I don’t think, I do think a well-trained journalist, while they’re there, can take photos that… I mean bloggers do it all day every day. We walk into these events and we see bloggers doing it and they’re taking great photos with their Android or their iPhone or whatever.
Remind me to look for those “great photos” that people are taking with phones at tech events. Though it sounds like some thrilling imagery, it is not what photojournalists do.
LL: So you think that this idea that training the writers in photography is not a bad idea?
AL: Oh, I think it is a must. I think that it is…
LL: How about give them better devices than iPhones?
RR: … And they’re supposed to shoot the video, edit the video, upload the video, all on their own.
Quantity over quality. You’ve hit it.
AL: …I think that you’re absolutely going to have to have a professional photographer shoot the big events, shooting certain things, the big news items. I think you send them out for when those things occur or when you need to cover those things or for the cover of every. You have five photographers out there every day out there shooting the big things that you’re going to put on the cover of your newspaper, it’s still a lot less money that having everybody on staff all the time. If it’s a slow news day you just send one out, rather than having twenty-eight on staff. So that’s the. I know I’m not making any friends in my own industry saying that. Um. But, the uh, But I’m just saying from a practical perspective it doesn’t, having 28 people on staff that can’t shoot video, um, doesn’t make as much sense.
You’re assuming that those 28 can’t shoot video. I don’t know the makeup of the fired staffers, but surely there are video shooters in that mix, and if they’ve bought a new camera in the past few years it will shoot amazing HD video.
LL: We’ve been chronicling the disappearance of newspapers, like it or not, all along…
AL: And I have to admit that for me… As soon as I started using Flipboard, everything else ended. I’ve barely opened a magazine since I got…
LL: But I read them online and I think that’s what some people are saying, the last time to get rid of your photographers is when you’re moving online and you want better images.
AL: You don’t need photographers, you need media artists. You probably have, and I have no idea what they have at the Sun-Times, but you probably have a lot of traditional, most of the newspapers that I’ve seen are a lot of traditional photographers with a handful of, um,
LL: Smart ones from learning Final Cut, videography…
AL: Like the New York Times is a good example where the photographers are very aggressively moving into the video market, so they’ve already embraced that process…and those are their photographers.
LL: Remember that great thing, oh it was the avalanche piece, I can’t remember the name of it. That was heralded by everybody as an example of what, where newspapers should be going when they’re going online…
Which is hilarious, because Snow Fall was an amazing piece. And here are the names of the team that put it together…
Graphics and design by Hannah Fairfield, Xaquín G.V., Jon Huang, Wayne Kamidoi, Sam Manchester, Alan McLean, Jacky Myint, Graham Roberts, Joe Ward, Jeremy White and Josh Williams. Photography by Ruth Fremson. Video by Catherine Spangler.
Additional video by Eric Miller and Shane Wilder.
Kristen Millares Young contributed research.
Sixteen people. So now we’re back to where, exactly? Do you want quality, or quantity?
Later in the show Andy Ihnatko is finally coming in clear. He has a good statement:
AI: If you keep some of the old and embrace some of the new I think that’s how you get the best stew of all.
My takeaway from all of this mess is that photojournalism has done a poor job in marketing itself. We don’t promote our work enough, we don’t promote our people and their skills enough.
I’m tired of writing. Just watch this and be done with it: