The Top 5 Mistakes the Chicago Sun-Times Made

There’s been quite a lot of talk over the last couple days about the Chicago Sun-Times ChicagoSunTimeslaying off their entire staff of photographers.  When media writer Robert Feder posted on his Facebook Page , he was flooded with nasty comments about what the paper was doing.

“Sun-Times reporters begin 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.”

There has been general outrage amongst professional photographers on listservs and social media channels adding to the extreme angst that already exists in this demographic.  I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, not only over the last couple of days but over the last decade as technology has thrust enormous change on my industry.  If I allow myself to look at the state of professional photography as an unsustainable profession because of these technological changes, than that’s what it will be – an unsustainable profession for me.  But if I turn the “problem” into an “opportunity” and realize that technology has brought me a lot more possibilities in how to monetize my craft, then I will have a profession that I will be able to sustain.

Biggest Mistakes that the Sun-Times Made when they got rid of their staff photographers:

  1. Cheated their readers.  Their readers will see the difference in the photographs that their paper is running.  A professional photojournalist doesn’t just take a picture – they capture a storytelling image.  They are visual communicators and they are good at it.  They make the viewer feel, empathize or connect with their images. I don’t think it will take a long time before their readers see that the paper’s photos aren’t any better than theirs or their friends and have no reason to get the story from the Sun-Times.
  2. Focused on the technology – the iphone.  How many times have I said “It’s not about the tool”?  Do I think that the iphone isn’t a viable tool for taking good photos?  No, in fact if it is the only “camera” you have on hand when a story is breaking – then it becomes the best camera for the job.  On the other hand, the same day the paper sent the memo out to their staff about the layoffs, their front page was covered with images that one wouldn’t have a chance of getting if all they had was an iphone.
  3. Burdened their writers with another job.  Let’s face it, something is going to suffer.  Just like when I try to shoot both video and still images on the same job myself, I always feel like I have the wrong camera for the wrong moment.  A lot of my writer friends can take pretty good photographs, and some merely make a “reference” shot of what’s happening, instead of an image that captures a story.  A writer’s workflow is different than that of a photographer.  Writers go out in the field and gather facts and write the story for the most part, back at the office.  A photographer does pretty much everything in the field.  Nowadays, many times that includes the edit.  Something will suffer, when one person sets out to do two totally different types of jobs.
  4. Made their “cuts” in the wrong place.  They undermined what a professional photojournalist brings to their paper.  You can’t find a more passionate, committed group than photojournalists.  They work long hours, under terrible conditions – many times dangerous ones, receive a lousy pay, but will go above and beyond to deliver “the story”.  Some say this was a “union busting” move and that after a decent amount of time, the paper will begin to hire photographers who will work for less and no benefits.  If that’s the case, then shame on them for cutting out health benefits for such a committed group of people. In the long run,  that is not a sustainable business model.
  5. They forgot that technology works both ways.  Let’s hope that photographers don’t forget that they can use technology to their advantage – that is if they can get past their fear.  Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, writes in a blog post:  “Fear is the worst and greatest enemy of photographers. Why? Physiologically, fear triggers the fight or flight complex. You can’t think creatively, imaginatively and proactively when your entire body is pumping blood and adrenaline to the parts of your body necessary to fight barbarians at the gate. It pushes your body into a reactive-about-to-become-a-victim state of mind. The very creativity that is your unique selling proposition as a photographer is crippled. Your body become’s your mind’s worst enemy.

We no longer need a publisher to publish our images.  With technology we can create and publish with a variety of platforms and portals.  Just take a look at Issuu a portal for digital publishing. With a modest amount of effort, I put together a test for a new magazine called “The Back Story”.  Future issues will be composed of my image outtakes from the dozens of commissioned assignments that I’ve shot over the years.  Maybe, down the road it will include other photographers’ work and give the readers an opportunity to see the images that never ran and get “the back story.”

Fear not, my fellow professional photographers.  We are in a position of opportunity if we begin to realize that and make a conscious effort to change our mindset.  We don’t have  control over the choices that the Sun-Times or any other newspaper makes. We only have control over how we react to those changes. If we think and act smart and not from a position of fear, maybe one of the best business decisions we can make is to take control, and create and publish story telling images that the public will want to see.  And the public  won’t be finding those kinds of images in the Chicago Sun-Times.

 

The Difference Between TV and New Media

It’s been a tough 3 weeks teaching video to journalists in China – perhaps the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.  It’s not the teaching part that’s hard – it’s knowing if what I am saying is being correctly translated to my students, it’s being away from friends and family and just being away for so long that makes it tough. I have one more week to go and will take a good long rest when I return to the US.

Last week was especially difficult but yet my amazing students got me through it.  They simply amazed me in how quickly they learned.  They learned in 4 days what it takes most photographers to learn in 4 weeks or months.

Every week I have a new group of students and each week there are always one or two students that I know really “get it”.  There was one student who I coined a nickname for “Mr. Question” because he asked more questions than most.  His questions weren’t just about what settings to use on his camera or how to do something in Adobe Premiere, but more about the “big picture”.  His questions always showed me he was thinking.

One question, this particular student asked me this week, really caught my attention.  He asked me “How are we (new media producers) different than TV?

Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL
Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had just read an article online that addressed this very question and it talked about how newspaper video journalists are now winning more Emmys than TV news journalists.

I responded to my student by telling him:

  • TV news makes the reporter part of the story – sometimes even the “star”
  • New media tells the story through the voice of the subjects – making them the “stars”
  • TV news is delivered to us on the network channels – 3 times a day.
  • Online news is 24/7 and on demand.  We get the news online when we want it and wherever we want it – on our desktop computers, on our iPhones or on our iPads. We also can share the news and interact with others.  We become part of the delivery chain.
  • TV news journalists rush back to the studio to get the story on air by 5 o’clock. The stories are generally very short – limited to their broadcast slot.
  • As new media producers we have the luxury of working longer on feature stories and delivering them online to a global audience.  While print newspapers and magazines are folding – there has been a rebirth of the long documentary story that can now be delivered online.  We are communicating to a wider audience around the world, no longer being restricted by time and space.

In the 1960’s newspaper executives were lamenting about the good old days and predicting that TV would kill them.  I find it ironic that the shoe seems to be on the other foot now.  I teach “motion” and “video journalism” to a lot of still photographers.  There are some who buy their DSLR’s and aspire to make broadcast spots for TV.  There are some who aspire to make feature length films for Hollywood.  And then there are some who tell me that there is nothing new about video and that field is already glutted with videographers and cinematographers. Those are the old business models for video and motion.

The ones who “get it” are the hybrid creatures that recognize that there is a shift in the way we communicate.  They understand that video is really just another medium in which to tell their stories – not a business model, nor a niche market.

My student in China who asked me this question- he “gets it”.  He understands that he is part of the future of how Chinese journalists and others around the world, will deliver the news. That’s why they call it – new media.