Hands holding camera

Do newspapers 'deserve' to die? Not so fast

Though I've been the Chicago Sun-Times technology columnist since 2000, I have no inside information about the thinking behind the Sun-Times’ decision to cut its photography staff. What I have to say about this move is only informed by my observations about the modern realities of print publishing, and could apply to any great city paper with a long and proud history.

Here’s the go-to meme that way, way too many bloggers and other commentators have latched on to:

The leadership of The Chicago Sun-Times believes that a reporter with an iPhone and a few hours of training can do the same job as a fulltime photographer with twenty years of experience and thousands of dollars of specialized equipment. The Sun-Times deserves to die.

Which is… patently stupid. I wish that last sentence weren’t a direct quote from someone I know, like, and respect.

Nobody at the Sun-Times has said anything even similar to that. To twist the editors’ actual reasoning into something different that can be mocked with far less thought and effort than the truth is a desperately cheap shot, and beneath anybody worthy of a reader’s respect.

There’s a business part to a newspaper that tries to keep the money rolling in and the lights on. And then there’s the part of the company that focuses on the contract the paper has with its community: a mandate to serve and inform. Most of the editors and journalists I’ve known (at my paper and others) have a devotion to their purpose that surpasses their devotion to their jobs. It’s akin to the level of religion you sense when you speak to a career librarian. They believe.

They’re passionate about their mandates and they serve it as best they can, given the resources provided to them by the business part of the institution.

The Sun-Times’ legacy stretches all the way back to the Great Chicago Fire. They’ve spent all but the last fifteen years of that time building and refining a machine that’s optimized for the world that we all lived in until about 2000. It’s a world in which news is printed on bundles of paper, and consumed by an audience that can’t access information this fresh, broad, or deep in any other way, and one where even when you read the news of the start of a world war, you’re reading stuff that was written by someone who lives in your own city.

I’m sure you’re aware of what changed fifteen years ago. The last puzzle pieces that made the web into an actual functioning thing finally clicked into place. As good as the newspaper’s old machine was—and it was superb—it was no longer suited to the world.

The community can get information from a source halfway around the world as easily as they can get it from a newspaper based right in the city. Apps and services can combine content from a dozen different sources and make them as easy to read in aggregate as any single, carefully-managed publication.

News that’s a day old is Old News. Stories that took months of work, a dozen skilled journalists and editors to prepare, and tens of thousands of dollars to develop are of value only until some lone gunman cribs the original research for a blog post that took him about twenty minutes to throw together. And because his blog has better linkjuice than the newspaper’s site, his post becomes the canonical source for most web traffic and he gains most of the ad and click revenue… not the paper.

Meanwhile, readers have been trained to think that anything on the Web should be free, so they actively rebel against paywalls. They also think ads are obnoxious, so they block them. They’re willing to pay for downloaded content (the Kindle Store and iTunes Store trained them well), but daily news isn’t in any way suited for that kind of delivery system; even News Corp’s attempt at a daily downloadable newspaper collapsed within a year and took tens of millions of dollars with it.

Meanwhile, although the guy with the blog who’s summarizing newspaper content only has to pay for bandwidth (maybe) and Iced Caffe Americanos (his office rent), the newspaper still has a full-time staff and facilities to pay for. Which is a pity, because the Web was also kind enough to drive nearly all of the newspaper industry’s reliable streams of ad revenue elsewhere.

There’s nothing unfair about any of these developments. This is just the world that newspapers find themselves in.

One benefit of modern publishing is that a publication receives phenomenally good information about its audience and what’s driving them to the newspaper and its site. A city newspaper examines this data and then re-examines the workings of its 150-year-old news publishing machine. The machine was fantastic at manufacturing what readers wanted from 1850 to 1999. But it now needs to be retooled to manufacture what readers want in 2013.

The Sun-Times’ photography staff numbered 28, according to reports. That’s 28 full-time salaries and benefits packages. How many successful news sites have 28 full-time paid staffers, total? Not as many as you’d think; this is the benefit of building a brand-new machine from the ground up.

If the Sun-Times believes that readers aren’t coming to the paper or returning to the Sun-Times’ sites for the photography—if they really believe that—then they can’t continue to keep that department staffed at their old-school levels.

Which is sincerely upsetting.

But think of it this way: would you be upset if a newspaper fired its photography staff, but hired on more reporters so that the paper could deepen its coverage of topics that affect the people of its community?

What if it fired photographers, but hired more web developers, and gave that department extra resources? Photographs aren't than just pretty pictures; they serve many practical functions for an edition of a newspaper. They allow for a more attractive page design, they make the newspaper easier to visually navigate, and they offer the reader an alternative method of engaging with the stories. A well-designed, responsive web page does the same things...with the added modern benefit that it allows a story to look great on any device. "Your photos aren't anything special" is an aesthetic complaint. "Your site goes all screwy when I access it from my iPhone" is a report about a bug that prevents the user from reading the content.

This problem is only becoming more complicated as time goes on. I can think of six important formats for web-delivered content without even needing to warm up: desktop window, phone, phablet, tablet, mini tablet, Google-style service tile. Multiply that by four major web browsers. And that's just the "how people read the stories they've found" part of the puzzle. A news site also requires an infrastructure that makes it easy for outside services to find and use the site's content, and for the user to share it with the outside world.

The point is that if a newspaper really wants to double-down on the value of their content, having a great team of web developers on staff is critical. I'd be less concerned about the sub-par photography of a site than I would about a site that's hard to read on the device of my choice.

It comes down to a tough question: how can newspaper editors continue to develop valuable content, and maintain their social contracts with their communities, using the declining resources that are available to them? Judging from its actions, the Sun-Times clearly believes that a full-time staff of photographers is no longer part of that answer.

It might sound like I’m defending what the management of the Sun-Times did. I’m not. Like all fans of the Sun-Times, I can only hope that they’re doing the right thing. The paper’s managing editor, Craig Newman, has long been my editor and a pal, and he’s one of the last people I imagine capable of making thoughtless moves or allowing a whole department to be eliminated solely to cut costs.

I should also note that I’m a freelancer who works for several different publishers. Though I’m proud of my relationship with the Sun-Times and I’d like to see it go on for another 13 years, I’m not solely dependent upon the paper for my income.

Maybe that also provides me with a little distance. If they fired their photography staff because they don’t believe those creators fit into the Sun-Times’ vision of the future, then the the decision itself is hard to argue with, despite how upset I might get about so many people losing their jobs. I can’t fault the Sun-Times any more than I would fault Steve Jobs for firing the engineers who worked on the many projects that he didn’t believe in, after he returned to Apple as CEO.

If the Sun-Times fired 28 photographers for some lesser reason? Then, sure… let’s go ahead and fault that decision.

I held off on writing about this because I really didn’t know what to think—apart from “All of the photographers? The Sun-Times thinks it doesn’t need a single photographer on staff? Honestly?”—and I hoped that I’d eventually have some kind of breakthrough. No such luck, as yet.

I can easily imagine what my late friend Roger Ebert would have said about the firings of all of those photographers. He was a passionate advocate of both Labor with a capital L and his beloved Sun-Times. I think he would have seen this as a slap in the face to both.

I would have valued his opinion and our discussion. I don’t value the opinions of people who see this as the move of an organization that deserves to die.

I guess I’m waiting to see what the Sun-Times does after this. Sell off all of your army’s swords and chainmail armor, and use the funds to buy rifles and cloth camo. That’s a good move. You’re re-configuring your army so it can fight a modern battle. Eliminate the sword and the chainmail armor and send your soldiers out onto the battlefield in their underwear, chucking clumps of dirt at the enemy…that’s a bad move.

Photography isn’t an archaic and ineffective weapon by any means, but the point stands. This if a reasonable move if the Sun-Times is redeploying their assets to better deliver the content that it believes the paper's readers value. It’s not a reasonable move if they did it just so they could continue to do things the same way they’ve done them for 150 years, only with lower expenses. And as in all warfare, you won’t know which choice was the right one until the battle’s over and historians get a crack at it.

As in all warfare, you don’t know which decision was right until the battle’s over and historians get a crack at it.

I don’t like that 28 people were fired. I’m sure that Craig and the rest of the management of the Sun-Times likes it far less than I or anybody else, apart from those who lost their jobs.

And in our haste to discuss some complicated issues, let’s not briskly walk past these experienced, talented, and respected creators who are suddenly out of work. “Did the Sun-Times do the right thing?” is a conceptual question. These 28 are facing far more practical ones.

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