How to ensure your extinction: look at what newspapers are doing

 I "grew up" in Chicago.  To be exact, I became an adult in Chicago when I went to college there at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.   I learned a LOT from the photographers at the Chicago Sun Times and The Chicago Tribune – they were my mentors for half a decade.    

This week the Chicago Sun Times made what might just be one of the most clearly shorsighted decisions in its history:  they let go of all of their photography staff.

Keep in mind that were are in the HEYDAY of photography.  

We collectively take more photographs every 6-9 months now than have been shot in ALL OF HISTORY.    Instagram / Flickr / SLRs / Mirrorless cameras and of course Smartphones have been VERY busy uploading pix for all to see.  

Yahoo! has estimated that 880 BILLION photos will be taken in 2014.

Today 27,800 photograpsh are uploaded to Instagram every 60 SECONDS.  

Not impressed?  

Try 208,300 photos on Facebook per minute.

And yes:  100 hours of video uploaded to Youtube in those 60 seconds.

So:  if you’re a 50-65-year old managing editor or publisher at one of the country’s GREAT newspapers and in an industry that is clearly shrinking…  Where people are subscribing less often, and getting their news more and more often from Facebook or Twitter… What do you do to stand out?

Well if you’re incredibly myopic:   you lay off your entire photography staff.  

That’s forward thinking.   We’re clearly not in a visual age… teenagers are clearly READING 300-1,200 word articles on newspaper websites on a regular basis… 

And to put the cherry on top:   you give iPhone lessons on how to take better snapshots to your REPORTERS.

Listen, I worked as a staff photographer with some of the BEST reporters/journalists in the world at The New York Times for nearly a decade.   And those reporters (back then) never took the value of a good photograph for granted… and that was BEFORE the internet truly took hold (I started in 1999.)

But there’s one thing I can tell you:  reporters (with key exceptions of course) are wordsmiths and great storytellers – not visual journalists.   And even if they can take GREAT iPhone photographs:   they’re going to blend in with all of the other millions of photographs on the web, and that is the problem.  That’s the end result here, because they’re primary goal is to collect quotes and notes for their articles – NOT the "Decisive Moment"  - as it should be.  

And then, if you’re the managing editor or publisher of your newspaper, ask yourself:  why in the world will people want to LOOK at my newspaper when I have equal or lesser photography to what people find on Instagram?    Again: in a world that is increasingly going towards the visual over the printed word… why make such a move?

My mentor Ken Irby (who threw me out of his office when I was 17 for not being ready to work at Newsday… and later married me to my wife a decade later) wrote the following words today about one of the icons of photography who has more talent in his finger nail than I have in my entire body – photographer John White formerly a Staff Photographer at the Chicago Sun Times:

The Sun-Times plans to rely on reporters to take photos and videos and has begun mandatory “iPhone photography basics.” Its decision is just the latest example of a disconcerting trend in American media: professional photojournalism is being downsized and devalued, with news organizations increasingly turning to wire services, citizen-submitted content and independent/freelance contributions.

The elimination of an entire photography staff is fairly uncommon among daily larger newspapers, but it’s not unprecedented. In 2008, Newsday terminated its 20-person photography staff and then allowed them to reapply for new multimedia jobs. It comes as no coincidence that Tim Knight, who’s now the publisher of the Sun-Times, was the publisher at Newsday when that transition was implemented.

I’ve been watching the print industry ensure their demise with similar moves for more than a decade now.   Time magazine let go of their most talented veteran journalist starting in 1999…. and they have seen their pages and advertisers decrease to the point where their magazine is now paper thin – as a direct result of those decisions.  it didn’t take a genius to call that one.   Poor content = no readership.   You don’t need Einstein to help you with that one.  Newsweek:  gone – no print edition anymore.

Now I’m witnessing the same happening at newspapers around the world.   And our collective culture is suffering as a result.   White in his usual eloquent way said the following with the help of Irby’s introduction:

He also worries about readers, who will no longer be able to experience “the most important ingredient of communication and understanding” in quite the same way.

“Humanity is being robbed,” he said, “by people with money on their minds.”

I couldn’t agree more.   It’s painful to see change at times – but change is necessary and inevitable, notably in these technology-driven days.  

In this case: it simply wasn’t.   Photography staffs are usually less than 5% of a newspaper’s staff… At the New York times there were about 30 staff photographers for approx 600 journalists on staff if my memory serves me well… is that REALLY where you want to cut?

I think not.  

Let’s hope other publishers brush up on their current trends before we see this happening again at another great institution.  

Remember:  while you may not read newspapers, they are the fourth estate… they are the ones that keep an eye on government, corporations, the economy, education, science and do investigative reporting and keep us informed… people who tweet simply don’t have the resources.

Don’t take the contributions newspapers make to our society and quality of life for granted – ever.

And as to the discussion over multimedia/video being more important than photography… Ask yourself what images you have burned in your memory from the past decade…  and then ask yourself if you can name one single "multimedia piece" by name that you recently saw on a newspaper’s website…  you probably can’t (although there are some amazing ones that have been produced.)

And that’s the point:  photography is just as important today if not more than it ever has been.   Not a time to cut yourself at the knees as an organization, let alone all the way to the marrow.   If you do:  you’re insuring your irrelevance and giving loyal readers who are holding on yet another reasons to stop subscribing.

You’ll notice that this blog may be a bit text heavy…  I was going to add a photo to this post.  But since the Sun Times doesn’t think we need them – does this blog?   Does this blog post feel like it’s missing something?   I can state with relative authority that the pages of The Chicago Sun Times will never be as rich as they were just one week ago.