Chicago Sun-Times lays off entire photo staff.
Compiled by John Long, ethics chair

This past week, the NPPA Ethics Committee (John Long, retired Hartford Courant photographer and past president of NPPA , Peter Southwick, Associate Professor of Journalism, Boston University, Steve Raymer, former staff photographer National Geographic and now Professor of Journalism, Indiana University and NPPA Past President Sean Elliot, staff photographer, The Day, New London, CT) had been deeply involved in discussing whether the June 2013 National Geographic cover photo of explorer James Cameron was a violation of accepted journalistic ethics and values. We will post a full blog on this issue alone in a few days.

However, what has taken precedence in our discussions is the firing of the entire photographic staff of The Chicago Sun-Times, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, replacing them with reporters carrying Apple iPhones. This sent shock waves through the profession. We had an explosion of emails on the value of quality photojournalism (ie: National Geographic) and its value in the face of the possible collapse of our profession.

Is the demise of a staff of photojournalists an ethical issue? Usually we deal with lying and the other aspects of our Code of Ethics, but we all felt (very deeply) that this is probably one of the most basic ethical issues we face today. It is the ethics of survival; the survival of our profession and the survival of our American way of life itself in that a free society cannot exist without access to accurate information.

This blog attempts to compile (in edited form) what we have written as a group in the past few days. We enter the discussion in media res (at this point someone expressed the opinion that National Geographic cover photos meant nothing in light of the firing of the Sun-Times staff):

Raymer:

Over some years, National Geographic got rid of its staff photographers — that is how I landed in academia — but it remained true, until perhaps the June 2013 cover, to its core mission. We still need media outlets and venues for the best in photojournalism and documentary photography. I am sorry for what happened to the staff at the Sun Times, but we move on. Winston Churchill once said, “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Among other things, one of our focuses at IU is to teach students to be entrepreneurial. In the end, we are talking about two separate but equally important issues, in my view. Structural changes in the profession undermine the core mission of photojournalism, which is to accurately, truthfully, and professionally document history, make government accountable, and show us our common humanity.

I have few worries for the brightest kids in the new school of communication, media studies, and journalism at IU. They will innovate, improvise, and adapt, especially with our new wider course offerings. Who would have thought ten years ago that one of the most compelling persons to speak truth to power in the media would be a satirist named Jon Stewart? But he, too, reports the news in a fashion that is sometimes more meaningful to his audience than following the conventions we learned years ago. The problem is to help people already in the profession reinvent themselves as the print media continues a downward spiral. I have a former student who was a picture editor at SI and Gourmet magazines who is now a lawyer, another who is in med school. To be continued.

Southwick:

My best students will also do fine, in a variety of roles. I worry about everyone who is in the business now and how they will evolve, but I also have so much more concern about what will be lost to our culture and the world at large if what the Sun-Times has done becomes an industry trend. I don’t have to wax eloquent about how devastating that will be on so many levels. You guys already know, in your hearts and guts.

This is about survival; not only the survival of our peculiar “species”, but the continuation of the value of visual journalism and what that means to the health of a democracy and the free flow of information around the world.

As my good friend and colleague Bill Greene said after the Marathon bombings, there were thousands of people around with cell phone cameras. But where are those pictures? Did any of them resonate with anyone? Do they have lasting value? No. The photos that are seared in our memories were taken by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe and Charlie Krupa of the AP, seasoned professionals who knew what to do. No matter what the training, there is no replacement for that kind of talent, skill, and (forgive me) courage. Corporate people who can eliminate an entire photography staff and absurdly claim they can be replaced by amateurs with cell phones are an existential danger to something far more important than just the people who hold those staff jobs. They are a danger to something vital, something that has brought the world closer to each of us for many, many decades. That can’t be laid off and replaced.

Raymer:

Well said, Peter, well said. Yes, the existential threats of corporate greed have diminished our profession as they have so many others. Look at medicine! And I think the judicious response from National Geographic about its June cover doesn’t make much sense either. But I remain an optimist, at age 67, though only a fool would try to predict the trajectory for visual journalism. In London two weeks ago today I went to Salgado’s latest exhibition on the last unspoiled places on the planet, “Genesis,” and now have his new book by the same title. (http://www.amazon.com/Sebastiao-Salgado-Genesis-Wanick-Salgado/dp/3836538725/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370111867&sr=8-1&keywords=salgado) Apart from our friendships of many years, Sebastiao has produced another work of grit and genius! My faith in the future of great visual story-telling is secure. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, professions and trades are always at a crossroads. In the 20th Century, society needed dramatically fewer blacksmiths by mid-century. In the 21st century, we made very well need far fewer daily newspaper photographers. But that doesn’t mean we will dispense with visual journalists and journalism, people with training, passion, and insight who can give meaning and context to the world. It’s just undoubtedly going to be different. Of course, this doesn’t answer questions for the Sun Times photo staff or the people of the Chicago metro area, who have been so well served by the Sun Times photographers. The dismantling of the Sun Times photo staff weakens the fabric of the community, certainly in the near term — I completely agree. We can only hope that some of those displaced photojournalists will find other venues for their work.

Elliot:

It never seems to fail that we start to get agitated over something and something else will crop up to make the first thing seem rather insignificant …

There is no doubt in my mind that the overall degradation of visual standards is an issue the NPPA ought to continue to address. Whether it be the “artifying” of photojournalism in the post-processing arena or an old standard bearer for the visual ideals copping to a cover illustration … all those feed in, eventually, to the mind set of executives who come to believe that an iPhone in the hands of a reporter is a more than adequate source of visual reporting for a news organization.

Now, does that mean I think there is a direct line of causation between Paul Hansen (et. al.) and the Geographic cover to the execs at the Sun-Times making the decision they did? Of course not. I seriously doubt that there are very many executives in the newspaper industry who look beyond the balance sheets anymore … I also think it’s possible that the line works both ways.

The more executives anywhere devalue the visuals the easier it gets for those with a track record of good work to be demoralized and cease to care.

I think our (the NPPA’s) role needs to be to continue to make a fuss, whether that is just to express an opinion or find ways to educate and inspire, about each and every incident that has a negative impact on the field we represent. We can write-off the NG cover because what happened in Chicago is so much “bigger”, but I think we should point out the negative effects of both situations. Going to work and fighting the good fight for quality documentary photojournalism is difficult both because the execs in Chicago have devalued the contributions of a vital group of photojournalists and because the NG has said that a glamorized portrait is more than adequate to illustrate a story in a publication with a long history of putting very difficult to acquire images on the cover.

Southwick summarizes the issue:

I don’t disagree, but I still think there is a clear division between these two. In the case of NG, they made a decision to put resources toward something they thought would be effective and worthwhile for their cover. They gave it considerable thought, and it took skill and talent to make it happen. It’s safe to say we disagree with their decision and their approach, and we should express that. But what the Sun-Times management said was the opposite: photos just don’t matter, and neither do the talent and skill of those who produce good photojournalism. It means literally nothing to them, and they’ve sent that message to their readers/viewers loud and clear. They have created a vacuum into which they will disappear. What Geographic did was a disappointment, to be sure, and should be commented upon. What the Sun-Times did was journalistic suicide, a crime against the city and region they claim to serve.

Am I pissed? I guess you could say that.

Postscript: Fred Ritchin has a brand new book, Bending the Frame, from Aperture, that outlines an explosion of possibilities for photographers as newspapers fade and it is very worth reading/discussing.



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