AMITIAE - Saturday 1 June 2013

Cassandra - Chicago Sun-Times Believes Reporters with iPhones will Provide Sufficient Coverage: All Photographers Sacked

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Early on Saturday I was surprised to read the news in several sources that the Chicago Sun-Times had fired its entire photography staff and was going to retrain reporters to use the iPhone. If this were April, one might be forgiven for thinking that this were some bad joke, but the newspaper has decided that enough progress has been made - or enough money can be saved - so it is out with the old and in with the new (sort of).

I have been quite lucky with some of the input I have been honored to have been given about photography. Back in the mid-1980s, I spent a morning in New York with the director of the Oscar-winning movie, The Lion in Winter, Tony Harvey - just the two of us wandering the streets taking photographs - with me watching and listening as he made subtle comments on observation.

More recently over a lunchtime salad in the Oriental Shop in Bangkok, Pulitzer Prize-winner, David Longstreath chatted with me about learning about film technologies - with one-shot exposures to chemicals - and how this was his basis for an understanding of how to use digital photography techniques.

And then there was my Uncle Ron, who fiddled and farted with light meters and camera settings, but never took a decent photograph in his life. Choose your mentors wisely.

Condensed, the main lessons were location, light and luck. Being in exactly the right place at the right time and with the right conditions. As with many technical tasks, you can make your own luck and the experienced photographer has a sense of this.

When looking at a building in Greenwich Village, New York, for example, I was ready to take a picture when Tony Harvey said, "Move this way a couple of feet". He had gauged the view perfectly, and the resultant image was with his advice, was far better than I would have taken on my own.

[As a historical point, David was the first to report on the death of Pol Pot in 1988 and much of his excellent work is online. As he notes, he was the first Associated Press Photographer to use digital cameras in southeast Asia and over that lunch told me how he had sent those historical images out to the world.]

The first story I read on the decision by the Chicago Sun-Times was by Dan Mitchell on Fortune who mentioned the newspaper's feeling that "having reporters take pictures with their iPhones will help the newspaper appeal to its "digitally savvy customers."

In the article Dan Mitchell appears as incredulous as I was - and as infuriated by the crass decision. He includes a statement by the executives of the newspaper, but this official comment explains nothing really. I would expect that the "digitally savvy customers" will be able to note the difference in quality fairly quickly.

I work at both ends of that digital spectrum, with a couple of reasonably well-equipped DSLRs from Nikon and an iPhone 4S (as well as an iPad). I rather enjoy photography with the smaller device, especially with the wide range of apps that are now available, allowing me to edit and apply a number of effects to the shots.

For serious photography, the Nikon, especially with the wide angle, and the telephoto lenses I use are essential. Some recent photographs I took with that telephoto lens of faces in crowds would be totally impossible with the iPhone.

While I have additional lenses for the iPhone, the device itself limits the output. I may be able to produce a reasonable 10" x 8" print on a good day, but for larger output of images - say poster size, or smaller images with high resolution - the Nikon is better. Quality depends not so much on the lens, or the pixel count, but on the size of the charge-coupled device (CCD): the chip that is used instead of film.

On occasions, I merge the technologies by downloading images from the Nikon onto the iPad. I can do some work on them - including a check to see which are worth further editing - while out on the road, saving me the need to carry a heavier laptop about. At home, of course, a computer is needed.

The idea that images could be used directly from an iPhone (or other smartphone) is a rather shaky proposition. Some basic editing (exposure, brightness, contrast) will always be needed. If the Chicago Sun-Times thinks the iPhone is a magic device that will turn its reporters into photography wizards, they may be in for a shock.

Equally dismayed was the tone of the report on MacNN, who point out that the newspaper was in the middle of negotiations with the union, but still pulled the plug

They also point out that the tendency today is for newspapers to rely on amateur input. Sometimes unfocussed, grainy and poorly composed, this cheap (free) alternative to a real photographer may help pay the bills for a while, but paying customers demand quality - articles, writing and images - which is increasingly forgotten by newspapers these days who behave as if the move to a digital-based output, rather than print media, is reason enough to let the standards slip.

Both articles quote Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune. A rival publication for sure, but the comments he makes are none the less true.

One of the theories for the move, he writes, was that this was a union-busting move and that sooner or later the sacked staff will be rehired, albeit in more lowly positions. Whatever the real reason, no one is saying, but Garcia has some background as to why the loss of these professional photographers is going to hit the newspaper hard.

Oddly, The Chicago Sun-Times newspaper apparently had no news, or opinions, on the sacking of the photographers. I checked the front page, I searched using "photographers" and "Photographs" with no success; I went through the "Latest columns" of several contributors (some giving me a 403 page, so the newspaper needs some work on its digital side).

I even looked at the columns, blog and Twitter feeds (the last was 30 May) of Andy Ihnatko. Nada. Over at the Chicago Sun-Times this has been shovelled into a back hole and appears not to exist.

Like the photographers.

Fortunately, Google does have a number of answers and just the first page of results gave me a good selection of further reading:

  • Chicago Sun-Times Lays Off All Its Full-Time Photographers (NYTimes - AP)
  • The Chicago Sun-Times Laid Off Their Entire Photography Staff (Abby Ohlheiser - The Atlantic Wire)
  • Another Jolt For Journalism: Chicago Sun-Times Lays Off Its Photo Staff (Micheline Maynard - Forbes)
  • The painful realities behind the demise of the Chicago Sun-Times photo desk (Mathew Ingram - paidContent)

There are of course others.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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