Photography goes back to the future at the Sun-Times



By Kevin R. Convey

The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to slaughter its entire photo staff last week wasn’t just a dramatic reaction to the paper’s declining fortunes. It was also — knowingly or unknowingly — a return to the way business used to be done at small and mid-size papers across the country not so long ago – in the days before the industry became a prisoner of its own success.

My first reaction to this photocaust was, I must admit, a snarky one. As managing editor and editor in chief of the Boston Herald between 2004 and 2010, I looked at the country’s other five tabloids for ideas and inspiration from time to time and was always struck by how poor the Sun-Times’ use of photos was – especially for a tab. The editors didn’t seem to know a good photo when they saw one, or how to play it when they had one — that is to say, big.

So when I heard the entire photo staff was gone, I thought, well, the editors really didn’t need a staff anyway considering the way they consistently underplayed its work. Recovering from that uncharitable assessment, it struck me that the way the paper would now be forced to proceed was not unlike the way business was done in the photo departments of small- and medium-size papers when I first broke in as a young reporter in the late ‘70s.

Jeff Jarvis, by the way, has written an excellent post in which he critiques the Sun-Times move and suggests that the photo staff’s mission should have been redefined in a more curatorial way to save cash and both foster and take advantage of the smartphone-primed explosion in amateur photography.  I agree with him. But my purpose here isn’t to recapitulate his analysis.

When I was hired onto the staff of the Times Record in Brunswick, Maine, shortly before my college graduation in 1977, I was told its reporters were required to shoot their own photographs, and asked if I owned a 35mm camera. I was young but not foolish. I lied, said yes and begged my parents to make my graduation gift a Nikkormat FT3 and to give it to me early so I could teach myself how to shoot.

For the next few weeks I shot everything that moved and a lot of stuff that didn’t but looked like it did in my photos because of my superb technique. By the time I turned up for work, however, I was capable if not exactly proficient with the camera. The Times Record’s photo staff was exactly 1.5 shooters; reporters provided the bulk of the paper’s photography with staff photographers reserved for page-one work, features or photo stories.

Now, the Times Record was admittedly a small paper (about 15,000 circ. five days a week in those days) in a small town (about 20,000, if memory serves), and, indeed, by the time I landed at my next paper  — the then-60,000-circ Standard-Times of New Bedford — I was told my photo services were neither required nor, frankly, welcome. Devotees of the art will be happy to know that I never touched another shutter-release button in the line of duty. That’s why God invented the photo staff.

Now, some will argue the difference between the policy of the Times Record and the Standard-Times was simply one of size-related professionalism: the larger the paper, the greater the commitment to consistency and excellence in all phases of the game, including photography. And that’s undoubtedly true. Union restrictions also played a role at larger papers.

But it’s clear that larger papers created independent photo staffs in part because they had the money. Smaller papers such as the Times Record relied on reporters to shoot because they didn’t. And they made it work. In spite of my meager efforts, there was no uprising of readers demanding more consistently excellent photography in Brunswick. Now, with papers slowly choking on so-called “legacy costs” – expensive ways of doing business instituted when the industry threw off returns greater than 20 percent – its clear that a full-service, fully staffed photo operation is among them and needs rethinking. The small-paper method is, it seems to me, a better option than the Chicago-style meat ax.

And this trend certainly won’t be limited to photo staffs. The ultimate implications of Jay Rosen’s visionary thinking on the “networked beat” will seem unhappily clear to any reporter who takes the time to contemplate it. Here, too, smaller papers long ago discovered a means to keep reporting-staff headcount low: the town correspondent who covered quotidian affairs while full-time reporters were carefully husbanded for deployment on larger stories. This was, in fact, an early form of citizen journalism, and its implications in the present era are also clear.

Don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the photo staffs I’ve worked with and no desire to see former colleagues out of work. While we’re at it, I would be happier if newspapers could afford to keep their own presses running, maintain their grand old buildings, preserve their Sunday magazines and TV books and re-stock decimated reporting staffs. None of this is going to happen, and wishing it would isn’t a business model. But examining the industry’s pre-legacy past for solutions to its current dilemma may well be.