Quality at risk as some U.S. newspapers slash photo staffs

As newspaper sales continue to erode, newsrooms are looking for any and all cost-cutting options including the eradication of staff photojournalists in favour of freelance work and pictures from reporters.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 8, 2013

The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York, recently laid off all four of its photo staff effectively wiping out its entire photo department. The paper suggested they were “going in a different direction.”

The move is similar to one the Chicago Sun-Times made in late May when it laid off its entire photography staff of 28, including Pulitzer Prize winner John White, stating that it was shifting towards online video. The newsroom said it would rely on freelance photographers and reporters to take photographs with smart phones. The next day Robert Feder, media writer at the Sun-Times annouced via Facebook, that they would begin training their remaining staff on “iPhone photography basics.”

The elimination of an entire photo staff is shocking, but it is not an entirely novel concept. In 2008, Newsday fired its 20 person photography staff and allowed them to reapply for “visual journalists” jobs. The Atlantic Journal-Constitution had planned to cut its 10 person staff in half by 1 November but will instead teach its photographers to become “multimedia visual journalists.”

The question arises if this is going to become the new normal. An article by Lou Carzolo on the NetNewsCheck website this week questioned whether photojournalists are becoming a “digital casualty,” and if professional photojournalists are a luxury newspapers can no longer afford.

The digital age has made it possible for any average citizen to consider themselves photographers, armed with an iPhone and a simple filter application, basic, decent photos can be produced. The term “citizen journalist” has gained some prevalence in the field, and CNN also decided to layoff many of its staff photojournalists in favour of the cheaper alternative iReport.

Newsrooms continue to face difficult financial times and newspapers are looking to cut-costs at any means; this commonly leads to news outlets wanting their journalists to be multi-platform reporters able to write and shoot photo and video. But, many people believe that this all-form journalism leads to a lower quality product. Photojournalists argue that it take a certain skill-set to compose a good quality photo. There is even a tumblr account dedicated to highlighting the differences in quality photos after the mass firing at the Sun-Times.

A similar trend has happened in the past few years as many publishers downsize copy editing desks: Cox Media Group consolidated copy desks affecting four newspapers and GateHouse Media is closing its two centralised copy desks (one in Illinois, the other in Massachusettes), which opened in 2012, to form a single new one in Texas. Papers such as the Denver-Post are working to eliminate all copy editiors and the Chicago Tribune has taken on the responsibility of proofreading the Hartford Courant. Reporters are thusly being asked to edit their own stories, among other tasks.

It remains to be seen if the field of photojournalism will be cast away as more publications strapped for cash turn to online content and iPhone contributions. Many defenders of photojournalism refuse to accept this fate and as Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel at the National Press Photographers Association told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon earlier this year:  “I think once again you may end up getting what you pay for.”

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