In firing all 28 members of its full-time photography staff, the Chicago Sun-Times is weakening the integrity of the newspaper, according to approximately 50 protesters who demonstrated against the layoffs in downtown Chicago Thursday.
Directing their message toward the company’s executives and chanting “shame on you,” some of the city’s most recognized photojournalists, including Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White, expressed their outrage and dismay during a press conference at the Thompson Center.
“We’re the heartbeat out there,” said White, 68, who worked at the Sun-Times as a photojournalist for 44 years. “We have this intrinsic connectedness with life, and as long as there are people, and people are always going to want to know the news, there will always be the visual. A lot of people can’t read or write, but everybody understands the language of a photograph.”
The May 30 layoffs have been attributed to increased reader demand for online video packages. The newspaper’s publisher, the Sun-Times Media Group, plans to replace the full-time photography staff with multimedia freelancers and reporters doubling as photographers and videographers.
“Maybe the Sun-Times should look up and examine where this is coming from,” White said. “They should realize the tree they’re cutting down is the tree that gave nutrition.”
Speaking to the crowd assembled for the photographers’ demonstration, an emotional White thanked his, and the entire staff’s, supporters:
The Chicago Newspaper Guild, which represents more than half of the fired photographers, including White, has asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to step in. The union filed unfair labor practice charges earlier this month, alleging the Sun-Times bargained in bad faith.
“All you have to do is look in the paper and see that journalists aren’t trained to be photographers,” said Craig Rosenbaum, executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild. “It diminishes the quality of the news when you have a reporter who also has to now shoot video and photos.”
Rosenbaum questioned how expedient the news would be delivered if photography, videography and reporting were reliant on one person’s abilities.
“Your competition that has two people doing all of that is going to beat you, it’s just common sense,” he said.
The Sun-Times, Chicago's oldest daily newspaper, said in a statement last month that the “business is changing rapidly” and that the newspaper “continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers.”
“As a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network,” the statement reads.
Here's more from Thursday's demonstration:
Many of the Sun-Times photographers face an uncertain future.
Photo assignment editor, Dom Najolia, 66, celebrated his 33rd anniversary with the newspaper less than one month before he was fired.
“I’ve been busy with the Illinois state unemployment paperwork and putting my resume together,” he said, adding that he is also represented by the Guild. “I’m looking for a job in my field.”
Najolia predicted the layoffs serve as one step in a broader movement toward “flipping the switch” against print and producing an all-digital publication.
“It might not be tomorrow, but it’ll happen eventually,” he said.
Investment group Wrapports LLC purchased the Sun-Times Media Group in 2011, indicating in a statement that the company intends to “deliver a true multi-media experience for our users — how they want it, where they want it, when they want it."
Saying Wrapports executives, CEO Timothy Knight and Board Chairman Michael Ferro, are only interested in “making a profit,” Najolia cited the Sun-Times’ $70 million annual contract with the Chicago Tribune for printing and distributing newspapers as “burdensome” for the company.
Meanwhile, average weekday digital subscriptions for the newspaper increased by 13 percent over the same time period.
Digital readership for nearly 600 U.S. newspapers climbed 30 percent during that time, according to the study, and as of March accounted for 19.3 percent of circulation. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal also experienced climbs in digital subscriptions while print sales fell.
Najolia said he and his fellow laid-off photographers could have stayed on board if the company switched to an all-digital publication. He added that good photography is “universal” and “digital or not, shouldn’t be undervalued.”
“This is a really sad time,” he said. “They’re cheapening the integrity of the craft and that’s what we all just do not understand.”