An open letter to all newspaper publishers and CEO’s

By Jim Colton

Technology has changed. We get that. Advancements in photography have now made it easier for anyone to take quality pictures. We get that too. But how we embrace these changes is what separates us from average and excellent.

The recent layoffs of the entire photography departments at the Chicago Sun-Times and now the closing of the photography departments at five newspapers and two weeklies in the Southern Community Newspapers Inc. (SCNI) in Georgia, has sent out a dangerous message. What those two entities (and anyone else considering doing the same) are saying to their loyal readers is that they are setting their visual bar to a level of mediocrity.

Fact: Everyone reads a newspaper or magazine the same way. The first thing they look at is the picture….then the headline…then the caption and then subheads, etc., before they decide whether they want to continue reading the article. If the image doesn’t capture their attention, there is a very good possibility they will skip over the article no matter how well it’s written.

So by eliminating the department that supplied those images, you have accepted the reality that you now consider your newspaper to be one that is “serviceable,” and nothing more. You are satisfied to publish average photographs and provide your readers with average content. If that’s the case, then change your mission statements to reflect that.

SCNI Chief Executive Michael Gebhart stated, “Journalists need to write, shoot video, post on the Internet and edit. The technological advances in the world of digital photography made this strategic move logical. How many photographers need dark room skills to develop film and make prints?” Excuse me? Developing film in the darkroom? What century are you living in? That’s like saying, “How many writers still use typewriters? When we went to word processors did we consider eliminating the writers? No! It’s not the tool; it’s how you use the tool.

The economy is still bad. We get that. Cuts have to be made. We get that too. But let’s be realistic about what we cut and how we go about embracing these changes to better the quality of journalism we are producing rather than slashing and burning without thinking about the consequence. By eliminating the photography staff of a newspaper, you have eliminated the professionals who know what a good image is and know how to produce them….especially on a local level…and isn’t that the audience you are trying to serve?

Suggestion: Look elsewhere within your structure….perhaps your national and international budgets. Does it make sense to send a correspondent or writer out of state or out of the country to file their stories anymore? I’m sure there are “serviceable” stories filed by the wires, who probably have a better handle on them anyway as they were on scene. And I’m sure most of the local community picking up your newspaper isn’t going to know, nor appreciate, the difference in bylines.

Put your emphasis on the local community you serve! That’s where your staff photographers (and writers) need to be their best….providing both visual and textual information that your readers want and pay for. Training your reporters to shoot iPhone images is not the answer. No more than asking the photographers to file your stories. There is a need for professional images and exclusive content that raises the level of your bar to excellent…not average.

The Chicago Sun-Times statement after laying off their entire photography staff read in part: “Today, The Chicago Sun-Times has had to make the very difficult decision to eliminate the position of full-time photographer, as part of a multimedia staffing restructure.” Noting that, “the business is changing rapidly” and audiences are “seeking more video content with their news.”

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to retrain or restructure what the staff photographer’s responsibilities would be to satisfy those rapid changes? Doesn’t it make sense to start with someone who has a professional understanding of photography rather than training writers and reporters who have none? I’m sure the photography staff would have embraced these changes and happily restructured what they do to meet the newspaper’s new needs. 

The local staff photographer has more than just industry knowledge. Sun-Times photographer John H. White had over thirty years of local knowledge and contacts in the community and dedicated most of his professional life to serving that community and the Sun-Times. When they cut him and their entire staff, they cut out the heart and soul of the newspaper’s visual voice.

So here’s the rub publishers and CEO’s. If you are happy with average…continue down that road to mediocrity. When it comes time for recognition of your newspaper by the Pulitzer committee and others, you won’t even be on their radar. But perhaps more important, you have done an incredible injustice to the community you serve. Your loyal readers know the difference between average and excellent. They deserve better!