Not So Sunny Times

by Kai-Huei Yau

I’ve been staring at this page for a while now and it’s still white as my rage after the Sun-Times laid off its photo staff last week, so I’m going to plagiarize myself to kick things off with an intro that’s just as appropriate here.

When you work for a newspaper, people aren’t the least bit bashful to tell you that you and your organization aren’t worth the toilet paper that could have been made from the 40,000-odd copies we distribute daily. Somebody will tell you one day that that you’re too conservative and another will lambaste you the next for being too liberal. They laugh and call you the Tricycle Herald for printing too many fluffy features and then write in to complain that you’re always focusing on the negative in the community. There’s a couple grammatical errors in a couple thousand inches of text? Clearly, we have monkeys editing copy.

It’s an easy target, and one that seems to bind people in many communities. I remember a friend in college rolling his eyes about the student paper I worked for, sardonically saying, “Yeah, like the (student paper) is quality journalism…”

There’s even a Twitter feed mocking stories in the New York Times.

In a way, these sometimes unreasonable expectations speak to the importance people place on their local newspaper. It should be better, shedding light on shadowy malfeasance, helping you explore your community and providing a voice for those who need one while serving as a historical record.

When people have criticized my paper, I’ve usually defended it; not as a mindless cheerleader, but by explaining things from my perspective. We’re far from perfect, but there are limitations to producing a newspaper every day with a newsroom that’s less than half of what it was five years ago. On the photo staff, we juggle shooting still images with video responsibilities and sending images back from breaking news. Reporters are sometimes writing three stories a day, filing public records requests, sifting though hundreds of requests for attention, awaiting phone calls and sitting through city council meetings. Stories that used to go through several rounds of editing have to suffice with one most of the time. The daily grind feeds not only tomorrow’s edition, but the editors need to plan for the weekend and upcoming holiday weekends when the skeleton crew is reduced to marrow.

Even content off the wire needs to be selected based on the day’s news and space available. The stories are edited for length and appended with local information when possible. They need to fit amid advertisements and alongside photographs that have to be adjusted for the Yakima Herald-Republic’s press, where our paper is printed.

As Murphy’s Law dictates, newsy days are crammed into unusually few pages while inexplicably gaping news holes loom on the sleepiest of slow days, making way for cute kid feature photos and other eye-rolling content. It’s a crazy process to put out a paper every day and the pressure of nonstop deadlines is both thrilling and crushing — especially when somebody points to one silly typo as evidence of you and your colleagues’ collective incompetence.

There’s a lot I wish we could do better, and while I’ve also been openly critical of how we do things, my paper and my industry has been my community. But when Sun-Times Media wholly removed its papers’ photo departments in favor of freelancers and iPhone photos and videos from reporters, my loyalties to the photojournalism community made me finally identify with the curmudgeonly ex-pats of this profession who left when this downward spiral was making gradual sweeping loops instead of plunging sharply toward the point of the corkscrew.

Alex Garcia articulates why the move is stupid much better than I can and the fact that he works for rival Chicago Tribune speaks to how tight-knit the photojournalism community is. Fellow Tribune photojournalist Scott Strazzante also shares his thoughts on the newsroom bloodletting, and the general consensus in the photo world has been mocking derision, with images like these spreading quickly on social media:

The lone dissenter from the tribe that I found was Ken Rockwell who saw the layoffs as inevitable. I couldn’t find a permalink to his post that includes this excerpt, but you can find it here if you scroll down to Friday, May 31, on his site:

The Chicago Sun-Times supposedly has gotten with the program and gotten rid of its photography staff. It will instead use freelancers, who I presume will do a better job faster and for less money. By freelancers, I presume that means not only people with video DSLRs, but also everyone who grabbed video on their iPhone as an event happened. By better job, I mean not what a college journalism professor would define as quality, but what the majority of the stupider public wants to see.

I have no familiarity with the specifics, but no one needs print newspapers or still photos anymore for news…

…Today, we no longer need “photographers” for news. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has an iPhone, and when news happens, the people who are part of the news already have the story. It makes no sense to send out a captive news crew when there are already people there with the pictures and live video — who will let those photos be used for a lot less money than paying a captive news crew. In the old days, news photos were still shots of the aftermath, taken whenever photographers arrived after hearing about it on the scanner. Today, the general public can capture whatever crazy things happen, as they are happening. Want to see a tsunami destroy Solana Beach? You’ll get it live from the 7-year old on his bike, not from some guy wearing a fedora with a PRESS pass in his hatband arriving 15 minutes after there’s nothing left. A blurry, jittery video of the wall breaking down is far better than a sharp shot of the wall 10 minutes later when a real photographer arrives. Did Capra’s (sic) shot of Omaha Beach have to be sharp? Of course not; being there is what counted, and an iPhone photo today wouldn’t have gotten screwed up the way his film did.

This, of course, stirred up an already angry and sensitive photojournalist crowd, especially in the wake of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s comment that there’s no such thing as a professional photographer anymore. And while I was certainly among the seething masses after reading Rockwell’s piece, his closing line rings depressingly true:

Quality journalism isn’t what counts commercially; it’s all about readership and profits.

For the first time, I find myself rooting for a publication to fail and fall hard. Early returns on reporters snapping phone pics for stories aren’t good and the Sun-Times brass’ claims that they’re focusing on online videos moving forward rings false in this side-by-side with the Tribune’s coverage of a rally on Tuesday and the firing of Jon Sall, head of the video department, back in March.

Things seemed bleak when I wrote this piece a couple years ago, and though I’ve always thought things in the industry will get worse before they get better, somehow I never thought it would come to this. The affected photojournalists seem to be taking the news as well as possible, with Rob Hart taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to his next steps by documenting them with his iPhone and Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White speaking with Howard Kurtz on CNN with a surprising amount of positivity.

There’s an undoubted need for local news to keep elected officials accountable and to serve as a credible source of information. My optimistic side hopes the Sun-Times falls flat on its face and helps bolster the value of professional photojournalists in local news while the little guy on my other shoulder cackles at the growing fire that’s consuming the talented and passionate people in this industry to allow those on top to squeeze as much money out of this mess before the whole thing comes down.

Neither is a good outcome, and here’s hoping this is that cliché darkest moment before the dawn.

 

UPDATED LINKS:

Stephen Colbert put his irreverent stamp on the situation.

Sign an online petition against the decision.

And The Daily Dot has a great interview with the aforementioned Tumblr iPhone chronicler Rob Hart. I can identify with his bracing for layoffs at all times. I’ve always assumed the same thing since being hired on in 2008. I’ve likened my entrance into the industry to being born into a zombie apocalypse, where bad news is expected news. If I were to frame the Sun-Times move in this analogy, the leader of a plucky band of survivors just sacrificed their best marksmen to arm untrained shooters with BB guns.

Hart also photographed a rally of about 100 people who picketed the Sun-Times office on Friday. That’s got to be cathartic.

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Kai-Huei Yau

Kai-Huei Yau

Kai-Huei Yau was a photojournalist at the Tri-City Herald for six years and recently moved west to be a communications specialist at Vertafore in Bothell. He's thrilled to live next to a great fried chicken joint, a good spot for pho and to put his journalism skills to work in a new way.

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