Reporters face unreasonable expectations after Sun-Times photo layoffs

By Andrew Gibson
There's a long list of reasons why the Chicago Sun-Times will likely suffer from laying off its entire photo staff. It won't have the varying perspectives that come from visual-first journalists. Morale in the newsroom will surely drop. And it won't have the crew that's come to learn the nuances of the city after years of experience. Look no further than John H. White, the 35-year Sun-Times veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner selected by the Environmental Protection Agency to photograph Chicago's African-American community in the 1970s.

But there's another problem: Quality inevitably suffers when journalists are forced to multitask on daily deadlines. And that's exactly what the Sun-Times is asking its reporters to do: be responsible, along with freelance photojournalists, for shooting professional-caliber photos when they're on assignment.

As a business-reporting intern at The Colorado Springs Gazette last summer, I was often tasked with shooting my own pictures. I welcomed the challenge and am proud of many of the results -- but while covering events, I faced a trade-off: If I set down my notebook to take pictures, will I miss the perfect quote? If I'm listening intently during an interview, will I miss a photo opportunity?

I can't speak for reporters at the Sun-Times. Surely their years of experience have taught them how to quickly alternate among tasks. But to expect reporters to deliver photos with quality comparable to that of dedicated photojournalists -- while simultaneously doing thorough reporting? That might be reasonable if their deadline allowed them to return multiple times and tackle each task independently. But in the more-common life of daily deadlines, it's not. You need a trained professional focused on each task to guarantee quality. (added to explicate what I mean by multitask: it's possible when you have time -- but a different story when you're working on daily deadlines)

Now, hear me out: I'm all in favor of reporters taking pictures in the field. Social media has almost made it a requirement for them to do so. But I think many of those journalists would agree what they post on Instagram isn't A1 material. Even if the Sun-Times' mandatory iPhone-photography training does wonders, the reporters will need time to catch up.

I'm also a huge advocate of journalists having diverse skill sets. Heck, my Convergence major at the Missouri School of Journalism has taught me how to tell stories with text, video, audio, photos and graphics. If an editor needed me to go shoot a video package on a wildfire, I'm confident I could. If an editor needed me to gather news for a print story on the fire, same thing. But doing both within the same few hours? I'd have to decide what to leave out of each.

In this age of news-industry downsizing, journalists should have the skills to do almost everything. But they shouldn't have to do everything, every day, at the same time. Sun-Times reporters are going to get a taste of that.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Liren Chen

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