Sun-Times’ Photojournalism Strategy: Reporters With iPhones

Berlin, Pressefotografen bei der Arbeit

Hey, recently fired Chicago Sun-Times photographers — want some insult to go with that injury?

Too bad, because newspaper management revealed today the paper’s strategy for replacing the work of the 20 shooters about to hit the pavement: Reporters will squeeze off a few shots with their smartphone to accompany stories.

In a memo to reporters, editor Craig Newman promised: “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need.” Translated into Cheapskate, that means mandatory training in “iPhone photography basics.”


Reaction from actual photographers was swift. “The idea that freelancers and reporters could replace a photo staff with iPhones is idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best,” Chicago Tribune photographer Alex Garcia summarized on his blog.

Of course, there is a growing portfolio of real photojournalism accomplished via iPhone. But to expect it to happen routinely, and through reporters already under tremendous pressure to crank out column inches, seem like little more than magical thinking.


But to really understand how deeply insulting this idea must be to photojournalists, you need to have worked in a newsroom for a while and experienced how zealously photographers protect their turf. Reporters who offer to “grab a few shots” while researching a story have been guaranteed for decades to get little more than an icy stare and a lecture on “making” vs. “taking” photos.

BTW, favorite Facebook comment so far: “The next step for the Sun-Times will be to fire the reporters and let Siri do all the writing.”

(via Robert Feder via Poynter)

Image credits: Photographs by Bundesarchiv, Shoffman11, and Rhys Asplundh

  • 45SURF

    it’s sad to see this happening, but i feel that a lot of photographers could augment their value by shooting quality stills and video at the same time, like we do on every shoot: . it could save a lot of jobs and provide many new opportunities. :) we all need to be constantly innovating and improvising, taking advantage of the advancing technologies.

  • Mansgame

    You can’t tell me that a trained journalist with an iPhone will take a worse picture than a trained photographer in the 40’s.

  • chandra

    Why just iPhone? So many phones have great cameras now, albeit not the caliber of a DSLR.

  • ennuipoet

    Yes, all Robert Capa needed was an Iphone and he would be famous!

  • thingwarbler

    It’s not about the tool they’re given. It’s about the whole approach to getting a photo “while you’re there anyway writing the story” that’s so fundamentally flawed. It takes time to line up the right shot and experience to know what to look for. Sure, you’ll get the “good enough for grandma” shot, but just because you’re an amazing journalist and great with words, there’s no reason to assume or expect that you understand composition and timing and lighting and all the other things that need to come together to capture something worthwhile. and ironically I can see this new trend being a boon for those of us who actually work as photo journalists, since the “art” of real pictures and photo essays will be something sought after as a quality product.

  • Benoit Evans

    The Huffington post has already blazed the trail–the reporters and columnists are next.

    Real journalism (including photojournalism) is on the endangered species list. Soon, it will join poetry as a fondly remembered or for many, an unknown genre.

    Sic transit gloria mundi.

  • Alan Dove

    The reality of the modern newspaper business is that the investors are all that matters, and they don’t give a crap about context, nuance, or a duty to inform the public. Cutting 20 photographers’ jobs gooses the bottom line this quarter and lets a few more accountants keep theirs.

  • bill benson

    Every journalism graduate gets a free flickr account with their diploma. Awesome!!

  • Steve Oakley

    This is nothing so new. TVS have gone from 3-4 person crew of reporter, camera, audio, ( and producer for nationals ) to the reporter with palmcorder shooting their own stories and even editing them. well the best way to kill your product is to reduce its quality. cutting costs of essential things like skilled workers for unskilled or not skilled at a particular task, asking people to double up on their job duties is a sure sign of major financial problems. if you want more revenue, you need a produce a product people want…. rather than cutting corners and going lower.

  • 35FOV

    Simultaneously shooting stills and video of the same event and delivering consistent professional output is extremely challenging. Can you drive a bus and a train at the same time?

  • gochugogi

    The iPhone will be tough for low light and action reporting like sports and people walking…

  • Stephen Benson

    “let Siri do all the writing”? I thought they let government and corporate press officers do that…

  • Michael D

    Photographers on the web are treating this story as the collapse of photojournalism, but I think we will soon enough come to see that it is really a story about the collapse of the Sun-Times, indicating not a lack of interest in good photography, but rather peoples’ lack of interest in supporting bad newspapers.

  • chandra

    My post was more towards the focus of media/companies on one brand (or specifically, the American obsession with iPhones). Does the Sun-Times expect everyone has iPhones or if someone has a Lumia, or HTC, or Galaxy, will they “train and outfit” people for that as well? I am honestly unfamiliar with how they operate, whether they issue the equipment or not. Even the “iPhone photojournalism” infographic linked in the article bounces around between specifying iPhones and “smartphones”, so which is it? Why not just say “smartphone” instead of only iPhone? I guess that confuses me and brings to mind a rant a few years back by Ian Mackaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat) against the American penchant for throwing around brand names as a catchall (at the time it was the iPod he was specifically calling out).

    It just struck me because a few of my friends who make their living from photography don’t use iPhones, I’d even go as far to say I have seen a distinct shift away from iPhone as the OS ages and stagnates while competitors like Nokia, Samsung, and HTC have made huge strides in improving hardware as well as software (and to stay relevant to the subject, boast arguably better cameras and camera apps, for phones). As for the article subject itself and photojournalism, I agree with you on those salient points.

  • Michael D

    There’s another problem, as well, and that is that for literally decades the main barrier to becoming a photographer was technical. A huge number of people who were able to make a living in photography were, in fact, awful photographers, but had mastered the technology, so they got the jobs. This also applies to journalism. I don’t know that the reporters with their iPhones will necessarily be worse photographers than many of the people who now hold photographer jobs on newspapers.

    I wonder where the unions are in all this.

  • b

    It does make it a lot harder, and both often suffer from the multitasking. But, we have to keep in mind that some of these people already were shooting video.

  • nope

    I don’t think they’re going to be relying solely on iPhone shots though. They’ve admitted they’ll use freelancers, and every J-school student in the last 5 or 6 years has had it hammered into their brain that they also need to be able to shoot competently. My guess would be that the bulk of younger reporters carry something more than just a phone camera.

    The real problem is that when people are asked to perform multiple tasks like this in a high pressure environment, where each task requires a different part of the brain, different locational awareness, different people skills… different questions altogether – everything is going to suffer.

  • nope

    And that’s the REAL problem here. Not technology, crappy management, or distracted audiences – it’s about operating news solely as a profit center beholden to shareholders instead of a public service (that could also turn a profit).

  • Antonio Carrasco

    Bus drivers could augment their income by also becoming mechanics too!

    Technology is wonderful… Instead of simplifying our lives, we have to work twice as hard for half as much money!

  • Johnny Ranger McCoy

    Well I agree that artists should get a share of the $1 billion that tumblr was sold for, but most artists rage against DRM systems. Also, shooting stills and video @ the same time is not necessarily twice the amount of work, especially with today’s cameras with auto-focus, focus-tracking, and face detection. The technology allows one to accomplish far more if used wisely. “Surfing Moore’s Law: Waste the Abundant and Conserve The Precious and Rare.

    The fundamental philosophy driving the simultaneous capture of stills and video is driven by Moore’s Law—the same principle governing the exponential advancement of the Internet and digital media technologies which have afforded us inexpensive cameras alongside free and immediate global distribution. As the power of cameras and computers augments while their prices decline, so too does the power of storage media—hard drives and memory cards—plummet as their power increases. Feature films and TV shows are being shot on $2,000 cameras, while footage from the $200 GoPro HD Hero is being used in major movies and Madison Avenue advertisements alike. Run the numbers, and with time as scarce as ever and the importance of video in a world where YouTube is the second-largest search engine, it makes sense to set up one or several HD cameras for a shoot, mounting one on the stills-dedicated DSLR for the unique “first-person-shooter” perspective. “Shoot it all first,” as it costs the same, and “edit it down later” suggest a new philosophy for visual artists. And as weddings, sunset swimsuit shoots, and sporting events happen but once, you cannot return to shoot the video. You can’t ask the bride to walk down the aisle again, or ask Kelly Slater to re-land an aerial off a wave that is now gone forever. All of this calls us to adventure—to develop a strategy for capturing stills and video at the same time.”

  • Rabi Abonour

    The paper isn’t moving 100% to iPhone. They’ll hire freelancers for important assignments/ones that absolutely need pros, but have normal daily stuff taken care of by reporters. For pro sports they will probably pull wire images, and for prep sports they’ll find cheap local shooters.

  • Rabi Abonour

    My experience at newspapers is that it’s very unusual for any reporter to carry a “real” camera. Employers encourage iPhone use because it allows photo and video to be uploaded to the web (or at least sent back to the newsroom) right away.

    You’re right that they aren’t going to be relying solely on iPhone images, but that is because they will pick up wire photos and hire freelancers. Given patterns in the industry and the training memo sent to reporters, I don’t think there is a plan to give DSLRs to writers.

  • Rabi Abonour

    My guess is, if it hasn’t already, the Sun-Times will take the money it saved by firing 30 people and outfit all its reporters with iPhones. That is not uncommon in the industry.

  • John C.

    Maybe you could work for the Sun Times considering your poor grammar and spelling. Your point was lost.