Chicago Sun-Times Concessions are Not a Victory for Photographers


News broke yesterday that four of the photographers fired in last May’s mass-layoff instituted at the Chicago Sun-Times may soon be rehired, while others will see restitution payments, thanks to a new agreement reached by the Chicago Newspaper Guild. Under the agreement, four photographers would get their jobs back and some of the rest will see one-time payments of $2,000.

Some may be inclined to call that a victory for photojournalism, at least a small one, but they should reconsider.

When the Chicago Sun-Times obliterated their photo department earlier this year, the personal losses experienced by that talented group of 28 people were not what ignited a firestorm of controversy. If anything, their experience was sadly common: 43% of photojournalism jobs at American newspapers have disappeared since 2000, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that this decade will see a further 30% decline in employment for photojournalists.


No, the Chicago Sun-Times earned national attention because their actions became a symbol for the endemic devaluation of the contributions of staff photographers in print journalism. Onlookers responded with outrage when the Sun-Times promised that they’d easily be able to replace their award-winning team with freelancers and iPhone-equipped reporters.

They showed a profound lack of regard for the contributions made to their paper — and to journalism as a whole — by professional photographers. And that lack of appreciation hasn’t changed.

Four jobs out of 28, less than 15%, is obviously a small redress. And a $2,000 check hardly makes up for a lost job, especially considering that offer will probably only be extended to the 17 photographers represented by the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and not the remaining 11. But the meagerness of the reparations made to the photographers is only the tip of the iceberg.

Consider, for example, the role which the “lucky” four photographers will be returning to. Far from a return to normalcy, their new jobs will be more heavily focused on producing videos. What’s more, Sun Times Media, the owner of the Chicago Sun-Times as well as numerous other smaller newspapers, has only agreed to offer four positions in their media network, meaning that they may or may not be at the Chicago Sun-Times.

On top of that, it’s important to consider the offer in context. Sun Times isn’t offering money and jobs out of guilt, or even in direct response to controversy over the previous firings. Instead, the rehiring is a portion of a much larger deal reached between the company and the Chicago Newspaper Guild that also affects 130 other staff members.


What’s more, the photographers who may receive the one-time payment aren’t getting a free lunch. Instead they’ll need to agree to waive any and all future legal claims against Sun Times Media. As a portion of the deal struck by the union, the suit brought against the company on behalf of the photographers has already been dropped.

In short, Sun Times Media hasn’t acknowledged any error in their actions, or changed their stance on photojournalism. They made a small concession in union negotiation and bought their way out of millions in legal fees for pennies. Meanwhile, a small proportion of their former photo staff will get to go back to work (somewhere at least) without their friends and colleagues. And even then, the contract that will keep them employed will only last for three years.

Don’t misunderstand though, this isn’t a story of big business taking advantage of the little guy. It’s a story of publishers struggling to make print journalism competitive and profitable in the 21st century. Sun Times is certainly guilty of a lack of tact, and arguably a lack of foresight, but probably not malice.

The sad story of the Chicago Sun-Times’ photography department is best described as an ominous sign of where photojournalism is heading: fewer staff photographers with job security, more crowdsourced content and freelancing.

It’s too soon to predict how the marketplace will look in a decade, but one thing is for sure: even though four talented photojournalists will soon be going back to work in Chicago, that’s small reason to celebrate.

Image credit: Chicago Sun-Times by TheeErin, welcome to the Chicago Sun-Times by mod as hell and penny-pincher by theilr

  • John Goldsmith

    It’s a business. Media is a business. A big business.

    The corporation’s responsibility is to inform shareholders – not society. Aside from a few news organizations, mostly smaller low budgeted ones, that’s pretty much all the news that fits. It’s sad for photographers but even worse for the 99%.

  • istreetshooter

    it raises the question of whether or not we should trust these corporations to filter the news for us. If they can’t understand what photojournalists can communicate to the public through their expertise (news value, aesthetics, legal and ethical understanding), how can we trust these corporations to explain wars, famine, climate change…?

  • Charmagne Elliott

    It floors me that a union that is supposed to represent the best interest of its
    membership actually approved this POS contract that benefits only the company.

    First, it permanently lowered salaries by 15 to 20%. There is no longer a chance of
    reversing that huge hit. The cut has become your salary.

    There is the implication that seniority rights will be restored, but then it goes on to
    say, “…employee laid off out of reverse order of seniority gets an additional 1
    week per every 6 months.” Double-speak anyone?

    “Reporters/columnists will not be eliminated as a result of outsourcing….” How about copy editors, designers, and photographers? Aren’t they members of the same union?

    “Photographers not returning will receive a lump sum of $2000 if they waive all legal claims.” Guys, if you take that $2,000 instead of ganging up for a class action suit,
    you need your heads examined. See a SHARK OF A LAWYER.

    I don’t know who’s worse, the company or the union, but this is the worst
    contract I’ve ever seen.

  • junyo

    Newspapers were never in the journalism business. They were in the classified ads business, with journalism as value add. So it’s not for corporations to understand what photojournalists ‘communicate to the public through their expertise’, it’s for photojournalists to demonstrate what value they add in a world of plummeting circulation and 24 hour video news, and the ubiquity of decent quality image/video capture devices. It’s a job, not a holy calling.

    It anyone ever really thought that newspapers were in the informing the public business, and on that basis trusted them to ‘explain’ the world to them, they deserve the ignorance they got.

  • istreetshooter

    You can’t look at newspapers as a monolithic block, especially over time. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, was established to counter poor journalism. Many small-town, locally-owned papers have cared greatly about their communities. They may have become the minority thanks to the Thomsons, Gannetts of the industry, but they have existed. Yes, they needed profit to exist, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a passion for journalism. I worked for some different newspapers, and the differences were quite obvious in the experiences. Unfortunately, I currently reside in a place where bad things are happening to good people in journalism.

  • Sascha

    Wow! $2000!

  • Charmagne Elliott

    Yeah, it’s akin to throwing crumbs to the pigeons. And mark my words, that’s what the brain trust investors think of anyone who can’t steal, ie, those who make an honest living.

  • Charmagne Elliott

    And I think the journalists and photojournalists have demonstrated that well by winning a multitude of prizes, including Pulitizers. But, you have to have some intelligence to understand the significance. Those of you with ledger sheet minds will never understand and will always fail, bringing potentially successful businesses with you. MBA’s are the biggest sluts in the universe.

  • junyo

    But how many of those small town papers staff large dedicated photography departments? And most of the newspapers do/have either no longer exist or are the big corporate ones because only the big corporate ones have the pockets to even think about non-profit center overhead. The people in the newsroom might have a passion for journalism, that’s their job, but they also have to understand where the fit into the entity as a whole. And it’s not their passion that ultimately pays their salaries or benefits (or the salaries of the guy that runs the printing presses, or the guys that delivers the paper) it’s ad sales and pages clicks that do.

  • junyo

    And you’d had to have a basic understanding of math to grasp that Pulitzers don’t keep the lights on. Go pay the guy filling the newsstands with a Pulitzer. Ask the guy supplying you with paper stock or web hosting if he’ll take an award for his product or service. Tell me how well that works. Tell me how many new subscriptions some shiny journalism prize is worth. Artists want to act like they’re some scared priesthood, above petty commerce, except they don’t want to work for free either. In the real world, if you can’t demonstrate the value proposition you represent to your boss/customer, you don’t get paid.

    And the hilarious thing is Pulitzer made his money largely off of sensationalized yellow journalism – he basically created the ad supported newspaper business model- but because he dumped a bunch of the cash on journalists, his name is now the paragon of quality reporting. ‘Well of course they have value they’ve won a Pulitzer! Nobody under the age of 50 reads the paper, and they’re not attracting new readers, but these guys deserve to get paid, because they’ve won Pulitzers! Harrumph!’

  • istreetshooter

    I am not arguing with you on that. I am suggesting there are better models of journalism out there, so maybe the future lies in reproducing more of the he best models. Papers like the Sun-Times may fail because of a lack of vision.

  • junyo

    That I’d agree with. There’s just a limited market in this day and age for a traditional big city newspaper business model. I’ve been backing some of the crowd funded reportage on Kickstarter, which is an interesting alternative; direct to reporter funding of long form projects.

  • Realist

    Unions are not there to secure a hefty pay rise every couple of years unless the business their members are operating in is seeing an equally hefty profit increase. Unions are there to negotiate the best possible deal on behalf of their members as a unified group. If The business model is failing and the employer can show dwindling profits, then unions negotiate for whatever they can get, which it seems in this case was a choice between ‘nothing at all’ or what they have now been offered.

    Many newspapers are operating on philanthropic donations(often with political or idealistic strings attached) or trust funds. These funds are drying up due to the fact that advertising revenue is not what it used to be.

    Any union worth their salt knows that when the employer is facing the prospect of extinction, arguing for top dollar or taking legal action to prevent lay-offs usually speeds this process up dramatically, often the business will be broken off from any profitable arms and declared insolvent immediately. Meaning nobody gets anything, except of course the Lawyers, who always get rich regardless of the mess they make.

    It may not look that way to you, but the unions have salvaged something out of nothing, which equates to a small win.

  • Richard Ford

    Why they don’t just form a collective or start their own photo press business if they feel there is public demand fort it? Why limit yourself to what someone else thinks or wants to do? Hardly the pioneering American spirit that put men on the moon and went west of the rockies……..unions have a lot to answer for – for dumbing down people’s aspirations of themselves and limiting their true potential.

  • Sascha

    Compare that to the compensation a CEO that nearly ruined a company get’s for just leaving…

  • Charmagne Elliott

    And you’d have to have an elementary understanding of business to understand that profit is not something you steal from the pockets of your employees.You earn profit by creating a demand for your product. DUH! How hard is that to understand?
    My father was in business for years. He produced a product people wanted. When he made profit, MOST of that money went back into the business, including the hiring of more quality people. The money did NOT go into his pocket. And when hard times came, he discovered ways to make his business more attractive.
    The problem is NOT the reporters or photographers, who do produce a quality product (judging by the awards), but the CEOs and investors who equate flash and sparkles with success. They produce an inferior product. And instead of studying ways to improve what they offer, they steal from their employees.
    You’re just another idiot who thinks greed is good. Sorry, Bud, but Ferro and his posse of clowns are the spoiled heirs of money who think the world owes them money simply because they exist. The Sun-Times stinks because of their lack of understanding of the basic tenets of business.

  • junyo

    Curious, you didn’t address a single question in your response, just histronics and insults.

    The Sun-Times circulation numbers are up over the last 6 months. They’re doing better, over the same time period, in a shrinking market, that the Tribune, with it’s highly valuable photography staff. So if the Sun Times photographers were so vital to the business of the newpaper (as opposed to a make work program for photographers) how could that happen?

    I’m sure your dad never fired anyone, and retained staff that in his business that didn’t contribute to putting food on the table, and made you go hungry and shiver in an unheated house and put cardboard in your shoes to patch holes rather than pay a random employee a dime less than he possibly could. All of your ad homs aside, you don’t seem to grasp that company’s service their employees by staying viable, not by functioning as a piggybank for artists. In turn, employees demonstrate their value by showing what they contribute to that viability.

  • Charmagne Elliott

    I don’t know who you are, but I do know that you have a very warped idea about how human beings should be treated. It wouldn’t surprise me if you were one of Ferro’s bums. At least the “coddled artists” have some talent. All Ferro and his gang of MBA thugs has is Daddy’s money. Piggybank for artists? Wow. Pitiful man you are.

  • Charmagne Elliott

    Photographers: My advice to you is to throw their chickenfeed back in their faces and find a lawyer who served them with a class action suit that’ll wipe the arrogant smirks off their smug faces. Good luck.

  • Charmagne Elliott

    And one more thing, I don’t take anonymous cartoon people seriously. If you’d actually like to put your name to your words, it may mean something otherwise, you’re nothing.