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Do newspapers 'deserve' to die? Not so fast

Andy Ihnatko | June 11, 2013
Though I write stories about technology for the Chicago Sun-Times, I have no inside information about the thinking behind the Sun-Times' decision to cut its photography staff. What I have to say about this move is only informed by my observations about the modern realities of print publishing, and could apply to any great city paper with a long and proud history.

Which is sincerely upsetting.

But think of it this way: would you be upset if a newspaper fired its photography staff, but hired on more reporters so that the paper could deepen its coverage of topics that affect the people of its community?

What if it fired photographers, but hired more web developers, and gave that department extra resources?

It comes down to a tough question: how can newspaper editors continue to develop valuable content, and maintain their social contracts with their communities, using the declining resources that are available to them? Judging from its actions, the Sun-Times clearly believes that a full-time staff of photographers is no longer part of that answer.

It might sound like I'm defending what the management of the Sun-Times did. I'm not. Like all fans of the Sun-Times, I can only hope that they're doing the right thing. The paper's managing editor, Craig Newman, has long been my editor and a pal, and he's one of the last people I imagine capable of making thoughtless moves or allowing a whole department to be eliminated solely to cut costs.

I should also note that I'm a freelancer who works for several different publishers. Though I'm proud of my relationship with the Sun-Times and I'd like to see it go on for another 13 years, I'm not solely dependent upon the paper for my income.

Maybe that also provides me with a little distance. If they fired their photography staff because they don't believe those creators fit into the Sun-Times' vision of the future, then the the decision itself is hard to argue with, despite how upset I might get about so many people losing their jobs. I can't fault the Sun-Times any more than I would fault Steve Jobs for firing the engineers who worked on the many projects that he didn't believe in, after he returned to Apple as CEO.

If the Sun-Times fired 28 photographers for some lesser reason? Then, sure... let's go ahead and fault that decision.

I held off on writing about this because I really didn't know what to think--apart from "All of the photographers? The Sun-Times thinks it doesn't need a single photographer on staff? Honestly?"--and I hoped that I'd eventually have some kind of breakthrough. No such luck, as yet.

I can easily imagine what my late friend Roger Ebert would have said about the firings of all of those photographers. He was a passionate advocate of both Labor with a capital L and his beloved Sun-Times. I think he would have seen this as a slap in the face to both.

I would have valued his opinion and our discussion. I don't value the opinions of people who see this as the move of an organization that deserves to die.


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