This Might Even Work: When Photographers Are Replaced With iPhones

Chicago’s Sun-Times recently laid off its entire staff of 28 full-time photographers to replace them with iPhones. Seriously. According to a Sun-Times memo “reporters begin mandatory training on iPhone photography basics following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. 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.” Bang!

This change of policy was not left without eager debate on the Net. Still, there are a few silver lining to this: 28 (!) photographers were given the news. How can a not major newspaper in this day and age afford 28 full-time photographers. Honestly, they were probably the last of their kind and should call themselves lucky that a newspaper kept on paying them for so long.

With the ascent of digital photography the jobs of journalist and photographer are also rapidly changing.
With the ascent of digital photography the jobs of journalist and photographer are also rapidly changing.
Furthermore, the proof is in the pudding. No one claims that the image quality of an iPhone is on par with a DSLR or compact system camera.

For zoom shots, tabloid work and sports the Sun-Times will use (cheaper) stringers. But hey for the everyday publishing business the iPhone can do!

The Sun-Times’ intention is, as outlined by its managing editor Craig Newman, that all editorial employees are to be trained and outfitted as much as possible to produce the content the paper needs:

  • iPhone photography basics
  • Video and basic editing
  • Transmission and social media

Now that’s a newspaper publisher’s dream come true: each and every editor triples as a writer, photographer and videographer.

Please note: to be a journalist these days, you have to be able to do three jobs…

Says the paper:

The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.

Words many other papers would want to say, but they’re not there yet. Experiments are needed in the newspaper business, someone needs to do something to change the cost base in the face of falling circulation and revenues.

But what in the likely case if the delivered iPhone image quality is not on par with expectations? Well there’s always Photoshop.

And breaking news?

“Real” camera or not, every professional photographer today should be able to transmit photos immediately in case of breaking news or approaching deadlines. So there goes another argument against the iPhone.

Truth is as well that iPhoneography has made pretty solid inroads into serious photography.

Fact of the matter is an editor’s job is no longer what it was, say, two decades ago. The behavioral issues of big shot editors are legendary. Today, cost pressure and conformity prevail. Dream job? Adapt yourself or go look for another career.

Every industry changes, the more so the publishing business and photography. Just spent $30k on gear? Too sad that some iPhoneographers are perfectly capable of matching some petted photographers’ output.

Quality print publications will still need “old-style” photographers. But face it, the iPhone is a real camera — and most likely the camera that’s more often with you than the bulkier one.

The refutation, however, goes like this:

You can certainly take photographs on an iPhone. And you can most certainly make little videos on them. And there’s nothing wrong with doing either. However, I’m entirely unconvinced that this will work out in the longer term (or even the medium, come to that). For whatever anybody says or anybody thinks there’s rather more to taking good pictures than point and click. There’s a definite art to the composition of a good picture and using better technology doesn’t change that in the slightest. It’s sometimes referred to as having the “eye.” It’s not really something that can be taught either: you’ve either got it or you don’t.

Writing for the Web is a little different. You’re no longer bound by the restrictions of space so much of the art of newspaper writing isn’t quite so relevant. And the production of online video also doesn’t require great artistic or photographic skill. But they do still have the print version to publish and they will still need people with that eye to take those pictures. Whether they’re using expensive cameras or playing around with an iPhone.

Tim Worstall, Forbes

  • Bengt Nyman

    If Chicago’s Sun-Times thinks that the future of printed newspapers are to be found in a lower quality paper product, their executives are simply gutting the company before it’s time to leave.

    • I think the executives’ point is rather to offer all aspects of a story, not only print, but also visuals and video. If it can be done by one person, even better. If required they still call freelancers and stringers for assignments, but honestly it’s also more fun to work on a story and offer more aspects than just the written word. Sure it takes more time, but the payoff might be bigger than the expense.

      • Bengt Nyman

        I agree. They are simply going from photo staff to a combination of bystanders Galaxy snaps, 2D iPhone journalists and special occasion freelance photo. Fresh news in the form of printed paper has clearly lost its dominance.

  • Another Thought

    I too think some people have overreacted to this.

    First, how many critics of the new policy would be willing to pay the Chicago Sun-Times a subscription fee so that they can continue to afford their photographic staff? How many of the critics are paying any site anything to access great photography? If someone doesn’t like it they can email the Sun Times and let them know how much they want to pay. Put your money where your mouth, or computer mouse is, I say.

    Second, journalism is about speed and immediacy, not just about the pure artistic quality of the photos. Look at recent big news stories, and how many of the best images were taken by average bystanders with iPhones and the like. Look at the Boston Marathon bombing…the most important images were taken on the iPhone.

    It doesn’t do much good today for a newspaper photographer to show up 5 or 15 minutes or later after a big story has gone down…it’s too late. I’ll take the Joe Schmoe who captured the action as it happened on his smart phone over the pro guy who shows up after the story has happened who might have a D800.

    The market decides and is speaking. If there were enough people willing to pay for higher quality images at news outlets then this wouldn’t be happening.

    Third, we are in an era of democratization of photography, as with many things. Now instead of always relying on the “pro’s” we all can take photos in many different ways using many different tools. To me that’s progress…that now people can exercise their own photographic creativity in many different ways.

    I’d much rather spend money on camera equipment to take my own pictures of family, friends, pets, vacations, etc…than spend it on having someone else take pictures for me. My wife and I have a lot more fun taking pics and those pics are more special to us, regardless of the fact that they may not be as technically advanced as a pro could offer.

    Of course the gatekeepers of the past don’t like it; people who drove stagecoaches in the past didn’t like the advent of the Model T. I imagine cab drivers would love it if so many people didn’t have access to their own vehicles. Those who sold ice didn’t like the advent of refrigerators. And so forth.

    I genuinely feel for pro photographers these days as I admire their talents greatly. But I also know that you cannot turn back the clock, and that all technological progress, no matter how much it benefits society, has its cost.

    • Well spoken.

      At the core of the issue lies the fact that the Internet drives down the price of everything: information, photos, access.

      “Quality on demand” can still ask for a certain price, that’s why excellent and specialized photographers keep surviving.

      I also prefer an artistic photo on a newspaper’s front instead of a snap. In the long run only quality will survive, and there it doesn’t matter if a photo is taken with an iPhone or a D4.