Wronger Decision

(news and commentary)

I've already written about the Chicago Sun-Times decision to let go all of their photographic staff. Wrong decision. Here's one of the ways they intend to deal with photos in the future: "In the coming weeks, we'll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need." What training is that? According to one reporter: iPhone photography basics. Wronger decision.

So the picture at the Chicago Sun-Times is becoming clearer, pardon the pun. Essentially, it's a cost cutting exercise. What next, fire the reporters and train all the receptionists and janitors to write (using virtual keyboards on their iPhones, of course)? 

This is exactly what I was trying to point out: you win in the media with good content. The Sun-Times has decided to try worse content. I know of no example, none, where that turned out to be the right answer. 

Some of you hounded me about Marissa Mayer's (Yahoo CEO) quote about no such thing as professional photographers anymore. What's happening all across photography, from camera companies to image sharers to news organizations is that the bar on perceived "good image" quality is being lowered. That's partly due to the volume of photography that's being made, the basic competence of the digital cameras, and the ubiquitousness of images. What we're getting from that lowering of the bar is sameness, cliche, random cropping, poor timing, a return to the near-normal focal length perspective, and more. If it feels like you've seen that photo before, it's because you have.

I just did some browsing of the "former" Sun-Times photographers in various galleries. Some were quite impressive, with obvious thought and care that went into trying to make the photography tell or embellish a story. A few were random photojournalism slop, where the photographer probably had an assignment but couldn't quite figure out how to tell us anything useful. In all likelihood, we're going to see far less of the former and far more of the latter from the Sun-Times in the future. 

But let's put this in the context of the camera companies for a moment. Newspapers were one of the primary big purchasers of full frame professional cameras. From all appearances, the Sun-Times believes that they can replace Canon and Nikon DSLRs with iPhones, and trained and experienced photographers with quickly quasi-trained staff that have other jobs they have to do. Reporter: "Let's see, do I write down my notes for the story, record audio/video of the situation, or take a still image? Oh, right, they told me to record a video because they can always extract a still from it, I can always consult the audio track to see what was said, and then hurriedly write my story after doing all that other work." 

Bottom line: Canon and Nikon just lost 28 possible purchases all at once, and if the Sun-Times is a trend indicator, probably thousands. Remember, the high pro gear only sells in the low hundreds of thousands of units. This is erosion that they'll feel. Moreover, it's a slap in the face, because one of the reasons why the high-end gear went to include video was for these very organizations' demands in the first place.

The irony is that if I were in charge of resurrecting a newspaper, photography would be one of the things I'd want done better, both in capture and in layout. I would want the best reporter, the best writer, the best photographer, the best editor, the best photo editor, the best assignment desk person, and I wouldn't want any of them to be doing the jobs of others. Likewise, I'd want to give them the best equipment for doing the job. That very well may include a smartphone to do the transmission of data back to the offices so that I could keep my field folk in the field. Heck, I might even have them mount their phone in the hot shoe from time to time to record video of what they're photographing just because it might prove useful. But not as the sole source of imaging.

The more we learn about the Sun-Times decision, the more it appears to be the usual "see if we slow the speed at which we're circling the drain" type: cut costs because revenues are down; when revenues go down further, cut more costs. One thing that was never talked about in my MBA program but which I've found to be absolutely true in real life: productivity isn't using fewer people to do more. Productivity is optimally using people. That's a subtle difference, but an important one. The Sun-Times is trying to use fewer people to do more. It won't work. It rarely has, and even when it does, it's a band aid to the real problem at hand.

While it may seem a bit off-topic for me to cover the Sun-Times decision, it's not. You're reading this site because you bought (or are contemplating buying) a sophisticated camera. You want to get the most out of it. Being a great photographer, like most disciplines, requires standing on the shoulders of those who came before you and learning from others' mistakes as well as your own. One of the mistakes being made is the "good enough" mistake. If you're shooting for lowest common denominator and low profit margins or low esteem, sure, go ahead and take pictures and share them at the low bar level. The Chicago Sun-Times seems to think that's okay. Marissa Mayer and Yahoo think it's okay. Susan Sontag might have something different to say about that. I certainly do. 

Aspire to be great in your imaging. Aspire to be unique in your imaging. Aspire to tell your stories, not the same ones everyone else is telling. We have exceptional tools available to us today, shouldn't we all aspire to exceptional images?

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