An open letter to the Sun-Times owners

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Sun-Times Media,

Media and newspapers in particular face many challenges in this time. The field the game is played on looks different, it acts different and is processed differently. That is no secret to anybody in the industry. Adapting though, isn’t the strong suit of this industry, and it has been seen many times over at newspapers across the country. Cuts are a part of business, but when you cut out the heart of something, it dies. The recent decision to cut the Sun-Times photography staff, the entire staff, removed the heart of the news group. I can use a lot of words to describe this decision, some have already been brilliantly conveyed by Chicago photojournalists, but I’m choosing to describe your decision as irrevocably and irresponsibly damaging.

As I’m sure you know, there’s a history of world-class photojournalism associated with the Sun-Times Media Group. Photojournalists have produced some of the most powerful and iconic images the industry has seen, running under the flags of Sun-Times newspapers. It is a staff that once held the likes of nationally, internationally and Pulitzer Prize recognized photographers such as Scott Strazzante, Todd Heisler and most recently John H. White. Simply dumping this type of legacy is disrespectful to entire field of photojournalism.

The true impact of your decision though, won’t be seen right away. It may not be for many months, even years. Long after we look back at this fateful day and decide what worked and what didn’t, a new batch of potentially great photojournalists will have left the field or never started in it. They will look back at this day as the moment they lost faith in journalism. You see, photojournalists like Strazzante, Heisler, White and many others that were let go last week are more than great image makers, but great sources of inspiration and teaching. White taught classes at Columbia College for more than 35 years. Your former photographer Rob Hart is an adjunct professor at the Medill School at Northwestern, one of the country’s most prestigious journalism schools. Their work, their lessons, their love of what they do are in living form through your publications and have stood the test of time.

I can speak from personal experience to some different aspects of this decision. My own path into photojournalism was not traditional. Starting in high school I began writing and reporting, which carried me into college at Northern Illinois University and earning a journalism degree. Throughout college I worked with the Free Press Newspapers in Wilmington during my summers and winters, gaining experience. I remember my first assignment, they handed me a camera and I was lost. It wasn’t until the tail end of my undergraduate career did I start hanging out with some very talented photographers of NIU’s Northern Star publication. When I entered the Free Press as a part-time staffer after college, my photography skills didn’t improve much. It wasn’t until I returned to school to earn a masters degree did I finally learn about the field. How did I do that? I worked solely as a photographer. I learned from my more-talented colleagues. I religiously followed the blogs of Strazzante, Alex Garcia and other professionals to ingest every piece of information I possibly could. I attended the Midwest Photo Summit, taking notes on photo critiques during judging as a way to better myself. I did not learn to take photographs by being tossed into the field with an iPhone or a camera I didn’t know how to use.

When I began work here at the Williston Herald in Williston, N.D., there was no staff photographer. It’s a small paper in the middle of the oil boom where housing issues have resulted in a smaller staff that struggles to keep up with the news. The reporting staff, much like your new outlook, takes the photos for their stories. All of them took some sort of photojournalism class in college, but in the end our photography suffers greatly on three-quarters of our assignments. On my own assignments, something suffers, whether it be the photos or the writing. A staff photographer, of more experience than myself, would be an upgrade and a huge addition to this newspaper, as you will soon find out at yours.

I have had the pleasure in my short time to shoot multiple assignments with some of Chicago’s best photojournalists. I learned more about crime scene photography in one five-minute conversation with former Sun-Times staffer Scott Stewart than I did by being sent on scene to figure it out for myself. Through his blogs and daily work, I learned more about how to take a photograph from Strazzante before I even knew I was learning anything from his work. I’ve learned from photojournalists my age and younger because they were what I wasn’t—an actual photojournalist. Their work, their lessons and their love of what they do is invaluable to the future of this industry. It needs to be passed on through publications like yours. It needs to inspire through publications like yours.

Photojournalists do more than click a button. They drive the visual look of the entire publication. They should be integrated into a multimedia plan, not shunned away as part of the “old” way of doing things. The bottom line isn’t financial. The bottom line is that the Sun-Times, like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and other great publications, is an institution of journalism. You should embrace your legacy and all aspects of what made this industry and your publications great—not damage it beyond repair.

Disregarding the impact these consummate professionals have on your newspapers, your readers and the future of industry is irresponsible and damaging. I urge you, for these reasons, to rethink your decision.

As John H. White once said, “Take pictures with the camera of your heart.” Without the heart of a photojournalist, a camera is just a camera. A picture is just a picture. A newspaper is just a publication without its heart and soul.

Sincerely,
Jerry Burnes
News Editor
Williston Herald, Williston, N.D.

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6 thoughts on “An open letter to the Sun-Times owners

    • John, thanks for the comment. I know he works at the Trib, but he did work at STM with the Daily Southtown and Joliet Herald-News in the past. Same with Todd Heisler, who is now with the New York Times. That’s what I meant by a staff that once held.

  1. Well said Jerry. Everyone is beyond devastated that a once storied publication with a rich history of journalism would would make such a foolish move that will lead to a product that will become unrecognizable.

    • It is terribly sad. I feel awful for all of you. So much talent just sent home. So much tradition, just gone.

  2. Pingback: may | clay lomneth's photo blog

  3. Pingback: Reactions to Chicago Sun-Times photography lay-offs | dvafoto

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