The mystery behind the photo layoffs at the Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Sun-Times front page of May 31, 2013, the day after laying off its entire photo staff.

Chicago Sun-Times front page of May 31, 2013, the day after laying off its entire photo staff.

A week after the Chicago Sun-Times mass layoff of its photo staff, I’m perplexed by two things.

The first is the sense of outrage from sectors of the journalism community.

The second is why the Sun-Times seemed to place so little value on still photography even before the layoffs.

In the aftermath, I understand the shock. I get anger, fear, empathy. Even sadness, pain and frustration.

But if you care about the survival of  newspapers, you must acknowledge that publishers are trying myriad ways to cut costs and build revenue.  Foregoing still photography and investing in video, clearly the end-game here, is the latest experiment.

To be outraged you must seriously underestimate the difficulty newspapers are in. With revenue dropping so rapidly, newspapers are seeking new ways to generate income.

Like it or not, they’re rapidly moving to video. For the past year, Gannett has rolled out iPhone training for all of its properties, teaching reporters to be videographers. Last month, the digital chief of Post-Newsweek stations (including Detroit’s WDIV-TV), warned that the newspaper video push is a significant worry for local television stations.

The Sun-Times made clear that it would be investing in video over still photographs.

It certainly perplexes me, mostly because the Sun-Times didn’t seem to embrace still photography even before the layoffs.

At DetroitNews.com, photo galleries are significant drivers of traffic. Because every photo counts as a page view, readers paging through galleries adds many clicks to the traffic counts. More important, readers seem to like photos, especially those with informative captions that help tell a story. Readers stay on the site longer to view those galleries. You can certainly argue the value of the page views, but you can hardly argue with the numbers.

The News and Sun-Times draw similar amounts of traffic to their websites, according to Alexa.com. Both newsrooms are second in size in their metropolitan areas.

The week of the Sun-Times layoff provides and interesting contrast. The professional hockey teams of Chicago and Detroit faced off in the NHL playoffs during the second half of May. Photos of the Red Wings are big sellers at DetroitNews.com; galleries on the team netted nearly 1 million page views in May alone.

After the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the Western Conference playoffs on May 29, The News published a 47-photo gallery of the game that netted more than 47,000 page views. The Chicago Tribune published 40 photos from the same game. The Sun-Times, meanwhile, apparently published a three-photo gallery, including just one staff photo.

The next day, the Sun-Times homepage promoted just two galleries on its home page, from a May 25 parade and a May 19 adopt-a-pet event. Also the next day, the Sun-Times called together their photographers and told them they’d be out of work.

So why did the Sun-Times value photos so much less than The News and Tribune?

Is Sun-Times readership that different than Detroit News and Tribune readership? Was it management priority? Photo staff resources? Was the culture resistant? Did someone not think those page views were worth the effort to attract them?

Without knowing their numbers and strategies, it’s difficult to criticize. But it is easy to say that the Sun-Times is a curiosity in that it either never realized the value of still photographs or purposely decided that those page views weren’t worth the costs.

At The News, we find value in both video and still photography, and we think our readers do, too. Increasing our use of video, which we must, will no doubt put more pressures on our existing resources as well. We don’t know yet what choices we might have to make.

In the layoff aftermath, two things struck me as poignant.

The Chicago Tribune chose to tell the Sun-Times layoff story with a video. And a laid-off Chicago Sun-Times photographer is now chronicling his new life on his iPhone.

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