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Looking Through A New Lens; News Photographers Adapt To Changing Industry

Jenna Dooley
Northern Star photographer Kelsey Brown

Photographs are often used to enhance a published report. But these days, people who take those photos are fighting for job security, along with many others in the newspaper industry. Recent examples of this trend can be found in northern Illinois.

The Chicago Sun-Times made headlines last year when it decided to layoff all of its photographers. The cost-cutting move set off a firestorm of criticism. The company said it wanted to instead rely on freelancers and reporters to do the work. Management said it was also part of shift toward using more video content. But those supporting the photographers say the move was shortsighted.

Shannon Duffy is with the United Media Guild, a newspaper union based in St. Louis. He says these moves are not worth the extra savings.

“There’s no way that someone with an iPhone camera or a digital camera is a match for someone who’s been trained in the craft,” Duffy said.

While the Sun-Times hired backa handful of its photo-journalists, Duffy and others say the paper is still shortchanging its readers.

The United Media Guild does not represent Sun-Times workers, but it is negotiating on behalf of staff at the Rockford Register Star, where a similar debate is emerging. Through those contract talks, the paper wants to reserve the right to eliminate the last two-photographers at the Star and outsource the work.

“What’s troubling to us as a union is that this is not only playing out in Rockford, but also on the east coast and the west coast and down south,” Duffy said.

WNIJ reached out to the Register Star’s parent company, which declined to comment on the negotiations.

Mark Dolan is president of the National Press Photographers Association. He says these moves seem to be happening at newspapers that are part of larger media companies.

“The decisions are often made on what’s best for the shareholders, rather than the people who read the newspapers,” Dolan said.

Dolan adds that things like this tend to have a domino effect. He points to the wave of furloughs within the newspaper industry over the past couple of years.

One man who has lived in both worlds is Curtis Clegg, a veteran photo-journalist based in northern Illinois. Clegg is currently a freelancer who has worked at various publications, including the DeKalb Daily Chronicle and the MidWeek. He says while it pains him to see his fellow colleagues go through this, there are many freelancers out there who can still get the job done for newspapers. Clegg says they can fill up a lot of space when news is slow.

“Traditionally, it’s not the front page stories, it’s been maybe the middle of the news paper or the back of the newspaper stories,” Clegg said.

At the same time though, Clegg says it’s vital for newspapers to keep as many full-time photographers on staff as possible. He says they’re easier to reach because they’re on call. Clegg also says they’re part of a trusted team involving the reporter and the editor. He says when you throw in someone who is not part of the usual mix, problems can arise.

“With a freelancer, or user-submitted photos, you run the chance of having false information or mis-leading information,” Clegg said.

And overall, Clegg says a quality photo can still capture the attention of someone walking by a newsstand, even if we’re living in a digital world.

Students Prepare For Competitive Field

Kelsey Brown is a junior journalism major at Northern Illinois University who became interested in photography after a local news photographer spoke to her class in high school. She takes pictures for the student-run Northern Starand says she would like to tell stories through pictures professionally.

She says she knows people who pursue a profession in the arts often make sacrifices, especially when it comes to work hours and money.

"It's something certainly that I've come to terms with," Brown said. "I pretty much expect to do it that way: I'll have a main full-time job, but I don't ever foresee ever stopping doing photography on the side because I love it too much to let it go to waste."

As she considers her job prospects, she says she's open to different opportunities. 

"The more I seek out something in photography I think the less of a chance I'm going to find it," Brown said. "I know that sounds a little silly, but I think sometimes when you are doing the thing that you love and not kind of badgering at it and seeking it out all the time, it tends to come to you."

For example, she says, that could come from potential employers seeing her work on social media or through her online portfolio.

Northern Star advisor Shelley Hendricks says there's no shortage of students who want to take pictures for the newspaper, but she says her role is to get them to think beyond the lens.

"Photographers who are looking for a career in journalism really need to think of themselves as photojournalists and not "picture-takers," Hendricks said. "They need to develop those skills where they can ask the basic questions: "Who, what, when, and where" and have their captions reflect that. Where the industry is going we see photographers are being laid off. They need to have those skills. If they can work with words, they will have an edge over journalists who can just write and can't take pictures."