Chicago Sun-Times Wipes Out Photo Staff

Sun-Times photographer John H. White was featured on the April 2012 cover of News Photographer magazine. Photograph by Scott Strazzante
Sun-Times photographer John H. White was featured on the April 2012 cover of News Photographer magazine. Photograph by Scott Strazzante

By Donald R. Winslow

[UPDATE: There is currently a petition online directed to the CEO of the Sun-Times, Timothy Knight Wrapports, asking to save the photographers' jobs. See it online here.]

CHICAGO, IL (May 30, 2013) – The Chicago Sun-Times and its suburban sister newspapers today laid off its entire photography staff, and the management plans to use freelance photographers instead, the newspaper's editor said.

Several photographers in Chicago have now confirmed that up to 30 Sun-Times and Sun-Times Media photo department employees were told the bad news Thursday morning during a mandatory staff meeting, including the Chicago photojournalism icon and Pulitzer Prize-winner John H. White.

Rob Hart, a Sun-Times Media photojournalist at the suburban Pioneer Press and an adjunct faculty member at the Medill School of Journalism, was in the room this morning with the entire staff when they were told of the layoffs. 

"Being in the room with John White when we got laid off was a highlight of my career," Hart told News Photographer magazine today. "About 30 of us got the axe. As soon as [Sun-Times editor] Jim Kirk said they were going to have the reporters produce multimedia for their rapidly changing platforms, I just had to walk out." 

Hart made his comments to News Photographer via iPhone from a seat at the Billy Goat, an ever-popular Chicago journalists' bar where he was gathered with about eight other photographers tonight. 

"We didn't have any image techs left, but as far as I know the photo editors got cut too," Hart said.

[NPPA has a page of resources for visual journalists who have been laid off. Please see it online here]

According to a report from a wire service photographer who formerly worked at the Sun-Times, three people may have been retained to perform new job duties. Photographer Jessica Koscielniak will do video multimedia, photographer Rich Hein will be a photo editor, and Geoff Scheerer will serve as a photo editor in the suburban papers, he told News Photographer magazine tonight. News Photographer is currently trying to reach Koscielniak and Hein for comment.

"It's shocking that the remnants of the group that once had photographers like Scott Strazzante and Todd Heisler and Jon Lowenstein and Rob Finch, just to name a few of the Pulitzer-winners and Photographers of the Year that once worked at Copley Chicago, believes it no longer needs any staff photographers," Sid Hastings, a former Copley Chicago photo editor said tonight from St. Louis. "It's just shocking."

“Outrageous!,” NPPA’s president Mike Borland said Thursday night in reaction to the news about the Sun-Times. “I can’t think of another word to describe laying off all the staff photographers while claiming to be ‘bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements.’ Where I come from, we’re careful not to step in that kind of stuff. Does anyone really believe that firing a Pulitzer Prize winner will help bolster any visual elements?”

Borland said NPPA is currently planning a workshop to hold in Chicago at the earliest opportunity to help former Sun-Times Media photographers continue their careers as visual journalists. More details on the workshop will be announced as soon as details are available. 

“In the meantime, our hearts go out to those who lost their jobs today in Chicago,” Borland said. 

While it's still unclear who was left on the photography staff as of this morning, and how many may have departed the staff during the last few days, News Photographer magazine was told Thursday night that some of the photographers who were impacted by the layoffs included Al Podgorski, Tom Cruze, Rich Chapman, Ernie Torres, Dom Najolia, Jon Sall, Brian Jackson, Rich Hein, Andrew Nelles, Dom Najolina, Thomas Delany, Matt Grotto, and Scott Stewart. 

From the Southtown and Southtown Star, reportedly photographers Joseph P. Meier, Brett Roseman, Matt Marton, and Larry Ruehl were part of the layoff.

Attempts are being made to reach as many of the Sun-Times Media photographers as possible to confirm the layoffs and to add their names to the list.

Sun-Times editor Kirk supposedly told the reporters sometime last week that they would soon have to start taking photos and videos with their iPhones for their stories, according to a reporter in nearby Joliet who knows several journalists who are working in Chicago's newsrooms.

A statement released from the company Thursday said:

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.

The Sun-Times photographers' eMail accounts had already been shut down today, according to a report on Romenesko.

Iconic Sun-Times photographer John H. White has also been teaching a popular photojournalism class at Columbia College Chicago, but he just recently learned that the school has cut his class from the year's upcoming schedule.

"As one of John's admirers, and as someone who knows first hand John's value to the profession and to our department, I should make it clear that this was the result of lack of enrollment in all intro to photojournalism classes," program director Steve Liss posted on the school's Facebook page. "It does not reflect on John at all, who is well-respected."

In what can only be seen as a twist of irony, the obituary for the former chief photographer for the Sun-Times, Bob Kotalik, was just published in the newspaper yesterday. He was 87 and died Wednesday. His photography department outlived him by only a few days.

When the Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for local reporting, the honored content included a photo essay about Chicago police detectives that was shot by staff photographer John J. Kim.

Read photojournalist Scott Strazzante's blog about Sun-Times icon John H. White, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his photography in 1982,  online here: