CHICAGO - The new Chicago Sun Times management ordered the newspaper's 28 photojournalists to a 9:30 a.m. meeting last Thursday. The meeting was "intimidating" with a "toxic and unkind spirit in the office," Pulitzer Prize winning photographer John White later told the Poynter website.
"As you know, we are going forward into multimedia and video, and that is going to be our focus. So we are eliminating the photography department,'" White recalled management saying.
Twenty-eight photojournalists were out the door in a blink. It was as if "they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photojournalism," said White. "Humanity is being robbed, by people with money on their minds."
Photographers call it the darkest day for photojournalism. However, the layoffs are part of a broader crisis of the newspaper industry as the public finds other means to get news online.
To keep up, newspaper owners are attempting to break unions, hollowing out their staffs and in the process destroying journalism as a profession. There are only two labor editors at the nation's major newspapers as business pages take over coverage of labor news. Meanwhile, the number of newspapers covering Congress dwindled to 23 in 2008.
Syracuse University professor Vin Crosbie predicts more than half of the approximately 1,400 daily newspapers in the country could fold by 2020.
Meanwhile, the corporate media industry is consolidated in fewer hands. In 1983 there were 50 different corporations that had control over U.S. media; today there are only six (Viacom, Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, CBS, and News Corporation). The monopolization and drive for profits is adding pressures to cutting operating costs.
The move at the Sun Times is part of cost-cutting efforts by Wrapports, LLC, the new owners. Instead of having photojournalists on staff, news reporters will be trained in how to use their smartphones to snap photos and videos.
Earlier Wrapports closed the paper's nine suburban offices, consolidating operations into its downtown headquarters. Suburban editorial and advertising employees are shouldering new expenses as they work from cars and coffee shops and send stories remotely, according to the Chicago Newspaper Guild (CNG), which represents the workers.
A satirical Sun Times hiring ad by the CNG said, "On call for 24/7 for possible breaking news for as low as $13 an hour. Position requires tact to interface with public who complains about publication's lack of content. Ability to deal with distant and hard-to-reach editors in a toxic labor environment is a plus.
"Experience required: - Enough to know how to churn out multiple stories per day, but not enough experience to demand a reasonable salary."
Newspapers claim to be losing money mainly because advertising revenues have plummeted. But the fact is they are still making profits - just not enough for the money men. Average pre-tax profits for newspapers peaked at 28.5 percent in 1999, and were still 24.2 percent in 2005. They fell to 14.9 percent in the first nine months of 2011, according to the International News Marketing Association.
However, 2012 ended with stocks for the major newspaper publishers surging on Wall Street. According to Poynter, "Six of eight publicly traded companies showed gains for 2012; four of those were up 30 percent or more."
While corporations destroy journalism as a profession and concentrate their holdings and control over the flow of news and information, they are also undermining democracy.
CNG president David Pollard said the union would fight the firings and "what the company is trying to do to our union brothers and sisters, (and) to the freedoms we hold dearly as United States citizens and that is freedom of the press." The firings, he said, "may be looked at as a cost saving to them, but more importantly, it weakens the freedom of the press and the positive and powerful impact it has had on our country."
"This fight is not only about the Chicago Newspaper Guild. It's about all of organized labor. They are trying to kill us," said Pollard.
Photo: Some of the 28 photojournalists fired by the Sun-Times, in Chicago, at a June 6 Newspaper Guild rally. John Bachtell/PW