A rally for laid-off Sun-Times photogs

A protest Thursday morning drew about 150 picketers to the newspaper's headquarters

CHICAGO, IL—Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White doesn’t think too much of the iPhone as a replacement for him and 27 other photographers who lost their jobs at the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

“I don’t think it’s the right tool,” White said. “You don’t go into surgery with a tool that could do a little bit of everything.”

White was one of about 150 people who picketed outside of the newspaper’s downtown headquarters Thursday morning, protesting the unilateral cut of an entire department one week before.

The Chicago Newspaper Guild already filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board and is expected to return soon to the bargaining table with the paper’s owners on a bevy of issues, including the photographer layoffs.

Thursday’s rally — which brought out reporters, photographers, and other faces that have become familiar at any union rally downtown — put a public face on the issue. It was not only about jobs, but also a comment on the state of journalism in the nation’s third-largest city.

“It’s a journalism issue in the Chicago community,” said Dave Roeder, a Sun-Times reporter and treasurer of the Newspaper Guild. “There are a lot of people who don’t want their names attached to lousy photos.”

After the layoffs, the newspaper said it would rely on freelancers and staff reporters armed with iPhones to take photos.

Roeder said he recognizes that smartphone technology is “certainly the future of journalism that we have,” but without a dedicated photography staff, the paper would lose “that extra element of coverage that comes with professionalism.” He hasn’t received the iPhone training that was mandated for all reporters following last week’s announcements.

Legally, the guild believes they have a good argument to bring the photographers back.

“You are required to bargain in good faith,” said Craig Rosenbaum, executive director of the Newspaper Guild. “They said they would not be laying off photographers and reporters.”

Earlier this year, the paper’s owners, Wrapports, reshuffled its suburban operations, moving staff downtown. While reporter cuts were expected at the time, they never materialized, Rosenbaum said.

“This is the most anti-union company I’ve ever faced,” Rosenbaum added.

Brian Powers, a photographer for three years at the Sun-Times’s suburban daily, Beacon News, said handing over his duties to someone who hasn’t been trained to take photographs “will dilute the quality of both reporting and photography.”

“A reporter asks, ‘What happened?’ While a photographer asks, ‘What’s happening?’” Powers said. “It’s really a different way of looking at things.”

The rally was replete with the clever signs, including “Sun Times Misses Big Picture” and “Damn It, Jim! I’m a Reporter, Not a Photographer!,” a reference to both Star Trek Capt. Jim Kirk and Sun-Times Editor in Chief Jim Kirk. Chants varied from union clich├ęs (“They say cut back, we say fight back!), to confrontational (“Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Freelance photographers have got to go!”) to honest (“Our pictures are blurry!”).

And White, who won a Pulitzer in 1982 for feature photography, was there to document the event using two cameras: “The camera in my heart” and the Nikon D3 slung over his neck.

“I may not live forever, but if I do”—he motioned a clicking action with his camera—“this moment will live forever.”

And in one way, White’s work does still live on at the newspaper. Since he lost his job Thursday, he says the newspaper has used at least one of his photos with a story. They credited it, he said, to “Sun-Times Library.”

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is DNAinfo.com Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism. Tags: , ,