Newspaper photographers, and how the Sun-Times, iPhones, & Internet relate

An interesting discussion took place on Twitter after I posted my most recent podcast.

I interviewed Matt Detrich, a staff photographer for 15 years with the Indianapolis Star, about the role of traditional photography in the changing newspaper landscape. The podcast seemed especially relevant since, a few weeks earlier, the Chicago Sun-Times fired all of its photographers. Newspaper officials will instead rely on freelancers to cover major events and reporters to shoot photos and video with their phones.

Said Detrich, among other things: “I really can’t wrap my head about why they would dismantle one whole department … and such a special department for a newspaper.”

A few days later, Tom Spalding — a former Indy Star employee and current board member at Indy Social Media, a social media web site — Tweeted this:

Fourteen minutes later, Spalding’s fellow Indy Social Media board member Chris Theisen responded with this:

That led to the following exchange between Detrich, Thiesen, and Spalding:

My response to each of these Tweets? I agree.

Let’s go point-by-point — or, should I say, Tweet-by-Tweet — for a pretty good summation of the uneasy future facing traditional newspaper photographers.

“Chris, would you hire a professional photographer to shoot your kids’ weddings, or use an iPhone?”: Tom Spalding is correct. At the end of the day, no matter how advanced our camera-phones become, they will never possess the firepower of traditional gear. At some point, one would argue, high-quality newspaper operations need high-quality photos. And while newspaper photographers will rarely cover a wedding, they regularly cover press conferences, night-time sporting events, and breaking news situations where they cannot get the job done with an iPhone. In these cases, they need the tele-photo lenses and sophisticated technology that come with traditional cameras.

“Different discussion. Talking online.”: And there’s the rub. Under the umbrella of a newspaper operation, the Web and mobile devices are encroaching to a large degree on the print edition. As great as traditional cameras can be, they do not currently possess online capabilities. As a result, a photographer must take additional steps to transfer traditional photos from the camera. The camera-phones solve those problems. As newspapers shift their focus towards the Web, photographers need to become as skilled with their phones as they are with their bulky gear.

“I disagree … enough said!”: Matt Detrich, as we learned last week on the podcast, speaks with a pragmatist’s mind but a purist’s heart. This Tweet shows the purist shining through. Ultimately, the future of photojournalism requires people like Detrich who continue to aim for perfection, even as the emphasis shifts towards convenience. Think of the iconic photographs from the biggest events in our country’s recent history, from the Boston Marathon bombing to the Oklahoma tornadoes. They were taken by tremendous photographers with tremendous gear.

“Also, to the untrained eye (most readers), a nicely edited photo looks the same as a nicely shot one.”: I made this point to Detrich last week. Most readers probably cannot tell the difference — or, more likely, simply do not value the difference — between photos from cameras of various levels of quality. For example, click on the photo of the wolf at the top of this page (or click here) to see it in full. I took that photo … with a point-and-shoot camera. I was standing next to numerous fellow tourists at Yellowstone National Park who were holding much more sophisticated gear, but if this photo wound up on a newspaper’s web site in a story about Yellowstone, I doubt anyone would notice the difference.

“It’s not just the ease of gear but the experience, talent, knowledge, and sensibilities of the person behind the lens.”: The last word goes to Spalding, and it’s a necessary one. For sure, we all fancy ourselves as amateur photographers these days, and we can all contribute to the media landscape as a result, which is a wonderful thing. One could even make the point that, as a whole, we have all become more far skilled at photography simply because we all take so many photos now. But professional photographers still have a giant leg up on the rest of us. And again, during those huge stories, we remember the sharpest, best-framed, and most exquisite photographs; those almost always come from the pros.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below and sound off on what is fast becoming a major topic in newsrooms across the country.

RELATED: Podcast Episode #04: Matt Detrich, staff photographer, Indy Star
RELATED: Podcast Preview: Matt Detrich: “My stomach dropped” when the Sun-Times fired its photographers

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at

6 thoughts on “Newspaper photographers, and how the Sun-Times, iPhones, & Internet relate

  1. Matt thanks for doing a follow up to our Twitter discussion. Lots of angles to the discussion and like you said all sides are right in their own ways. My big point was while high quality photographs can lend a great deal to a story they don’t drive business. People don’t subscribe to a newspaper to look at the great pictures, they want to read the content. With the digital age these days about the only thing news outlets have to set themselves apart are access and content, and even those advantages are dwindling. Sure once someone buys a paper or subscribes online the photos can be a huge addition to the content but its not the driver. Aside from photo galleries the traditional news photographs aren’t easy to monetize. Now if news outlets promote what their photogs bring, give them their own voice and outlets (Instagram, Pinterest, FB pages etc) they stand a chance to differentiate. Outside of that anyone with a new phone can get more than adequate photo and video content to add to the text of the story. Back when the newspaper was the only outlet to get a visual on an event or story photos were huge, now they are just ancillary.

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