Staffers, freelancers and photography

The news that the Chicago Sun-Times is laying off its entire photo staff is puzzling on many levels except the financial one: it reeks of desperation.

Certainly digital media cries out for more images, not fewer. It's strange to hear that the Sun-Times is going to begin training reporting staff on how to shoot photos with smartphones. (What year is this?) And the argument that digital media needs video is just a non sequitur.

But I'm equally perplexed by some of the reactions, mostly angry, from photographers and journalists, some of who have gone off on rants about how media companies are morally wrong to exploit free contributions. (Irony: such posts are on Facebook.) I don't see evidence that what the Sun-Times is doing has anything to do with free content from user participation.

Major magazines have been built out of freelance content, both text and images, for generations. Being on a payroll doesn't guarantee quality. Talent does, and money tends to find talent.

We use freelancers quite a bit. It's easier in some markets than in others, and Savannah is blessed with the creative community that has grown up around the Savannah College of Art and Design and from talented writers who have retired here. We use Ebyline to manage the pitch process and payments.

And staffers? They're expected to walk and chew gum at the same time. All of our staffers are trained to shoot both stills and video with their smartphones (and some have better regular cameras). They get regular coaching from photo chief Steve Bisson.

This lets the news operation function with just two full-time photographers. They're used in situations demanding special skills (sports, magazine illustration, visits from the president, etc.) Routine head shots, car crashes and the like are handled by reporters as part of their routine.

This would not have been possible a generation ago, but digital technology has done away with the alchemy, mystery and time-suckage of the darkroom. The computers and optics in modern digital cameras can recognize and prioritize specific faces, compensate for caffeinated finger shake, and think faster than humans under most conditions.

The results are reliably usable, and I wasn't always able to say that of the professional photographers I worked with in the film era.

We also use free contributions. Any rage about that is misplaced. "Citizen journalism" doesn't really happen very much.

But we have organized a squad of volunteers who go to public events and shoot dozens, even hundreds, of images that we present in slideshows on our websites. This program, called Spotted, has been operating for years in all the Morris markets and accounts for hundreds of thousands of pageviews every week.

Is it journalism? I don't much care for the labeling debate, but I think there's civic value in providing a more genuine and balanced reflection of life in our communities. Traditional journalism, with its focus on government, politics and especially crime, provides a sadly corrupted overall story. A slideshow of hundreds of high school kids at prom or graduation is a truer tale about what it's like to live here than what's coming from the police blotter.

There's room for all three approaches -- professional staff, professional freelance, and freely contributed. There's no reason to go to war against any of them.