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Mares: Photo-Journalism's Demise

At first I thought it was a joke when two old Chicago newspaper buddies of mine sent me the press release. It said that the Chicago Sun -Times where I had worked as a photographer would fire their entire photography staff and require the papers' reporters to provide their own photography and video for their stories.

Their press release read: The increasing demand for more video as part of the way we cover the news, combined with our ability to tap into Chicago’s robust network of professional local photographers, and has created the right environment for the company to aggressively move forward with a new multimedia strategy.
 
I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep. Memories flooded over me. The late 60’s were a halcyon time in journalism generally. We photographers, armed with three or four cameras and a bag of lenses charged off to document the world, or at least in my case, Chicago.
 
I thought of my comrades, a raucous, irreverent, collection of talented street artists, who seemed to be right out of The Front Page. Among them were two Pulitzer Prize winners.
 
The firings even made national media: Stephen Colbert acidly quipped that "They have managed to cut costs without laying a bunch of people off from every department. Instead, they just lay off everybody from one department…”
 
Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, John Filo, commented poignantly, "It is sad to see photographers now made into videographers combining two different disciplines, two different uses like a SPORK which is neither a true spoon nor a true fork.”

Former Vermont journalist and media expert Dan Gillmor is the author of a book called WE THE MEDIA, Grassroots Journalism by the people, for the people.” Six years ago he wrote a column called “The Decline (and Maybe Demise) of the Professional Photojournalist.”
 
Gillmor says that in a world of ubiquitous media creation and access, where someone will almost always be on the spot with a camera - or a camera in their phone - professional photo-journalists who deal in breaking news can’t possibly compete.
 
He predicts that there will be a need for photographers to do feature-type shots, but much less so for breaking news.
 
And there will be other challenges. One is that democratized media tools also include easy and cheap ways to fake or alter reality. Another is that when you “crowd-source” photos, the photo desk will become a choke point in the image supply chain as hundreds and thousands of images – both good and bad - flood in. And with such a volume of free-lance images, the nature of getting a scoop, or being first, will change fundamentally.
 
One more memory needles me. When I was at the Sun -Times our photographers union agreed that if only one person could be sent on an out of town assignment, writers could carry cameras and photographers could write stories. I was the first staffer to benefit from this clause, on assignments in this country and abroad.
 
Even 40 years ago, I now realize, this trend was afoot.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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