The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire staff of photographers Thursday and plans to use freelance photographers and reporters to shoot photos and video, the newspaper said.
A total of 28 full-time staffers received the news at a morning meeting, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The Sun-Times released a statement connecting the move to the increasing importance of video in news reporting, but the organization also is not profitable currently, according to a knowledgeable source who was not authorized to speak publicly.
“The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news,” the newspaper said in its statement. “We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”
Sun-Times Media Group, which publishes 39 suburban daily and weekly publications in addition to its flagship paper, is preparing to supplement its freelance staff with reporters to shoot more video and photos, sources said.
Among those laid off was longtime Sun-Times photographer John H. White, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1982.
The Chicago Newspaper Guild, which represents 20 of the 28 photographers let go, issued a statement Thursday vowing to exert pressure on the Sun-Times to reverse course.
Purchased in 2011 by Wrapports, an investor group led by technology entrepreneur Michael Ferro, the Sun-Times has often painted a bold digital future and expressed ambitious plans. Timothy Knight, publisher of the Sun-Times and chief executive of Wrapports, told the Tribune recently that the company is interested in bidding for Tribune Co. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.
But in addition to the Sun-Times being unprofitable, several key initiatives have sputtered, and cutbacks have dominated the news in recent months.
In February, the Sun-Times launched Grid, a Sunday business magazine that went on hiatus earlier this month. Sun-Times executives say the digital version of Grid will continue, but the frequency of the print publication is up in the air.
Also in February, the Sun-Times launched an online video news network featuring Carol Marin anchoring “The Marin Report,” a daily 90-second show. That ended May 15 with Marin tweeting its demise as a “proud experiment.”
In March, the Sun-Times laid off a number of longtime suburban editors and consolidated suburban operations in its downtown Chicago offices. That same month, it was reported that the Sun-Times had fallen behind in its payments on an annual $70 million contract with the Chicago Tribune to print and distribute its newspapers. Sources say the Sun-Times is now current but is looking at alternatives to the 10-year printing deal.
Thursday’s cutting of the photo department is part of the effort to get the Sun-Times into the black, sources said.
Photographers said they were told Wednesday to attend a meeting Thursday morning. Rob Hart was at home with his 10-month-old when he got a call from his boss asking for the serial numbers of his various pieces of photo gear.
“They take inventory when they’re firing you,” Hart said as a group of laid-off photographers gathered late Thursday morning to commiserate at the Billy Goat Tavern.
The move to have reporters shoot video and photos while covering stories is a growing trend among television stations and newspapers, according to California-based media analyst Alan Mutter, who said quality may be sacrificed in the process.
“We’ll always have a lot of pictures — there will always be something between the articles — but will we have great photography, the memorable iconic images? Probably less so,” Mutter said.
Tribune reporter Becky Yerak contributed.