This article first appeared in the McAlvany Intelligence Advisor newsletter:
Steve Buyansky, who was, until last Thursday, a professional photographer for three of Sun-Times Media’s 39 suburban papers, said he was surprised when he was asked to turn in his magnetic employee badge and his photographic equipment: “I’m still in shock. I’m not angry right now. Maybe I will be later.”
On what planet has Buyansky been living? How could he not know what was happening in front of his very eyes? Sun-Times Media hasn’t been profitable for years. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. Where was Buyansky while that was going on? When the group was bought by Wrapports LLC in 2011, salaries were cut by 15 percent, the pension plan went from defined-benefit to defined-contribution, and seniority rights regarding layoffs were ended. Where was Buyansky then?
In March, the Sun-Times fired several editors and staff members for several of its suburban papers, and consolidated operations of those papers to its downtown location to save money. It had fallen behind in making its monthly payments for the Chicago Tribune which was printing its papers after the Sun-Times shut down its own printing facilities.
The paid circulation base for the Chicago Sun-Times has been shrinking, having lost 25 percent in just the last six years. In its announcement last week, the media group said:
The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. 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.
Wrapports thinks there’s still some life in the dinosaur. It’s an investment group made up of Michael Ferro of Merrick Ventures, Timothy Knight (former publisher of Newsday, another newspaper struggling to be profitable), and three other private equity or venture capital firms. They have seen the handwriting on the wall for years. Why hasn’t Buyansky?
The new strategy is to allow, no, require, their remaining news reporters to use their iPhones to take pictures to supplement their articles! What a concept! Talk about being late to the party! Last week it was announced that Facebook gets 208,300 photos uploaded every minute, along with 100 hours of video onto YouTube! Yahoo estimates that next year 880 billion photos will be taken and downloaded somewhere on the Internet.
Efforts to regain profitability have so far come up short. In February Sun-Times launched an online video news program, a 90-second flash news segment. That effort ended in May.
Also in February the paper launched Grid, a Sunday business news magazine that was just ended last month.
Life magazine’s domination of the all-photographic news magazine niche ended in 1972. Efforts to resuscitate the brand failed, and Life published its last issue in April, 2007 – six years ago. Look magazine died in 1972, and no one even tried to resuscitate it. Wasn’t Buyansky aware of that?
Or what about the reality check written by professional photographer Talbert McMullin last summer, entitled “Professional Photography is Going Away?” McMullin saw what’s been happening for years:
My little Panasonic point-and-shoot will take hundreds and hundreds of photos one after another on a single memory card, and it rivals the quality of my Nikon SLRs! That is an amateur photographer’s dream, but unfortunately it is not as beneficial for the pros. Suddenly, the playing field is level for everyone. Technology has not yet put pros out of business, but it is setting the stage – even our mobile phones have cameras!
Professional photography is going away. That’s right, going away. I can’t say it is going to happen today, next week, next month, or even next year, but at some point in the future it will. Fact: The transition has begun. You cannot change it; you can only adapt. Before you wet your pants, please notice I did not say all photography is going away, only professional photography. Ignore or distort the facts at your own peril!
Some professionals will thrive, but the rest will be left behind. The number of successes will continue to shrink until the professional photographer becomes … an anomaly.
What did Buyansky do when he was suddenly informed that his skills as a professional photographer were no longer needed? He joined 10 other equally surprised former photographers from the Sun-Times at the Billy Goat Tavern, a local watering-hole for journos, and celebrated the glory days long past, saying “The Sun-Times had an amazing photo staff.”
The emphasis was on the word “had.”