March 7, 2014

The Chicago Sun-Times is rehiring four photographers, then letting more people go


Rob Hart continues to update his Tumblr after being laid off from the Sun-Times. This is a shot of his tie after a three-hour photo shoot in a frigid Lake Michigan.

Rob Hart continues to update his Tumblr after being laid off from the Sun-Times. This is a shot of his tie after a three-hour photo shoot in a frigid Lake Michigan.

Do you remember June of last year, when the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff (including Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White) and gave its reporters training in iPhone photo basics? Twenty-nine photographers were let go.

A few weeks later the books section disappeared, and so did fourteen production staffers. Former staffer Rob Hart created a Tumblr, Laid Off from the Sun-Times, where he chronicled his freelance and teaching work after the announcement.

Rich Chapman, Brian Jackson, Al Podgorski, and Michael Schmidt are about to be rehired under terms of a contract settlement between Sun-Times Media and the Chicago Newspaper Guild. They’re “multimedia journalists,” not photographers, and will be required to shoot video as well as write from time to time.

When the contract was negotiated last November, the paper agreed to hire a number of these photographers back if the union dropped its unfair labor relations charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The Guild agreed to a three-year contract through December 2016 and with two weeks of unpaid vacation, enhanced severance,  and a two percent pay increase in July 2016. About 130 reporters, copy editors and other editorial staff at the Sun-Times, Pioneer Press, Post-Tribune in Merrillville, IN, Lake County News-Sun, and Joliet Herald-News are a part of this agreement.

But the battle’s not over yet. Just as these four positions open up, five more positions will be eliminated. These layoffs have already been cleared with the Guild: at the Chicago Sun-Times, one columnist/critic, two editorial assistants, and at the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana, one deputy editor and one editorial assistant.

Through layoffs as well as attrition, some non-union workers will head off as well. About twelve positions in editing and production at the Sun-Times, the Post-Tribune and the SouthtownStar are being cut. No news on their names yet.

UPDATE: MobyLives heard back from Hart, who says:

Sadly or happily, as I would say I am not returning to my former employer. Ever since my first day in Chicago, Oct. 2, 1997, my dream was to be a Sun-Times photographer and be just like John White. My dream now doesn’t include working for people who show such disrespect to their employees, and readers.

Last week I was picking up a used crib, I’m expecting twins in June, and when the seller found out I was a photojournalist the first question was what I thought of the Sun-Times layoffs. Without knowing I was one of those let go. It’s still on the minds of people.

I hope my guys who went back do well. I can’t imagine having to work in the newsroom with the very people that thought getting rid of you would be a good idea. Working for an owner who compared your job to a horse buggy driver that is outdated. I went in and interviewed to see what the process would be like, fully expecting to not be considered. I think everyone was curious. I bet no one wanted to go back, but it’s tough to make the kind of money they would get as a freelancer, and I get that.

Working there for 12 years gave me the skills and the confidence to tell a compelling story that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. It’s been such a great 10 months. I’ve got to work for some of my favorite publications and find other outlets for my photography that I never would have pursued. I’m making more money than I did working there, so that’s a bonus. Being a staffer was much easier, but I think freelancing you don’t have to work for people that don’t share your values. Plus at photo conventions everyone wants to buy me a beer, so that’s pretty great!


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.