John White on Sun-Times layoffs: ‘It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture’

John White’s 44-year career at The Chicago Sun-Times has been rooted in faith and professionalism. It’s a career he refers to as “an assignment from God.”

John White

Earlier this week, that career came to an end on what some photographers have called the darkest day in Sun-Times photojournalism history. The paper announced Thursday that it had laid off its entire photojournalism staff and would rely on freelance photographers and reporters instead.

White — who has seen the paper go through many owners and changes — says he never imagined that his and his colleagues’ careers would end so abruptly.

In a phone interview, the 1982 Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and teacher recalled a day that he is still “trying to make sense of.”

“This is what I remember hearing: ‘As you know we are going forward into multimedia and video, and that is going to be our focus. So we are eliminating the photography department.’ Then they turned it over to HR,” recounted White, who had already been doing video at the paper.

White said it all began with an email alert on Wednesday evening directing the staff to attend a 9:30 am meeting on Thursday — which White said was “only the second meeting with the new managers.” He called the meeting “intimidating” and said “there was a toxic and unkind spirit in the office.”

White said the 28 full-time photography department staffers who received the news seemed shocked: “It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photojournalism.”

Those being laid off were asked to return company equipment, White said, and their access badges were demagnetized while they were receiving their layoff packages.

The changing photojournalism landscape

The Sun-Times plans to rely on reporters to take photos and videos and has begun mandatory “iPhone photography basics.” Its decision is just the latest example of a disconcerting trend in American media: professional photojournalism is being downsized and devalued, with news organizations increasingly turning to wire services, citizen-submitted content and independent/freelance contributions.

The elimination of an entire photography staff is fairly uncommon among daily larger newspapers, but it’s not unprecedented. In 2008, Newsday terminated its 20-person photography staff and then allowed them to reapply for new multimedia jobs. It comes as no coincidence that Tim Knight, who’s now the publisher of the Sun-Times, was the publisher at Newsday when that transition was implemented.

Former Sun-Times managing editor Gregory Favre was disturbed and perplexed by the news. Favre said by phone that he “can’t imagine not having a devoted staff that is focused on accurately portraying the city. … I cannot think of how you capture the culture and essence of such a vibrant city without a photographic staff. There is no substitute for professionalism in the craft.”

Favre added that “with freelancers and independent photographers, there is a loss of loyalty. … Most reporters will deliver point-and-shoot snapshots, not penetrating and revealing coverage. Skilled professionals bring a unique eye and feel to their craft.”

Favre compared the loss of a paper’s in-house staff to “cutting the eyes out of the body. … John White was the eye that was always looking for the soul of Chicago.”

Dealing with the shock

While several of the dismissed Sun-Times photographers gathered at the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue to console themselves, White hopped into his car and headed to the lake in dire need of meditation, recalling that he “just wanted to disappear and needed to be alone.”

John White on Chicago’s lakefront at sunrise on Easter Sunday, 2012.
Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

He and his Sun-Times colleagues are just the latest professional photographers to face a daunting revelation: Their employers know their work is at the highest level of excellence, but aren’t willing to pay for it.

White said he was most concerned about his colleagues — the former students, young families and folks who came in while on medical leave. He also worries about readers, who will no longer be able to experience “the most important ingredient of communication and understanding” in quite the same way.

“Humanity is being robbed,” he said, “by people with money on their minds.”

While by the lake, White turned to a reading from Psalm 20:4: “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.”

He reiterated: “My assignment comes from God.”

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  • Amber Collier

    just as Judith responded I’m taken by surprise that someone able to make $5853 in 4 weeks on the computer. have you seen this site w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • hbarca

    Hope everyone got a chance to see the pathetic photo of a chick-a-fil sandwich in the Sun-Times instead of a photo of the crowd lined up around the block. My prediction of more handout art took one day to be fulfilled.

  • JTFloore

    one of the great pleasures of reading Sports Illustrated is that it s still devoted to the kind of excellent photography that its parent publication, LIFE magazine, pioneered.

  • JTFloore

    no, sadly, they do not know. the people who own and manage newspapers sold out to the internet long before they had to. they were still trying to sell subscriptions even as they began GIVING IT AWAY for free on the internet. anybody with walking-around sense knows that was beyond stupid.

  • Aputure

    May John H. White embark on a successful freelance career! God knows he has the talent. May the Chicago Sun Times fade into oblivion…

  • Cyn

    I worked with John White, back when I was a young upstart features reporter at the Chicago Sun Times, also sitting desk to desk with my dear departed friend Roger Ebert. I left decades ago, but when I heard about this, I wondered if John was still there. I am so sorry that his impressive career ended so abruptly and impersonally. I went through a similar experience back when the Daily News folded and the powers that be at the Sun Times took that opportunity to do some “shuffling.” John was there, then, too. I surived the cuts, but still felt the pain. Thinking of the old days, John, as I read all this. And I am sooooo sorry…

  • Evan Jane Kriss

    John White, I shall never forget you and our years together at The Eddie Adams Workshop, nor shall I forget your beautiful and inspiring spirit which you so freely shared with others. I still have the guardian angel pin you gave me attached to a note, which read “Keep in Flight.” Those words have sustained me over the years, as I hope they do you, going forward. I too have met with a shortened end to my photo editing career due to similar reasons. We both will find a way, and know you are much loved and admired by many, and always will be. Stay strong and keep the faith.

  • tomstites

    I left The Sun-Times for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1970 but had the great good fortune to work with John White for almost a year. As young as he was then, he already had plenty to teach.

    In those days, the Newspaper Guild would have gone berserk if a reporter had been assigned to make a photograph. Are Sun-Times editorial people still unionized? If so, why isn’t the union howling?

  • lordblazer

    the same can be said of anyone that’s alive in this era of commercialism and decadence. They exist, and are still getting considerable internet traffic. That meas someone is getting the information.

  • dong phuc

    love this much

  • anabomb25

    Good point & everyone is asked to upload their videos during news events & it doesn’t cost them a cent

  • anabomb25

    Of course but again they are not going there.

  • anabomb25

    Just remember 1000 years is but a day to the Lord.

  • terrymurray

    I’m sorry to say that I’m glad I’m nearing the end of my career too. This is an amazing development – as in, amazingly terrible.

  • lordblazer

    you do know that newspapers have websites too?

  • henry44

    Sorry, but you reporter with a camera phones can’t ‘replace’ professional photographers. Whoever made this decision knows nothing about the power of images. Good day.

  • Ralph Kruse

    My grandpa said the same thing when I was five years old. I’m 25. I don’t think it would be too hard to imagine someone in the early 19th century saying the same during the Industrial Revolution.

  • milton haworth

    I am only glad that I am at the end of my career, 50 years as a press photographer. Champagne lifestyle with pauper’s pockets. War Zones, Rock shows, Sports Highlights. Its been a great life but, This is the end of an era and that paper is doomed plus the reporters morals are surely questionable actually agreeing to do the work of photographers as are the unions. Where are they now?

  • milton haworth

    Why are reporters agreeing to do the photographers jobs? The MFs.! Don’t the owners know the circulation will plummet?

  • Nononana

    I am part of the younger generation that reads my news online and I disagree that excellent photography is unnecessary. I want to read my news and will not click on a video-only article. I would much rather turn on the TV for that. Photos capture single moments in a way video will never be able to.

  • Paul Grajnert

    This is of course another sign that the Sun Times is running out of steam. It’s a zombie paper.

  • Eric Palmer

    A person that can only point and shoot is unable to do feature photography or in-depth feature photography. Without that, it is just another reason to abandon the dead-tree media.

  • anabomb25

    I don’t know about that. I am a baby boomer we are the only ones still reading newspapers. My children and grandchildren are on the Internet. Just 22 years ago my family had no cell phones no laptop no PC. Internet never heard of that. GPS Drones think about it. We are in a fast pace its a sign of the coming of the Lord. When man’s knowledge has increased.

  • AK Foto

    I’m sickened by this. John White, you are a hero to many and I will be forever grateful. You spoke to me like an adult and with great respect. That was so encouraging! Thank you your quote on the situation comes from a perspective of great thought and critical thinking. Peace.

  • hbarca

    You missed a major – probably the major – component of the new photography culture at the Sun-Times: Hand-out art. Just as news is softened to become more like P.R., the images will be softened too. You’ll also see pictures cooked by photoshop and I am sure a complete fabrication just waiting for the Sun-Times in the immediate future. But that is what happens when vulture investment firms buy newspapers.

  • Kathryn J Maver

    My heart breaks for all of these journalists. And so does God’s, Mr. White. So does God’s.

  • Robb Montgomery

    John. H White. My friend, my mentor. My colleague. I miss you.
    Trust me brother, Chicago still needs you.

    This gentle hero has produced iconic news images and The Sun-Times brand was BUILT on their news photo reputation.

    You can see some of that great work in this gallery:

    And you can hear how John approaches light and subjects in this short film interview.