May 30, 2014

One year ago today, the Chicago Sun-Times eliminated its photo staff, laying off 28 full-time employees.

Most of them have landed on their feet, according to email and phone interviews with many of the photographers. While they were sometimes hesitant to dwell on the layoffs, the former Sun-Times staffers filled me in on how their lives — and those of the photographers I couldn’t reach — have changed since May 30, 2013.

(Disclaimer: I used to work at the Sun-Times, but I didn’t work directly with any of the photographers interviewed for this piece.)

Here’s a rough breakdown of where they ended up:

— Four were rehired by the Sun-Times in March with the title “multimedia journalist” under terms of a new contract the newspaper signed with the Chicago Newspaper Guild. Notably, these are the only four of the 28 who appear to have ended up back in the newspaper business full-time.

— Four were effectively forced into early retirement. Said 61-year-old Ernie Torres, who worked at the Sun-Times for four decades: “I’ve kinda hung up the camera right now.” Having time off with his grandchildren has been “fantastic,” but his unemployment checks have run out, so he’s going to start looking for a way to supplement his wife’s income.

— Four have been hired by Yahoo. Tom Delany, formerly of the Lake County News-Sun, started at Yahoo in January after the company contacted the Sun-Times looking to improve its photo quality. Delany’s former Sun-Times manager referred Yahoo to him and three of his former colleagues. All four now have the title “search editor” at Yahoo.

— Three have found photo jobs at nearby universities and colleges.

— At least three have shifted industries entirely, including one who returned to fighting fires.

— One has gone back to school after missing out on a staff photographer job because he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.

Most of the rest seem to have turned to freelance photography as a full-time gig, with varying degrees of success. Others continue to freelance even after starting other work.

‘Every week I have to hit a quota’

If you know anything about what happened to the Sun-Times photographers last year, you’ve probably seen, heard or read about Rob Hart.

It was a smart move to be the most public face of the Sun-Times 28.

“[The Sun-Times] basically gave me a crapload of free advertising that I was a freelancer,” Hart told me. “That made this year what it was.”

Rob Hart

The year included talks on college campuses, lots of media interviews (including this one), and his widely shared Tumblr blog about being laid off. That viral marketing has connected him with clients better than passing out business cards ever could, he said.

The work has been fairly steady, Hart told me, but most of it isn’t for newspapers. Just 17 percent of his freelance pay last year was from shooting editorial. But he estimated editorial accounted for 40 percent of his assignments. That’s because shooting for newspapers generally pays less than shooting for institutions such as Northwestern University.

“One of the things I learned was that you can’t make it doing editorial,” said Hart, who also teaches photojournalism at Northwestern. He wishes he could do more journalism, but he enjoyed “getting off the daily news treadmill.” He feels more appreciated as a freelancer and has more of an incentive to do his best work: “Every job is like your first date, or your third date.”

The other big freelance lesson Hart has learned: Stick to a quota every week, even if you’ve just had a really good one. Last week was the best week he’s had yet — about $4,000 in work — but that doesn’t mean he could take it easy this week. It’s about balancing bad weeks with good ones.

The hardest part of freelance life? Maintaining family time. It’s hard to turn down a lucrative job, but those can be unpredictable, he said. He hopes to have a job with more regular hours again, but his freelance success means he can afford to be a little picky. “It has not been easy,” he said, “but it’s been more fun.”

‘A whole new world’

Michelle LaVigne spent ten years at Pioneer Press. But her new business as a portrait and wedding photographer means she’s thinking about photography in ways she never did before. Lighting, for example, was something she never had to put too much effort into when shooting for a newspaper.

Michelle LaVigne

“I’m more motivated to learn more about my flash, and about studio lighting, and different kinds of lenses, and different kinds of cameras,” she said. “It’s exciting and sometimes I want to scream. It’s a whole new world.”

While she still freelances for the Northwest Herald, she gets to spend most of her time learning new things about having a studio and running a business. “I didn’t think I was burned out when I was working for the paper, but now I realize that I was too much in a routine,” she said.

And LaVigne echoed Hart’s feelings about her work being more appreciated now. When people see her at a wedding, they say, “yay, a photographer.” That’s rarer when you’re covering the news.

‘What’s it matter if you have a piece of paper?’

Brian Powers, meanwhile, calls himself a hopeless romantic when it comes to working at newspapers: “I think getting back on staff is where I want to be, and I think staff jobs will always be out there.”

Brian Powers

As a 23-year-old in 2010, Powers realized he didn’t need a college degree to be a full-time staff photographer at the Aurora Beacon News, a suburban Sun-Times paper.

But in 2013, after being laid off, it turned out he needed that degree after all. He missed out on a staff photographer job because he didn’t finish his degree at Western Kentucky University, so last year he returned to journalism school with an expected graduation date of May 2015. His freelance assignments and his wife’s job make finishing his degree possible.

(LaVigne and Hart also cited their spouses as essential forms of support — both monetary and emotional — since being laid off.)

School is different now, Powers said. “Being in the professional world has helped put things in perspective just in terms of how student life goes,” he told me. “Taking a test doesn’t seem like the end of the world. Finals week isn’t, ‘Oh, my God’.”

When he was last in school, one class required him to build a website in Flash, and video wasn’t a major part of the curriculum. Now he’ll graduate with 2014 skills instead of 2010 skills, and he’ll have more than three years of professional experience behind him, too.

In the meantime, he says, college allows him to learn new skills in a better environment: “It’s been cool to come back to school and learn all the stuff we were trying to fumble through at the paper.”

Correction: A line in this article was amended to reflect the fact that institutions like Northwestern, not just Northwestern, generally offer better-paid assignments than newspapers do. Some newspapers pay comparable rates.

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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