Sun-Times photographer talks about being laid off

Nearly 30 photographers at the Chicago Sun-Times Media Group were laid off effective immediately on Thursday and later some of them commiserated at a legendary watering hole in downtown Chicago.

Michael Smart, a staff photographer since 1998 at the Elgin Courier-News, a Sun-Times Media Group newspaper, said the photo staff was asked to be in the Chicago office for a mandatory 9:30 a.m. meeting. That’s where Managing Editor Jim Kirk told them the company was moving in a direction of more multimedia and cutting the photo staff was how it plans to do that, Smart said.

“He came out, laid it on the line, and left,” Smart said. He said Kirk’s comments lasted about a minute and Kirk did not answer any questions.

The affected photographers then were directed to a human resources representative to complete paperwork and determine how to return company-owned equipment. Smart said his last full paycheck will be Friday. A final paycheck, which should include vacation time already earned, will be June 14.

He and several staffers then gathered at the Billy Goat Tavern.

“How am I going to afford kids, everything else?” Smart said. “I’ll just make do. I’ll figure it out.”

Kirk and Sun-Times spokeswoman Alisa Alexander did not immediately respond to calls or emails seeking further comment. Besides the Chicago Sun-Times, Sun-Times Media includes Pioneer Press, the Aurora Beacon-News, Naperville Sun, Elgin Courier-News, Joliet Herald-News, Lake County News-Sun, Post-Tribune and the Daily SouthtownStar.

Last December, the Sun-Times closed its suburban offices and consolidated some of those workers with its flagship office in Chicago, a move Kirk said at the time was related to suburban operations being “too small to continue to function” as separate entities and planned to focus more on digital products. Others said it was to save money. In addition, the new Grid business magazine was changed from a weekly to a monthly.

The Newspaper Guild-CWA said in a statement that it was stunned by the announcement affecting 28 employees, including 20 union members.

“This is offensive and wrong on so many levels,” Guild President Bernie Lunzer said. “As a union, we are deeply concerned about the workers who are losing good, family-wage jobs. As an organization of journalists, we are appalled that any newspaper would treat its photojournalists as expendable. I have learned time and again how the eye of a professional photographer can see and express things that I can’t. Apparently some accountant/manager can see and express things that I can’t understand. Because this makes no sense.”

Lunzer said the guild and its members, who immediately took to social media to denounce the decision, will “make the case and put as much public pressure on the Sun-Times as possible” to try to persuade the company to reverse course.

Chicago Newspaper Guild Executive Director Craig Rosenbaum said longtime Sun-Times photographer Rich Hein was spared, along with two others.

Eliminating those photographers on Thursday signaled the end of photojournalism at the Sun-Times, said Joel Lerner, a former Pioneer Press photographer for nearly 19 years. Earlier this year, he joined the staff of the lifestyle newspaper North Shore Weekend.

“It’s sad, but not surprising,” he said. “But I am surprised at the volume of it ... It’s a sad day. They’re letting go a lot of really good photographers.”

Smart, a Huntley resident, is married with two children. His wife does not work.

“In the back of our minds, we always thought it’s coming, as far as the demise of the paper and the newspaper industry itself. but you get so busy with your daily routine, you got a job to do, and then of course dealing with kids, there’s barely time to think about what I need to do next,” Smart said. “In hindsight, yeah, I should have (done something about it), but I’m the kind of person who waits until the very end, I’m the last guy on the plane that’s going down. I’ll figure it out, you’re forced to, what are you gonna do?”

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