The Chicago Sun-Times made news by laying off all 28 of their full-time staff photographers. It's not surprising that a lot of people have begun to rally behind the photographers, especially since the paper is counting on the remaining journalists to become mobile photographers. Fortunately, the dust has been settling over the past couple weeks. It's easier to see possible futures, such as emphasizing online publishing. The reactions have run the gamut, but most of them have blamed the Sun-Times, which once advertised itself as "The Picture Newspaper." Most people seem to believe that the paper didn't have the need for any full-time photojournalists because the combination of freelance photographers, wire photos, reporter photos, and submissions from the public would be sufficient.
To be clear, the Sun-Times isn't saying there's no need for professional photographers. In fact all the photojournalists were rehired as freelancers. It seems the move was likely made to reduce costs now, and to open up the possibility for the Sun-Times to shift some work away from professionals in the future.
Why a professional photographer
Many people at first wouldn't see big differences between photos taken by professional and casual photographers, but the differences are there. They make the shot more compelling and easier for the viewer to understand the story it tells.
The first thing you notice is the intended subject is easy to spot. As your eye moves around, you see the different parts all contribute to the story. As you think about why the image is compelling, you notice there are few distractions (they're either missing or out of focus), the lighting is good, and the composition is pleasing.
It's not all about the equipment. While better gear helps pros get shots which are technically better (and work quickly since they know exactly how the gear will respond), patience and experience are the biggest differences. Patience helps them take the time to try different angles and compositions. Experience gives them the knowledge to know what will work, what won't, and what is worth trying as an experiment.
Professionals still in the mix
Professionals are also good at getting into places most people can't, knowing where to position themselves at an event to get a good shot, and working with people. The Sun-Times will still get those benefits not only with freelance photographers but with the images which are made available through wire services.
The training being given to the reporters presumably will help them "tell visual stories." Over time, their skills will surely improve; it will be interesting to see if the story and associated multimedia become more tightly integrated. These photos will probably be mostly used online. The larger photos used in print will probably be from the photojournalists, as well as shots which require catching fleeting moments (such as sports).
It's all about coverage
I saw one quote claiming "Apple's iPhone is killing off newspaper photographers," which is obviously hyperbole. Setting aside the fact that people are taking photos with more than one brand of camera phone, the Sun-Times is trying to expand their options for multimedia. In the long run, I wouldn't be surprised if the freelance photographers end up with less work, being reserved for high-impact jobs.
Non-photojournalists are certainly capable of compelling photography, such as Seattle Times news designer Rick Lund's shots of the fallen Skagit River Bridge, which even got picked up by the news wires. He was at the right place at the right time and took the opportunity to try to get the best shot he could, including going through blackberry bushes and a barbed-wire fence to get onto the bridge deck.
Professional photojournalists, either staff or freelance, are a limited resource. They can't be present at all events, especially for breaking stories. Relying on reporters to supply photos increases their coverage, and including photos from the public makes it possible to have extremely wide coverage.
Commodity or specialty?
While we're talking about the moves of one paper, it wouldn't surprise me to see other papers reducing their use of professional photojournalists and increasing reliance of reporters and the public. One reason for this could be that the public, feeling empowered to take photos, sees providing images as a commodity.
There will always be a place for professional photographers. Yes, amateurs can take great shots, and professionals can take duds. On average, though, the difference is between capturing a moment and telling a story. It's that skill which keeps the professional photojournalists' work a specialty.