Pure Genius

Q&A: Rob Hart, photojournalist, on how tech is disrupting the media

Q&A: Rob Hart, photojournalist, on how tech is disrupting the media

Posting in Technology

Why a photojournalist who was replaced by a reporter with an iPhone still loves disruptive technology.

Photojournalist Rob Hart -- and the entire photography staff at the Chicago Sun-Times -- was laid off in May and replaced by freelancers and reporters with iPhones. After more than a decade at the Sun-Times, Hart took his frustrations to Tumblr, creating a daily blog that chronicles his post-layoff life.

I spoke with Hart about the evolution of photography tech, the difference between a photojournalist and a reporter with an iPhone and why he still loves disruptive technology. Below are excerpts from our interview.

With the way the media is changing, was your layoff a shock?

For me, it was totally expected. I've seen at least a dozen of my friends laid off from my newspaper and at least 50 from news organizations across the country. It was always a matter of when and not if. I'd been planning the next chapter for a long time. But it's still unbelievable. You don't think it's going to happen to everybody. That was the biggest shock -- the fact that it was the whole staff.

Talk about your time at the Sun-Times. What were some of your best assignments?

I got hired to work in the suburbs for the chain of weeklies they own. I was brought in with a bunch of young people. We were all about 22. The idea was community journalism. We were teamed up, photographers and reporters, and invested in the communities. That was awesome. That was what we wanted to do. We wanted to go to the same places all the time to get to know people. They recognized me at the local high school. It was important that people knew who we were and why we were there and trusted us. I did a photo column off and on for five years. To be able to do your own stories and tell the stories that were important to you and get into people's lives was awesome. Freelancers are great photographers, but they're not invested in the community the way staff was. It was that deep level of storytelling that I think everyone's going to miss.

On your Tumblr blog, Laid off from the Sun-Times, you chronicle your post-layoff life by taking a photo per day on your iPhone. What's the goal of that project?

My goal is to get back to what I loved about photography, which is shooting pictures. I just wanted to produce something that could make other people feel the way I felt about my situation. No one really cares if you lost your job. But we're storytellers. That's what they spent 12 years training me to do: tell stories. I thought this would be a great narrative. What's the arc for me going to be? I thought long and hard about getting all the guys [from the Sun-Times photo staff] to contribute. I realized that was going to be a much bigger undertaking than I had time for. I decided to craft a narrative and build something.

Are you trying to make a point by using the iPhone?

Rob Hart 2.jpg
It's with me. I walked out of the Sun-Times with my Nikon and my iPhone. I shoot pictures with them both independently. But it's so much easier to see something, take a picture [with the iPhone] and upload it right away. Last night, I was lecturing on the history of photojournalism to my [college journalism] students. We start with the first image of a human, which was shot in 1838. It was a 10-minute exposure. We looked at photos on Instagram from Syria and Superstorm Sandy. We're able to take and send photos around the world faster than it took for the first picture of a human being to be exposed. It's pretty cool.

I love disruptive technology. I love the concept that not everything has to be shot with an expensive camera. It's probably the punk rock attitude in me. I love the craft of photojournalism, but I don't think everything needs to be that serious. Sometimes the best thing can be said in the fewest words. That's what I wanted to do. I didn't want to over-intellectualize everything. I just wanted to show what it felt like. It felt like someone punched me in the gut.

It's interesting that you say you love disruptive technology, when that's arguably what cost you your job. How do you reconcile that?

It's going to happen. If you're working for an old media company and you think your job is safe, you're lying to yourself. If you don't think the internet is going to disrupt these channels, that's just crazy. You don't need to own a TV station to broadcast your content. Anybody can get a little funding and produce great content. You don't have to be with the New York Times anymore to tell a story in Syria. You can take your content straight to the consumer. It's going to make consumer content so much better. There has to be more of an entrepreneurial spirit in journalism. That's just the way it's going.

I don't mind losing my job. I loved doing it, but I didn't enjoy how we produced the news and what kind of news we produced. I haven't subscribed to the Sun-Times in 10 years. I loved the idea of the paper more than I loved the actual paper. The fact that news organizations didn't roll with the punches and think about what was coming around the bend, that's not a concern for me. I'm going to keep producing content for people who are going to pay for it. It's probably not going to be media companies.

Other than working on the blog, what else have you been doing since your layoff?

I teach at Medill School of Journalism one night a week. But that's like a full-time job. You want to invest in the students' success. That takes a lot more effort than I imagined. I freelance for the Chicago Tribune once in awhile. I worked for the Wall Street Journal recently. I've done a bunch of work for Northwestern University's publications. For the most part, I've been busy. This is the first week I haven't had any shoots. I've been able to fill up the kiddie pool and play with my daughter.

Are you looking for another newspaper or media job? Do you plan to stick to freelancing for awhile?

I love the freelance lifestyle. I'd like to keep that up. I'm working on helping to launch a news delivery platform called Breaking Voices. Our goal is to empower journalists to tell their stories and use these disruptive technologies to get stories on the web faster. We'll use wifi-enabled cameras and video cameras, so you can step into a situation and be streaming live on the web. We want to cut down on the amount of time it takes for content to be created and for people to be consuming that content. And we want to do it in a way that benefits the journalist. If you don't have the huge overhead of a newspaper, you can put more money into the hands of the people out on the street reporting. We'll use the internet to create a news delivery service that's not just print. We could stream a live TV show and create our own news programs. We could stream a live interview with a senator and have our audience interacting with us via Twitter to pose their own questions. The people who have a vested interest in keeping their companies afloat are not really looking into this.

How has the technology of photojournalism evolved since you started at the Sun-Times?

When I first started, we shot film and ran back to the office. We put the film in the processor, hung the photos up to dry, cut them out and scanned them. We went fully digital in 2003 and totally mobile around 2008, when we started sending photos from the field. The technology side has totally changed, but the way you go about filling that rectangle is exactly the same. The hustle it takes to get to stories, to get people to let you in their house, to know what to include and exclude and to know how to tell a story hasn't changed. The process of reporting isn't going to change. For photographers, we have so much more technology. We used to shoot iPhone photos and send them back. Whenever I got to a fire, I'd shoot a cell phone picture and email it back to the web desk, so they could get something up right away. We, in a way, were paving the way for this. But those cell phone pictures were always pretty terrible, even mine.

What's the difference between a trained photojournalist and a reporter with an iPhone?

The big difference is experience. Reporters use a totally different portion of their brain. When they show up, they're asking questions like, 'What happened?' Photographers have to be there when it's happening. Reporters do a lot of their work from their desks. When you have to churn out X amount of stories per day, you can't always spend an hour driving to locations. It's a different way of gathering the news. If you expect one person to do two jobs, one or both of them will probably suffer.

What are your thoughts on how technology is transforming photojournalism -- and the media as a whole? Where is this transformation going?

Technology is going to make [photojournalism] faster and cheaper. If you think about what the iPhone can do, how many years before a digital SLR camera is wifi-enabled? I might be able to take photos of a protest in Syria and upload it to whatever content system I'm using. If an iPhone can do it, a camera can't be that far off. It's going to enable more reporters to produce and distribute their content. Why do you need the Chicago Tribune website to distribute your content? It's just a portal. Twitter is allowing us to build an audience. There are a lot of reporters I follow on Twitter, but I don't follow the newspaper they work for. The media companies are allowing us to build our own following. As soon as we can find a way to monetize that, we don't need them anymore.

Photo, top: Rob Hart

Photo, bottom: Rob Hart's daughter, from his Tumblr

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure