Why Sports Illustrated laid off all of its photographers

Can news organizations survive without photographers on staff? That question jolted the media world Friday after Sports Illustrated laid off its entire roster.

Photographers haven't been hit with a layoff of that scale since The Chicago Sun-Times cut its entire 28-person photo staff in 2013. The newspaper said it would use freelance photographers and ask its reporters to do some shooting of their own, though it did end up rehiring four.

The move by Sports Illustrated, owned by Time (TIME), was particularly notable because beautiful photographs dominate its print pages and online articles. And while it seems unthinkable for a publication so reliant on high-caliber images to cut its photographers, it had only six of them on its staff. Many photos on its pages come from Getty Images, the Associated Press and other providers.

Sports Illustrated needed to expand its coverage, and the staff changes were part of its plan to accomplish that, spokesman Scott Novak told CBS MoneyWatch. "It was a strategic decision to approach photography in a bold new way that will give us access to more resources around the world and to maintain the standard of quality that Sports Illustrated fans are used to."

Novak added that readers shouldn't see any difference in the publication's images. "It was really about how do we do even more with photography in the most effective way for our audience in light of the expanding global sports world," he said.

Sports photographers said they were not surprised about the move since they have watched the magazine use more images from outside vendors over the years. Flying staff photographers around the world and picking up their travel, lodging and other expenses "gets very expensive very fast, and I'm sure Time was looking at it as a business decision," said Haim Ariav, founder of Glossy Finish by Lifetouch, a sports photography company in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

It can be much less expensive to hire local photographers and ask them to upload their images over the Internet to Sports Illustrated's servers, Ariav added. "There is a lot of talent out there in the freelance pool, and I think Sports Illustrated has realized that," he said.

As advanced cameras and lenses have become more affordable, there are more photographers in the market than ever before, and the younger ones who grew up with technology have broader skills, said Larry Bashore, president of VSN Photography, a sports photography company in Sinking Spring, Penn.

From an industry perspective, Sports Illustrated's layoffs were inevitable, Bashore said. "Appreciation of 'fantastic' images has been diminished over the years," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "As digital technology has grown, we are bombarded with images like never before, and increasingly we view the images on small devices."

Advances in technology even allow publications to pull a digital still shot from a video. The images likely won't be good enough for a double-page spread in a magazine, but they can work for blogs and other websites, Ariav said.

That doesn't mean traditional photography is on the way out. But media business models continue to change as technology develops, and even the more specialized field of photography is not immune. "The times continue to evolve," Ariav added.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.