CHICAGO (CBS) — In an unprecedented move, the Chicago Sun-Times has laid off nearly its entire staff of photographers.

The layoffs include several award-winning photo journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winner John White.

The Chicago Tribune reports the layoffs affect about 20 employees. Crain’s Chicago Business pegged the layoffs at 20 to 30 photographers.

Craig Rosenbaum with the Chicago Newspaper Guild says the layoffs affect photographers at the Sun-Times and the company-owned suburban publications.

Former Sun Times picture editor Richard Cahan saw the move as a “sad development” driven by economics.

“I’m sure why is they feel that it’s an economic liability to have these photographers on staff, and that they think that they can be more economical by hiring freelancers,” he said.

Cahan said elimination of the Sun-Times staff photographers marked a shift away from the idea of photography as a profession.

Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism Professor Michelle Weldon said the layoffs are sad, but not surprising

“Staff photographers have been going away from print media for about the last five years, as the reason stated was moving more into video and digital news,” she said.

Weldon said Medill tells incoming students they have to be proficient in audio and video production, Flash software, and html coding, as well as traditional print style writing to accommodate the new reality of multimedia news delivery systems.

Layoffs in the newspaper business have become a fact of life over the past 10 years or more.

Rarely, if ever, has a major metropolitan newspaper decimated an entire editorial department, let alone one as critical as photographers.

In a statement, the Sun-Times would not confirm the number of photographers affected, saying:

“The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”

The Tribune reported that the paper will use free-lance reporters who will also shoot photos and video.

The Sun-Times has been hemorrhaging circulation–and money–for years and has implemented repeated rounds of layoffs over the last decade or more.

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