Not everyone can be a news photographer (even if management thinks so)

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Occasionally I like to highlight recent interesting (and relevant) research into journalism because, frankly, academic researchers do a sadly average job of delivering findings in understandable and widespread form to the practitioners who would benefit from them.

Many news organizations forced to save money in recent years decided they didn’t need all those professional photographers, because after all, any reporter or even any citizen with a smartphone could take a photo or a video good enough to publish. Wish they had been able to read the conclusion of researchers Tara M. Mortensen of the University of South Carolina and Peter J. Gade of the University of Oklahoma. They studied photos published by a medium-sized newspaper in New York before and after the paper laid off its entire photo staff in 2013. Their findings: Compared to non-professionals (citizens, PR), pro photographers “are better at capturing intimate, emotional and graphically appealing images” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 2018). While non-professional photos were “purely informational images of people and places,” pro images more often included “conflict, action, human element (and) timeliness.” They further concluded: “These findings refute suggestions that enhanced digital technology and rapid-fire cameras allow non-professionals to routinely produce photojournalism on par with professionals.” The study also found that photos by reporters remained rare after the layoffs, “suggesting that reporters were seldom expected or capable of shooting photography while on reporting assignments.” But for all the validation of professional photographers, the researchers’ ultimate conclusion was a sad one: Pro photographers had not established enough worth (“legitimacy”) in the minds of management to withstand organizations’ desperate rush to slash the payroll (not unlike assignment editors, copy editors, statehouse reporters, neighborhoods reporters and anyone over 50 who was making a lot of money). Certainly managers knew photo quality would suffer, but they believed marginal yet acceptable alternative sources existed. In other words, they deemed the degree of decline in quality as less than the degree of gain in wealth, and that’s all that mattered. For famous anecdotal support, I’ve posted comparison photos (sized based on their actual page display) from the Chicago Tribune (top) and the Chicago Sun-Times showing the Blackhawks bringing the Stanley Cup to town in 2013. I’m thinking you can figure out which one laid off its photo staff one month earlier.


UAB football: Birmingham’s Team

For awhile now, some UAB football fans have needed to quit worrying about whether the Blazers do or don’t get the same Birmingham media coverage as Alabama and Auburn and do what they finally did in 2018: Ramp up the money and attendance to support the program. Coach Bill Clark, who remarkably chose to stay at UAB despite the shutdown of the program, deserves every piece of praise for producing the most amazing story in college football this season. Hear my December 4, 2018 interview about UAB’s season with WBHM public radio station News Director Gigi Douban. Gigi, a former colleague at The Birmingham News, asked excellent questions, which was no surprise. She’s a terrific journalist who is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how a good journalist can learn and excel on different platforms.

WBHM STORY / INTERVIEW

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Rooting for my student-athletes

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After years of profession-mandated detachment and objectivity, it’s just not in my nature to fervently root for any particular college sports team, not even the Crimson Tide. I’d prefer that Alabama wins everything, but it’s not that big of a deal if it doesn’t. I do, however, fervently root for the student-athletes who’ve been students of mine. I root, for instance, for Jalen Hurts — to play well, which he has, to graduate, which he did, and to play for whatever freakin’ college he wants to regardless of what anyone has to say about it (kinda like, you know, the way coaches go to whatever freakin’ school they wish). After Jalen’s you-wouldn’t-dream-of-this-even-if-you-were-writing-fiction comeback tale in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, I mentioned Jalen in the same large lecture class that Jalen took in a previous semester. Jalen, I told them, always sat in the front row. Jalen, I told them, didn’t even use all the free class absences that I allow. They applauded. To which I offer a fervent “Yay.”