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Capturing the ‘weight of the profession’

Posted January 10, 2020
By Carolyn Click, instructor in the Senior Semester Capstone program
Top photo: Emily Aysse prepares for a stand-up on the university's historic Horseshoe.

When Hayden Blakeney set out to capture Senior Semester in black and white photographs, did he also intend to express the fundamental mission of Senior Semester? That is, did he set out last fall to tell a story (or stories) with fierce honesty, through images that explain the human condition in all its complexity? 

Well, perhaps he would not cop to so lofty an aim. But as I scrolled through images he snapped with an SLR camera and had developed in a professional darkroom (a darkroom!), I was struck by the integrity of his work. Yes, there are the usual millennial poses, the ironic smiles, the knowing glances. But tucked amid the Instagram images are the photographic stories of young people telling stories as they learn the craft of journalism.

“I wanted to capture the experience of being in this class, including the fun, stress and terror,” Blakeney, a senior from Fountain Inn, South Carolina, said. He chronicled Senior Semester in his down time, when he wasn't reporting and writing stories.

While his specialty was political reporting, his gift with a camera was quietly powerful.  You feel the tension as Hanna Powers, a senior from Washington, D.C., and Natalie Chuck from Fort Mill, South Carolina, prepare rundowns for the 4 and 4:30 p.m. newscast under the watchful eye of instructor Rick Peterson. You see the stress in Dara Khaalid’s face as she prepares to do a stand-up amid shouting protesters and supporters gathered for President Trump’s October visit to Benedict College. You feel Lauren Davis’ concentration as she peers through the camera and experience Michael Rogers’ intensity as he takes his place in the control room. You see the joy of covering the State Fair in the faces of Logan Cherry and Ashley Dale Henslee. 

The 12-credit Senior Semester capstone program is an intense 9-5 Monday-Friday newsroom experience that sets SJMC apart from other American journalism schools. We have two live news shows, one at 4 p.m. and one at 4:30 p.m., with rotating staff members and an all-hands-on-deck mentality. While the broadcast students are scrambling to meet a 3 p.m. scripts deadline, the multimedia students are working to post to the Senior Semester website with dailies and longform stories that expand on the issues of the day, from politics to breaking news and features.

We instructors — Peterson, a veteran broadcaster who arrived in 1997, four years after the program's founding;  Greg Brannon, a broadcaster with 25 years of sports media experience in the Carolina Panthers organization; Scott Farrand, a graphics and photography whiz with a newspaper background; and me, a wire service and newspaper reporter with more than three decades of reporting and editing experience — have to remain nimble to stay ahead of this rollicking newsroom crowd.

These young people are digital natives comfortable with the Wild West of social media, but we bring the weight of the profession into the room. We teach them how to report and edit, how to conduct interviews (in person, preferably), how to shoot compelling, evocative video that tells a story with accuracy. We are there to remind them of journalism’s legacy, its absolute importance in this great American democratic undertaking even in the midst of turmoil. 

Explaining Senior Semester can be a mystery. Peeking in the door is instructive but not fully informative.

 “People told me about Senior Semester, but I never really understood what it was about until I was in it,” Tyler Walters, a senior from Reevesville, South Carolina, remarked during his portfolio presentation at the end of the fall 2019 semester. 

Anyone who has been part of a newsroom knows how difficult it can be to describe the atmosphere. Personalities are enlarged. Close quarters and approaching deadlines stir emotions. The daily victories — the newscast with a terrific A- and B-block, the web story that sings, the photograph that moves, the sportscast that rocks – must be repeated again and again. But life lessons are there for the taking. You know who shows up on time, who can pivot on a dime, who you can count on to stay through final edits.

The fall 2019 class is lucky to have Hayden’s photographs as a reminder of this comprehensive newsroom experience. Years from now, working in newsrooms across the country or in other jobs that require critical thinking, I suspect they will look back and marvel at their youth, their angst, their joy and their intensity — and, yes, even the terror of first walking through the newsroom door.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.