Knowing when to break the rules: A great example of chronological storytelling in journalism

Journalism has a number of rules that get drilled into you when you start in the field. A crucial one is that you don’t want to lapse into chronology in your storytelling. If you find yourself telling a story as an event unfolded, you’re hiding important aspects of the story deeper in the piece and not telling the story in a descending order of importance.

As with most rules in journalism, this one can and should be broken when the story demands it, as was the case with Dave McMenamin’s piece on how the Los Angeles Lakers learned of Kobe Bryant’s death. McMenamin tells the story in a temporal fashion, starting with the players getting on the plane on the east coast and then working through the flight.

THE WEARY GROUP trudged across the tarmac and onto the team plane at Philadelphia International Airport.

Awaiting the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of their 10-day, five-game road trip was a cross-country trek back to L.A., with an 11 a.m. ET departure time allowing for a 2:05 p.m. PT scheduled arrival time. This meant their Sunday was supposed to be salvaged by some semblance of an off day in Southern California, after touring through Houston, Boston, New York and Philly amid the chill that comes with late January in the Northeast.

The traveling party filed in — broadcasters, media relations and team support staff in the back; coaching staff, training staff and players in separate sections going from tail to cockpit. It was one of those flights where those in window seats pulled the shades down as soon as they sat down, looking to doze off before the plane even took off.

In telling the story this way, McMenamin doesn’t deprive the readers of important content: The story of Bryant’s death was already weeks old when this story ran. In addition, he uses a heavy amount of description without saturating the reader with overwrought emotional language.

The temporal nature of the flight serves as the thread of the story as McMenamin shows the reader what happened, how the information diffused through the plane from passenger to passenger. He also explains the emotional state of feeling hurt and yet helpless.  The piece gives the readers both the sense of connection the players felt with each other in the moment as well as the isolation they felt from the rest of the world, trapped on a plane thousands of feet in the air.

Beyond the story arc itself, McMenamin does a fantastic job of reporting in this, gathering everything from the details of the game film the coach was breaking down to the size of Dwight Howard, who fled to a tiny bathroom to weep privately. His reporting also required him to be tactful in drawing out details about an extremely difficult moment in these players’ lives.

It’s a great, tough story that showcases the talent and skill of a writer who knew which path to take and what information to get. It’s a keeper, for sure.

The “Do You Believe In Miracles?” AP Style Quiz

Forty years ago today, the United States Hockey team won the gold medal at the Lake Placid Olympics, defeating Finland 4-2 in a game that almost no one remembers. That’s because two days earlier, the U.S. beat the Soviet Union, in an upset that became known as “the Miracle on Ice.”

Herb Brooks, who coached the University of Minnesota hockey team to three NCAA championships, built a team of 20 skaters from the college and minor-league ranks to compete against the best the world could provide. The Soviet Union built its team of professionals, men trained to play the game since boyhood and then placed on the Red Army team, where they honed those skills throughout the year.

The Soviets were in line to win their fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal in 1980, having not only destroyed whatever amateur competition the world could provide, but having crushed the NHL in a series of exhibition contests over the years. (The glorious exception being the 1972 Summit Series and a 1976 beating the Philadelphia Flyers put on them.) They cruised into the medal round, expecting to win easily.

The U.S. eked its way into the medal round, having tied Sweden in the opening game of the tournament and then defeating Norway, West Germany, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The semi-final game against the Russians took place on Friday at 5 p.m., despite U.S. attempts to get the game moved to prime time for TV.

Despite being out-shot 39-16 and never leading throughout the first 50 minutes of the game, the U.S. ended up taking a lead with exactly 10 minutes to play in the third period. Mike Eruzione’s shot on Vladimir Myshkin found the back of the net and the U.S. had a 4-3 advantage. Despite pelting goalie Jim Craig with a barrage of shots over the next 10 minutes, the Russians couldn’t solve him.

In honor of this monumental event, which I could spend a few hundred thousand words yammering on and on about, I put together this AP style quiz based on the Miracle on Ice team and its Olympic run.

Click here to try it out. You don’t need an account to play, but if you have one, it will track your score for an overall ranking. Challenge your professor to play and post a screen shot of your victory to claim bragging rights.

Click here to start the quiz.

Former WSU student newspaper editor earns Polk Award for political writing two years out of school

Two years ago, Chance Swaim was fighting for the future of his student newspaper at Wichita State University. This week, he was honored for his fight against corruption as a journalist with the Wichita Eagle:

Three Wichita Eagle staff members won one of the nation’s top journalism awards for work that included investigations into how former Mayor Jeff Longwell steered a lucrative city contract to friends and supporters.

The George Polk Award for political reporting was shared by Chance Swaim, Jonathan Shorman and Dion Lefler of The Eagle and Luke Broadwater of The Baltimore Sun, it was announced Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The reporters were cited “for turning journalistic intuition into deep dives into public records that revealed municipal misconduct,” according to a news release.

I remember interviewing Swaim after the student government at WSU slashed the paper’s budget, something he noted would lead to “an inelegant death for a 123-year-old student-run newspaper.” In talking with him and emailing with him, I never got the sense he was panicked. Instead, he seemed to have both a sense of the situation and a sense that his staff would somehow find a way to make this work.

At the core of the fight over The Sunflower’s funding was a fundamental failure of the student government to a) understand the importance of a good student newspaper and b) a failure to abide by open-meeting rules and legal procedures to conduct its business. Swaim and his staff consistently pushed on those issues throughout the battle against these cuts, making the case that it wasn’t all about his folks, but about the needs of the campus community.

The Sunflower eventually won, avoiding the funding cut that year and receiving full funding the next. Swaim graduated and took a job at the Eagle, where he continued his efforts to dig into things that mattered and feed his need to be nosy for his readers.

Congratulations to Swaim and his colleagues for this prestigious honor on an important story.

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory: Why the public vs. private tweeting debate for journalists doesn’t matter

Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute asked the question that journalists have wrestled with since their profession became the social purview of the world at large:

One of the more complicated issues newsrooms are dealing with these days is employee conduct on social media, especially Twitter.

Here’s what I mean: A reporter tweets something controversial about the news. Is that reporter expressing his or her own opinion? Or are they representing the company they work for?

This issue became an issue again when the Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez for tweeting about the 2003 rape allegation against Kobe Bryant within minutes of Bryant’s death breaking as news. The paper eventually determined that Sonmez didn’t break any of its rules with her tweet, even though editor Marty Baron disseminated a memo that urged caution and restraint for Post staff in the future.

As Jones pointed out in his piece, this isn’t a new thing for media folks. Veteran sports journalist Jemele Hill found herself in the middle of a social-media controversy back in 2017when she called the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and got tagged with a two-week suspension from ESPN. She left the network in 2018 and joined The Atlantic, noting it was a place “where discomfort is OK.” Back in 2013, PR practitioner Justine Sacco found that a single tweet could destroy a person’s life in less than a day. Even after more than a year, Sacco was unable to live down her tweet. It took several more years for her to eventually recover from that single moment.

(This isn’t even just a “media professional thing” in terms of social media leading to concerns in other parts of life. Ask Roseanne Barr, umpire Rob Drakecomedian Gilbert Gottfried, Elon Musk or any one of a dozen other folks about how social media posts led to ramifications in other parts of their lives.)

Journalists traditionally believe in several key tenets that make life difficult when it comes to this idea of public vs. private person in social media communication:

  • They value openness, which means they don’t want to be silent on a topic that matters to them, hide information or allow themselves to be censored.
  • They value the sharing of information with interested audience members.
  • They believe in being involved in stuff, so when something is happening, they feel the need to chime in.
  • They like to produce content, and in most “traditional media” formats, they don’t get (or have to listen to) audience feedback.

Take all of this together and you’ll realize that it’s not all that hard to see why journalists end up on social media a great deal and why it is they have trouble with their employers after a tweet goes bad.

The rules that dictate what they can or can’t they do versus what should or shouldn’t they do is kind of a random mishmash of media company norms, HR memos and a desire to stop audiences from freaking out. Jones notes:

Baron wrote that with social media, the Post should remember this: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”

In other words, it feels as if Baron is telling reporters to use their heads, to be smart, to watch their tone, to not say anything that might cause an issue.

Makes sense … until you realize that what one person considers a valid take might be inappropriate to someone else. After all, isn’t that what just happened at the Post?

Sort of, but not really.

Here is why Baron’s memo, Jones’ reaction and social media policies in general fall short in splitting the baby between allowing journalists to interact with the audience and a desire to prevent chaos and dystopia from reigning supreme in the Twitterverse:

You Can’t Entirely Know Your Audience: Great reporters used to know their audiences like the backs of their hands. Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and their ilk prided themselves in knowing “their readers” and being great at delivering things to them that mattered. Folks like that existed in many publications, I’m sure. (George Hesselberg and Pat “Snoop” Simms, both formerly of the Wisconsin State Journal,  are two folks I got to know who had that finger on the pulse of the readers as they wrote their stories and columns.)

Many reporters, however, relied less on the audience needs and more on the news values or interest elements associated with journalism education to drive their approach to content. Even more, the idea that we would stoop to going through “market research” to figure out how we should cover certain things or what we should cover was an affront to some folks that saw this as an impingement on their freedom of the press.

Today, we have more data than ever to help us figure out  where our clicks come from. (The Dynamics of Writing would like to give a shout out to whatever the heck “Han dot nl” is, as for some reason, it’s driving a ton of traffic to the site from the Netherlands.) We know which posts draw the most clicks, the most likes and the most shares.

That said, we still don’t know our actual audience and here’s why: Once the content is out of our hands, we have no say over what happens to it. What we think is OK for “our audience” doesn’t matter in some cases, because other readers out there can still access it and will still freak out over it.

Case in point: I generally curse in every day life, knowing that most of the people around me are used to it. When I started this blog, I was asked by SAGE to eliminate “unnecessary curse words,” as some of the people who buy the book and read the blog go to far more conservative universities, religious colleges and places that generally have more couth than I do. I tamped that down (as best I could) and stuck with only “necessary cursing” to meet the needs of my audience.

That said, I have no idea at all why people in the Netherlands are consistently reading this blog. For all I know, I might end up having the gendarmes after me (or pikemen or whatever…) for violating some sort of social concerns I don’t know about. I’m glad these readers are here, don’t get me wrong, but I never started this blog with the idea of rocking the Dutch market. They aren’t my intended audience, but it’s not like I can do much to stop them from showing up or seeing stuff.

The larger point is this: If you send something out that you believe to be relatively appropriate to people you think are going to be reading it, you have no way of preventing it from going to a completely different group of people and having everything go to hell in a speedboat.

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory of Private vs. Public: Journalists like to argue that their social media feeds are their individual, private personas as opposed to a public representation of their work as media practitioners.

In a vacuum, I get that, as there should be a separation between job-related life and life-related life for all of us. It gets a little dicier when you consider that in both their job and their social media lives, reporters are essentially doing similar things (sharing content) in similar ways (social media, typing stuff etc.). Still, we don’t give up all of our rights to be regular people just because we cover the news.

The bigger problem is that human beings don’t operate in a vacuum of life and we can’t always build an unbreakable firewall in our brains like this. We can’t “unsee” things or discount them based on the spheres in which they happen. This leads me to the theory outlined above.

Let’s say you’re driving down a fairly empty stretch of interstate late Saturday night and you blow a tire. You pull over to the only business with a well-lit parking lot: A giant “adult book store” or porn palace or whatever you want to call it. As you’re sitting there, waiting for Triple-A to come and fix your car, you see the principal of your old high school exiting the building. He’s carrying a giant duffel bag full of pornographic DVDs and an inflatable “partner” doll dressed like a Catholic school girl. He doesn’t see you, he gets in his car and he drives away.

Theoretically, you should be able to compartmentalize this: He’s a private citizen, during his off hours, doing nothing illegal, so what’s the big deal? You should put this away as one more interaction with him and ignore it as it relates to his work with the school and your interactions with him when you were in school.

In a practical sense, however, all you can think is, “EEEEEEEWWWW!!! PRINCIPAL JONES! MY EYES! MY EYES!

Everything you thought about this guy is now cast in a completely different light. You start rethinking every comment he ever made about anyone in a different way. You also probably start washing your hands like Lady MacBeth with OCD, remembering the number of “high fives” you got from him as you walked down the hallways between classes.

Again, nothing illegal happened. Hell, you don’t even know if anything horribly sketchy will happen, as this could be part of a giant prank or a lost bet. However, that’s not going to make you feel any better about the situation.

Just because we pretend that a wall exists between the public and the private spheres for the benefit of trying to justify our choices to other people, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone will graciously make that same distinction once they see what you put out there. People decide how they want to see us based on what they see of us. Claiming something is personal or not part of our career or whatever doesn’t absolve us of the perceptual damage that exists in the minds of others.

A Case of the Man Keeping Us Down: The more journalists feel forces beyond their control are suppressing them, the more likely they are to push back on something. It’s a response learned from years of having people they report on saying, “You don’t need to know that” or “You aren’t going to get that.” It’s also probably hardwired into our genetics at some level, just like being nosy.

Policies like this one that seems to say, “We’re watching you” can lead journalists to feel that need to push back against it, even if they aren’t entirely interested in engaging in the behavior the policy dictates. In other words, even if I’m not a journalist on Twitter who feels it necessary to tweet about whatever is coming into my mind, the minute you try to stop me from doing so is the minute I’m going to be upset about it.

It also doesn’t help that the policies are fluid and lack a sense of  “X actions = Y consequences.” Do I think that the timing of Sonmez’s tweet was particularly brilliant? No. Do I think the consequences were a bit much? Yes. Can I find a clear path through Barron’s memo or the WaPo policy that tells me who was right? Not a chance.

In some ways, this kind of reminds me of the old-school version of Catholic confession, in that it was never clear how the priest knew EXACTLY how many “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” were necessary to demonstrate proper atonement for each specific sin. It seemed like a mixture of how upset the priest was, how penitent the confessor was and how much time was left before mass started.

When my job (or my eternal soul) is on the line, I guess I’d like a little more clarity on how the rules apply and how I should know that I’ve got things nailed down appropriately.

Just like anyone else, journalists are going to be judged on their statements in a public setting and like a whole lot of folks, we tend to think our opinion needs to be shared with a lot of people in a public way. Since social media allows EVERYONE to play, it can be difficult to tell people who share opinions and write publicly that they can’t play or that they have to follow different rules.

Like most other things we’re all grappling with in this field, things are more likely to be messy than easy as we figure out what we SHOULD do after we bump into a lot of things we probably SHOULDN’T do.


A judge, a professor and a “wiry marathon runner” want your vote: 3 tips for avoiding stereotyping descriptors in your writing

Election Day is here and I need to pick several folks for state and local elections. Knowing almost nothing about our Supreme Court nominees here in Wisconsin, I did a little digging around for some information on who is running and what they represent.

In voting for a state Supreme Court election, which of the following items do you think voters would most care about learning first?

  1. Previous experience as an assistant attorney general.
  2. A history of work with crime victims, including a stint as the executive director of a statewide victim’s advocacy office
  3. Being an awesome high school athlete 38 years ago

If you picked “3,” you’re thinking like the Associated Press was when publishing profiles of the candidates for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. Here is the opening paragraph of candidate Jill Karofsky’s portion of the “get to know the candidates” bio:

(Jill) Karofsky is a wiry marathon runner who has completed two Iron Man competitions. She also won the state doubles tennis championship in 1982 for Middleton High School.

Compare this to how Justice Dan Kelly is described off the top:

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, appointed (Daniel) Kelly to the Supreme Court in 2016 to replace the retiring David Prosser. An attorney by trade, he represented Republican lawmakers in a federal trial over whether they illegally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s legislative district boundaries in 2011. He’s also a member of The Federalist Society, a conservative organization that advocates for a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

If you think this could be a case of the incumbent getting a bit more focus on the job, consider the opening of the third candidate’s bio. Meet Ed Fallone:

(Ed) Fallone has taught law at Marquette University for 27 years. His mother was raised in Mexico and he has served on the boards of Voces de la Frontera Accion, the lobbying arm of immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, and Centro Legal, a Milwaukee nonprofit that provides low-cost legal services.

I’m not a feminist scholar by trade, but if you can’t see an imbalance here in how the candidates are being introduced, you’re not paying attention. If I had to summarize them by how they were portrayed in those first paragraphs it would be like this:

  • Dan Kelly: Conservative jurist and incumbent Supreme Court Justice.
  • Ed Fallone: Veteran law professor with an interest in immigrant advocacy.
  • Jill Karofsky: Don’t let that flowing robe fool you! She’s athletic as hell under there!

Also, I went through all of the other two candidates’ biographies and I can’t find a single use of a physical descriptor in there, except in Karofsky’s opening paragraph and the use of “wiry:”

I’m not sure why it matters that she’s “wiry” or what that has to do with her jurisprudence, but apparently the writer thought it somehow mattered. I’ve heard the argument that descriptions often “humanize” people in short profiles, but consider this information instead:

Judge Karofsky received the WI Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s “Voices of Courage Award,” was named the WI Victim/Witness Professional Association’s “Professional of the Year,” and earned a “Significant Impact” Award from a local organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. She currently serves on the Wisconsin Judicial Education Committee and chairs the Violence Against Women STOP Grant committee. She previously co-chaired the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Response Team, and served on the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse, the WI Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, the Wisconsin Crime Victims Council, and the Dane County Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board of Directors.

I doubt that the writer had chosen this route of description on purpose, but it does paint a series of incongruent pictures in which gender appears to be the distinguishing element. As always, the point of this blog is not to beat up on journalists, but rather to teach you how to avoid these problems in the first place. Here are some helpful thoughts on potentially problematic descriptors:

Would you use the same type of descriptor if another race/gender/group was involved? One of my favorite books, “Ball Four,” talked about the aspect of race during a time in which these things were not as openly discussed across a large spectrum of people. In one conversation, one of author Jim Bouton’s teammates noted he wouldn’t mind that newspapers referred to him as the team’s black first baseman if they would only refer to his replacement as the team’s white first baseman.

Instead, it was a first baseman and a black first baseman, thus indicating one was “normal” and the other was an oddity.

When considering descriptors, ask yourself if you would use descriptive elements like this on all people involved in the story. For example, based on this photo, a writer might refer to Fallone as “diminutive” if the writer felt a physical description were warranted in discussing Supreme Court candidates. (I got nothing to describe Kelly, physically, despite my best efforts. I was stuck between “broad-chested” and “square-headed,” neither of which worked, but you get the point.)

Think about how an approach would work across gender, racial, ethnic or other lines before deciding to make one person the standard for “normal” and the others anomalies.

Does the descriptor add something important to the story? In some cases, personal differences can add value to a story. For example, you can’t tell the story of Thurgood Marshall’s life without noting things like how he was the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. His position as a pioneer and a ground-breaking figure adds value to the story. However, merely tossing in a descriptor like, “Jim Jones, a black man, said he thinks the Milwaukee Brewers will win the World Series this year,” doesn’t add value and just engages in “othering.”

In the case of the “wiry marathon runner” and high school tennis champion who is running for the state’s Supreme Court, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out what value describing her athletic achievements have here, particularly right up top. If there was some sort of “American Ninja Warrior” competition required as part of the election, this might make sense. However, since it’s not, I’m probably going to want to know more about her brains than her brawn.

Does the descriptor lend itself to a stereotypical connotation that likely does more harm than good? When you write about someone in a way in which a descriptor could lend itself to a stereotype, you have to balance the importance of the descriptor against the value the descriptor brings to the story.

When Georgetown coach John Thompson won the 1984 NCAA championship, reporters asked him about becoming the first black coach to win the title. Thompson replied that if the indication was that he was the first person of color to have the acumen to do it, he found that insulting. He noted that many other people of color, years earlier, had just as good of a set of coaching skills as he did, but were never afforded the opportunity to coach, due to the racism of the time.

A study I did years ago with a master’s student of mine looked at how college quarterbacks were described in their draft previews and we found some clear and stereotypical disparities. White quarterbacks received high marks for intelligence, leadership and other similar “mental” elements of the game. Black quarterbacks received high marks for physical or “natural gifts” while receiving negative comments on their intellect. In doing this, we argued, the writers were reinforcing racial stereotypes like these:

This is not to say you can never use a descriptor, for fear of stereotyping someone. However, what it is saying is to make sure that you think before you do it and weigh the “cost vs. benefit” of that descriptor in your work.



Crime doesn’t pay: Some newsrooms decide to stop running click-bait mugshot galleries

From Poynter and the Marshall Project:

Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.

But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle became the latest major paper to take that plunge. At an all-hands staff meeting, the paper’s editors announced their decision to stop posting slideshows of people who have been arrested but not convicted—and who are still presumed innocent under law.

The media outlets discussed in this piece by Poynter aren’t cutting ties to mugshots like this, as editors note in the story:

The paper will still use booking photos when they have news value. Lorando said the paper does not generally remove or edit stories that were accurate when they were published.

A criminal mugshot is like any other tool in your journalistic toolbox: You want to use it for the right reason and be able to explain how it helps your audience understand the story you want to tell. I know that I’ve run more than a few mugs with stories I’ve done or encouraged students to include them with stories at student papers I’ve advised.

In one case, a man suspected of drunken driving ran over a young boy who was on a bicycle. The man tried to speed off with the kid stuck under the car, dragging the boy for several yards. Neighbors in the area came running out to stop the guy and get the kid help.

Then, they turned on man, dragging him out of the car and beating him bloody. The mug shot of this man told a story of a person who was both an accused criminal as well as a victim of a crime.  We felt the image added perspective to the situation. This was especially true when the police were looking for people who were involved in the beating, only to find that nobody in the area saw anything…

Another beating story ran at the Ball State Daily News, in which six female students at the school dragged another woman out of a party and attacked her. The police described the beating as “deplorable.” We ran all six mugshots across the top of the paper to showcase who was involved. I can still see the smirks on two of these women’s faces, looks that seemed to say, “You can’t touch me. My Daddy has the world’s best lawyer.”

The mugshot is a public record, and as such, you have a legal right to use it. However, this is where the ethics of journalism come into play and you need to ask yourself if you SHOULD use it.

A few key questions to ask before using a mugshot, or running any kind of content for that matter, might include:

  • Does this add value to the story I want to tell for my readers?
  • Will my choice do more harm than good?
  • What are the potential ramifications of my actions, particularly ramifications that are of a long-term variety?
  • Why do I want to do this?
  • What is the best counter-argument to the choice I want to make right now? Is it good enough to flip the argument?



An open letter to Peter Gade, a professor who used the “n-word” in class on Tuesday

Dear Peter,

Even though I’ve known you for many years, you hadn’t entered my thoughts much lately. Since news of this “classroom incident” entered my social media feeds yesterday, you were pretty much all I could think of.

I saw a link to the first article in the OU Daily, which had a headline that told me you used a racial slur during one of your classes, and immediately stopped everything I was doing to click on it and read the piece. I hoped it was one of those “twisted tongue” moments, like this one, or that there was some sort of misunderstanding that came from a student overthinking something or other.

Nope. You said it. The “n-word.” Clearly and unambiguously.

Students in your class were stunned, and yet a number of them did exactly the kinds of things you trained generations of students to do: They reported. They questioned. They published. Even as they wrote what could be your academic obituary, they demonstrated a professionalism and dedication to the craft you imbued in them and many like them for years.

Unfortunately for you, nobody’s going to remember that for a long, long time.

This situation is unfolding like so many others before it when someone says “that word.” People who sat through the class are upset. People who know the students are angry. People in administration are “fact-finding,” which means they’re running a panic drill and trying to figure out what the hell to do about this. Organizations have issued statements condemning you. People with social media accounts are demanding you be fired, or worse.

Two reactions always emerge when someone inevitably steps on that racially charged third rail: Outrage and silence.

The outrage comes from pretty much anyone, regardless of their connection to the situation. Those closest to the Ground Zero of this situation are hurt or scared or exasperated or worse. Others know the sting of this, through other similar incidents, and feel it is important to show solidarity with that first group of people against a term steeped in racial violence and horror. Still others just bandwagon on whatever outrage machine is up and running when they get to Twitter.

When you are at the center the outrage and the media coverage on it, it feels like you are falling down a flight of never-ending stairs as the whole house collapses in on you.

The silence has to feel worse.

Professors who “thought they knew you” give you the odd looks in the hallways. Colleagues at other institutions might drop you a “hang in there” call, but plan to sit this one out quietly, lest they be sucked into the vortex of rage that is kicking your ass. Friends plan to “let things die down” before they say much of anything, because, well, you know…

Peter, I would like to consider myself a member of all three of those groups. I’ve been a professor for more than two decades. I have known you as a colleague since I was a newbie Ph.D. student at your alma mater. I’d like to consider you a friend, both because I like you a great deal and you have gone to great lengths to help and support me over the years. It is wearing these hats that I felt it important not to be silent.

In the simplest of terms, and using only the language I’m allowed to use here, you massively f’d up. The analogy was dumb. The use of that word was stupid as hell. The attempt to try to justify it in front of people whose family, friends and ancestors likely felt that sting before from evil people just made it worse. You hurt people, regardless of your intention, and there is no justification for that action.

I’m guessing you didn’t need me or any of the 8,923,131 Twitter posts on this topic to tell you that. I’m guessing that right away after that word came out of your mouth and you realized what the hell you did, you could feel all the blood in your body drain into your feet. If your email to your class is any indication, I know you’re coming to grips with this.

Me? I would have seen my career flash before my eyes, everything that decades of education and dedication built gone in a flickering second. Ever since I read that first article, I’ve been reflecting on every stupid thing I have ever done or said in my academic life. My inner-voice tells me, “Yes, you are a crass human being, who has done a lot of dumb things, Vince, but you would NEVER say THAT or anything CLOSE to that hurtful.” I bet everyone who ever made a fatal mistake thought the same thing.

This might be the only thing a lot of people ever know about you, a man defined by his biggest public failure: Jackie Smith’s dropped pass, the ball between Bill Buckner’s legs and Donnie Moore’s 2-2 pitch to Dave Stewart. (If I were you, I wouldn’t Google my name for a while.)

What I know about you covers a lot more ground, which is why I can both hate the action in question, but still be public in my support of you as a person.

You helped me early in my doctoral career, with emails and advice. You let me know my failings were just part of the process and that I would eventually “get there,” even though I had no idea where “there” was at that point.

You recruited me for a position at OU back when the Gaylord school was a giant patch of open green grass. When true “OK, Boomer” faculty didn’t want to hire me because, God forbid, I was a “convergence” scholar who believed in the power of the web for journalism, you fought for me. When you lost that fight, you apologized to me, even though you had nothing to be sorry about. You told me that I wasn’t a bad candidate or a bad person and that I’d be just fine. Believe me, that made a difference.

You were always ahead of me, but you never treated me as less than. You treated me like a peer and a colleague, even when the rest of the “cool kids” felt no need to do so. I enjoyed telling people who saw your successes, cited your articles and read your books that, “Hey, I’m friends with that guy!”

None of those things change for me because of this incident, and I want you to know that, here and now, in a public way. I’m here for you, because I know you, I like you and I respect you, even though you did this truly horrible thing.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to you now. It could be some sort of “sensitivity training” or a “leave of absence,” two tried-and-true dodges administrators use when they don’t know what the hell to do but feel the need to do something. Someone mentioned you might “retire,” which is the quiet, peace-with-honor solution some schools use in this situation. I really hope it’s not the “Star Trek Red Shirt Guy” treatment, where OU decides to kill you off to show how serious the situation is.

I also don’t know what’s happening with you at this point of the process.  I hope you have an armada of friends, who are offering you whatever they can as you deal with all this. If not, please know I’m still here to listen or talk or whatever you need.

Email works and so does the phone.

Your friend,



Joker vs. Milker: A localization story from the Dairy State

Good localization stories have several key elements in common:

  1. They are timely, often surfacing as an “in the wake of the news” piece.
  2. They are valuable to local readers in a clear and specific way. (In other words, it’s not a “President unveils middle east peace plan; Area high school students say it won’t work” story.)
  3. They deal with things that could or have actually happened. (I once had to write a localization about what would happen if Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian Federation, were to die in office, based on a hunch an editor had that he would. Yeltsin survived his term and lived a decade longer.)

During his Academy Award acceptance speech, Joaquin Phoenix took a rather circuitous route through his thoughts, deciding that it would be a good time to crap-talk the dairy industry, among other things:

We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.

Less than a day later, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Rick Barrett turned around this localization for his Dairy-State readers. It’s a great example of knowing an audience, touching on a key topic of interest to that audience and getting a good story together in the wake of the news.

Let’s break down some key things that you probably want to emulate if you need to localize the topic.

Start with the lead:

Dairy farmers are pushing back against an Oscar’s award acceptance speech by actor and vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix who claimed that farmers are cruel to cows and newborn calves.

It’s a straight-up inverted pyramid lead that nails down both the local angle (dairy folks) and the tie to the national story (Oscar speech, ripping on farmers). It doesn’t try to do too much, it makes the point and then it moves on. It also avoids trying to be cute with something like Dairy farmers “having a beef” or “having a cow” about this.

He then moved into a good bridge as well as some key background, before sliding back into the local angle:

The performer, who on Sunday night took home the Best Actor award for his role in “Joker,” used his speech to rip on the dairy industry and the breeding of cows.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable,” Phoenix said. “And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

That didn’t go over well with dairy farmers.

The experts do a good job of explaining WHY they think the actor was wrong and HOW the cow/calf situation works based their experiences. This is done with good quotes and solid paraphrases that don’t fall victim to jargon:

A newborn calf is taken from its mother, about 20 minutes after birth, but it’s for their own safety, said dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County.

“If that mom had manure on her, we would risk that calf, our best genetics on the farm, getting contaminated with Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria, along with Tetanus and all the other stuff that hangs out on the farm as well,” Hinchley said.


Barrett used quality reporting to cover his bases in outlining the story. Check out the sources for this:

  • dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County
  • dairy farmer Carrie Mess from Lake Mills
  • lan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation

In probably a couple hours (given that this story was posted by 12:30 and that Phoenix didn’t make his statements until about 10:30 the night before), Barrett got three good people with a background on the topic to speak intelligently about this. In addition, he wove in quotes from the Oscar speech and reporting on previous elements of Phoenix’s life.

The piece closes well with a decent closing quote that has both a sense of closure and the potential to look ahead:

“We have a free country, with freedom of expression, but we do wish that Joaquin Phoenix would talk with us, rather than at us, because if he did he would learn a lot about the commitment that dairy farmers have for animal welfare,” said Alan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This isn’t the first time he has made remarks like this, but it gets more prominence because it was in an Oscars speech,” Bjerga said.

Overall, the story is short (About 530 words), well structured and chock full of information. It ties a local interest to a broader concern and it provides background context as well.

In short, it’s a textbook example of how to build a great localization piece.


The Junk Drawer: Cursed Cars, Tiny Children and a Memorial Urinal

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes. Hope you find value in it:




SYMPATHY FOR THE WEATHER REPORTER: I think at one point my career at the State Journal, I had written something like 400 bylined stories, and I think one-third of them were weather stories.

The weather matters to people. If the readers are Democrats or Republicans, men or women, Packer fans or other people, they are all affected by what happens outside. It is usually the job of the lowest person on the reportorial totem pole to scrape together a quote from whoever answers the phone at the National Weather Service, a county dispatcher who is way overworked and probably a tow-truck driver to build one of these things.

When I was driving home from Milwaukee on Sunday night, we had near white-out conditions, with a ton of state patrol officers and tow trucks trying to get people out of ditches. We also had plows flying in every direction and at least as many idiots in 1997 Honda Civics trying to pass them on the right-hand side of the freeway at 75 mph. When I finally got home, I found to my delight that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did not disappoint, nailing down a weather story like the ones I used to write for the sheer glee of seeing my name in the paper.

Please click here to read Jordyn Noennig’s look at the weather and give the piece a “like” or a positive comment. (Hey, we weather reporters have to stick together…)

Speaking of things from the past that still work today…

DOES THIS ADD SOMETHING TO THE SUM OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE?: This quote popped up in one of my social media feeds for some reason and reminded me of the man who taught it to me: George Kennedy. George was the managing editor at the Columbia Missourian when I worked there and he was a longstanding faculty member at Mizzou. He used to ask us this whenever we were working on a story or a graphic or whatever else we were doing.

I borrow it from time to time, as needed, when a student is working on a “process piece” that isn’t processing much or an “explainer” that hasn’t explained anything. I also fall back on it because of a moment at the Missourian  involving, you got it, a weather story. We were heavily into graphics and it was a lousy weather day, so the graphics desk pitched a “helpful hints box” about driving in bad weather.

Given that we’d run these almost every week, it seemed to be redundant to me. Couple that with my “Wisconsin Chops” when it came to driving in snow, I asked if the box “was going to tell us anything that 75 other boxes we’ve already run and common sense would tell you about how not to drive like an asshole?”

After that, I bogarted the “sum of human knowledge” line. It seemed more dignified.

Speaking of somewhat undignified…

WHY YOU NEED A 12-YEAR-OLD BOY ON YOUR WRITING STAFF, PART 23,352,123: I don’t know who developed this car, but I’m buying one if I can find it:


Yep, it’s a real thing:

A new edition of the Subaru Forester on display at the 2020 Singapore Motorshow came with a rather eye-catching nickname: The Forester Ultimate Customized Kit Special edition. Or as people online were quick to note, the Subaru FUCKS edition:


Subaru told Business Insider that the car was from an “independent distributor” rather than the carmaker. However, Top Gear Philippines noted that the vehicle was inside the Subaru booth, sharing space with new models such as Viziv Adrenaline Concept and an updated Impreza.

It was unclear from this article what level of “market penetration” Subaru expected from this…

Speaking of marketing things…

WHAT COULD I GET FOR, SAY, $20? It always seems pretty awkward to me when we have to say that our favorite teams are playing at the Smoothie King Center, Tropicana Field or the KFC Yum! Center.

(To be fair, it used to be worse: the Astros used to play at “Enron Field.” Also, my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers named their new home after then-owner Gordon Gund, calling it the “Gund Arena,” which sounds like something your doctor diagnoses you with before giving you a shot of penicillin… Rocket Mortgage Field House is actually somehow an improvement.)

Well, my state’s university system is going one step further, offering rich people the chance to burnish their legacy with some additional naming rights:

Cash-strapped University of Wisconsin campuses have a new source of revenue to pursue: businesses seeking to put their names on academic buildings, colleges and schools.

The UW Board of Regents unanimously approved policy changes Friday opening the door for UW System campuses to sell naming rights to businesses, nonprofit organizations, foundations and other outside organizations. Previous policies restricted naming rights to individuals.

When UW-Oshkosh was constructing Sage Hall, the nicest academic building in which I’ve ever had an office, it had a lot of naming opportunities. We didn’t sell the building’s name, but classrooms, labs and even the courtyard got named after people and organizations.

I asked if anyone thought I could get “The Vincent F. Filak Memorial Urinal” set up in the men’s room near the office. A little plaque near the flusher handle, maybe my likeness painted in porcelain, urinal cakes shaped like my head…Hey, why not? If we’re going to sell out, let’s go for it.

My chair at the time told me that would be a “non-starter” with the building committee.

Oh, well. Dare to dream.

Until next time,

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)