Get to the point: Lead Writing 101 (A Throwback Thursday Post)

In talking to my writing class on Wednesday, it dawned on me why they have such trouble with leads: They have been trained to write for length, not quality.

If you think back to every paper you ever wrote in college, or ask students about any paper they have to write now, everything is predicated on length: 5 pages on the outcome of the Civil War, 10 pages on the stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 20 pages on the history of war deployments in modern America.

Students under these requirements know that getting to the point quickly is detrimental to their grades. They need to fill space.  Therefore, they start off with epic, sweeping introductions that start at the dawn of modern time and end with a thesis about the invention of the donut. They toss every possible adjective and adverb into every sentence, in hopes of squeezing out one more line to make a page look more full. They restate every point in detail as part of an overly detailed conclusion.

To help them make the transition to journalism, here is a throwback post that looks at what good leads do and how to fix bad leads. Hope it helps:

 


 

Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

The lead is the most important thing you will ever write in a story. It’s supposed to grab your readers by the eyeballs and drag them into the guts of your story. It’s supposed to explain who did what to whom in a clear and concise fashion. It’s also supposed to be between 25 and 35 words, lest it get wild and unruly. This is one of those skills you need to work on constantly, even if you are a pro.

Consider a few of the following leads and what went horribly wrong with them:

 

Lead 1: It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational…

Hyperbole is the art of creating overblown excitement for no real reason. A straw man approach is the ability to set up a weak argument or premise that no one has stated so you can refute it and establish your point of view. If you put both of them in a lead, you have something like this story’s opening:

Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does.

I don’t know much about Bozeman, Montana, but I’m guessing its entire populous doesn’t stay awake at night aspiring to deliver wheelchairs to people. Also, who says this aspiration would likely go unmet if my supposition in the previous sentence were incorrect? What is this “On Bozeman, Montana’s Waterfront?”

 

The author has overstated her point, and that’s just one problem with this lead. Here are two others:

  1. The story isn’t about ROC’s past. It’s about the launch of a new program involving veterans building and delivering chairs as part of a therapeutic activity. Thus, the lead is buried in the second sentence.
  2. The origin of the term “pipe dream” relates to the smoking of an opium pipe and the wild visions this activity evoked in people. Eeesh.

This is a clear case of what happens when a writer tries to do too much with a lead. Just tell me what’s going on and why I care: Veterans will build and deliver wheelchairs, an activity that helps the recipients as well as the veterans.

 

Lead 2: How can we bore people with a story about sex?

Question: How can a lead about sex toys be bad?

Answer: Like this.

Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State‘s football headquarters in 2015, according to an online report Friday, raising more questions about the former assistant coach’s conduct while employed there just as the university prepares to conclude its investigation of the program and head coach Urban Meyer.

This 50-word monstrosity manages to pour a ton of random facts into the mind of the reader, like that scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even more, the lead skipped several other elements of the report that were far more likely to grab the readers’ attention:

  • He spent more than $2,200 on this stuff, including on items named “WildmanT ball lifter red, candyman men’s jock suspenders (and) PetitQ open slit bikini brief,” none of which are the most offensive items he purchased. Plus, that’s almost twice what I spent on my first car…
  • His lawyer threatened the reporter over the publication of these documents and refused to engage in the premise that this was a legitimate story.
  • Smith apparently had a “photography hobby” of sorts, namely that he took shots of his genitalia while at work, including multiple photos believed to have been taken at the White House during a celebration of the team’s national championship.

I’m not saying you should always go with salacious details in a lead. The point is that if you pick a key element of a situation like this for the lead, don’t lose the thread as you try to weave in six other plot lines. This is a sports story, not a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.

LEAD 3: Something happened! Oh… you wanted more?

Here’s the lead on a story about a county conducting alcohol-compliance checks where you learn nothing more than what I just told you:

ENID, Okla. — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and PreventionWorkz partnered earlier this month to conduct alcohol-compliance checks throughout the county.

This is a version of the standard “held a meeting” or “gave a speech” lead. It often shows up in sports reporting as well where someone will explain that Team X played Team Y on Friday or something. The problem with every version of this lead is that it fails to tell the readers the outcome of something. Instead, it simple explains that something happened. In this case, the writer could have focused on a number of things:

  • In the 25 random checks, four places sold alcohol to the underage person, down from eight sales in March.
  • In all of the cases, the clerks checked the person’s ID, but the four sales came from reading the ID wrong.
  • Of the four sales, one person had sold to a minor and been cited at least once before.

There’s also some information about upcoming legal changes that will require sellers to take a course in IDing people and such. Finally, the story noted that the authorities look to hit 100 percent compliance, but it never mentions if that ever happens. In any case, telling me an alcohol check happened isn’t telling me much of anything as a reader.

Lead 4: Here’s your lead. Guess the story:

Quote leads are always difficult for readers, because they lack context. Try this one:

“There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

It’s a great line from a great man: Frederick Douglass uttered it in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” However, dropping it up at the front of a story doesn’t make it a lead.

Whether the quote comes from a source in the story, a movie, a poem, a song lyric or a famous person, as is the case here, the reader will likely be unable to determine the point of the piece. Quote leads are always dicey for exactly this reason: It feels like you were dropped into the middle of someone else’s conversation at a party.

By the way, you can find the whole story here and see how close you were to guessing the point of it, based on that lead.

A quick look at Axios’ “Smart Brevity” book

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday sitting with Jim VandeHei as part of a focus group for the Axios book, “Smart Brevity.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Smart Brevity, it’s the bread-and-butter approach Axios takes to telling stories. The goal is simple: Tell people what they need to know right away, tell them why they should care about it, give them the option of going deeper without making it mandatory and move on with life.

With that approach in mind, here’s the best brief review I can do:

“Smart Brevity” forces writers to economize their work for the sake of their readers. This audience-centric approach cuts through the content deluge readers receive each day and improves multiple communication experiences. “Smart Brevity” won’t work in as many places as the authors state, but the underlying tenets can be helpfully adapted to various situations. It’s a quick read and worth the time, especially for non-journalists.

In the tradition of Axios, if you want more than that, here’s a deeper dive:

POSITIVES

IT’S BRIEF: Axios talks the talk and walks the walk on brevity. The book weighs in at 218 pages, but it is easy to read and the pages fly by. Anecdotes are limited to those that really emphasize the point, examples hit the point before quickly moving on and the bullet-point structure familiar to Axios readers makes for bite-sized chunks that are easy to consume.

IT’S HELPFUL: The hard part about being a writer is that writers love to write, almost to a fault. Axios sympathizes with that instinct, but shows key ways to do more with less. A lot of what the authors emphasize (NVO structure, get to the point immediately, tell me why I care, focus on the audience) is at the core of good journalism. The book serves as an entry point to non-journalists who need to write clearly and succinctly while providing journalism-style folk with a reminder to avoid falling in love with our own prose.

(The focus group was interesting in that we had journalism faculty, PR faculty, broadcast faculty and business/marketing faculty. The business person gushed about how amazing and revolutionary and special this was. She went on and on about how the business school was adding this book to its curriculum and making it a must-read and how her life was essentially changed by this book, as she Post-It noted the thing to death. The journalism and broadcasters in the room were looking at each other like, “Um… Yeah… This is kind of what we do already…”)

IT’S ENGAGING: The writing in here is clear and direct but also conversational and engaging. One of the best compliments a student ever paid to my textbook was, “I can hear you in my head when I’m reading this.” I don’t know what any of these guys actually sound like, but I felt the same way here. This wasn’t a preacher’s sermon. It was a valuable chat.

IT’S HUMBLING: These guys didn’t emerge from the womb as smart-brevity writers. It took a while for them to get here and they explain that backstory in places. The examples range from VandeHei’s interaction with a demanding Washington Post editor to Mike Allen’s experience developing his newsletter and show how they moved from the “It’s gotta be long to be good” paradigm to the “Brevity is confidence. Length is fear” motto that Axios espouses.

NEGATIVES

IT’S A ONE-TRICK PONY: The latter half of the book shows how you can apply the smart brevity model to everything from emails and presentations to meetings and speeches. In each case, there’s a ton of repetition without much nuance. In addition, as we discussed here before, the Axios model can fall into the “Law of the Instrument” problem, in which they pitch it like a 1980s infomercial:

We can all use tighter speeches, presentations and emails to be sure, and I would give real money if someone could find a way to make meetings no longer than five minutes. However, the smart brevity model can come across as abrupt and blunt in some of these situations. (If I got a “smart brevity” email from my boss like the example in the book, I’d immediately think he’s pissed at me.)

IT’S AUDIENCE-CENTRIC, BUT NOT UNIVERSAL: One of the things that the Axios crew knows better than anyone else is how to serve its audience. The book hits on audience-centricity repeatedly, and for good reason: Writers often write for themselves, which is where we get into trouble. The audience for Axios, and the authors’ previous home of Politico, was a group of on-the-go political junkies who were well-versed in the language, culture and vibe of D.C. scene. The writers were part of that scene as well, so it was easy to “speak the language” of the sources and make points quickly.

(When I mentioned this in the group discussion, VandeHei noted how they’ve helped BP, CitiGroup and other organizations to implement this form of writing . He also mentioned that each time he brought this format up to various groups, ranging from scientists to lawyers, they all said it would never work for their field, but it did. My point was still that these people had a shared culture and vocabulary so, yes, it does work in that way, but not if you’re bringing folks into the fold on something new or talking to people outside of this area. I got the sense he disagreed.)

The “Smart Brevity” approach works in this format, but not in situations like teaching someone a new skill, laying out a detailed plan or other things that require writers to bring along people who don’t have the foundational knowledge Axios knew its audience had. That’s not to say the content of the book can’t help improve the writing in these situations, but the writer has to know the audience well enough to adapt the “Smart Brevity” approach to the needs and acumen of that group.

 

New Year’s Resolutions for the blog: Responding to audience requests and looking for more

help me help you | HELP ME, HELP YOU! | image tagged in help me help you | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

With the start of the new semester (for us, anyway), I am kicking the blog back into gear this week. As is usually the case, I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing or the wrong thing without getting feedback from you all. Over the past year, I gathered a bunch of “asks” and “mentions” for the blog, the book and me in general that I figured I’d post here for the sake of the group. Hope they help.

If you want more of something that I’m doing here, let me know. If I’m doing something you want less of, tell me that, too. Also, if I’m missing anything, that’ll really help me fill the blog this year.

Hit me up via the Contact Us link and I’ll do it.

In any case, here we go:

BASIC PLEAS FROM READERS

WRITE SHORTER: A friend who publishes a newspaper said this to me as we passed on the way to a meeting. “I love the blog, but I never get to read it all because you write so long…”

Damn. That hurt, but she was probably right.

It comes from two places: a) the Polish/Catholic environment in which I was raised, where we feed people as much as possible and then apologize for not having enough food and b) the idea that I’m writing for students who might need an extra example, a few more lines of text to enforce a point or a random meme that could make them laugh. Truth be told, I need to shorten up, so I’ll be trying a few tweaks here and there (including an adaptation of the Axios model) to shrink the posts while delivering value.

 

HELP ME APPLY THIS: A teacher or two noted that the content helped them keep current on a topic or give students some insight on a topic, but they could use some exercises here and there. I’m going to build more posts that have a “Try This” element at the end for those folks. I’ll also look for more assignments that can get posted on the blog as well.

 

BROADEN THE BASE: The Media Writing teachers noted they would love more examples from Ad and PR to fill this in. Broadcast also, unfortunately, gets a bit of a short shrift here. I hear you. I’m definitely looking for options, examples and lessons for these areas and I’ll post them here first.

RANDOM QUESTIONS

“Do you take requests/guest posts?” A couple people, not counting the spambots that keep telling me how they can increase my traffic through their posting content, have asked to guest on the blog. Hey, I’d love to have you. Just tell me what you want to do, when you can do it and let’s go.

I feel guilty just asking folks for guest appearances. To me, it feels like that moment at a concert when the lead singer just thrusts the mic out toward the audience and and screams, “SING IT!”

Dude, I paid like $300 for this ticket. YOU sing.

In any case, I love requests for things to post and anyone who would like to write for this site, hey, let’s talk.

 

“We need an intro to mass com book. Any suggestions?” Ask me again in January 2024…

 

“Do you ever talk to classes/newsrooms/student groups?” I’ve been asked to do Zoom or in-person gigs for everything from high schools to college media outlets and I’m thrilled to do them. If you want me to show up in your class, just tell me when, where and how (Zoom/Teams/in-person/hologram) and I’ll make it work. If you want me there in person, also tell me if they have Diet Coke on your campus so I know if I need to bring my own.

 

On to a new semester!

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

 

Four potential story ideas for campus media outlets in the Spring 2023 semester

Aside from the traditional “back to school” stories that give students the basics about campus life, consider the following topics that could lead to some deeper digs or semester-specific pieces:

THE GRADUATING CLASS OF COVID: If my math is right, which is always a variable you should consider, many of the students graduating this semester will have spent their entire college careers under the cloud of COVID. They were sent home somewhere during the second semester of their freshmen year, spent sophomore year “distance learning” (or whatever the heck your school called it), had starts and stops their junior year and now are ready to graduate. (Again, assuming a four-year degree and that people got it done in four years.)

This one has all sorts of possibilities: You could look at data regarding grades to see how students who graduated four years prior compare to this crew. You could look at increases in requests for on-campus mental health assistance over the past four years, based in part on the insane crap taco life served these kids. You could do a piece on their views of college in terms of attachment to the school (folks who run the alumni foundation money-raising stuff always pull on those “give back to the ol’ campus” heartstrings when they call for cash). You could look into how many kids changed majors compared to four years prior (grownups in the workforce weren’t the only ones who used the pandemic for self-reflection and a chance to reprioritize their life goals).

The old Ronald Reagan line of “are you better off than you were four years ago” could drive a lot of coverage for this crew of COVID classmates.

CHATGPT’S IMPACT ON CURRICULUM: The tug-of-war between students who take shortcuts in completing their coursework and professors who try to catch cheaters is as old as college itself. I’d bet Socrates spent some time flipping through a few scrolls wondering why Plato’s teachings sounded so familiar. (And Plato probably did the same sleuthing on Aristotle…) Each iteration of technology brings with it another game of academic cat and mouse, as is the case with the introduction of ChatGPT.

Professors are already freaking out about the ways in which students have taken to this form of artificial intelligence to complete essay assignments and sidestep the opportunity to think for themselves. Some media folks have declared “The College Essay is Dead,” thanks to this technology and its ability to construct content.

It would be worth seeing if there are some countermeasures out there that are being built to balance the scales. (Essay cheats who relied on cutting and pasting from the internet had a pretty easy go of things until TurnItIn came on the scene, so it stands to reason we’ll see some form of technological response to ChatGPT.) It would also be interesting to see how professors are (or aren’t, given how old, grumpy and stubborn we tend to be) altering their curriculum in light of this latest development.

MEAL PLAN MONEY: Most colleges make a good sum of money by linking life in the residence halls to a meal-plan system of some sort. Students often think these systems are some kind of racket, in which they get overcharged for subpar food, pay for more meals than they actually consume and generally take it in the shorts financially because they have no choice. This year, however, the balance of the system could be shifting in students favor due to skyrocketing food prices.

(My own completely unscientific look at food costs involved me muttering to myself while shopping for holiday groceries and having my parents note they saw eggs that once cost less than a buck a dozen selling for $4.09. People who research this for a living have noted similar insanity that shows no signs of slowing down.)

If the school signed you up for X meals at Y cost back in September, how much trouble are they in at this point if that cost has gone up considerably? Even more, universities can be locked into pricing by governmental forces, making a quick shift difficult when faced with price spikes over the course of a year. (Universities also have a “keep the trains running on time” approach in a lot of ways, in which they stick to certain formulas over the course of years or decades, meaning they might not have changed their approach to meal plans in quite some time.)

What are the folks who run the cafeterias (or whatever we call them now) seeing in terms of expenses and how are they dealing with this? What are students seeing in terms of potential “shrinkflation” for their meal-plan dollars? Have schools made adjustments to how the meal plans work in reaction to these food-price hikes? (Local media outlets have also covered the ways in which these issues have hit local food banks, so if your school has one of those to combat food insecurity, that might be worth a peek as well.).

IN GOD WE TRUST. EVERYONE ELSE GETS VETTED: In following the story of Congressman-elect George Santos, my journalistic (some would say cynical) nature kicked in and had me thinking, “How many people at my university pulled a similar move to get their jobs?”

(If you haven’t been paying attention to the Santos situation, he got caught lying on his resume in some pretty spectacular ways, including claiming degrees he never earned, stating he worked for companies he never worked for and declaring he was the descendant of a Holocaust survivor. My favorite dodge of his was when he noted he never claimed to be Jewish but rather “Jew-ish.” Really. That happened.)

How does the university go about vetting its professors, instructors and other folks charged with your education? Universities run varying levels of background checks, ranging from deep dives to cursory glances. Where does yours sit? Also, people tend to get hired with certain requirements that need to be met at a later date. For example, a university might hire a doctoral student who has yet to defend their dissertation, with the requirement that the doctorate gets wrapped up within one year of employment. How often do people miss that goal and to what degree do universities hold them to account for that?

If my life in academia has taught me anything, it’s that we have a lot of self-important weasels roaming those ivory towers, so checking in on them might unearth a few “resume embellishments.”

 

Police accuse Bryan Kohberger of killing four in Idaho, while news outlets allow random acquaintances to accuse him of being weird and mean

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re still on break for a few weeks, but for those of you who go back early and are looking for a timely topic in a reporting class, this seemed to have some potential.  We’ll return to the regular posting schedule in late January. — VFF)

In the race to fill in some important personal details about the man accused of killing four college students in Idaho, a few news outlets seem willing to let almost anyone step up to the microphone and call Bryan Kohberger an asshat:

Consider what ABC, a national media outlet, just did:

  • It relied on a first-name-only source, who was apparently interviewed over the phone, to provide “new details” about this guy.
  • It relied on “Thomas,” a former childhood friend, to provide key insights on a guy who is now 28 years old.
  • It then gave us the major insight that Kohberger was “mean” as a kid and apparently put “Thomas” into a headlock at some point.

The New York Times, which at least gave Thomas a last name, did similar digging into his life and strung together a series of random anecdotes that, when placed in the context of a guy accused of quadruple homicide, sound downright damning:

Jack Baylis, who became friends with Mr. Kohberger in eighth grade, said Mr. Kohberger had long been fascinated with why people acted the way they did and had seemed to enjoy his job as a security guard for the Pleasant Valley School District, where he worked for several years until 2021.

The last time Mr. Baylis saw Mr. Kohberger was in 2021, when they shot airsoft guns together in the Poconos. At the time, Mr. Baylis said, Mr. Kohberger drove a white Hyundai Elantra, the same model of car that the police in Moscow said had been spotted near the Idaho victims’ home on the night of the attacks.

Hmmm… the “he liked being a security guard and did gun stuff” accusation… where have we seen this kind of reporting before… Oh yeah! Now I remember!

Also, Hyundai sold more than 650,000 Elantras of the 2011-13 model that Kohberger drove, and a goodly number of them were probably white…

The Times then set about painting a picture of him through facts that essentially say, “Here’s some random crap we found. Feel free to make it feel as chilling as you want…”

At Washington State, Mr. Kohberger was continuing with his studies, his classmates said. B.K. Norton, who was in the same graduate program as Mr. Kohberger, said his quiet, intense demeanor had made some classmates uncomfortable.

That’s right… he was quiet… You have to watch out for the quiet ones… Especially the quiet ones that get loud and argue…

The fellow student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared that speaking publicly could jeopardize his safety, described Mr. Kohberger as the black sheep of the class, often taking contrarian viewpoints and sometimes getting into arguments with his peers, particularly women.

The classmate recalled one instance in which Mr. Kohberger began explaining a somewhat elementary criminology concept to a fellow doctoral student, who then accused him of “mansplaining.” A heated back-and-forth ensued and the doctoral student eventually stormed out of the classroom, he said.

Look, I love the people I went through the doctoral program with at Mizzou and still stay in touch with many of them more than 20 years later. That said, there were more than a few occasions in which we were spending all day, everyday with each other and it got to a point where I’m sure at least one or more of us felt like throwing a chair at one or more of the rest of us.

I probably even “mansplained” something, long before we had a term for that and just referred it as “being a dink.”

That said, students also had some key insights regarding Kohberger:

Mr. Kohberger was also a teaching assistant in a criminal law class during the fall semester, said Hayden Stinchfield, 20, one of the students in that class. He said that Mr. Kohberger often cast his eyes down while addressing the students, giving the impression that he was uncomfortable.

TA fails to make eye contact. How did investigators miss this? Also, why didn’t they study his pattern of grading for clues that he was likely to murder four people?

Students said Mr. Kohberger had a strong grasp of the subject matter but was a harsh grader, giving extensive critiques of assignments and then defending the lower marks when students complained as a group. Later in the fall, roughly around the time of the killings, Mr. Stinchfield said Mr. Kohberger seemed to start giving better grades, and the assignments that once had his feedback scrawled across every paragraph began coming back clean.

Apparently when you have just killed four people, it makes you less judgmental of your students, so A’s for everyone! It also apparently makes you “chattier” according to a fellow doctoral student that the New York Post managed to locate:

“Bryan seemed like he was on the knife’s edge between exhaustion and worn out and at the time it was extremely difficult to tell which was which,” he told the outlet.

But Kohberger’s behavior changed markedly after he allegedly killed Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20, on Nov. 13 in their off-campus home in Moscow, Idaho, Roberts said.

“He did seem to get a little chattier going into the later parts of the term,” the fellow criminal justice doctoral student told NewsNation.

“On the knife’s edge…” Even for the Post that was a bit much.

Still, this pales in comparison to the breathless game of “Six Degrees of Serial Killer Weirdness” that News Nation played in this report:

So, let me see if I follow this: You interviewed serial killer Dennis Rader’s daughter about her thoughts on Kohberger because Kohberger took undergrad classes from a professor who wrote extensively about her dad? Her insights include that she has no idea if Kohberger actually contacted her father, was influenced by her father, admired her father or  otherwise thought twice about her father.

We could spend days here going through the incredibly insightful coverage from myriad news outlets that have managed to track down Kohberger’s dentist from first grade who always knew he was a bad seed because he failed to floss twice a day. Instead, consider this a reminder of the “the duty to report isn’t the same as the duty to publish” mantra journalists should rely upon when deciding how best to tell a story.

The giant pile of “friends,” “colleagues” and other people who showed up in news reports with tidbits about how Kohberger wasn’t the greatest guy they ever met can seem damning when presented in the context of his arrest on suspicion of killing four people. However, if you go back and watch “Judging Jewell,” you can see a similar pattern of storytelling and anecdote stacking. This is not to say Kohberger is innocent, but it’s not the job of journalists to say he’s guilty, either.

Here’s a good classroom exercise: Go through your own past and pick out several facts that if applied to a story about you being accused of a significant crime would look damning even if they aren’t. For example, here’s mine:

I’m sure I could go on, but I’m already worried about running into myself in a dark alley somewhere…

Gone Fishin’: Finals Week Edition

As is tradition on the blog, once finals week hits, it’s time to go into hibernation.

With that in mind, may you retain the wisdom of Yoda in your grading, while avoiding the grammar of Yoda in your students’ work:

Sentence Structure? heard of it i have not - Sentence Structure? heard of it i have not  Scumbag Yoda

Have a restful break and we’ll be back in late January or early February. (Or earlier of something of drastic importance occurs.)

Good night and good luck.

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

A Finals Week Reminder

The whiteboard outside my office is less for telling people where I am or what they should do in class, but more for humor and inspiration. Today, this popped up in my Facebook memories from a long while back and when I reshared it, several folks said, “I needed this.” Thus, I figured I’d post it here as well. Hope it helps and have a great finals week:

Says who? Sources lack value when they are unnamed and wrong

One of the first things we teach in reporting is that you need to find sources with knowledge of the topic you are covering and interview those people so you can tap into that knowledge for the betterment of your readers.

The next thing we teach students is that those sources need to be named. The rationale is that naming a source gives the readers a better sense of how much trust they should place in that source. It also prevents the source from being a weasel or saying things the source wouldn’t otherwise say.

In a previous post, we groused about the ways in which sports journalists tended to bend that rule frequently, relying instead on “sources” or “a source” or “people with knowledge of the situation.” After the post ran, several sports journalists and journalism profs took me to task over this criticism, noting that “if we didn’t give people anonymity, they wouldn’t talk to us” and “this is standard practice in this part of the field.”

My point was that a) this violates the basic ethical standards we outline for journalists and b) it can come back to bite you in the ass. Case in point, the Wisconsin Badger football team hired Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell as head coach, which meant that interim head coach and presumed favorite for the full-time job Jim Leonhard had a decision to make about his future. Leonhard could return to the team in another position or leave it and go elsewhere.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest paper, led the coverage with this big scoop about Leonhard’s future on Saturday:

MADISON – Jim Leonhard has decided to return to Wisconsin in 2023 under new head coach Luke Fickell, likely as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Leonhard met with Fickell on Wednesday and took time to mull his options. Leonhard was expected to meet with the team Saturday to tell the players about his decision, according to a source.

Turns out, the writer was wrong, which the world found out about when Jim Leonhard  took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce he was leaving the program:

It’s not just that the writer got the story wrong, which every journalist does from time to time. It’s HOW he got it wrong. It’s also what was and wasn’t noted in that first story.

In the original story, we don’t get a comment from Jim Leonhard saying he is staying or leaving. It doesn’t even say the writer attempted to contact Leonhard, or if Leonhard issued a “no comment,” or whatever. That would seem to be a basic journalism move. Instead, we have “a source” which could be anyone from former Athletic Director and program God Barry Alvarez to Mittens the Cat.

We also don’t get a confirmation from Fickell saying Leonhard was staying.

What we DO get is a large section of quoted material in which Fickell talks at length about telling Leonhard he needs to think it. This soliloquy is then followed by the writer then stepping in with the “Voice of God” to not only declare Leonhard was staying but to provide a judgment about Leonhard’s personal values:

“I told him,” Fickell said Monday: “‘You’ve got a lot of things to think about. You’ve got to figure out where you want to be in five years and where you want to be in 10 years. … That is going to help you to figure out where you want to be next year.’

“That’s not easy. There’s a lot of things we all have to be able to get over. It takes a special person in some ways to get over a lot of those things.

“I had a hard time with it. But I do believe it was the right thing for me and the way that I did it and went out about it and it helped me become who I am.

“But my way is not always the right way. It’s not the way for everybody else. But that is what it really comes down to. What is in your heart and what is in your mind?”

Leonhard has revealed that by deciding to stay at UW.

OK, so now that Leonhard ISN’T staying, what has this revealed, o’ wise and powerful seer of things to come? How shall we detail this declaration of heart and mind? Well, with a little more straightforward news and a little less personalized allegory:

MADISON – Jim Leonhard announced Tuesday night he will not return as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in 2023.

Leonhard plans to coach UW through the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, set for Dec. 27 in Phoenix.

“It has meant the world to me to be able to pour my heart and soul into the UW football program for the last seven years,” Leonhard wrote on Twitter. “After discussions with my family and Coach Fickell I will remain DC through the bowl game but will no longer be part of the staff after the conclusion of the 2022 season.

“It has been an honor to coach these young men and thank you to all the fans who supported us along the way.”

The writer also then does the “I’m not going to say I was wrong, but I have to correct the record” thing:

Sources told the Journal Sentinel last week they expected Leonhard to stay on in 2023.

First, this is weaksauce. You went from “LEONHARD IS A MAN OF PRINCIPLE AND GREATNESS WHO REVEALED TO ME THROUGH A KNOWING SOURCE HE IS STAYING HERE” to “they expected Leonhard to stay.”  Second, we went from “a source” to “sources” somehow, which unless the Journal Sentinel owns one of these, I don’t see how it happened:

If you take nothing else from this, consider these key points:

  • Unnamed sources put you in the danger zone: Unless you get a name on it, you’re taking a risk. The degree to which you feel that risk is necessary is a personal one, but don’t be surprised when things go to hell in a speedboat.
  • Get it from the horse’s mouth, or at least try to: Don’t run off and think because one person (or cat) has confirmed something you desperately want to write about, you are done with the work. Take the extra steps and then show people how you took those steps.
  • Stay out of the story: You’re a journalist, not a soothsayer. Tell me what happened, tell me how we know it happened and keep your own personal declarations  for the bar after work.

POST-SCRIPT: “Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone has come back to haunt me.” Full disclosure: I misspelled Leonhard’s name in the first draft of this and forgot the word former before Barry Alvarez in terms of being AD (I just think of him as eternally in that position of God of Wisconsin). This was the work of a stupid person, who operates without an editor and needs to occasionally be reminded not to be the asshat he accuses others of…  (h/t to journalist Jason McMahon (whose name I actually made sure to look up) for the correction and the piece of humble pie.)

Creative Discrimination: A good look at the First Amendment and anti-bias laws related to business

The Supreme Court is set to hear the case of 303 Creative v. Elenis, which touches on the issue of what the government can and cannot compel businesses to do in relation to discriminatory actions against specific groups in society. The suit will assess whether the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act violates the First Amendment rights of website creator Lorie Smith , who wants to expand her business to include wedding websites, but said she will not design them for LGBTQ couples.

In this case, the argument attempts to rely on the speech aspects of the amendment, arguing that the work Smith would do could be considered “artistic expression.” Therefore, according to Smith, any law that forces someone to do nor not do something with “artistic expression” in it would violate the First Amendment.

As is usually the situation, this case isn’t about one website or one wedding cake, but rather the degree to which discrimination can be cloaked in the cover of an individual’s right to free expression. Although the courts have allowed the “expression” protected under the First Amendment to go far beyond speaking and printing newspapers, they have also put limits on what could be protected here. Child porn, true threats and other forms of “expression” have been deemed to have no value, and thus receive no protection.

Courts have also ruled that time, place and manner restrictions do not violate the First Amendment, as long as they don’t disadvantage a particular point of view. My favorite case involved a Wisconsin worker who would drive past the governor’s house every morning, flip the bird at the house, yell “RECALL WALKER!” and honk his horn. The courts split the baby on this one, allowing him to yell and gesture, but the horn was considered a bridge too far.

Trying to sort out what does and doesn’t get covered, or how courts tend to view these things can get really complicated. David Cole, the national legal director of the ACLU, has an opinion piece in the New York Times which picks through the issues of expression and discrimination and how cracking down on the latter, doesn’t mean we violate people’s rights to the former. To whatever degree you side with either group, Cole’s piece is worth a read, as it is both straightforward and clear in its explanation of how and why these two concepts can coexist.

Dear Students, Don’t let the “grownups” make you feel like you suck (A throwback post)

I dug this one out for Throwback Thursday for two reasons:

  1. It’s the end of the semester and I’ve got a lot of kids dragging out there who are operating under the overbearing expectations of some truly stupid professors, bosses and other alleged adults. I’ve heard “I must really suck” more often these days than I would at a vacuum cleaner self-affirmation conference.
  2. My kid just got into the college of her choice.

The first one is pretty obvious: When people like this Everett Piper dude decide to make themselves out to be the second coming of perfection, while simultaneously crapping all over you, all for their own personal benefit, you need to know there are folks out here who want you to know you’re fine. Hang in there. Don’t give up.

The second one needs more context: Last year, Zoe sat down with her high school guidance counselor and talked about what she would like to do after graduation. She listed off several schools she wanted to attend, two of which were pretty heady picks, but not Ivy-League places or schools with a 0.0001 acceptance rate. These out-of-state places had strong accounting programs, an area for which she has a passion that defies explanation.

The counselor told her not to bother. Pick a couple UW branch schools because, “Nobody from Omro ever leaves the state for school.”

There is nothing wrong with a UW branch school. Her first acceptance letter came from a UW branch school and she was totally happy with that opportunity before her dream school came calling. Hell, I’m TEACHING at a UW branch school, despite what the marketing folks here will tell you through their branding.

(The rule in the marketing department, I’m told, is that they use hyphens with all UW schools except for us and the flagship campus because they need to set the tone as being a quality institution, not a second-rate branch. Never once have I met a student who told me, “I was considering UW-Stevens Point, but then I saw that hyphen and thought it had to be a total crap hole.” Then I saw the hyphen-free UW Oshkosh, and realized, “This is the place for me!”)

The point is, why would this person think it’s acceptable to tell a kid, “Look, don’t bother trying for stuff you want. It’s kind of a waste of both of our times.” Who does that?

Quite a few chuckleheads, including the one we’re covering in this post below. Enjoy the burn…

Dear students, Don’t let Everett Piper tell you that you suck.

For reasons past my understanding, this thing is making the rounds again:

The President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University gave a lecture to students they’ll never forget. Recently a student complained about a sermon that made him feel guilty and blamed the school for making students feel uncomfortable. This is not uncommon. Many universities now are so afraid of offending even one student, that political correctness has run amuck.

However, this University is based on religion and so one would expect that discipline, good character and personal accountability would be a big part of the curriculum.

Everett Piper, who is the President of the school, wrote a letter to the students admonishing them that playing the victim, blaming others and not admitting mistakes is not a way to live a productive and meaningful life. Here is the letter titled “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”

Piper’s open letter originally made waves in 2015 when he first posted it and it suddenly went viral, thanks to his leveraging of social media and the talk-show circuit. Every so often, someone finds it again and posts it to a listserv or a Facebook feed and it starts to catch fire again.

Professors often deal with a wide array of students, but it is usually the best and worst ones that make the greatest of impressions. Thus, we tend to recall the kid who skipped seven weeks of class and then showed up for the final or the guy who swears his grandmother died 19 times in the semester to justify his frequent absences. Get about four professors in a room around this time of year and a game of, “I bet you can’t top this” will inevitably happen, as we tell tales about student baffling student behavior.

That said, this letter is total crap for a number of reasons. For students out there reading this, and who are tired of getting dumped on, here are a couple points to ponder before you let a guy like Everett Piper make you feel miserable during finals week:

 

Recall the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers Day

Johnny Sain, a longtime pitcher and pitching coach, had a disdain for Old Timers Day, when out-of-shape old players would return and tell stories of their glory. He captured the reason perfectly and with a phrase you should always remember:

“The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I don’t know Everett Piper personally, but if he’s like every other human adult I ever met, I’m fairly confident he wasn’t perfect at the age of 19. If I had a nickel for every mistake I made, stupid thing I said, dumb question I asked and wrong position I held in my college years, I could buy Earth and evict Piper from it. The point is to learn from those mistakes and help other people who are likely to make those mistakes as well.

I occasionally get a question that goes something like, “Wow, you work with college students? Don’t you ever feel jealous of them for (whatever freedom they supposedly have to drink like a fish, hook up every night or just have a metabolism that doesn’t reflexively add inches to my waistline every day)?”

The answer, “No and HELL no.” I remember living off of buckets of Ramen and those frozen chicken things that were probably part cat, but were 10 for $5 at the local convenience store. I remember having to decide between another beer and laundry money. I remember the anxiety associated with asking people out, trying not to screw up a relationship and having to listen to The Cure for hours on end after each break up.

Would I care for a return to crappy apartments where the heat was controlled in only one unit, brown water that came out of the tap and a basement that smelled of god-knows-what? No thank you. I survived the first time and I’m lucky I got out with 10 fingers and 10 toes. Remembering that is what drives me to help you get better.

Too many people eventually get older and develop selective amnesia, thus allowing them to tell kids, “When I was YOUR AGE, I (never/always) did (whatever)…” and really believe it. I’d bet every dollar in my pocket against whatever Piper has in his that there were times when he whined as a student or groused about something being unfair or complained about how he felt without thinking about how it would sound to other people.

It’s not that we have too many trigger warnings or that too much stuff is gluten free or that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without starting a culture war these days. Those are all strawmen, just like Piper’s student at the front of his letter.

The fact is, there have always been good things and bad things that people exalted or wailed about in life. It’s just the people doing it now have forgotten how much they hated hearing about their grandparents explaining how ungrateful “kids in your generation are these days,” which is why they do it to other people.

Keep that in mind if you ever end up the president of a university and you have an urge to yell at a kid for standing on your lawn.

 

Consider the Source

In journalism, we teach people to look at the source of the information before we consider how much weight to give it. Sure, from the outside, Everett Piper may look like the shining beacon of greatness upon the hill of glory, but consider the following information before you worry what he thinks about you:

He grew up in a town of about 8,000 people and attended a nearby private school of about 2,000 people in late 1970s/early 1980s, when you weren’t required to hock an internal organ to pay tuition. Upon graduation in 1982, he took off for the work world, as you can see below:

PiperExperience

So he graduated at the age of 22/23, immediately went into academic administration and never left. Not exactly the story his university tells about him:

A native of Hillsdale Michigan, Dr. Piper grew up in a family that valued hard work, a mindset he carried with him as he moved from industry into pursuing a college degree.

Not sure how much “industry” work he did between the ages of 18 and 23 while in school, but he wasn’t a returning student, or a single parent, or a GI Bill kid, or any of those other kinds of folks I see on a daily basis who work their asses off to survive. He might or might not be the prototypical example of a guy who thinks he hit a triple when he was actually born on third base, but he’s also isn’t a latter-day “Rudy,” either.

Piper’s proud defense of his university not being a daycare seems a bit suspect, as he is making money off the deal. He turned his “catchphrase” into a nice cottage industry of castigating the youth and yelling about the snowflakes on his lawn.

The university even promotes the purchase of this stuff on its website. (What was that story about Jesus and the money changers in the temple? Oh, yeah…)

Also, consider this line from his letter to the masses:

If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

(The emphasis on those two statements is mine.)

If the irony of that first line doesn’t send your hater-ade filled soul into laughing fits, I don’t know what will. It’s easy to “arrogantly lecture” people, as Piper has clearly shown with his letter doing exactly that. Also, instead of dumping all over the kid who came to you with this concern about a Bible passage you likely understood far better than he did, why not help that little snowflake “humbly learn” what it meant instead of using the kid as a strawman to bolster your self-serving position?

(Side note:When someone tells me that something “actually” happened and “I am not making this up” in successive paragraphs at the front of a story, I’d bet money that person is making something up.)

 

(It’s even more amazing than when you have the ability to monetize your grousing…)

The second line (and any other similar phrase) always annoys me when it comes from people in a position of advantage. When is the last time University President and Almighty Deity of Knowledge Everett Piper was called out for his horsepucky? Probably back when people were rocking popped collars and jamming out to Duran Duran. It’s easy to say that people need to be confronted when you possess the power and position to do so, without fear of retribution.

And if all that hasn’t convinced you, read his Twitter feed. The guy has a transphobic Chuck Norris meme up there (as one of his many anti-LGBTQ tweets), called incoming house Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a clueless child and referred to universities (all except for his, I’m guessing) as “bigoted, Intolerant, ill-liberal, inconsistent and closed minded.” Not exactly the bastion of intellectual argumentation I’d expect from a guy who reflexively calls himself “Doctor” more times than you’d hear it on a Thompson Twins’ Greatest Hits album.

 

Don’t Let These Guys Win

The problem isn’t that Everett Piper exists or that he has created a nice little business out of shaming college students with the tone of a high-strung school marm. The problem is that he isn’t alone.

Each generation likes to blame the one before for its problems and dump all over the one after it for not being perfect. As mentioned earlier, people like to get together and complain about how “a student did something you wouldn’t believe…”

Like any other stereotype, it contains a kernel of truth. Like any other stereotype, you can beat it. And like any other stereotype, you should call it out when you hear it.

Don’t let Piper and his ilk decide that you damned kids and your hippity-hoppity music are ruining this world and that if we could just get “Happy Days” back on the air, life would be good again. Don’t let this guy sell books off of the assumption that you will crumble or melt or whatever the comparative is that Piper or the next chucklehead uses to deride your generation. When someone decides to grump in your general direction, use your finely honed interviewing skills to pick apart their self-serving rubbish and demonstrate your intellectual journalistic superiority.

Sure, there are self-absorbed twerps in college who will claim their goldfish’s death merits a six-week extension on an already late paper. There are also dingleberries out there who misapply triggers and trigger warnings to mean anything they would prefer to avoid, as opposed to the actual medical situation they are.  There are plenty of examples of students that make us shake our heads until we develop neck cramps.

However, when you see something like this, written by someone like Piper, take a moment and smile. Think to yourself, “Gee, it must be so sad to think so little of the people you are supposed to help that your best approach to dealing with ONE QUESTION is to publicly rip AN ENTIRE GENERATION to shreds with a letter and then go write a book to pat yourself on the back for being superior to anyone under the age of 22.”

Then, go back to working hard to be better than this guy is. Commit yourself to being the antithesis of what he purports you to be. In other words: