Write all you want, but then edit the hell out of it.

 

During a writing lab session, a student asked me how it is I could come up with tight and clear sentences off the cuff. The truth, I told him, wasn’t so much in the writing, but in the editing. I was essentially doing in my head what he was doing on the computer, which took me a lot of practice. Even more, I told him, when I do write sentences on the computer, I mostly spend time just dumping the stuff out of my head and then going back to shape and polish them. In short, I explained, write all you want, but then go back and edit the hell out of it.

Here are a couple examples of what I mean:

Here is a 46/47 word lead on an ongoing investigation about a UW chancellor and her husband’s behavior:

WHITEWATER – An independent investigation commissioned by the University of Wisconsin System into how administrators responded to sexual harassment allegations against Pete Hill, husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper, found “Hill’s behavior was a blind spot for the Chancellor,” according to documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.

Start by picking this apart. What’s the first thing we learn? That there was an independent investigation commissioned by the UW system. Is that the most important thing you want to tell people?

What’s the last thing you learn? The newspaper got some documents. Is that important enough for the lead?

Let’s focus on what matters most:

  • husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper
  • accused of sexual harassment
  • reports calls accusations credible
  • report finds she didn’t know about it
  • report finds she didn’t ask him about it
  • Kopper didn’t retaliate, but people still felt awkward

 

Pick through those elements and you have a much stronger lead:

Former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper likely didn’t know about her husband’s sexually harassing behavior on campus, but she didn’t proactively respond to the allegations once they arose, an independent investigation found.

It’s 31 words and gets you closer. Then, if you want to talk about how you got the records, the formal title of the investigative group and the “blind spot” quote (which gets mentioned twice in three paragraphs), you can do that later.

Just so you don’t think I’m picking on the pros, here’s a nice, tight lead that similarly works off of a major report from that same publication:

MADISON – Wisconsin has seen a steep decline in net migration of families with children and this could be problematic for efforts to replace the state’s aging workforce, according to a new report.

Again, it tells me what happened and why I care right up front, pushing the name of the official report and committee and all that stuff way down below.

Check out this body-copy sentence from a story about a contract between a state entity and a private corporation:

Evers and Foxconn officials are in talks to rewrite a contract that lays out what size investments Foxconn must make in Wisconsin in order to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies — a deal that currently requires Foxconn to hit targets in job creation before any state tax credits can be paid.

An edit to this can make a 48-word sentence a little clearer and cleaner:

Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies. Under the current deal, Foxconn must hit job-creation targets before receiving state tax credits.

Two sentences, 32 words and much clearer. If you want one sentence, try this:

Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies in an attempt to reshape the job-creation targets Foxconn must reach before receiving state tax credits.

It’s still beefy at 34 words, but it is tighter and clearer.

These would get better with more editing, but the point is that instead of trying to be perfect on the first pass, get the stuff out of your head and onto the screen. Once you have something there, you can work with it. Until then, you just have a blank screen with a blinking cursor that is mocking you.

 

High school heroes: The PLD Lamplighter burns Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for the lack of access to an open event

Last week’s coverage of the Oshkosh North Star censorship situation provided a digital version of the vintage truism about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. When student media and information suppression mix, it can be an explosive combination, much to the consternation of folks who think of high school journalists as only “playing newspaper reporters.”

The student journalists at the PLD Lamplighter found themselves at odds with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Kentucky Gov. Mat Bevin when they attempted to enter an “open press event,” only to be told they weren’t allowed inside.

DeVos and Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on Wednesday appeared at a roundtable discussion of school choice advocates at Bluegrass Community and Technical College about DeVos’ federal scholarship tax credit initiative.

But the Dunbar students said they were turned away by a man wearing a BCTC badge when they arrived to cover the event, told that it was invitation-only. PLD Lamplighter is a student-run news publication at Dunbar.

The students tried multiple times to get in to cover the event AS PRESS, only to be denied each time. When push came to shove, the students could have simply groused about their inability to gain access. Instead, they thought of their audience, the irony of the moment and how best to communicate their predicament. The result was an editorial titled “No Seat at the Roundtable” that slammed home the point:

It was heartbreaking to us, as young journalists fired up to cover an event regarding the future of education, to leave empty-handed. But as we researched we learned that we were not the only ones who were disappointed and frustrated.

There were social media posts that exhibited confusion from parents, students, and educators—especially because no public school representatives were participants in the event.

We emailed FCPS Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.

Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders–educators, students, and parents.

The closing is one of those things that writers dream about writing:

There was a lesson in this experience, though. We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary. We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.

What followed was attention from pretty much any media outlet you can imagine. The local publications took a look at this issue, as did the Washington Post. As is the case with most times the excrement hits the whirling wind-maker, everyone involved immediately started exclaiming how unaware of the students’ plight they all were:

U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill said in an email Friday morning that “no one from the Secretary’s staff was made aware that student journalists were attempting to attend the roundtable. We welcome student journalists and would have been happy for them to be in attendance. We are looking into what, if any, miscommunication might have happened between other staff on site for the event.”

BCTC spokeswoman Michelle Sjogren said Friday that “our security people were working off of instructions from Secretary DeVos’ team, they were told there was an invitation list.”

“The instructions we were given were …whoever is coming in needs to be on the list,” said Sjogren. “We had an RSVP list.”

Sjogren said she was made aware of the editorial Thursday night and sent an email to Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains.

“I said, …Dunbar students and any high school students are welcome on our campus at anytime. This was not our event and we did not set the protocol for it. We were just following instructions. It wasn’t our decision,” Sjogren said.

This wasn’t so much of a miscommunication as it is a representation of the unfortunate state of how too many people tend to view “student media.” This is why it always matters when we can shine a light on how any one of us is being treated in the media world. How one of is is treated reflects on all of us.

Use simple language and reach your readers where they live

I got a giant wad of reviews for a book proposal that I put into the field a few weeks back. The idea of people reviewing work you haven’t done yet to decide if it’s worth doing gives me hives, but it does help me understand what professors want and what they think their students need.

Amid all of the helpful suggestions (and a few that made me wonder if they were reading another person’s proposal instead of mine), this rhetorical question stuck with me:

Is it possible to write in simpler language? The authors do not have to impress the other professors.  The goal should be to reach the student.

Of all the things I’ve received in reviews throughout my life, this is one chunk of text with which I wholeheartedly agree. Believe me, if I was trying to be impressive, I’d be totally screwed.

Whenever I try to write a book, I consider the students who had to plunk down their cash to buy this thing and now are forced to use it for something besides a doorstop. I will often think of one of my current or former students and then imagine I’m trying to tell that particular student whatever it is I think matters in a way I think he or she will best understand it. (I then go back and edit out the cursing, the “y’knows” and any reference to the 1980 USA Hockey Team.)

The point is: I try to know my readers before I write to them. I’m also not trying to impress anybody with my wide range of vocabulary or ability to recall a key moment from a “Full House” episode that foreshadowed Lori “Aunt Becky” Loughlin’s role in the admissions bribery scandal.

I want you to learn how to write well, communicate effectively and reach an audience. If I’m not doing that in my textbooks (or at least trying to), I’m either a hypocrite or an idiot. With that in mind, consider these key pointers when it comes to writing simply for an audience:

  • If you wouldn’t read it, don’t write it: A  major problem happens when you flip from the “reader” side of a story to the “journalist” side of the storytelling relationship: You forget what it’s like to have to read whatever it is you’re writing. The purpose of journalism is to reach your audience with quality information in a clear and coherent way. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Approach your content accordingly and if you wouldn’t enjoy reading something, don’t write it that way.
  • Tell me a story and make me care: Far too often, our desire to gather quotes or or grab basic facts can overwhelm the journalist, thus putting the storytelling aspect of the job on the back burner. Instead of treating journalism like you’re fighting through a “honey-do list,” focus on the concept of telling stories in a way that makes your readers care about them.The idea of a story drives our desire to read, listen, watch and interact with content. It’s why we search for characters, threads, plots and elements in the media output we consume for entertainment. News is no different in that regard, so find ways to make your work tell people a story that is relevant, useful and interesting to them.
  • The harder the story is to understand, the slower and simpler you should tell it: I remember seeing this on a sign in our Ball State newsroom one year and I wish I could find its source. (I’m sure someone will tell me about 11 seconds after I post this, complete with a link I should have easily located…) Its point is a fantastic one: When things get harder, slow down. We do it when we’re driving through a snowstorm or working through a difficult math problem. We do it when our parents or grandparents call and ask, “How do I stop the computer from doing this one blinky thing?”However, when we write stories for our audience, we often blaze through the jargon, speed through the complexities of a proposal or rush through a series of actions that barely make sense to you. Instead of flying along like my wife on a freeway, jamming out to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, slow down and incrementally explain each important detail as if you are communicating to a child. Or a parent asking about that “blinky thing.”

Throwback Thursday: The Four-Word Interview

(With the weather continually failing to cooperate with my desire to pull the Mustang out of storage, I decided to pine for “Betsy” openly with a throwback post to 2017. It’s a good reminder that the point of interviewing is to gain information that is important, to not overthink your interviews and that some day soon, summer is coming. — VFF)

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(The subject of a four-word interview.)

I stopped off to get gas this morning when a man in his 70s approached me.

“What year?” he asked, pointing to the Mustang.

“’68.” I told him.

He nodded. “Nice.” He then got in his truck and drove away.

In the simplest of terms, this was a perfect interview and the whole thing took four words.

In all the reporting and writing classes I have taught, the biggest problem students tell me they have is interviewing. They don’t know what to ask or how to ask it. They feel awkward talking to other people or they get the sense that they’re being pests. They would rather just email people and hope for answers instead of approaching people in public and talking to them. This is why interviewing features prominently in both the Dynamics of Media Writing and the Dynamics of News Reporting & Writing.

Interviewing is a skill and like any skill, you need to practice it to become better at it. That said, it is important to understand that every day, you conduct dozens of interviews, so you are probably better at it than you think you are. You ask your roommates how their day went, you ask the waitress what the special of the day is and you ask your professor, “Will this be on the test?” If you don’t think of these interactions as interviews, it’s because you are overthinking the concept of interviewing.

The purpose of an interview is to ask someone who knows something that you need to know for the information you seek. When you get that information, you do something with it. The guy at the gas station wanted to know one thing: What year Mustang was I driving? He figured the best source was me, the owner of the car. He asked a question that would elicit the answer he sought. He got his information and he moved on.

Interviewing as a journalist can seem much more complicated than that, mainly because you have to do a lot of preparation, you need to troll for quotes and you need to figure out how the answers fit in the broader context of your story. That’s all true, but if you start with the basic premise of “What do I need to know?” your interviews can feel more natural and less forced.

No comment or late comment: How long should you wait for people to speak up on their own behalf?

Student media adviser and blogging guru Kenna Griffin sent this out on Twitter today and it got me thinking about our rights and responsibilities regarding fairness to sources:

Griffin1

Her blog post, which you can read in its entirety here, touches on a lot of good issues in regard to fairness, transparency, accuracy and the importance of the story. She also makes some good points about how things have changed in the digital age versus the newspaper’s “hard” deadline.

I often found that the hard deadline was a double-edged sword: I got more time to wait for someone to call me back because I didn’t have to send the story to press until 1 a.m.. That said, it also meant that if I caught a late-breaking story and only had until 1 a.m. to get it out the door, some people weren’t going to be around for comment, thus leaving me with a weaker piece.

Digital deadlines mean you can send stuff to your readers whenever you want, which is great when you have content worth sending. However, I know from personal experience, that when I’m waiting for a quote from someone and I have the ability to just hit “publish” and move on, I get really twitchy. Patience is a virtue, but not one with which I have been endowed…

Griffin lists some key thoughts about the best practices for deciding when to wait and when to pull the trigger. Here are a couple others that I’d add, especially for those of you working in a digital field:

  • Will waiting longer likely lead to a comment? In some cases, you have worked with a source and that source is usually pretty good about getting back to you, so the wait makes sense. In other cases, you are more likely to find a unicorn playing bass in a punk band than you are to get a quote back from a source from which you requested an interview. If you think time is likely to lead to success, hold on to the piece. If not, publish it as soon as it’s as good as it’s going to get.
  • Is this a case of “ostrich syndrome” on the part of the source? The legend involving ostriches is that when they become afraid, they stick their head in the sand, thus not seeing the danger, but clearly being no safer than they were before they did it. It’s not true, but it does provide us with a good jumping off point for how sources can be delusional regarding their interactions with reporters.
    A number of times, a source has tried to dodge a reporter’s call with the idea that if they can avoid saying anything about the topic, the reporter won’t be able to run the story. In those cases, I tended to tell people to run the story anyway, with an explanation that we tried to give this person a chance to say something. Just like any other form of bad behavior, you shouldn’t reward sources who try to kill stories by dodging you.
  • How permanent is your choice? This is a tough issue that tends to lend itself more toward student media outlets. When a publication comes out once per week, an unanswered claim or a one-sided story can become codified in the minds of readers before another source gets a chance to say something. Even more, if it the last paper of semester or school year, that decision not to hold a story for a comment can seem almost vindictive. However, if you run your media on a digital platform and you can update at a moment’s notice, the choice seems a lot less painful. When it came to the Oshkosh North Star situation, I felt pretty solid about publishing whatever it was I had in hand, even if I was still hoping for another quote or comment. I knew that if something popped up, I could tweak what I had. If I worked at a newspaper and it was going out this week only, on actual paper and I would never get another chance at it, I’d probably feel a lot more anxious about my choice to publish.

 

One last thing about the “no comment” issue: People who tell you “no comment” and then continue to talk are, in fact, commenting, so feel free to use whatever they tell you. It’s not your fault they can’t shut up. When people don’t comment, we used to joke about how to translate the way in which the “no comment” was listed in the story:

  • “Smith declined to comment:”  This essentially means you got a hold of the person, the person was decent to you and told you something along the lines of, “Look, I really can’t say anything or my boss/my manager/my spouse will kill me.” You feel bad for the source and you kind of understand.
  • “Smith refused to comment:” You reached the person who told you “Go (INSERT ACTION THAT DEFIES PHYSICS HERE) yourself and the horse you rode in on!” The person might also have been running down a flight of stairs, screaming “FAKE NEWS!” at you.
  • “Repeated attempts to reach Smith on his mobile phone, home phone, congressional email account, two fundraising dinners and his house in Yonkers were unsuccessful.” That weasel is dodging us…
  • “Smith’s whereabouts are unknown at this time and the Journal was unable to find him.” This guy might be dead.

Four things other high school administrators should learn from the Oshkosh North Star situation

I’ll be the first to admit, I was stunned at the way in which the Oshkosh Area School District decided to end the crisis involving the school’s publication, the North Star. If you missed the previous posts you can find them here and here and here.

The short version is that the district issued a two-page press release on Monday, saying it will no longer pursue any action in regard to the Hans Nelson story. It also stated the district has put the publication back into the hands of the students and the adviser and it will work to put in place a policy that codifies this for the future.

I have never seen a district turn that fast or that hard in that direction on an issue like this. And as my mother always told me, “If you’re going to criticize, you have to be willing to praise.” I emailed the district folks and thanked them for their work on this and I offered to help with the new policy in any way I can. The district made the smart play here and the folks there deserve the credit for that.

Other districts could learn a few things from how this all came to pass, so feel free to give this a read and consider using it if your administration decides to take a shot across the bow at your student media:

 

CENSORING THE STUDENT MEDIA IN THIS ERA IS POINTLESS

Administrators at Oshkosh North weren’t the first people to try this kind of information repression, nor will they be the last. However, I think it’s important for any administration to fully understand the point of censorship and why it has absolutely no chance of succeeding.

The idea behind censorship, in its purest form, is to eliminate the ability of people in an audience to get information on a given topic. If you have the ability to completely black out coverage of a topic, you will succeed in suppressing that information from reaching the readers and thus keep secret whatever it is you want to hide. This is why censoring a student newspaper in the digital era makes about as much sense as trying to catch water in a pasta strainer.

In this case, the district managed to pull the article off the website and stop people from seeing this information there. What happened next? WBAY, FOX11, at least two other journalists and one blog hack showed up at a public listening session where Brock Doemel outlined, on the record, every aspect of what was in his article. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the USA Today-Wisconsin network did a deep dive into this as well, only further focusing attention on this situation.

In addition, students have been sharing information via social media ever since this guy disappeared, other media outlets have offered to publicize the story and now everyone with internet access now knows what happened. The district’s press release seemed to indicate they realized this had gotten way more attention than if they had left the story alone.

Simply put, censoring the student media to keep this issue quiet works about as well as trying to extinguish your campfire with a bucket of gasoline. It. Doesn’t. Work.

EVEN IF YOU WIN, YOU LOSE

I was having a hard time making this clear to the attorney for the district when we spoke last week, so maybe I’ll do better here. I kept trying to explain that using the Hazelwood decision like a cudgel, treating student press rights as “less than” and coming down like a ton of bricks on students and media advisers doesn’t work.

Legally speaking, administrators usually have the Hazelwood precedent on their side, but a) it’s not the silver bullet people think it is and b) it was meant as a shield, not a sword at the time it was decided. Go back and read the decision. It’s terrible, but the core rationale behind this isn’t “Give administrators the right to censor at will just for funzies.”

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say censoring administrators run into a judge who has a strict interpretation of Hazelwood, hates student press and will side with an administrator, regardless of the situation, they will STILL lose. For starters, the administrators haven’t prevented the information they wanted to silence to remain private. Even worse, they have to go to court and beat up on one of their own students as a part of the process.  The court of law may side with them but the court of public opinion will never forgive them.

As one alumnus of Oshkosh North pointed out to me, the media coverage of this issue wasn’t even about the bathrooms or the Hans Nelson at this point. It was about how the administration tried to kneecap one of its own students and one of its own institutions. The whole narrative changed and they realized they were on the wrong side of it. That’s why the decisions they made were the smart move. Other schools can learn something from them on this one, for sure.

 

THIS DRAWS MORE ATTENTION, THE KIND YOU DON’T LIKE

I got to sit through the core of the school board meeting last week, as the open forum session where I could speak came at the middle of the event. In doing so, I learned a ton of great things that the schools in the district are doing. The robotics team won state and is now headed to nationals. The students are putting on an incredible play that I want to see now. The student newspaper at the other high school in the district won a ton of awards at the state media competition. In all, there were at least a dozen really cool accomplishments highlighted that the district has every right to shout from the rooftops.

And yet the one thing everyone was talking about the next day in regard to this district was the administrative overreach of a principal and the suppression of free press in Oshkosh. That’s what people found the next day when they Googled “Oshkosh North” and looked under news. It was what showed up on the nightly news and in multiple newspapers. It’s also got people on social media tweeting at them, sending emails and letters.

The district essentially came to the conclusion outlined in Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging. They backed off of Doemel and adviser Jason Cummings, went back to the spirit of the law for the North Star and they agreed to move forward to change the policy for good. Once they get this nailed down through the board, I’m hoping they make the announcement to show they completed this whole process so everyone can feel good as they move on.

That will get you the kind of attention that befits a quality educational institution.

 

THE MORE YOU TOUCH IT, THE RISKIER IT IS FOR YOU

Opening up the door to allow students to do whatever they want under the guidance of an honest-to-goodness journalistic adviser can scare the hell out of administrators.

In some cases, it’s because the admin folks are control freaks who enjoy dominion over all they survey, like an Alexander the Great with a master key. In other cases, it’s because they have been told a squillion times about the liability that that comes when a kid does a dumb thing. In other cases, it’s because nobody likes hearing bad things about a place they care about, especially if they are responsible for the upkeep of that place’s image.

I’m sure I’m missing a few other reasons, but the point is, this idea of giving a group of kids free reign over a publication with the school’s blessing can seem terrifying.

So why not slam the lid on this thing, eliminate the risk and take control over the whole thing? Because that puts you at even greater risk than you are if you opened up the whole thing and let kids do whatever they want.

The minute you touch the student media, you put yourself in the unenviable position of being responsible for it. That means the one day you blow off reading an article and some kid libels a janitor, that’s on you and the district. The attorney for the Oshkosh district told me after the listening session that the district is “where the deep pockets are in the case of a lawsuit.” Right. Which is why you don’t want your pockets associated with those people who might go digging.

Court rulings, even those after Hazelwood, have found that the best case a district can make against being successfully sued for the content of a student media outlet is to leave the content decisions in the hands of the students.

In other words, you break it, you bought it.

Which actually reinforces an even larger point when it comes to the students’ behavior. If you provide them with the ability to control the dice and yet the responsibility for dealing with the blow back from anything they publish, you train them to treat that responsibility seriously.

If you tell them that you’re going to be backstopping everything they want to run, you will have one of two unpleasant scenarios:

  1. They will be less diligent when it comes to accuracy, ethics and other similar things, thus leading to riskier journalism due to their lack of care.
  2. They’ll spend half of their time trying to sneak something past you because it’s fun to mess with authority, thus forcing you to spend most of your day on Urban Dictionary trying to find out if ‘mercan is a patriotic typo or something that should result in a phone call to the author’s parents.

Back to normal: Read the Official Statement from the Oshkosh Area School District regarding the North Star

When I first met Brock Doemel, and we discussed the situation he and the North Star found themselves in as a result of his article on Hans Nelson, I asked him what his goal would be if he could have anything come of this. He told me:

“I would want all our writers to be able to go back to the way it was,” he said. ” I want them to let us do (the North Star) without school censoring… I want Jason’s job to be safe. I want a free student press at our school.”

It looks like he got it. The district released a statement about 10 minutes ago that you can read in its entirety below.

Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure on every twist and turn in this, but I absolutely give credit where credit is due: The District appears to be moving in the right direction on this.

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“This is not just about some locked bathrooms anymore:” Open records requests, allegations of fabrication and threats of a lawsuit follow the media coverage of censorship at the Oshkosh North Star

If you missed Thursday’s post on the Oshkosh school district’s attempt to censor the students at the North Star, force a reporter to give up a confidential source and impose a policy of prior restraint, you can catch the link here.

Once you read the story, if you feel compelled to make your position heard on this topic, please consider contacting any or all of the following people:

  • Oshkosh North Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer: jacquelyn.kiffmeyer@oshkosh.k12.wi.us
  • Oshkosh Superintendent Vickie Cartwright:
    vickie.cartwright@oshkosh.k12.wi.us
  • Barbara Herzog, the school board president:
    herzogb@uwosh.edu

 

If you just want the short version of the situation, try this:

  • Student journalist writes story administrators don’t like
  • Administration censors student publication, demands name of confidential source
  • Student journalist refuses, requests open records to support the story
  • Administration requests $138 and access to the newspaper’s files before processing request
  • Student journalist refuses, goes to school board listening session to discuss this
  • Media gets wind of all this, everything jumps up a notch

That’s about as tight as I can do it.

The school board listening session and the school board meeting that followed allowed multiple people (including me) to talk about how this approach to student media wasn’t in the district’s best interest. Superintendent Vickie Cartwright stated in the meeting that there was no intended quid-pro-quo approach for the public records and that once the article’s author, Brock Doemel, produced the cash, the records were all his. (If you go back to the previous post and reread both of the response letters, I am uncertain as to how that statement jibes with what they sent the students, but at least this was now on the record.)

Doemel and fellow student journalist Tess Fitzhenry went to the admin building on Thursday to seal the deal:

FOIABrock

Doemel also had to go back to school on Thursday to finish off his week of classes and such. He said a lot of people at Oshkosh North supported the efforts he and Fitzhenry were putting forth.

“I was overwhelmed by the support I received from peers, teachers, and faculty on Thursday and Friday,” he said in an email. “Students and staff alike are well aware of the culture of secrecy that exists within the Oshkosh Area School District, and I’m committed to changing that culture for the better, starting with getting to the bottom of this story and ensuring that future student writers can practice journalism without fear of censorship or retribution.”

In the mean time, the story jumped up another notch when Devi Shastri wrote an incredibly detailed story for the USA Today-Wisconsin Network, which includes the Oshkosh Northwestern and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Revelations about this situation included the following:

  • Cartwright said she and North Star adviser Jason Cummings agreed to take the story down because they began “thinking about journalism ethics and guidelines and spoke to another staff member.”
  • Cartwright said Doemel’s characterization of his interactions with Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer were “false,” noting that she had spoken to Kiffmeyer, who is on medical leave. Cartwright was not present during those interactions.
  • The district is operating under a student media policy crafted for it by Neola, a “policy mill,” according to the Student Press Law Center. What makes this even weirder is that the district’s administrative guidelines for student press are exactly the opposite of what the district’s policy states:
    • Administrative guidelines: “No student media, whether non-school-sponsored of official, will be reviewed by school administrators prior to distribution or withheld from distribution,” the 2018 guideline states. “The school assumes no liability for the content of any student publication, and urges all student journalists to recognize that with editorial control comes responsibility, including the responsibility to follow professional journalism standards each school year.”
    • FROM THE DISTRICT POLICY: “All school-sponsored student publications and productions are nonpublic forums. While students may address matters of interest or concern to their readers/viewers, as nonpublic forums, the style and content of the student publications and productions can be regulated for legitimate pedagogical, school-related reasons. School officials shall routinely and systematically review and, if necessary, restrict the style and/or content of all school-sponsored student publications and productions prior to publication/performance in a reasonable manner that is neutral as to the viewpoint of the speaker. Legitimate pedagogical concerns are not confined to academic issues, but include the teaching by example of the shared values of a civilized social order, which consists of not only independence of thought and frankness of expression but also discipline, courtesy/civility, and respect for authority. School officials may further prohibit speech that is grammatically incorrect, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”
  • The lawyer for Hans Nelson, the subject of the article that started all this, issued a statement to Shastri, stating the article was “false and defamatory” and that Nelson is considering legal action as a result of the article.
  • Cartwright said the district now believes Doemel doesn’t have a source within the school district who told him anything about Nelson’s situation.

Some of these things seemed a bit odd, so I emailed Doemel and Cartwright a few questions about this. I got this back immediately from Cartwright:

CartwrightRobo

(NOTE: If Cartwright does get back to me, I’ll post her responses on the blog. I did get an email note from an alumnus of Oshkosh North who said he spoke with Cartwright for about an hour the other day regarding this issue. So, the superintendent is around and is discussing the story and the policy, both of which are important aspect of this situation. The alumnus noted that the board is open to reevaluating the policy and that Cartwright will be involved in that during the process. That’s all I know from the district standpoint.)

Doemel did respond to my questions and said he disagreed with the way in which Cartwright explained how the school dealt with the story and also how it treated him.

“Mr. Jason Cummings, our faculty advisor, removed the article after talking with another teacher, who feared Cummings might face discipline for it,” Doemel said in the email “It was not removed, as Cartwright claimed, because Cummings was questioning the ethics of my writing. The Superintendent’s account of how I was treated by Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer is also false, and I’m upset that Dr. Cartwright has not taken more care to investigate my treatment, but instead shrugs it off as if it didn’t affect me.”

After several attempts to get Doemel to roll over on his source, the district appears to have taken the position that no such source exists. According to Shastri’s article the district sees the source issue a “non-issue,” which makes little sense, given the previous statements made regarding the story and its source.

For his part, Doemel said he is standing by his story and he’s upset that the district is essentially calling him a liar.

“The most concerning of Cartwright’s quotes, however, is her sudden, out-of-thin-air assertion that I must not have had a source for my story and made the whole thing up,” he said. “Dr. Cartwright’s rhetoric is especially dangerous in an era where truth has taken a back seat to sensationalism and personal opinion. I won’t let it go unanswered. I’m not just some angry kid with a predisposed hatred for authority. I’m a young man who carefully researched and wrote an important story.”

In response to Nelson’s attorney threatening to sue him, Doemel said he isn’t worried, because the story was factually based and was intended only to inform the school what happened to him. On a personal note, he added that he likes Nelson, but that this issue has grown beyond a single article.

“Mr. Nelson was a highly-respected assistant principal, and I enjoyed his good sense of humor and his leadership over the last couple of years,” he said. “If I had a way to get in touch with Mr. Nelson, I would remind him that this is not just about some locked bathrooms anymore. It’s about poorly-written policy and school district officials’ gross mishandling of the situation.”

 

 

 

UPDATE: Oshkosh Superintendent responds to your emails regarding the Oshkosh North Star with a blanket PR statement about freedom.

If you’ve been following along with the prior post about Oshkosh North High School administrators censoring student media, trying to force a student journalist to give up a confidential source and relying on a policy of prior restraint, here’s your update of the day.

It seems you have been emailing the administration with your concerns, as was witnessed by this response a friend forwarded me:

NorthStarResp

The policies that were passed were part of the board’s overall policy revisions as suggested by NEOLA, a policy mill with a strong anti-student rights stance where free speech and press are involved.

In the following days and weeks, we’ll be digging into what all of this involves, but in the meantime, please feel free to continue to email the following people and express yourself regarding this North Star situation. You might get a robo-response like this one, suitable for framing. Or the wheels might start turning toward student press freedom once again.

  • Oshkosh North Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer: jacquelyn.kiffmeyer@oshkosh.k12.wi.us
  • Oshkosh Superintendent Vickie Cartwright:
    vickie.cartwright@oshkosh.k12.wi.us 
  • Barbara Herzog, the school board president:
    herzogb@uwosh.edu

More to follow as it becomes available.

The Oshkosh North Star needs your help after administrators censor the publication, demand the name of a confidential source and move to prior restraint.

I spent my Wednesday morning at the Northeastern Wisconsin Scholastic Press Association convention, teaching high school students how to write effective headlines for their publications. I spent the night teaching high school administrators and school board members why censoring and prior review are bad things. If I had to bet on where I was more effective, I’d put my money on the kids, even though I certainly hope not.

In both environments was Brock Doemel, a senior at Oshkosh North High School, who writes for the school’s publication, the North Star. Doemel found himself in hot water when he had the temerity to publish a factually accurate story on the paper’s website about the resignation of an administrator at his school. Assistant Principal Hans Nelson’s office was empty for two weeks and Nelson was nowhere to be found. Eventually, the district released a happy-time note indicating that Nelson was graciously moving to a position at another school teaching special education.

Doemel, however, got a source to confirm to him that Nelson had been placed on a two-week suspension after he locked off all the bathrooms in the school and lied about it to administrators. A legal threat led to an agreement to land Nelson elsewhere, Doemel said in an interview Wednesday morning.

The story spent about 20 minutes on the website before officials had it yanked down, claiming that this somehow violated privacy rules:

Oshkosh schools superintendent Vickie Cartwright says the article breached Nelson’s privacy and violated the district’s policy.

“Anytime that you’re dealing with any types of things that would infringe upon the rights of others, as a public employee, I do have to implement anything and put in protections for those individuals,” Dr. Cartwright said.

Doemel explained in our interview that Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer wasn’t even that clear about the reason for pulling down the story.

“I’m not even sure how she saw it so fast,” Doemel said. “She had it pulled down in less than 20 minutes. She said it was a ‘legal issue’ for anything to go on the website like that before the issue was settled. She didn’t even explain anything else.”

What Kiffmeyer did instead was require the North Star to post an unedited letter she wrote on its website that refuted the story that is no longer available. In the letter, she stated that it was removed due to “inaccurate and unverifiable content” and that the story “did not include credible information or sources.”

She also began harassing Doemel to give up his source. He said Kiffmeyer pulled him out of multiple classes over a week’s time to demand information about his source. He estimates this cost him about seven total hours of education.

“She requested my working notes,” he said. “I refused to identify the source… My mom works at the middle school and at one point they called the middle school’s principal and accused him of being the source.” (UPDATE NOTE: The principal talked to Brock late Thursday and wanted to clarify that the call made to him regarding the story was not accusatory, but instead a call from a friend at central office to let him know that the district was looking into him as a possible source.)

The situation got increasingly intense, Doemel said, noting that “it felt like I was guilty of a national security crime.” Some of the questions were intent on pinning down potential sources, such as “Is this person an administrator?” and “Is this source a man or a woman?” Doemel said other questions felt vague and threatening, such as “Brock, do you have a sister?”

“At one point, she placed her hands on the desk and leaned toward me,” Doemel said, mimicking the action. ” She said, ‘Sooner or later Brock, you’re going to tell me who your source was.'”

(INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: The whole point of this story being pulled down, according to Kiffmeyer’s own letter, was that the source wasn’t credible, and yet Kiffmeyer doesn’t know who the source is. Furthermore, nothing she said in any of those meetings, according to what Doemel told me, or in that letter explains WHAT was inaccurate or HOW it was wrong.)

Instead of giving up his source, Doemel and fellow North Star staffer Tess Fitzhenry filed an open-records request with the district to find out what happened to Nelson. What they received was a response letter unlike anything I’ve ever seen:

BrockFirstLTR

The law allows for fees to be used to recoup costs associated with record copying and such, although such fees are often used as a way of limiting access to documents. In this case, the students had a financial backer who agreed to cover whatever the cost was. That said, I’d bet my house on the fact that if the students had requested a similar number of records that revealed every good-time happy moment that happened in the district, the fee would have been waived.

The bigger issue was the requirement in the second response paragraph. Doemel said administrators had previously demanded the North Star’s passwords and logins and had also searched adviser Jason Cummings’ computer for information on this story. This letter essentially plays an illegal game of quid pro quo: Give us your information and we’ll fulfill the request.

“The Wisconsin Open Records law is not a bargaining chip,” SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand told me in an email. “It is the law. They can’t withhold public records until the students turn over passwords — or whatever other demands they’re making.”

The students, who were working with Hiestand on this request, sent back a response in mid-March, noting that they were fine paying the costs, they want the records and they won’t turn over anything to make this happen. The students didn’t hear back until Wednesday morning with essentially more of the same:

BrockLTR1

Again, in case you’re not clear on the law, this approach is illegal. If the records are public and someone makes a request for them, you have to turn them over. You can’t hang caveats on these responses, aside from copying costs or other legal matters, such as notification issues, which this letter does note. I was willing to prove that point by filing my own request, paying the exact amount in advance and seeing what would happen next. Doemel called the district office while we were all at this journalism convention Wednesday and asked, point blank, if the release of the records was contingent upon the release of the passwords. Cartwright said no, something she reiterated at the board’s listening session Wednesday night.

“Brock, I do want to make it very clear, we have every intention of processing your request, the only element that is missing, at this point in time, is the financial commitment for the request,” she said.

What remains, however, are several pressing issues:

  • The story is still censored.
  • The students are locked out of their ability to post content without administrative approval (in other words, they’re operating under prior review and prior restraint).
  • Doemel said anything he writes has been embargoed and must go through a specific administrative review.
  • The district is operating under a draconian policy that governs student media, something that was passed a few years back without anyone in the student media area really noticing. In the decades prior to that, the North Star operated under the doctrine of open public forum.
  • Cummings is still in trouble and Doemel said the students fear for his job.

Doemel said he doesn’t want to create serious problems at the school or be a thorn in the side of the district. All he wants is to be able to do his job.

“I would want all our writers to be able to go back to the way it was,” he said. ” I want them to let us do (the North Star) without school censoring… I want Jason’s job to be safe. I want a free student press at our school.”

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP:

Kiffmeyer

This is Oshkosh North Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer. You can email her at: ‎

jacquelyn.kiffmeyer@oshkosh.k12.wi.us

and tell her if you dislike the censorship of student journalists, if you are concerned about the tone she took in trying to get a journalist to reveal his source or if you want the this situation resolved in a way that protects journalistic principles and the job of the adviser.

 

Cartwright_Vickie_cropped

This is Oshkosh Superintendent Vickie Cartwright. You can email her at:

vickie.cartwright@oshkosh.k12.wi.us

and tell her if you want to see the North Star return to the days of no prior review or prior restraint, if you want to see important stories and if you support the rights of student journalists. You might also encourage her to work with the board to undo the policies implemented in the 2015-16 era that undercut student press rights.

 

Herzog

This is Barbara Herzog, the school board president. You can email her at:

herzogb@uwosh.edu

Herzog noted in the listening session that policies like the one done to undermine student press rights can be reviewed and revised through the board. Someone just has to bring it up to the board and a board member has to take it to the policy and governance committee. From there, if it passes it goes to the whole board. Feel free to email her if you would like her to know that you want this to happen, that the policies are in need of revision and that the school district needs an open public forum for all of its publications.

Finally, you can reach the staffers of the North Star via their website. You can also post some positive thoughts on their Facebook page here or reach out via Twitter (they only have nine followers, so maybe we can help them get a boost, too).

Let these folks know they’re not alone, that you support their rights and that you have their back. One of the things I have seen over the years in terms of “admin vs. student pub” battles is that the districts often win when they make the students feel scared, isolated and weak. When the kids win, it’s because they feel like pros, profs and other folks interested in free press have their back.

Help if you can.