Gone Fishin’: LEEROY JENKINS edition

Somehow, I made it through the semester that felt like this:

For those of you unfamilar with the reference, here is the video that quite literally might be Patient Zero for “going viral.”

There were days it felt like we were Leeroy… Charging headlong into the unknown without any sense of what danger was ahead. There were most days where we felt like the rest of the people in the “Pals for Life” group, trying desperately to calculate the best way to do something as our administrators screamed, “Nuff talk, Let’s do this!” and ran headlong into a clearly bad situation.

In either case, I hope you were amused, informed and energized by this year’s posts.

As is the case, I’m closing up shop for about a month, give or take, before I come back with the weekly summer schedule. If anything important happens or if you need me, I’ll be back early and make sure we’re keeping current on whatever is going on.

Take care and get some rest. You earned it.

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

5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

A student showed up at my office around 7:30 this morning with a case of Diet Coke and a thank you card.

“I wanted to give you something to say thank you for being the best part of my semester,” she said. “You really gave all of us such a great experience.”

I was grateful she felt that way, but truth be told, it sure as hell didn’t feel like I was giving anyone a great experience. It was less like “Top Gun” excellence and more like, “Sully landing the plane on the Hudson RIver” survival. I found it a miracle that we made it this far and that nobody lost a limb in the process.

I know a lot of us in education feel like this year flat-out kicked our asses and that maybe our students aren’t getting the best out of us because of it. In an attempt to close off this year of weirdness, I found myself struggling for answers. After about a dozen attempts to write this piece, I decided that it’s less about what we know and demonstrate to our students that matters, but rather what we want to know and how we want to serve them that matters.

With that in mind, here are five questions I think good professors ask of their students, no matter the situation or how long it has been since we shared a classroom together:

ARE YOU OK?

I think most of us have asked this question at least 30 times a day over the past 18 months and really wanted to know the actual answer every single time.

Students often enter our offices with one specific need: A question about a test, a concern about a grade or a request for some sort of special dispensation on an upcoming deadline. However, great professors can see that there is usually something else going on underneath the surface as students mentally flail about like the feet of a duck that seemingly moves smoothly across a lake. There is a job that is overworking them, there is a family member who is leaning on them or there is a roommate who is sapping them of their will to live.

The regular people in their lives give them the “regular people” advice about what to do or how to cope or why they just need to suck it up. Professors tend to have a completely different angle on things because we’ve been around the block more times than a moron with a stuck turn signal.

In the game of life, Mom and Dad see their child as a piece on the board, moving toward a goal. Friends see fellow game-players who are trying to make it through unscathed. Professors not only see the whole board, but also every game that has ever been played in front of them over years or decades. We know not only what each move will do, but the six moves that can come after that initial choice that will allow us to better predict success or failure.

Still, tapping that resource can be tough for students who often thing we have more important things to do than help them with whatever is problematic in their lives. That’s why even just opening the door a little bit with “Are you OK?” can make a world of difference.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Professors who care put themselves out there for students because without those students, our lives would be pretty dull and relatively meaningless. Helping other people has been baked into who I am since I was a kid. If someone is working on a project, I have been taught to grab a hammer or paint brush and put myself to work. If someone is struggling, you offer assistance in whatever way you can. You don’t wait for someone to ask for help. You ask how you can make things better.

In classes, sometimes the help is easy stuff like, “Can you read my lead and see if I’m on the right track?” or “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take next semester. Can you look over my schedule?” Around this time of year, the help can be a little more taxing, but still pretty normal, like serving as a reference, writing a letter of recommendation or reassuring a parent that, yes, Johnny or Janie will get a job and, no, he or she won’t be living in your basement forever.

I have found some of the best moments in life come from helping my students, even when it had nothing to do with this semester’s class. I’ve taught students how to change their own oil and swap their car’s battery. I’ve fixed cars for kids who were about to get shafted by some greasy weasel at a 10-minute auto repair joint. Amy and I have brought freezer-ready dinners to students who just had babies and were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being new parents. We’ve shared tips and given some kid-equipment to these folks as well. (That vibrating baby chair is a lifesaver some days, quite literally, one student told me.)

I’ve answered questions like, “How do you refinish a piece of furniture?” and “Can you tell me how bail bonds work?” (That one was a little dicey…) I’ve moved furniture and edited cover letters. None of it was a chore and thinking back on it makes me happy because these folks trusted me with whatever it was that needed doing.

The funny thing about this question? I find that once I ask it of a kid, I tend not to need to ask it again. After the first time, they’re the ones asking, “Could you help me with something?”

 

DO YOU KNOW HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU?

In the early phases, I tend to ask it on the simple stuff: You asked for help. You figured out how to properly attribute a quote. You got your first story published in student media. You got an internship at a place that NEVER gives internships to people from your school.

Once you graduate, you never stop being one of “my kids” and I don’t think I’m the only professor who feels that way about our connections with “our kids.” I watch from afar as you take jobs, move up the ladder and become leaders in the field. I see you start your own businesses, fight for social justice and make a name for yourselves. I’m proud to tell people, “I taught that kid!” when you show up in the newspaper (most times… Stay out of the police blotter…) or you are broadcasting on radio or TV. I am thrilled to let people know about your accomplishments and your awards and your growth as a professional.

However, you don’t have to do any of that stuff and I am still ridiculously proud of you. I’m proud of my students who have the courage to work through their mental health issues. I’m proud of my students who courageously battle cancer or overcome sicknesses and persevere. I’m proud of you for making amazing life choices to get married or to have kids or to go a completely different way. I’m proud that you are who you are and that you can stand on your own two feet and say, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.”

When our paths first cross, so many of the students seem like newborn deer: gangly, gawky and awkward as they try to stand on wobbly legs in a world that seems far too fast for them. Somehow they learn to steady themselves and improve their overall presence. They get stronger and faster and better as they learn from doing things right and even more from doing things wrong. We’re there to guide them, but they have to do this on their own, otherwise, they’ll never be strong enough to make it when we’re not around.

When they actually put the pieces together, it’s something amazing to behold.

And it’s worth letting them know what a big deal that is.

 

WILL THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY?

The people who enter my class tend to have a lot of questions. If they stick with me for the rest of the degree, they tend to have even more. I’m not sure if this means I inspire them to think critically and question their surroundings, or if I’m just confusing the crap out of them.

However, most of the questions they ask are geared toward a tangible outcome: “What do I need to know for the test?”  “Is it worth it to double major?” “Will this help me get a job?” “Is the salary for this job enough to keep me alive?”

These are all the questions we’ve been trained to ask in the college setting and they all make sense: You want to pass the class, graduate, get hired and earn enough to survive. The one thing that we tend not to think about in a real concrete way is if what we are doing will make us happy. Going through school always seems to feel like this scene from “School Ties:”

It took a long time for me to figure this out, but most of what makes life worth living and jobs worth taking is the degree to which you actually like what you’re doing. Dad always told me that if you find a job you love, you’ll never really work a day in your life. It’s mostly true, in that I have found that not every day is an Academy Award-winning performance and there are some days that are a lot better than others. However, when something makes me happy, I look forward to doing it. When something doesn’t, I tend to avoid it or do a half-assed job at it.

Students often tell me that they want to go to law school or grad school or start their own business or change majors or a million other things. The thing I immediately want to know is, “Do you think this will make you happy? If the answer is yes, plan well, hedge against failure and work like hell at it. If the answer is no, think again about why you want to do this at all.”

A lot of things that might make you happy aren’t going to be the smartest of choices, (“I want to start my own company where I blow bong hits in the lungs of people’s pets and post the videos on YouTube…”) which is where those other caveats come in. Still, we tend to consider the importance of happiness in inverse proportion to all the other things that are far less important than if we will really like what we’re getting ourselves into.

 

YOU KNOW I’M ALWAYS HERE IF YOU NEED ME, RIGHT?

I have now spent more of my life teaching college than I have not being a college teacher, and it doesn’t matter where I taught you or how long ago it was, you’re never really going to get rid of me.

The best part of my life is hearing back from students who have long since stopped needing my help on a test, my advice about an internship or my signature on a course override card. They have written more stories, covered more events, taught more classes, run more organizations and probably make more money than I ever have. However, when they really do need something, I’m thrilled to death when they show up in a chat or an email

A former student who is in her 40s sent me an email a few weeks back, asking if I’d support her effort to take a job at a big-name university. She has a doctorate, advising credentials that are amazing, a record as an elected public official and a lot more, so she needs me in the same way a Kardashian needs more publicity. However, I told her I was more than happy to do whatever she needed: Serve as a reference, write a letter or drive somewhere and talk to those people about why they’d be stupid not to hire her.

Another student got in touch a few years back when a source was threatening to sue him. I found the threat ridiculous and that his employer wasn’t doing more to support this kid, so I dug around and found some legal help that not only got the source to back off, but pushed the media outlet to leave the story alone.

I’ve refinished furniture for them as wedding gifts. I’ve seen their kids grow up in pictures and videos they post on social media. I’ve offered them condolences and heartfelt messages when they lose a parent or a loved one.

I’ve bought T-shirts and doodads from students who have started their own businesses. I’ve bought Girl Scout cookies from the children of former students, only pausing to think, “How in the hell are you old enough to have a kid who’s a Girl Scout?” (No matter how old they get or how esteemed they are, my students are eternally trapped in my mind’s eye somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, showing up for an 8 a.m. bleary eyed and likely hungover.)

I’ve lit holy candles in my church for students recovering from cancer. I’ve prayed for all of them at one time or another, just because I figured they needed it.

Before we part company any time we connect, I always try to remember to let them know, “If you ever need me, you know I’m here for you, right?” I mean it every time and I know I’m not the only professor who feels this way.

If there’s one thing I hope they all know, it’s that the answer to this particular question should always be “Yes.”

Advice, reflections and things to consider for students: Transitioning Careers from News to PR, Part IV

(Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

If you missed them, here are the first three pieces:

To close up this look at the news-to-PR transition, I wanted the folks to give the students some advice or some observations they had regarding where their journeys took them in the field. The line of “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” seemed apropos, so I wanted to hear what these folks learned between knowing what they were SURE they were going to do when they left college and what life actually brought them:

 

A 25-year marketing vet who spent 10 years in news before making the shift had a broad sense of what was in the field and what students should know:

“One thing I’d tell current students in the Journalism field is that the field is ever-evolving. It’s important to remain adaptable with your skills and your mindset. The thing you start doing right out of college will likely be very different from what you retire from, but the storytelling will always remain. Storytelling has been the one constant in all of Journalism and its various offshoots.”

 

A content manager for a firm that specializes in thought leadership looked at this from both ends of the discussion:

To news kids: Don’t be snobby about an entire profession. Careers are long and you might end up doing PR for a while because the skills you’re learning are transferable. Oh, and the talk about PR people not working hard – complete and utter nonsense. If you want to stay in news, pick an area or specialty (either topical or in approach) and stick with. GA reporters are a dime a dozen. Not picking an area of focus is probably my biggest regret. I was so focused on the basic skills of journalism that I didn’t really get to know topics.

To PR kids: The value of journalism goes well beyond advancing the interests of whomever you represent. PR and journalism shouldn’t be symbiotic, but they CAN help each other. The news media serves a vital purpose and is getting attacked by people who seem to think authoritarianism is better than democracy. PR people should understand the importance of good reporters and editors in a free society and do what they can to help.

 

A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said the things she learned in a newsroom made her a better practitioner in her current job:

“Working in newspapers gave me a unique set of skills and experiences I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else.

“Content marketing is filled with bullshit artists. Having newsroom experience on my resume gives me credibility that would’ve taken much longer to earn, had I started my career in marketing.”

 

A VP who serves as a content strategist at a major financial firm had the most amazingly honest and totally straightforward advice:

“Media is an incredibly small world. You’re going to run into people over and over again throughout your career. So don’t be a dick.

“That obnoxious PR person who wants you to cover their brand? They may be the mayor’s PR person 5 years from now. So be friendly. And honestly? Cover the dumb stories from time to time. If your audience finds it interesting, you did your job, and you probably made a solid PR relationship along the way.”

 

A marketing and PR practitioner who graduated during the 2010s planned to spend her whole life in news. When it didn’t happen, she realized a few things:

“When I was in college, I was 100% sure I was going to be in print journalism forever. If you would’ve told me I’d be working in marketing, I probably would’ve laughed. Little did I know, that was just the first stepping stone of my career. That being said, here’s what I’d tell students today:

  • Get involved in student media and extracurriculars. I learned more from those “in the trenches” experiences alongside my peers in the newsroom than I did in a classroom. It gave me a chance to try new things and put my skills into action. Plus, the people I worked with there are still friends, colleagues, and references.
  • Just because your major is “journalism” doesn’t mean that’s your only option. I used to think that if I was a journalism major, I would only be qualified to be a reporter. Professors aren’t lying when they say the skills are transferable.
  • Journalism isn’t dying. It’s actually a really exciting time to pursue a journalism or journalism-adjacent career, in my opinion. There are new platforms emerging and new stories to tell every day. We will always need people with the ability to tell those stories — and that’s what the skills you’re learning allow you to do. “

Do you have the skills to pay the bills when you change fields? Transitioning Careers from News to PR, Part III

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

In case you missed it, here’s part I. And here’s part II.

If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me in an exasperated voice, “Why do I need this stuff? I’m going into (fill in the field they plan to enter)!” I’d never need to work again.

The analogy I use as an answer is this: I’m putting tools in your toolbox that you’ll likely need in that field and pretty much anywhere else you’ll go in journalism. You might not use them every day, and you might use them in a different way, but they’re tools you’ll be glad you have eventually.

To what degree I’m right has often been a mystery. Sure, former students sometimes send notes or emails or texts and tell me that they’re still using these skills, even as they move from Job X to Job Y to Career Change 1 to Career Change 2. That said, there are days I wonder if I’m flying blind.

I asked the folks nice enough to talk to me about their career transitions from news to PR if the tools we put in their toolboxes in college really helped or if they had to do a serious course correction once they changed jobs.

The answers vary, but for the most part, it sounds like we’re being pretty successful.

A former broadcaster and college media adviser who works in public affairs and public relations probably captured it best:

“I honestly don’t think the skills are all that different though – it’s all about writing. In PA/PR, it’s just that we tend to focus on the positive. But we also have to deal with the negative. The biggest difference is that when we go negative, it’s framed in the best possible light instead of just giving the facts. Like you, I went to school when we were all pretty siloed. And I was hard core news. But in the end, it’s all about the words. And that is a skill that easily translates.”

 

A marketing pro with 25 years of experience in the field said her news background gave her not only the ability to work with words, but the sense of how best to use them when she moved to PR:

“The skills I learned in college related to news writing certainly transferred into all that I’ve done. Learning how to tell a story with all the right parts was the very basis of everything I’ve done all these years. Those skills were honed and expanded upon as I took each new job in my 25+ year career.”

Knowing how to tell a story was about half of what people said they learned. The other half was learning how to tell that story to a specific audience. In other words, instead of following the model of “Here’s what I want to tell you,” these professionals learned the “How can I tell you what you want to know in the best way possible?” approach.

A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said she developed her audience-centric approach in her last stop in her news career:

“The skills 100% transfer. Everything I learned from my 6 years in journalism provided that bridge into marketing, and continues to provide a unique skill set that has served me well on this side of the fence.

“My last position in journalism was an engagement editor, where among other responsibilities, I lead the newsroom’s social media efforts. This experience landed me a position in social media at a marketing agency. After that first position, having a solid background in journalism gave me an edge for several copywriting/content-focused roles, including one where I lead content marketing for all of the agency’s clients.

“Journalism taught me how to engage an audience and tell a story, along with mass communication skills. Those skills (along with having newsrooms on my resume) have put me at an advantage in every single position I have worked in since leaving the newsroom.”

A VP who serves as a content strategist at a major financial firm said she learned a lot in school and as a news journalist that transferred to her new position. Even more, she said she continues to ask questions about how best to serve her readers every time she plies her trade:

“The skills totally transfer. Knowing how to talk to people, keep a conversation going, get people to talk, find the interesting nugget, etc. is helpful in any job or really any life situation. I always say that between my journalism career and then agency career, I’ve covered just about every industry, which is great for dinner parties! I may not be an expert in, say, fiber optic cables, but I worked on a brand that creates them, and if fiber optics happen to come up in conversation, I know enough to jump in and sound half intelligent.

“Learning how to communicate to your audience is probably the top skill I’ve used consistently throughout my career. You don’t really think about it in straight news as much, but you learn it instinctively – always asking yourself: Will the audience care about this? Do I need to explain this concept or will doing that insult their intelligence? Is this a topic they like to read about? Is this a format they prefer?

“Later as I got into B2B publishing and then agencies, those are the questions I still ask myself every day when planning content. It’s just different than straight news, because instead of your audience being “all humans who can read and live in this area,” it’s “grocery store managers” or “hospital system executives.” Knowing your audience and thinking about things from their point of view is key whether you’re creating an infographic, pitching to a journalist, or writing a tweet.”

Even though most folks said the skills transferred, more than a few said they still had to struggle a bit when it came to making the switch. Not everything they did in news worked in PR and not every PR need was taught to them during their college career.

A content manager for a firm that specializes in thought leadership said it took a while to settle into the new job and new expectations:

“The skills transfer, but the processes took me a while to figure out. I’ve only worked for one PR firm, but the systems in place are so much more structured than anything I ever experienced in newsrooms, even when I worked for Gannett. Most days, that’s a good thing – the people in charge know what they’re doing and really think ahead – but I do miss the freedom of just jumping in my car to find a random story.”

A PR professional at a prestigious private university also said that although the skills transfer, he’s not done learning yet:

“I find the writing I do in my current job very challenging, which is a great perk frankly. And I can read the minds of reporters and editors with a fair degree of accuracy. I wouldn’t be able to do my current job nearly as well without my journalism training and experience. That said, I learn everyday from my colleagues who do not have a journalism background. Their skills and viewpoints are different but complementary.”

Did college help get people ready for all media careers or was it “silo city?” Transitioning Careers From News to PR, Part II

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

In case you missed it, here’s part I.

When I went to school about 30 years ago (good God… My soul is starting to shrivel…), all of journalism was taught in a siloed approach: If you wanted to do newspapers, you took those classes and never saw anyone but newspaper people again, until you took the law or ethics capstone. If you did broadcast, the same thing was true, although we had a little more overlap with each other than with the kids in the strat com courses.

The PR and Ad kids seemed to be swept away right after the intro class and moved into some parallel universe where we never got to see them again. They showed up at graduation like they had been with us the whole time and we all were like, “Who the hell is that?”

My first couple teaching gigs, things were not only siloed in terms of news vs. integrated marketing communicators, but in some cases openly hostile. I remember hearing “F—ing PR kid” so often, I started wondering if the field had a branch in adult entertainment.

Professors of these varied disciplines often didn’t talk unless forced onto a committee. In student-reporter newsrooms, the students and the faculty members had an almost pathological disdain for anything involving PR. The old news theory of the “separation of church and state” when it came to ad folks and editorial folks reinforced the siloed approach we took in teaching them.

As digital publishing and social media started becoming more important than dead trees, airwaves and fax machines, it became vital for us as professors to bridge the gaps and find common ground for our students. Given the way in which academia moves at a snail’s pace and professors tend to think a great deal of their own sense of self, it’s probably a safe bet that silos remained the norm.

The folks who were nice enough to talk about life in news and PR told me that their experiences in this regard depended on a couple things: where they went to school, when they were there and how interested they were in getting a well-rounded education in the field.

For example, a VP in content strategy who attended a major journalism program said the school operated in silos, but made a few efforts to round out her experience:

“There was an attempt to ensure we got a well-rounded education in all areas of comms. So I took courses on photography for non-majors, design, branding, strategic communications, advertising, etc. although I don’t remember anything really deep into PR while in school.

“It did feel a bit siloed, and some of the courses I was required to take felt like I was checking the box because I wasn’t interested in them. Looking back, I wish I had been more invested in strategic communications, marketing (I have no memory of marketing classes being offered, but it was a while ago!), branding, etc. since that’s more of the stuff I do now.

“Also, although we were required to take statistics, the course wasn’t really applicable to marketing/comms work. Nowadays, I use consumer data all the time, so learning more about how to read that info and apply it to building marketing personas would have been super valuable.”

A practitioner who works in the field of thought leadership for professional organizations said his experience was not only more siloed, but also more hostile when it came to the news/PR divide:

“Other than being in courses with PR majors, it was silo city. The journalism professors were respectful toward PR in the classroom, but the newsroom was another matter.

“The editors/professors there had a clear disdain for the PR folks they dealt with. I think they had a right to feel that way – many of the PR folks in the city and at the university weren’t worth much.”

For a marketing manager who attended a smaller school around the same time as the VP, the siloing was a bit stronger and shaped her ideologies about the disciplines a bit more:

“It was fairly siloed. There were a few Ad/PR people in my freshman/sophomore year journalism classes, but by the time I got to the junior/senior level it was pretty much all news/editorial folks in my journalism classes. To be fair, I also did not really take any classes with an advertising or PR focus at that time.

“I don’t recall professors trashing the other side. But PR was definitely discussed through the lens of how a reporter might deal with them (ex: you can’t rely on a PR person for 100% accurate information. Get several perspectives for your story.) I remember having the perception that advertising/PR/marketing was “the dark side” and they were all sell-outs, but I think that came more from my peers.

“As far as how it aligns with my life experiences today, I guess I did sell out and join the dark side. Journalists have a much more negative view of marketers, while marketers have a pretty positive view of journalists (at least those who eventually join the dark side).”

A marketing professional in the manufacturing field who attended the same medium-sized university about 20 years earlier found stronger demarcations in how she was taught. Those silos made the transition more difficult:

“The subject was taught in a very siloed approach. You could major in Journalism, but with a News emphasis or PR/Advertising emphasis. Marketing was thrown into the PR/Advertising genre, but wasn’t its own entity.

In fact, I took a few PR/Advertising classes and the closest I saw to marketing was when we created an advertisement. We were to create an ad that could be pitched for print, radio and television. This was my first taste of marketing, though it wasn’t called that.

“As teams of 3-4 students, we created story boards (with actual drawings and cutting and pasting with scissors and glue) for a product and had to pitch it to made-up executives who were students in the same class. That experience alone was enough for me to say that I’d rather not be in advertising. It didn’t seem right for me since I was intent on writing. I followed my passion.

“The rest of my Journalism degree was focused on news writing for newspapers. It was very straightforward in its message: Write a story, include all sides, but give it an angle, create a strong lead, build the story through others and put the fluff at the end in case there are space issues on the page. I had a knack for that.

“While I’m very thankful for my training in college, it doesn’t mirror what I do today, except for the fact that newswriting and marketing are both storytelling, just in different forms.”

A few other folks mentioned that even when journalism departments tried to get them to see the field in broader terms, it had little impact. A former news reporter who now does marketing for a well-known private university said he had a focus on news and nothing else really mattered:

“I was 100% focused on news/ed and newspapers. I was guilted into taking one online-focused class and dropped my only magazine class after like two weeks. I remember nothing about PR from J-School but I would have completely ignored any discussion of it.”

The one thing that gave me hope that maybe things are changing came from the most recent grad (within the past six years) who went through a program that is actively trying to change the silos. She works as a content marketing manager for a business-to-business organization, and noted that her experiences in school spanned the field:

“It was definitely not siloed. I was a journalism major with a writing and editing emphasis. Within the journalism department, we had some core classes that included students with other areas of emphasis in the program (such as PR or visual/photojournalism) as well as journalism minors. This was great because it built my skills in a variety of different areas and introduced me to people with similar interests who would go on to be great connections throughout the “media” industry at large.

“It was definitely the start of my professional network. It was also encouraged to pursue a minor and participate in extracurriculars, such as student media, to help you broaden your skills even further. I knew quite a few people with art/graphic design minors who were interested in a more visual-focused kind of career, people with English minors for a different perspective on writing and editing, radio-tv-film for a broadcast focus, and so on.

“Within those classes and extracurriculars, professors and advisers pretty clearly shared how the skills you were learning about applied across the board. In almost every class we talked about the importance of good writing, editing, and storytelling. Those skills apply whether you’re a PR pro writing press releases, a reporter covering breaking news, or a marketing guru writing website copy and blog posts.”

Transitioning Careers from News To Public Relations, Part I

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

I got a text from a former student recently that helped launch this series:

Hey Vince,

I am currently applying for a communications and marketing manager position at the school district I currently cover. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?

This guy was probably the best reporter I’ve taught in the past 10 years, simply by the dint of being a persistent little cuss. He would dig into stuff that nobody else had the patience to go get. He wouldn’t stop poking people who had records, refused to comment or otherwise dodged him until he could get the story that needed to be told. He also tended to be the person who other people told stories that often began with, “You didn’t hear this from me, but…”

The idea that he was considering a move from news into the public relations and marketing portion of the field told me two things that I pretty much already knew: The skills we teach in our journalism-based writing courses need to transfer among the disciplines of the field and that reporters were actively looking to get out of the crumbling mess that is news.

Public relations is a booming field, as there are approximately six practitioners for every one news reporter, according to a recent study. That number is up from a 2-to-1 ratio just 20 years ago. As newspapers continue to “shed” jobs (a term that should be replaced with “axe murder jobs for the sake of corporate greed,” but I digress…) and public relations continues to grow, I have no doubt that more news journalists will be taking their talents to PR.

Thus, I wanted to know what people who had made that transition saw and thought as they decided to make it and how they think we are doing to prepare them for life beyond college in a rapidly changing field.

What follows is a series of thoughts, comments and suggestions from an array of people who were nice enough to share their experiences. They come from various universities, work in different states and serve a mix of roles in the field.

Let’s start by looking at what they’re doing and how/why they made the move.

The continued downward spiral of few good newsroom opportunities, organizations cutting jobs and the general degrading of news jobs was a common theme for a number of people who made a quick switch to the other side of the field.  A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said she made the switch from news to social media promotional work after years of job fatigue:

“To be blunt, I left journalism because I got exhausted with the low pay and yearly layoffs that often felt like the Hunger Games.

“In the year before I left, the company I was working for did an extensive reorganization where everyone in the newsroom had to reapply for ‘new’ jobs, complete with resumes and interviews with editors from other papers in the chain. Of course, there were fewer positions on the other side of the re-org. The process took 6 months and was so psychologically exhausting that it felt like a type of PTSD. And I was one one of the “lucky” ones to get a job that was basically the same as the one I had. I can think of at least one person at that paper who got a job they didn’t apply for (and probably didn’t really want).

“Marketing was the easiest field to transition to. I was the social media and engagement editor for my paper, so I was able to land a social media manager job without much hassle.”

For many people, the move wasn’t a hard break, but rather a series of small moves that had them using their skills in different ways.

A marketing manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin has worked as a marketing professional for the past 15 years at various institutions. Prior to that, she spent the 10 years after her college graduation as a news journalist:

“My move to the PR/Marketing side of things occurred somewhat naturally through my various places of employment. I went from writing hard news stories at newspapers to writing news stories in magazines and newsletters for non-profit organizations and then for corporate jobs.

“As the industry morphed into the digital thing it is today, the shift was made somewhat naturally as society and our culture became more interested in short stories than long stories. Ultimately, the storytelling part of my training has remained constant through my career, no matter what kind of story I was telling or for what kind of media.”

A VP at a major financial institution, who serves as a content strategist, also noted the gradual movement over time from news to marketing:

“It was sort of a gradual transition driven partially by necessity. I started out as a newspaper reporter (2003), and then over a 5-year period, I went from news to B2B magazine publishing (2005), then custom publishing (2007), which morphed into content marketing (2008ish).

“Over time, I became more of an agency person than a journalist. I got out of news initially because I was a magazine major and really wanted to break into magazine publishing. When I moved to the custom publisher in 2007, the company primarily created magazines for brands, so that was my entry into agency-land. That also happened to be when social media became ‘a thing,’ so the whole industry changed, and the company I was with adapted as needed along with it.

“By the time I left in 2014, it was a full-on marketing agency and I was a content strategist more so than an editor or writer.”

 

In some cases, the small moves were less linear, as was the case for a PR professional who works for a firm that represents professional organizations, like law firms and management consultants, in the realm of thought leadership:

“I got out of newspapering right before the economy crashed in 2008 — and when I wanted to get back in, there were fewer good opportunities (I faced some geographic constraints, too). I actually did sales/tech stuff for a few years and then some freelance writing and editing. I decided writing and editing was more for me, so I signed on with the PR firm to do that kind of work.”

Many people mentioned the issue of needing a job but being limited to a certain geographic area, such as this former broadcast journalist who also taught college courses and advised student media:

“So I was a broadcast news producer before grad school. Then taught for years and ended up making a move to DC due to my husband’s work, and PR jobs here are everywhere. I am a director at a large consulting firm serving government clients.”

The same thing rang true for a former copy editor and writer for major media outlets, who shifted to PR after more than a decade in news:

“I made the move to PR because my commute was untenable and neither my job nor my family was going to move. I looked at good employers within a reasonable distance of my house and started applying.

“Much to my own surprise, I haven’t missed journalism for a moment since I left nearly nine years ago. I don’t even miss election night pizza.”

Next time: The pros discuss the things their education did (or didn’t do) for them in terms of preparing them for life beyond the newsroom.

Save Student Newsrooms Day: Share your stories, support the next generation

If I had a dollar for every time I told a story about my days in student media, I probably could solve all the financial woes most student media outlets are experiencing.

I cut my teeth at the Badger Yearbook, got my sea legs at The Daily Cardinal and found got my first real job because of the things I did at both of those places. When the Cardinal closed down in the middle of my junior year, it felt like a death in the family. When it came back to life, it was bigger to me than the Miracle on Ice.

Of all the places I’ve worked, taught and volunteered, the ones that most strongly hold my heart are those connected with student media. As a writer, editor, adviser or board member, I found myself seeing lifelong friendships being built, quality careers being developed and generally funny moments that I still can’t shake.

The only thing more certain than the value of student media is how little value many administrators, donors and other “outside” folks place on it. The one time I reeeeaaallly contemplated punching a fellow faculty member in the face was the time he chastised a student who skipped his class because they were “playing reporter” for the paper.

Say what you want to about class-skipping or  whatever, but that kid was a real reporter, doing real work, for a real publication. If you don’t believe how “real” things can get, go back and look at what publications like the Cav Daily and the Pitt News did on big stories.

The money for almost everything else comes first, it seems, with student media having to scratch and claw for whatever is left over. Administrators tend to forget how these publications lead to important stories, valuable changes and students who get incredible careers.

For some who are in the field, it can be easy to forget what life is like using a 25-year-old microwave to reheat last week’s coffee and last night’s Ramen while pumping out copy on deadline from a windowless basement in the student center. As we move on, the paper stays, fueled by the dreams of others who want to get where we have gone and want to do what we love to do.

The folks at the Independent Florida Alligator began Save Student Newspapers day in 2018 as a way for people to share stories about their experiences and to explain the importance of these publications as well. (The day was technically April 25, but if there’s one thing student journalists will understand, it’s a blown deadline…)  You can find their roster of testimonials here, with some pretty great stories about life during and after the student newsroom.

Feel free to add your own thoughts via their site, or share them below. Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt to check out your old student newspaper and find out if they’ve got any needs you could fulfill. Even just knowing that you care enough to ask can really make a difference in the lives of these student journalists.

I know it always did for me.

Throwback Thursday: Translating “The Dance” between professors and students over final grades

I was purposefully silent this week, as the Derek Chauvin murder trial reached its conclusion. I thought it better to let people far smarter than me, with much more life experience in the social and legal areas of this situation, speak and write about it. However, to write about anything else during that news cycle felt disingenuous at best.

Today, we get back into something I actually have a lot of experience with: The end of the semester arguments students present, as they start to realize time is short and their grades are subpar.

This year, I was exceptionally flexible, almost to the point of worrying that some students had taken advantage of me a bit here and there. Still, I didn’t really care, because we were all dealing with way more things that were way more difficult than usual (a long way of saying “unprecedented,” I guess…) so I was always open to the requests for help.

An extension for an assignment? Sure.

A need to miss a class or two? I understand.

A concern about work piling up? Let’s figure it out together.

However, even with the best of intentions and more help available than at  your average Apple Genius Bar, I still had the kind of students showing up who sap my will to live. They wait until the end of the semester in which they’ve been more radio silent than a Russian sub parked in the waters off of Nantucket, pour out some tale of woe that isn’t really that woeful and then say, “So, what are we going to do to get me my A?”

A couple years back, we looked at a collection of comments and questions students asked during their “grade negotiations.” That’s today’s post, but here are a few that came in more recently and my mental responses to them. Enjoy.

 

“How can I make up all my missing work at this point?”

Can you invent a time machine? If not, the options are limited.

“What do you mean I’m not passing? Do you know who my father is?”

Did HE invent a time machine? If not, I’m not seeing how this is relevant…

“Do you have any idea how much money we donate to this school each year?”

No, but I’m guessing the receipt didn’t come with a coupon for one unearned free “A” in the class of your kid’s choice.

“Our family knows the chancellor!”

That must be so cool!

“Your class is very important to me…”

All evidence points to the contrary, in that you missed so much time in this course, I honestly thought about having a missing poster put up for you at Walmart.

“You may think my work isn’t good, but I disagree. Clearly, we can each have our opinion on this!”

Sure, but not all opinions are equal, much in the same way that I can have an opinion that I should be dating Emma Watson, while she thinks otherwise…

“You were in my shoes once as a student majoring in media writing/journalism. Because of that, I don’t understand why you don’t understand my feelings/expressing frustration. And I’m not going to waste my time discussing it.”
The 10 or so paragraphs above belie the argument that you’re not going to waste time… Also, given what I’ve seen of your ability to research, fact check and write, I’m not sure how you know anything about me as a student, including if I even had shoes…
And now, our greatest hits album…

Translating “The Dance” between professors and students over final grades

As the term winds to a close, students and professors engage in what I refer to as “The Dance” over grades. It’s a tactical, nuanced discussion that involves trying to beg without it looking like begging, trying to answer an email without promising anything and basically engaging in nuclear-treaty-level diplomacy. If we were all trapped in a “Liar, Liar” world, it would essentially look like this:

Student: Pass me and stop being a jerk, you asshat.

Professor: Oh, now you care about this class, you little twerp? Go to hell and take a left.

However, since we have to “Eddie Haskell” it on both ends, here are the legendary begging statements I’ve gotten from students over the years or variations on those themes provided by the hivemind. I’ve added a few “internal thoughts” your professors have had over the years when it comes to responding to these pleas. Enjoy:

“Could you just add XX small points to my final grade?”

First, all points are created equal. Second, that figure has ranged from 1 to about 100, depending on the level of desperation. Third, when you kept doing the same stupid thing over and over again because instead of reading my comments, you just looked at the grade and thought, “Screw you, dude” you might not need those “small points.”

 

“I’m graduating this term…”

Not if you need to pass this class, you’re not.

 

“Is there anything I can do?”

Can you invent a time machine, go back in history and tell the earlier version of yourself to turn stuff in on time, not skip every third class and generally give a better overall performance than a disinterested Jay Cutler on a trick play? If not, no.

OR

Prayer can help, although I’m not certain how strong God’s will is to help you out here.

OR

Sign up for the next semester I teach this class and give a crap a little sooner in the term.

 

“Is there extra credit?”

Sure, because when the syllabus said, “There will be NO EXTRA CREDIT in this class, so plan accordingly,” I clearly included a loophole for people who didn’t care about anything until the very moment they realized they were screwed.

 

“Could I rewrite (half of the assignments) for additional credit?”

Sure, because nothing says, “I’m ready to do a good job,” like not doing a good job on anything all term and then expecting to make all of that up in 72 hours before grades are due with no real interest in learning anything other than how many points you need to slide by.

 

“Could you bump me up just this little bit?”

Sure, because I’m sure that won’t tick off the six other people in your class who sweated bullets to get a passing grade through hard work on that assignment you blew off to go to Cabo and party on the beach.

 

“Could you possibly round me up?”

I could. Now ask me if I will. Welcome to the grammar lesson you skipped.

 

“I had some issues this semester…”

Yeah. No kidding.

 

“Your class is very important to me…”

Um… I believe a lot of things people tell me to make me feel better about myself. This isn’t one of them.

 

“I don’t understand why you downgraded me…”

You mean the page and a half of comments I included in the body of your paper didn’t clue you in that this random series of unattributed content, fragmented sentence, shifted verb tenses, incorrect word choices and cripplingly bad structure didn’t help? This wasn’t a news story. It was a disaster movie filmed out of sequence.

 

“This isn’t fair that I should have to take your course over again.”

It isn’t fair I had to grade this pile of sheep dung you referred to as “completed assignments,” but we all have our crosses to bear, I suppose…

 

“I need (A/B/C grade) to (pass/maintain my scholarship/keep my ego afloat)…”

This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way.

The Junk Drawer: Raiders and Haters edition

“No, I don’t know where your mask went…”

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

Let’s take a spin:

I SUPPOSE ALL NUMBER 16s LOOK ALIKE TO SOME PEOPLE:

A friend forwarded this to me to point out the truly awful nature of Brett Favre’s accuracy issues:

Point taken. Brett made Vinny Testaverde look like a pin-point passer. However, that’s not the only thing I noticed here.

When Favre threw his 278th pick of his career, he passed longevity legend George Blanda, who did spend an appreciable part of his career with the Oakland Raiders. The problem here? That’s not a picture of Blanda. It’s fellow Raider and fellow Number 16, Jim Plunkett.

Jim Plunkett - All-Time Roster - History | Raiders.com

Plunkett, the guy in the first picture, only threw 198 picks while Blanda, the guy in the second picture, who started his career before Favre was born, threw 277.

I suppose there’s something to be said for being accurate when you’re trying to pick on someone else…

THE GREATEST HEADLINE EVER (AT LEAST I THINK SO):

When you get to my age, you start to wonder if you actually saw some of the things you saw, or if you are literally stuck in “legend mode.” (As in, “I swear to GOD that happened… It didn’t? Where the hell did I get that from?”)

Case in point, I’ve often talked about one of the most clever and off the cuff headlines I’ve ever seen, even though I never could find a copy of it. When  up-and-coming-performer Jason Mraz played a concert at Ball State in the early 2000s, it was a disaster witnessed by one of our newsroom design vets. He promised to not only write a review for it, but he had the headline picked out.

Given the student and given the performance, I spent a week fearing what he would come up with. When it ran, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d seen in years.

Somewhere along the way, I lost my copy of that paper and no one else seemed to have it. Eventually, I figured I just made it up. However, another former student let me know that Ball State just digitized all sorts of archives, including the student paper. I did a little digging and I”m so glad I did.

Behold the glory of Emmet Smith’s snark:

Speaking of great headlines…

YOU HAD ME AT “VASECTOMIES”…

To keep up with what’s going on the PR side of the business, I signed up for a press release service that literally sends me about a half dozen emails a day. Every one of them is some organization promoting something or other and I’d say that when I’m not working on PR stuff for a book or a class, 99.99% of them end up in the trash without a second thought.

Then there was this:

I have to admit it was a good release and campaign, in that, it did the following:

  • Drew my attention with a headline that had me thinking, “What the heck is this? I gotta find out.”
  • Fulfilled the promise set out in the headline.
  • Clearly and in descending order of importance told me what was going on, why it was going on and why it mattered.
  • Tied two things that could seemingly not be further apart together in a coherent and logical way, once I actually read into it.
  • Took a risk, but a calculated one that probably paid off better than if these folks soft-peddled it.

And, finally, speaking of things take some testicular fortitude…

HATERS GONNA HATE, TEXTBOOK AUTHORS GONNA TEXTBOOK, I GUESS…

I’m in a number of teaching groups online where we to our best to help each other out. I didn’t think I was overdrawn at the favor bank, so I asked for some help to find a textbook for a freelancing class I’m going to teach in the fall.

Here was the one response that kind of bugged me (I cut the name off to save the embarrassment):

Couple things:

  1. I was looking at trying to find a book, so you telling me not to bother isn’t really helpful. It would be like calling Triple A for a tow after my car broke down and the operator saying, “You really should just use public transportation. It’s safer and more ecologically friendly.” Maybe, but that’s not the point right now.
  2. Saying “In my humble opinion” doesn’t make it humble when you say it this way. In fact, it’s rarely humble. It’s like whenever someone says, “I’m not racist, but…” I’m bracing for some stuff that would make Archie Bunker blush.
  3. “Too expensive and useless…” Um… Dude? The very first chapter in all of my textbooks I’ve done for SAGE is about how to know you’re audience. Maybe if you read one of them, you’d know why this statement kind of rubs me the wrong way. Then again, maybe not.

HATERS GON HATE soul train haters gun hate haters gonna hate dance trending GIF

Time to go back to writing another chapter for an expensive and useless textbook I’m working on. I’m guessing I shouldn’t ask this guy for a back cover blurb…

Vince (A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: Revisiting some insights from a journalism hiring manager on how to succeed in applying for jobs and internships

Based on the success of the other day’s post on people freaking out, I’m guessing more than a few students are concerned about graduation coming up and getting a job.

With that in mind, I dug out a piece I did back in 2019, where I interviewed a friend who has hired journalism folks for a living. Tim Stephens was the first person to help me see better what life looks like for people on the other side of the looking glass in terms of hiring our students.

His thoughts here might be helpful to your students as well

 

“Your resume is not about you:” Insights from a journalism hiring manager on how to succeed in applying for internships and jobs

Tim Stephens has spent more than a quarter of a century at various media companies, including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and CBSSports.com, where he helped recruit, hire and develop talent.

“I placed a high premium on being connected in the industry and knowing what other outlets were developing track records in terms of producing quality journalists who could fit into our fast-paced, evolving newsroom culture,” he said. “Your organization will only be as good as the people working for it, and I didn’t want to miss on hires. I wanted a pipeline of talent.”

Stephens said that no matter who he hired or how long they worked for his organization, he was always looking to put the best people in the best positions when he hired someone.

“I was never afraid of losing talent…” he said. “I wanted ambitious, high-achieving performers to have opportunities to move up in their careers. Every time I lost an employee to a larger organization or an expanded role, I took it as an opportunity to find the next high achiever.”

A few years back, Stephens and I were at a convention where we talked about a massive disconnect between college-age applicants and places that hired them for internships and jobs. His insights shaped how I work with students as they build their application packages, resumes and cover letters

Last week,  I asked him some questions via email so that he could share some additional thoughts about how hiring works, what he looks for as a hiring manager and other things that might help you get where you want to go in this field.

 

What is/was life like as a person responsible for hiring interns and employees? What goes on behind the scenes that students or newly minted graduates don’t know about between the time they send in an application and the time a person gets hired?

I planned for openings months before I had them. Part of that was because I was accustomed to large organizations making occasional raids on our staff, and part of that was because of the shrinking nature of the newsroom made it extremely important to make strong hires when you had an opportunity to do so.

I had my eye on candidates who were often 2 or 3 moves away from a position on our staff. I talked to hiring managers at other companies all the time, picking their brains for potential candidates. I referred people who impressed me to hiring managers who had openings when I didn’t, with a special eye for matching those talents to newsrooms where their best attributes would be developed.

Bottom line is that it’s a small industry and you are rarely more than two or three people removed from knowing someone who knows someone.

 

One of the things you mentioned to me a long time ago was that students don’t really understand the point of their resume from a hiring-manager’s perspective. What are the problematic things students or new job seekers do in terms of creating documents or applying and how can they fix that to improve their odds of impressing an employer?

Your resume is not about you. It’s about ME, the hiring manager. If I move your resume through the stack, I am attaching my reputation to yours. I am being judged in large part by my hires. Don’t ever forget that. When I am looking at a resume, cover letter and portfolio, I am not looking at what you’ve done. Frankly, I don’t care.

What I care about is how what you have done translates into what you will DO if I hire you. Big difference. I have always tried to encourage job hopefuls to try to view the search from the perspective of the person doing the hiring.

First, you have to find out who that is. Be a reporter and do some digging. What is this person’s track record? What attributes do they value? Who previously held the job I am going for? Do your homework and help me project you into the job rather than simply to view you as an applicant.

 

If you had any key advice for students or one thing you would want to tell them about this whole process, what would it be?

Network. Always be professional — always. You never know who someone knows … or who they will become in this industry. And last, when you get an interview, try to flip that conversation toward how you’ll do the job you’re applying for, and you will take a big step toward landing it. You want me leaving that conversation feeling like you’re already part of the team.

 

Is there anything you think I missed or anything else you’d like to add?

Where you start in your career isn’t as important as who you are starting with. Do your homework on the hiring managers and the person or people who will supervise you.

Who has a track record of investing in and developing talent? Who has a track record of sending people on to bigger and better things? Who gives young journalists prime opportunities to shine when they earn them? Will you get feedback? Will you have a strong cast around you who will support your development? The most prestigious media company isn’t necessarily the best opportunity to advance.