Posting Schedule for Summer 2019

Given that fewer people are taking classes during summer, and yet there are several summer instructors who rely on the blog, I’m dropping back to a “summer schedule” for the next few months. What that basically means is that you’ll get two posts a week (probably Monday/Wednesday) for sure, with additional posts as needed, based on breaking news items or moments of mirth.

If you have a topic on which you would like me to write, feel free to contact me and I’ll do my best to hit on it. In the mean time, have a great summer and we’ll return to a full posting schedule (Monday-Thursday) starting in early September.

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

Journalists and burnout: A pre-semester plea

School starts back this week or next week or, in my case, after Labor Day, so the drum beat of readings, homework, quizzes and tests is about to begin once again. For a lot of you, so will the career-based extra-curricular activities you have come to love, such as student publications, student broadcast or student professional groups. Even though a lot of us could really do with another month of summer, we tend to feel refreshed and ready to go once again, diving into these things with vigor and a backpack full of new office supplies.

The hard part comes about six weeks later when tests come crashing down, the paper that was “so far away” is due tomorrow and everything at the student media outlets is spinning out of control. The stress, the anxiety and, yes, the burnout begins.

The Columbia Journalism Review looked at this from a professional perspective recently, with writer Bailey Dick outlining how professionals in journalism tended to blow off stress and such until self-destructive behaviors kicked in. A good friend of mine, Scott Reinardy from the University of Kansas, has published a wide array of studies that have outlined and supported these concerns in all sorts of journalists. His book on “Journalism’s Lost Generation” showcases how burnout has created serious problems in our field.

What’s important to understand is that burnout isn’t something that happens overnight or something that is inevitable. It’s like when the “oil change” light comes on in your car. It means, “Hey, you might want to look at this…” If you get things handled right then and there, you’ll probably be OK. If you wait 50,000 miles to look into this situation, it should come as no surprise to you if your engine explodes and your car becomes useful only as a 3,000-pound paperweight. The build starts now (or even earlier) in the field. You need to look at what is happening to you and how you can work through it.

Fighting it starts with the understanding of what you can handle, what you can’t handle and how best to react when facing either of those situations. It starts by acknowledging your strengths and limitations. It also helps to examine what you want to prioritize and what can wait for another day. It forces you to see how certain things are affecting you and pushing you toward unhealthy changes and coping strategies.

The problem with burnout is that we only tend to see it when it hits and hits hard. It’s like that oil change example: Suddenly your engine’s on fire while you’re driving 70 mph on the freeway and you start to think, “Oh crap, NOW I have to deal with this.” It often takes a breakdown for us to come to grips with the idea that we have a problem. We talk about disaster in the past tense, not as something we’re building toward that could be avoided.

With that in mind, consider this post as a plea of sorts. Start monitoring yourself now at the beginning of the term for the early signs of burnout. If you’re wondering what they are, Scott’s got some great thoughts in here as well as in some of his other research. Give yourself that baseline from which you can figure out how you’re actually doing along the way.

As for me, I’m taking the official summer break now. I’ll be back with the regular daily (Monday-Thursday ish) schedule starting after Labor Day when my classes resume.

Thanks for reading,

Vince

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

3 takeaways from the Washington Post’s 579-word correction on a story about family farms

We have covered the issue of corrections here a few times, including the massive ones issued for the obituaries of politicians John McCain and Richard Lugar. At 135 words and 144 words, respectively, these pale in comparison to the correction the Washington Post recently issued on Korsha Wilson’s piece on black families trying to hold onto their ancestors’ farm land.

This correction covers 15 bullet points and 579 painful words.

To put that in perspective, consider this:

  • If you added the McCain and Lugar corrections together and DOUBLED them, the word count would still fall short of 579 words.
  • According to media coverage on the incident, the correction went on so long, it needed to be jumped in the print edition.
  • When I worked at a daily newspaper, we were taught that it was about 30 words to a column inch, which would make this correction 19.2 column inches. That is nearly twice the length of most stories I was allowed to write for meetings, breaking news stories and featurized obituaries at the time.
  • The correction is about one-fifth the size of the original story.

Longer narrative stories that deal in complex issues, especially historic ones, run a lot of risks when it comes to accuracy. People’s recollections sometimes run counter to other people’s memories. Nuance can be lost in the writing, thus leading to mistakes due to slips in verbiage. Even more, longer pieces that weave in multiple sources can feel like juggling Jell-O, leading the writer to attribute a statement to a wrong source or to make a cut-and-paste mistake.

Some of these pitfalls are at the core of Wilson’s piece, but they don’t account for the majority of the problems. Consider these corrections:

  • The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.
  • The number of children Freeman had with his second wife, Rebecca, was eight, not 10.
  • The partition sale of the Freeman estate was in 2016, not 2018, and it included 360 acres of the original 1,000, not 30 acres of the original 99.
  • Tashi Terry said, “Welcome to Belle Terry Lane,” not “Welcome to Belle Terry Farm.” The property is named Terry Farm.
  • Aubrey Terry did not buy 170 acres with his siblings in 1963; his parents bought the 150-acre property in 1961.
  • The eldest Terry brother died in 2011, not 2015.

  • Ownership of Freeman’s property was not transferred to heirs when Rebecca died. In fact, he used a trust before he died to divide his property among his heirs.

In other words, about half of the 15 bullet points involved simple fact-checking issues I would expect a student in a basic reporting class to be able to manage. Tom Jones at Poynter also noted the sloppy journalism, but said he thought the Post should get kudos for going to such great lengths to correct the record.

I would agree to a point, in that fixing mistakes is always a good idea. That said, not making so many mistakes would have been a better way to go with this. Wilson wasn’t a veteran staff member who got a pass on stringent editing because she was a known commodity. I would imagine that editors would drill down more deeply in a freelance piece to make sure it met the standards of the publication.

Also, Executive Editor Marty Barron’s pretty bland and opaque statement on the issue didn’t shed a lot of light on the issue:

“We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”

(And for a last piece of perspective, everything you read right to this point totals 579 words, the exact same length as the correction.)

The goal with this blog isn’t to beat up on people, but rather to help you learn from the mistakes of others. With that in mind, consider these thoughts:

  • Fred Vultee’s Theory on Drowning: Professor Fred Vultee of Wayne State University is an editing expert and a veteran journalist of the days in which smoking in the newsroom was common. We worked together at the Columbia Missourian back in the early 2000s, where he was fond of telling me (and anyone smart enough to listen) that, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was to treat small bits of copy (briefs, captions etc.) with the same care as the magnum opus stories that went on for scads of inches and wove together complex story lines.
    I liked to expand this to include the idea that it’s rarely the complex and nuanced issues of a painstakingly detailed story that lead to corrections, but rather the simple, stupid stuff you should have check on in the first place. This story exemplifies that with the mistakes on name spellings, dates and numbers.

 

  • Assume everything you wrote is wrong. Go prove yourself to be right: We talked about this one before, but it bears repeating. Fact checking is a vital aspect of what you do as a reporter. Sure, we could leave that to the editors, but with newsroom cuts and overworked staff, editors aren’t the safety net they used to be. (Case in point, this piece apparently went through the Post’s rigorous editing process and still ended up with more than a dozen points that needed correcting after the fact.)
    Write based on your notes, your recall and your research, but then edit the hell out of your work with the eye of a skeptic. Assume every fact is wrong until you can prove it right. (A former student of mine once interned at a place that required reporters to circle every verifiable fact and print out a piece of solid source copy to demonstrate its veracity.) If you read better on screen, edit it there. If you catch more stuff on a printed page, kill a tree or two if necessary. Whatever helps you examine your work clearly and with an eye toward detail, do it. You want to be able to point out to an editor exactly how you know you are right.

 

  • Get back up and try again: If you enter this business thinking you’ll never screw up, you have some wishful thinking happening in your head. A year or so back, I asked people in the hivemind about things they fouled up as journalists. These venerable writers, reporters, photographers and even professors noted a wide array of, “Oh crap…” moments that had each of us thinking, “There but by the grace of God go I…”

    People who were following the Post’s correction with the glee of an arsonist watching a four-alarm fire got their shots in on the writer for her work, with one noting:“At this rate, it is a wonder the author even got her name right. Speaking of which, the author of this hot mess is one Korsha Wilson… By the looks of what happened to Wilson’s Washington Post article, she should probably stick to writing about food.”

    Not to be rude here, but what a dick. Nothing says, “I’m a professional journalist” like kicking people when they’re down. And I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the writer of that insightful commentary likely has a correction or two in his writing history.

    We’re all going to screw something up at some point. I’m sure Korsha Wilson wanted to crawl into a hole and die when this story went south and her mistakes went viral. When I screwed up on a local level before things like this could spread beyond a print circulation area, that’s exactly how I felt each and every time I made a mistake. I feared making another mistake to the point that I was almost assured of making one, a syndrome that gave birth to my “handful of Jell-O” axiom.

    My hope for her is the same hope I have for any of you who screw up (read: everyone in journalism), which is that once you fix the mistake and you take your flogging, you persevere. Get up, dust yourself off and go back to work. The best way for people to forget you had a horrible moment is to have a few great ones.

“Journalism is never done. It’s just due.” (Embracing your “a-ha!” moment)

At the age of 19, I had one major goal that was driving my journalism education: Impress Steve Lorenzo.

Steve was the instructor of my first journalism writing class and he was pretty much exactly the guy I wanted to be: Smart, funny, talented and gifted. He had a way of grabbing the most chaotic sentences off the screens of our Mac Classic computers and crunching them down into incredible journalistic prose. He was able to reorder your messy chronology into a perfect inverted pyramid on the fly, never once stopping to ponder what he needed to do. The way you or I would wiggle a finger is how Steve would keyboard our work to perfection: It was as if journalism was attached to his central nervous system.

Of all the things he taught me, the most important came when time was running out during a lab exercise and I was one of the last people in the room. I was trying to make the words of a lead do what he said they needed to do, even as those words were being decidedly uncooperative. I was always looking for “another word for…” whatever it was I was trying to write. (I think it was an accident brief. You can only say “accident” or “crash” in so many ways…)

As Steve called out the minutes until our stuff was due, I kind of yelped out a phrase that I know I’ve heard at least a squillion times as an instructor: “But I’m not DONE yet!”

Steve’s response: “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.”

Whether he came up with that on his own or he borrowed it from someone else, I’ll never know. (I use this constantly and always do my best to disabuse students of the notion that I was smart enough to come up with it on my own.) However, that became the “a-ha!” moment for me that made journalism a lot less painful. (It still was painful, but not as much as it would have been had I not heard that bit of wisdom.)

His point was that you can always make something a bit better or a bit smoother or a bit clearer if you had five more minutes or 10 more months to work on it. However, the goal of journalism is to put forward the best possible representation of reality for your readers in the time you have available.

As I began to work deeper into journalism and then into journalism education, I took this to heart and used it to craft what I called my “90% rule.” The idea was that I wanted my writing to be 90% of the way to “as good as it’s gonna get” in two good swings: Draft one-Edit 1 and Draft 2-Edit 2.

After that, everything was a function of time and diminishing returns. I could spend six hours debating a comma that might make something .00001% better, but that’s a waste of time. That said, if I put in another hour and got it to 95%, that would be good if I had the hour to give. If not, at least 90% gets me to a point where I don’t embarrass myself.

For those of you still looking for your “a-ha!” moment or just feeling like you’re a 3-year-old who lost your mom at Walmart when you write, give this Columbia Journalism Review article a look. Dozens of top-notch journalists reveal when they learned a lesson they carry with them to this day. They share their “a-ha!” moments, with some being successes that inspired them while others were failures that left scars.

Another good read, especially if you’re the kind of person who can’t let go of a piece, is this take on perfectionism. A lot of students I know struggle to make something perfect, even when they aren’t entirely sure what it is they’re doing. That added investment and struggle is admirable, but it can also be devastating when they get the graded piece back and realize it seemed to be all for nought.

In any case, the best thing I can tell you about the “a-ha!” moment is it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You can’t go looking for it, but don’t worry.

It will find you eventually.

Keep the “journalist” in “photojournalist” with solid reporting and quality captions

A student editor reached out to me with some thoughts on a recent post, so I offered her the chance to pick a topic for me and I promised I’d give it a shot. It didn’t take long for her to get back to me:

I think the next biggest issue I’ve been dealing with is photographers, and even reporters, being too scared to talk to people, or even too lazy. I had a photographer try to argue with me a few weeks ago about whether it was “important” to get people’s names in captions if the picture is of them. Which, duh, it is.

Duh, indeed.

Photojournalists often have a thankless job in a newsroom setting. They are told to find visually appealing moments at meetings and speeches, which is kind of like trying to find a nun at an AVN awards ceremony. They get “assignments” after other people have figured out what the news is supposed to be and then they have to somehow figure out how to grab images that reflect whatever a writer or editor thought the story should be. (Also, back in the day, they used to get stuck in a chemical dark room with limited ventilation. God alone knows what that stuff did to them. I tried to learn film developing once in one of these places and I felt high for about two days…)

As a way to not only deal with that, but also to reaffirm their place in the media ecosystem, the word “journalist” is built right into their titles. It used to be just “photographer,” (or in some cases, “picture box monkey”) which indicated the only purpose they had was to grab images. In other words, “Let’s leave the news stuff to the big kids, OK, there, pal?”

Journalism is baked into every bite of what these folks do. They need to tell stories, communicate effectively and help audience members understand why things matter. Part of that is in the images themselves, as the photogs grab slivers of time that convey action, reaction, emotion, depth and feel. A good image can give people a sense of place and time. However, it can’t do the job alone. This is why images almost always have captions and the captions really do make the difference in storytelling.

Consider this photo:

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Interesting and engaging. You get facial expressions and actions. For a “dude at table” photo, it’s pretty solid. However, without a caption, you lack the ability to understand much about what’s going on. A standard two-sentence caption should work like this:

Sentence 1: Tell me what’s going on in the photo without being patently obvious and do it in present tense.

Sentence 2: Provide me with an explanation as to why what’s going on here matters to me with depth, background and other additional information.

Now, let’s see how a caption makes you feel about this photo:

All-Star Shortstop Bucky Johnson signs an autograph for a young fan prior to the presentation of his Most Valuable Player award. Johnson set American League records for homers, hits and runs last year as he helped the Cleveland Indians win their first World Series since 1948.

A nice heartwarming piece with some fun, some feel and an “awwww” moment.

However, that’s not even close to what’s going on in this photo. This is a court image of Scott Peterson at the defense table with his legal counsel. He’s in the process of being convicted of murdering his wife and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay. He received the death penalty and has been on death row for more than 15 years.

Feel a little differently about it now?

The point is, the more information you include in a caption, the better the caption will be and the more helpful it will be in letting your photo tell the story.

When I had to write captions for photos on night desk,  I was really lucky to work with Joe Jackson, one of the best photojournalists I ever knew. Joe would not only gather a whole bunch of information for me to write the captions, but when he knew I was working on it, he would come over and tell me what he saw when he was shooting the frame and why he chose that image for publication. That helped me tell a better story in my writing and thus help his photo do a better job of communicating his intent.

With that in mind, consider the following tips for gathering information for captions:

  • Names: People who are identifiable in the image should be named. You also want to gather some additional information about who they are and why they are at the newsworthy event you are covering.
  • Actions: Find out what people are actually DOING and get specific. Two people laughing in a photo can be nice, but a caption that says they “share a laugh” is as pointless as a paraphrase that tells me “Smith had this to say:” If they’re laughing after listening to a comedy club act, that’s one thing. If they’re laughing at a murder victim’s vigil, that’s another thing. It’s the same thing when someone is on the phone in a photo (and those aren’t all that great as images, by the way): Find out who is on the other end of the line, what the conversation is and how things panned out.
  • Details: You are a journalist so get nosy. “Find out the name of the dog and the brand of the beer,” was the mantra of a former editor of mine, and that applies here as well. Find out as much as you can about the people in the images and what is going on. For example, is the person going to speak in favor of a labor agreement or against it at a big meeting? Is the person local or from out of town? Is the person at the county fair there to compete in some event or just eat his/her weight in funnel cakes? More depth is good.

In terms of how best to write these things, Kenneth Irby of Poynter put together a great list of “hot tips” for just such an occasion. Consider them words to live by.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose

A group of my sports writing students were asked to write a story about a football game between two fictional college rivals, in which one comes back from a huge deficit to win on the last play of the fourth quarter. A good number of them attempted to hype the story rather than tell it, especially in the lead:

Thanks to an unbelievable fourth quarter capped by a 28-0 run, (WINNERS) came back to defeat (LOSERS), 31-28.

It seemed like (LOSERS)had the game wrapped up going into the fourth quarter, but in football, you must play all four quarters to the best of your ability if you want to win the game, no matter what level you’re playing at. 

In Wild and Wonderful  fashion, (WINNER) roars back to score 31 unanswered as they knock off (LOSER) in the closing seconds of regulation.

The (GAME) ended in extraordinary fashion with a last second touchdown.

Others wrote about it being “incredible,” “super,” “amazing” and so forth. And, yes, according to the information they received it was the largest comeback in conference history, so it might well have been all of those things.

However, your job is to show the readers what is going on by presenting factual information, not trying to sell them something by hyping it up. If you do the former, you’ll notice that your readers will come to the conclusion you want them to all by themselves. If you do the latter, you’ll find that the readers will resist your efforts to get them to see the situation in the way you want them to.

Don’t believe me? Consider the Joke Theory.

My wife and I laugh about how we’re always so competitive. But I know I always laugh more.

OK, that’s a lame joke, but I was hamstrung a bit by trying not to insult men, women, college students, professors, animals, trees and some frat kid named Chad’s little brother. That said, a few of you might have laughed at that. I at least had a chance.

Now consider if I started it this way instead:

I’m going to tell you a really funny joke. It’s probably one of the best jokes you’re ever going to hear. You’re going to be laughing so hard, you’ll cry. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you retell it to everyone you know. OK, here we go…

The hype kills the hope that I’m getting a laugh, just like the hype undercuts your position with your readers. Don’t tell them something is funny, amazing or whatever else. Show them the thing as it is and let them come to that conclusion.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Read this version of a story about a man caught breaking into a couple’s home, eating their food, wearing the wife’s Christmas “onesie” and dressing his cat, named Spaghetti, in a cashmere sweater he stole. What drives this story is the straight-up fact-based reporting that has you wondering, “What the heck is wrong with this guy?” (Well that and quotes like this: “No one leaves a dressed cat in a crawl space unless they’re coming back or they’re still here,” Smith told the paper. “So I got out and shut the door.”)

Now, if the writer, instead of doing this, had started commenting on this throughout the story, here’s what you might get:

“In the most bizarre case of burglary and home invasion ever known, a 38-year-old man was arrested Sunday night.

The odd fellow, who named his cat Spaghetti, which makes no sense, was caught in a crawl space in the home. A creepy crawler, indeed!

The weirdo put on the wife’s “onesie” night dress, which the woman obviously said she didn’t want the police to bring back for her. He also dressed Spaghetti in a cashmere outlet the couple had for one of its Chihuahuas, just adding to the weirdness of the night.”

Which version does the job better? Clearly the first one.

The point is that you need to have faith in your readers that they’ll see what you see when you write, without having to poke or prod them via commentary or hype. You also need to have faith in your own writing that you’ll get your point across well enough without having to use hype as a crutch to do the job.

Jim Bouton: A truth-teller who showcased the value of voice in writing

BallFour

My first copy (of many) of “Ball Four.” The best 50 cents I ever spent.

I found myself speechless last night when I learned of the death of the man who taught me to love voice in writing.

Jim Bouton, a major-league baseball pitcher in the 1960s and 1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 80, the victim of several strokes and a condition called vascular dementia.

I felt like I just got punched in the heart, a somewhat ridiculous notion given that I’d never met the man. However, I really felt like I KNEW him, a testament to his ability to write in a way that put his voice inside my head.

Bouton was somewhat unremarkable as a pitcher, compiling a record of 62-63, earning one all-star bid and one World Series title. He was, however, a remarkable storyteller and chronicler of a single season with the Seattle Pilots, a team that itself lasted for only one year. Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” told the stories of life inside the locker room, on the team bus and within the players’ lives in a way that had never been done to this degree before.

Others had written books that took people inside the locker room before Bouton came along and others wrote far more shocking locker room books after the publication of “Ball Four.” However, what made Bouton stand out, at least in my mind, was his voice and the way he spun his tales. The man had a way of making the reader feel like each story within the book was a shared experience from a close friend.

I came across my first copy of the book at a garage sale when I was about 20 years old. I had heard about “Ball Four” when I read a sports column a year or two earlier, so when I saw the rumpled paperback for sale, 50 cents seemed like a decent investment.

It was love at first read.

What struck me immediately was what struck Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam, who wrote in a review that “Ball Four” was “a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.” The opening line lets you into Bouton’s life in an unvarnished, honest and fearful way:

“I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams…”

His dreams were those of a pitcher: To find his way back to the big leagues. To win games and become an award-winner. To beat his old team, the one that tossed him aside when he hit rock bottom. He freely admits that he doesn’t expect any of those dreams to happen, but he still wants to chase them. He wants to see if he has a little bit left in the tank.

The book doesn’t just chart the dreams of one man, but the realities of many men of that time. Ballplayers had been venerated through “milk and cookies” reporting, as Bouton noted. Their exploits on the field had been catalogued and deified while their exploits off the field had escaped notice in the press, with a wink and a nod from fawning reporters. The men engaged in all sorts of activities from popping “greenies” (amphetamines) to improve their play to “beaver shooting,” which involved spotting good-looking women in the stands during a game.

(Ballplayers cheating on their wives was a big reveal in “Ball Four.” The line that sticks out in my mind was Mike Hegan’s response to the question, “What’s the hardest thing about being a professional ballplayer?” Hegan: Explaining to your wife why she needs a shot of penicillin for your kidney infection, a clear reference to picking up an STI while on the road.)

Bouton took on issues of race, gender and fame in his book in a way that rankled the old guard of the game. He wrote about the heroes of the game, including Mickey Mantle, in such a way that he was cast out as a baseball pariah. (My edition was his 1980 update, which included his life after the original book had been published. He noted that the San Diego Padres burned copies of his book and left them for him in the visitor’s locker room. Pete Rose, who would later be banned from baseball for far worse transgressions than Bouton purportedly committed, once stood on the top step of the dugout and screamed at Bouton: “FUCK YOU, SHAKESPEARE!” Reporter Dick Young called Bouton a “social leper.”)

The irony was that the more often the baseball establishment tried to discredit and shame Bouton, the more frequently people bought his book to see what the buzz was all about. As I dug into the book, 20 years after its first pressing and 10 years after my edition had been published, I found myself transported to this incredible island of misfit toys filled with humor and strangeness. Each time I came across a passage I liked, I ripped off a small piece of my reporter’s notebook and bookmarked it. Eventually, the bookmarks so overwhelmed the book that that they essentially lost value.

“Ball Four” became one of about four books I tried to reread at least once per year, as it provided joy and new insights in each reading. At 20, the 30-year-old Bouton seemed like an elder statesman, a wizened truth-teller and inside source to me. When I read it at age 30, I saw Bouton as an every man, someone who dealt with family troubles, work hassles and a day-to-day life that was both remarkable and ordinary. When I read it at 39, I found myself focusing on the update, “Ball Five,” where he attempted a baseball comeback at age 39. The sense of longing and the sense of a need to scratch an itch, to right a wrong and to write one last chapter made sense to me, even though I’d never once thrown a knuckle ball.

The rereadings I did between now and then have actually shaped a lot of what you read here on the blog and in the textbooks I wrote for SAGE. I found myself focusing on a few elements of Bouton’s writing that gave it the vibe and feel that keeps me coming back to it time and time again. Here are three things I got out of it that I hope will inspire your writing as well:

VOICE: In writing the book, Bouton had to make notes about various situations as they happened on anything he could find. In the retrospective shows about his efforts, he displayed a trove of cocktail napkins, hotel stationary and plane tickets with pencil-scrawled bits of information. Once he was safely back in the confines of his home or his hotel room, he would use those notes to flesh out his thoughts by speaking into a portable tape recorder.

The “write it like you would say it” motif is a large part of what makes the book readable and engaging and gives it a true sense of voice. Although I don’t use the recorder trick to do so, I try to write like I would speak when I’m putting together almost anything that doesn’t involve academic research. (Academics don’t like voice. They want everything to sound like it’s being chronicled in a British accent by a guy with a bow tie and a stick up his keester.)

One of my students told me, “It’s weird but when I am reading the chapters, I hear your voice in my head.” I wasn’t sure how to take that at the time, so I told her, “I hear voices in my head, too. My doctor says there’s medicine for that, but I’m afraid I’d get lonely.” I also figured that she could hear the voice because she HAD heard my voice in class. However, I ran into a student who was using the book for his class at another university and the first thing he told me was, “You sound exactly like I thought you would.”

Once you get good at the 5W’s and 1H and you can nail down a fire brief with the best of ’em, you get a little more license to write stories that require voice and feeling. The ability to use that voice, not for your own edification, but to tell stories that connect with your readers, can be a huge benefit for everyone involved. Start now by finding that voice and seeing how well it works as you tell stories.

HONESTY: Journalists are required to tell truth to power, regardless of the cost. Many of us, myself included, fall short in that area on a fairly regular basis. We don’t want to go into the corner and fight for the puck. We don’t want to ruffle feathers of sources that were decent to us or who might find a way to make our lives hellish. We don’t want to rock the boat. So, we don’t say what we see or dig into those darker corners for fear of what it might lead to.

In his life after baseball, Bouton worked as a television sports journalist for six years, where he found that telling truth to power or focusing on things the powers-that-be don’t want you to focus on led to just as many problems in media as they did in baseball. He was shunned by other journalists and players were all warned to “watch what you say” when they saw Bouton coming.

Bouton’s honesty cost him a lot in life. He lost his job in baseball, although Bouton critics would point out his pitching in 1970 had a good deal to do with that as well. He angered people in baseball so much that he wasn’t able to attend funerals for his former teammates and he never got invited to baseball events like “Oldtimers’ Day.” (As Bouton noted, “Understand, everybody gets invited back for Oldtimers’ Days, no matter what kind of rotten person he was when he was playing. Muggers, drug addicts, rapists, child molesters all are forgiven for Oldtimers’ Day. Except a certain author.”)

What struck me, however, wasn’t Bouton’s honesty about the world at large or about the escapades of his teammates, but his personal honesty. In the second edition of “Ball Four,” he talks about getting divorced and how scary it was for him. In his third update to the book, he discusses the death of his daughter, Laurie, who was killed in a car accident in 1997. In both cases, his vulnerability is as clear and prominent as it was in the original text.

He fears being cut and says as much. He worries about his teammates who are seen as nothing but bargaining chips to be shuttled around the league for other pieces of the team’s puzzle. He worries about money, security, family and more. He lets you in as a reader and that’s what makes his stories feel the way they do.

Most of what I write doesn’t have a lot of room for voice or this kind of honesty, but I push it where I can because as I’ve told anyone who will listen, I don’t just want to be a name on a book spine. It’s why I reach out to teachers who adopt the texts and respond to students who email me with questions. (It’s also why I actively try to thank the students who are given extra credit in their classes to find typos in the books and email me with their discoveries.)

Honesty breeds humanity and it makes for much better stories and connections between the reader and the author. Not every story will call for that, but it’s worth it to try when the opportunity presents itself.

HUMOR: The greatest compliment I can pay to anyone is to say, “You really made me laugh.” Bouton really made me laugh.

In some cases, it was with simple statements: “Did you know ethyl chloride can be fun?”

In other cases, it was with just crude stories, such as the time he explained how Ray Oyler caught a curveball right in the cup while warming up a pitcher in the bullpen. (Back then, the cup was a metal insert into the jock strap. Hitting someone in the cup was called “ringing the bell.”)

In most cases, it was just the way he told me about bits of life that helped me feel like I knew him. His adopted son from Korea was learning English and was doing well, although occasionally he would mix something up like burping and then saying, “Thank you.” His take on teammate Gary Bell closing the ninth inning of a game had a similar flair: “It was a minor miracle. He’s supposed to pitch tomorrow, he ran 15 wind sprints before the game and ate three sandwiches in the fourth inning. When he came into the clubhouse in the seventh to put on his supporter, he asked no one in particular if it was too late to take a greenie.”

(Bouton also wasn’t afraid to offer self-deprecating statements. He explained that he was such a poor hitter that his teammates nicknamed him, “Cancer Bat.”)

Back then and even today, people are far too serious. I can already hear people aghast at the idea of laughing at casual drug use or mocking a child who was learning a second language. Some people are perpetually offended and look at anything as a chance to pontificate on a point of extremely limited merit. What those people fail to understand is that some things can just be funny without leading to a higher discussion of larger issues.

I love funny things, even if not everyone can agree with what makes something humorous. It’s why I try to weave odd little Easter Eggs into the books. (You might notice that the phone number I use every time I need to reference one is 867-5309. If you don’t get it, look it up.) It’s why I try to use examples that are less stringent public policy and more “a guy in a onesie was arrested with his cat named Spaghetti.” Humor helps us remember things. It helps us learn. It also helps us enjoy life a little more.

If there’s one thing “Ball Four” taught me, that was it.

And that if you want to win, pretty much have to “smoke ’em inside.”

(If you want to understand that line, go read the book. It’s worth it.)

 

 

Unblock this: Modern advertising and why we hate it

According to the media-writing book:

Advertising is about more than telling people what to buy and where to buy it. It is a communication format that mixes information and persuasion elements in an attempt to convince audience members to act. The desired action can take many forms, including purchasing a product, supporting a candidate or forming an opinion. In addition, some advertising is geared toward preventing action, such as buying some other company’s product, supporting a different candidate or changing an opinion.

Much of what makes this happen is about knowing your audience, which we discussed at length elsewhere in this blog and in these books. Demographics, geographics, psychographics and more all play a role in making sure the message gets from a valued organization to an interested and engaged receiver. Given what most of us experience on a daily basis, particularly on the web, that might seem as idealistic as taking Cinderella as your spirit animal.

If you want to know why advertising and media operations are in such ugly spots today, consider a recent experience I had in trying to read an online column. See if it matches with what you tend to experience and then ask yourself if that initial paragraph meets with reality:

One of my favorite authors, Terry Pluto, writes about Cleveland sports for the Plain-Dealer’s website and a link to one of his columns popped up in my Facebook feed. I clicked on the link and hopped over to the PD’s site, only to get a lock screen in which it noted I was using an ad blocker and asked me to disable it.

Some sites give you an option to continue without shutting off the blocker. Some try to guilt you into shutting it off. Some are like a Joe Pesci character on a meth bender, demanding you turn off the frickin’ blocker, you frickin’ mook… In this case, the PD gave me the “shut it off” option and nothing else. (Previous times, I got an option.)

As I noted earlier, I’m OK with paying for content. I’m also fine with the model that has driven media for decades through its salad days: Ads pay the bills for the content. However, consider these crucial messages that I got as a result of shutting off the blocker:

AdBlock1

Um… OK, apparently “history” is now about ’70s fashion and boobs… And thanks for trying to entice me with the “not suitable for all eyes.” It’s like the Simpsons monorail trick, but with sexual intrigue.

AdBlock3

AdBlock4

What the internet apparently thinks it knows, is that I’m broke, looking to cheat on my wife/get murdered and I have attention deficit disorder since it gave me TWO of these ads. It also presupposes that “older women” means anyone who can buy booze without the clerk breaking out a black light on her ID and that I wasn’t thinking, “Isn’t that Elizabeth Shue?” Moving on…

AdBlock6

If you touch your lip, you’re dying of cancer. Got it. Thanks.

AdBlock2

I’m not really deaf. I’m just ignoring you…

And finally:

AdBlock5

(I spent three minutes trying to type a word that effectively captures that sound I make when I’m feeling like I’m throwing up in my mouth. Whatever that noise is, fill it in here…)

I’m guessing your experiences are somewhat similar to mine, with tweaks for age brackets and theoretical senses of what “kids your age” want to see: Hot chicks/dudes are waiting in your area… 10 simple ways to stop (Acne/HPV/Failing Calculus for a third time)… SHOCKING! You won’t believe what (Fill in your childhood Disney Show love interest) looks like now!…  Drivers in (fill in your area) can BEAT SPEED TRAPS…

This is what advertising has devolved into for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s cheaper: You can place millions of impressions for the cost of what it would take to get a full page ad in a major metro paper.
  2. You have wider reach: A newspaper or a broadcast signal can only reach so far. An internet ad can come from anywhere on earth (except our old newsroom, where apparently you can’t get a signal to save your life).
  3. Fewer risks/restrictions: There used to be a lot of vetting and careful checking of ads and products. Now, ad groups and sites and collectives just send out anything as long as the CC number works or the check clears.
  4. Money: Media outlets have always been accused of being cash whores when it comes to advertising. Back in the earlier days when money was free-flowing, they could rebut this by avoiding sketchy ads. In the “we’re still OK” days, they were more like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Today? Um…  My only analogies will get me redflagged by my editor, so just think of the lowest level of willingness to do stuff for money you can and you’re about there…

The unfortunate byproduct of this approach is a race to the bottom for advertising in the same way there appears to be a race to the bottom in news and other media fields. It can be easy to go along with the crowd in this regard, but if you want to make your advertising worth something, think about what it is you’re trying to do to create a message that reaches your readers and effectively evokes something from them. A great example of this just came out today (h/t Al Tompkins) with Nike showcasing the Women’s World Cup Team victory:

 

And here’s my favorite one from a few years back that still gives me the chills:

Nike gets it: Tap into something. Know your audience. Showcase the emotions associated with those people.

In the soccer one, it was one of announcing their presence with authority. With the Cavs one, it was that complete sense of quiet disbelief. The audience EXPECTED the women’s team to win and so it talked about the greatness of that team. Cleveland had gotten crushed so many times before, the audience EXPECTED the Cavs to lose (especially after going down 3-1 in the series). It got the emotions just right and it didn’t layer on the schmaltz.

If advertisers want to get beyond an eyeball grab, they have to fit more into this mold and touch on what we talked about at the beginning of the post. If the media companies that take their money want people to shut off the ad blockers, they’re going to have to ask questions that go beyond, “And what’s the 3-digit verification code on the back of the card?”

And if I ever want to eat lunch again, I’m not ever seeing another episode of Dr. Pimple Popper.

You get what you pay for: Three reasons why it’s stupid to complain about the cost of journalism

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl wrote a nice local column that took a look at how people consistently run red lights the corner of 60th and Capitol. The piece ran in the wake of a car wreck that killed an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, and was the kind of thing more papers would have done back in the days when staffs were robust and smoking was allowed in the newsroom.

I’ve linked to the article here, but most of you won’t be able to see it because it’s only accessible to the paper’s subscribers. When venerable journalist Crocker Stephenson, who used to work for the Journal-Sentinel, posted the piece to his Facebook wall, a number of people groused about their inability to access Stingl’s work.

Stephenson was not sympathetic:

Stephenson

In response, several people broke out the traditional diatribes against such larceny:

  • Print is dead!
  • You don’t cover the right stuff!
  • Paywalls are a tool of the man!
  • It’s stupid to pay for stuff like this because the internet is free!

 

Following the trail of breadcrumbs that led newspapers from being important local sources of information to disemboweled corporate shells would take far too long for a post like this. It would also take way too long to debate the merits of various profitability models that could return news organizations to prominence. However, in defense of the field itself, I’ll simply give you three reasons why complaining about having to spend your hard-earned couch-cushion cash on news is just plain dumb:

WORK COSTS MONEY: As dumb as that statement sounds, it seems necessary to make it up front. When your dishwasher decides to start flooding the house on a random Tuesday night, you call a plumber and beg someone to come over and stop the hydro-destructive force in your kitchen. When that guy or gal comes over and fixes the problem, you wouldn’t think to just say, “Thank you. I’m going on Facebook right now and putting a “like” on you today! Goodbye!”

The person did work, and you’re going to pay for it.

Truth be told, journalism ALWAYS cost money, but the readers didn’t notice because they weren’t footing the bill. It’s like picking up a prescription when you have insurance: You pay your $10 or $20 that is your part of the deal and the insurance company picks up the rest of the tab. It’s when your insurance is gone that you notice, “Holy crap! That’s some expensive stuff!”

For years, advertisers accounted for most of the costs of the work. Newspapers and magazines were chock full of large advertisements for everything from clothing stores to car dealerships. The money flowed freely, as newspapers could deliver eyeballs to the advertisers and thus demonstrate value to them. The ad money covered the big costs of doing journalism while your subscription or copy price was simply a token of good will.

The one benefit the audience had to the newspaper was in its sum total of eyeballs. The higher the circulation, the more newspapers could charge for ads. The system worked until it didn’t. (How and why it didn’t could take up a dozen books, but it’s not Craigslist’s fault, despite what publishers and hedge-fund managers who own newspaper stocks will tell you.)

Now you’re being asked to pay full price for the cost of journalism and it suddenly looks exorbitant.

In addition, the reason it’s easier to short journalists is because it never seems like we are saving you from a disaster like the tow-truck driver who gets your broken car off the freeway or the tree surgeon who pulls the giant oak that fell during a storm off your house. We don’t have a special set of tools that leave you in awe or a product that you can show other people to say, “Check out what I bought!”

However, journalism is work. It costs money to do the work. You need to pay for it if you want or need it.

YOU’RE NOT PAYING FOR WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE PAYING FOR: People often assume that becoming a journalist has been a life-long ambition for anyone who entered the field after seeing “All The President’s Men” or “The Paper.” Truth be told, I never wanted to be a journalist or a journalism professor growing up. My freshman year of college, my life-long goal of becoming a lawyer was crushed after one bad Poli Sci course, so I went hunting for another major.

I knew I could write, so I figured on a degree in English, a subject I had dominated throughout high school and even in college. When I went home for Christmas break that year, I told my father that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer and that I was looking around at my options. Dad spent his entire career in a factory, so he was always practical in his advice: “Just make sure you can get a job. Don’t do something stupid like majoring in English or something like that.”

OK, that shot that.

I found journalism shortly after that and realized that with a few tweaks and overhauls, the writing I did in English could translate to this new field. The reason I stuck with it was because there WAS a job at the end of the rainbow for this major and it was one my father could easily see. He read the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel cover to cover every day. He saw the newspaper as a tangible representation of careers in journalism.

When I got my first reporting gig, Mom bought a subscription to the State Journal and had the paper mailed to her. She would cut out and keep my articles. Again, it was that dead-tree-and-ink element that showcased my livelihood.

The problem now is that those rolled-up wads of tree pulp are landing on fewer and fewer doorsteps, thus giving people the idea that “Print is dead.” Furthermore, the users always assumed that what their money paid for was that physical publication. Thus, as those things became smaller and less frequent, and people found their information in ways that didn’t involve deforestation, they figured there was no point in paying money for journalism.

The truth is, we were actually paying for information, but we never saw it that way. It was far easier for us to understand that simple goods-for-cash exchange that took place on street corners, through subscriptions or via news stands. Because we never really saw it as a knowledge-for-cash exchange, when the “good” went away, we didn’t see why money should be involved. As newspapers revenues shrunk, we saw losses of people and pages. The people? We didn’t notice that so much from the outside, but the pages? Yeah, we saw those cutbacks in newspapers and magazines.

To complain about paying for newspaper content is to say the content itself lacks value. That can be a perfectly legitimate statement, depending on the quality of the content or the cost of the access. However, when you WANT something, it demonstrates that the “something” has some level of value to you. Paying for it showcases the way you value it.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR: When I was a grad student, I ended up at a conference in Washington, D.C. and a bunch of us decided to go out for a meal. What was supposed to be a run for cheap Chinese food somehow landed us at a restaurant where we were the worst-dressed people in there and most of us were clad in reasonably decent garb. We didn’t know how pricey the meal was going to be until one of the people in our party reached for a piece of bread and dropped some crumbs on the linen table cloth.

Out of nowhere, a guy in a white button-down jacket appeared with a little metal device. He scraped the crumbs into a white-gloved hand and then disappeared just as quickly.

Yeah, we were in for an expensive night.

Contrast that with what I usually see when I’m heading out for a meal: A disgruntled employee behind the counter at a local fast food joint takes someone’s order, screws it up twice and then can’t make change without an iPhone app. The customer gets the wrong meal, but usually just shakes his or her head and mutters something about “kids these days,” even if the employee is 35.

The point is, you get what you pay for. That’s true even in journalism.

When you’re getting stuff for free, it’s usually of a lower quality. What you’re paying for when you buy a subscription to the Times or the Post or the Journal-Sentinel is quality work. You’re paying to have someone who went to school to learn a trade present you with quality content that has value to you. You’re paying for expertise and experience. It’s the same way with the plumber scenario above: You could call your buddy to come over and “give it a shot” when it comes to getting the dishwasher under control, but you figure it’s worth the money to get someone in there who knows how to fix the thing properly.

The nice thing is that a lot of people who commented on Stephenson’s post saw things this way as well. Long-term subscribers saw the value in the content and noted they had willingly paid for it for years. My folks still get the paper delivered every day and on more than a few occasions, my mother has told me she worries that the paper might cease to be at some point. Thus, she pays for a subscription to help support the cause.

In looking at the costs associated with the paper, we aren’t talking about a critical spending decision, either. One offer let you pay something like a buck a month for three months of digital access. My print subscription to the Oshkosh Northwestern was something like $14 a month and that came with unlimited digital access. As Stephenson’s post points out, 33 cents gets you access to the whole paper.

(Conversely, it costs $2.99 to buy three lollipop hammers in Candy Crush and rarely do those things help as much as you think they will.)

Sure, I could argue that these publications aren’t what they once were, but I also know that candy bars used to be a nickel, but grousing about that doesn’t make them any cheaper now.

Besides, as my father and I like to say about buying random stuff at yard sales, I’ve wasted far more money on far dumber things.

 

“Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

As we have discussed here before, I spend a less time thinking about how a headline or a photo or anything else can be awesome and a lot more time thinking about how it can go horribly wrong. That level of mild-to-moderate paranoia keeps me out of more than the average amount of trouble when it comes to my writing here and elsewhere.

I’m teaching an editing class this summer, which has me on the lookout for gaffes, stumbles and other snafus that pop up on all manner of platforms. Although horrible spelling and awkward moments make up a great deal of my finds, I have noticed more than a few areas in which the way in which a word can be interpreted or misread can lead to problems within writing.

One of my favorites came from USA Today as the country was crawling out from under the mortgage meltdown:

Shot.jpg

The questions I had were a) do I get to pick where they shoot me? and b) where do I sign up?

Obviously, in this case, the writer meant “shot” to be a synonym for “chance.” However, “get shot” can also easily be interpreted to mean someone put a bullet in you. (I suppose if you want to get technical, it could also mean a needle full of something or a small glass of hard liquor. “Barkeep! I’ll take a Tequila Sunrise and a shot of “Loan Abatement.”)

A similar problem emerges in this headline:

GayStraight

(Glad they finally got those Gay-Straight Alliance ruffians to stop picking on people in the school…)

Stressing different words in different ways can help you avoid issues like this one as well:

WalkerPodcast

The title in the tweet showcases the problem: “You can’t recall courage with Scott Walker.” The title is a play on words, in that Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. However, on a first pass, the word “recall” more likely sounds like people are trying to remember something. (“I clearly recall putting my wallet in my pocket, but now it’s missing.”) So, it sounds like we can’t remember anything about courage when it somehow relates to Scott Walker. (“I can’t recall any acts of courage on the part of Scott Walker.”) I’m sure that sits well with the former governor…

In any case, the point is that had the writers read these items aloud, we wouldn’t be debating the issue. Other similar problems happen when you get a bad headline break. In print, when you “break” a headline between columns, you create a natural pause at the end of the first line, similar to a comma. On one line, the head makes sense:

Smith, Jones dead even in polls

However, when split at the wrong spot, you get a zombie movie of sorts:

Smith, Jones dead
even in polls

When this happens in print, it’s often due to layout issues and those issues can lead to some awkward headlines:

Blows

(Wow… the soccer team must be exhausted…)

Even in digital copy, this can happen (h/t Testy Copy Editors)

SplitsMatter

How does one get “robbed accidentally?” (To be fair, it could be worse, I’ve seen “robbed” end up getting spelled “robed,” which always makes me think of Hugh Hefner for some reason…)

Here are a couple points to help you avoid these problems:

  • Read your stuff aloud: I often tell students to read their copy out loud, as that will help them find grammar errors, run-on sentences and structural issues. One other benefit is that if you emphasize different words in different ways while reading the copy aloud, you can see how something might not read quite right.
  • Watch your swaps for size: In many cases, the headline errors come when people are trying to swap out a longer word for a shorter one or (occasionally) vice versa. This is how you get things like “shot” for “chance” and similar errors.
  • Keep an eye on your breaks: When you have a break in a headline, regardless of platform, realize it’s going to shift the way in which the content is read. Therefore, you need to put the breaks in the right spots to avoid people hearing that two candidates are “dead… even in polls”
  • Beware of potentially hazardous word choices: We talked about this before when it comes to reading like a 12-year-old boy, but it’s not just the double-entendre sex-ed stuff that can get you into trouble. A headline on suburban sprawl could have a politician hoping to “retard growth.” That word, although technically accurate, has the potential for danger, as the “R-word movement” can clearly explain. All sorts of words can create danger for you, so always think, “How can this go wrong?” and you’ll save yourself some explaining and agony for sure.

Learn to love data reporting the NY Times way

The New York Times has provided all journalists, journalism educators and journalism students with a golden opportunity to learn data journalism. The paper posted its entire data-journalism curriculum online for free, allowing anyone with an interest to go through the entire three-week course that its staffers use to become familiar with data.

Lindsey Rogers Cook, one of the people responsible for compiling this work, said the paper saw the importance of data literacy and knew it could help others who didn’t have the same resources as the times:

While we recognize most publications aren’t able to offer their reporters a three-week data training, we know that increasing data skills is hardly a Times-specific need. Even in smaller newsrooms, making time to teach someone data skills has benefits in the long run. But it can be difficult and time-consuming to build out proper materials, especially if developing training programs isn’t your sole job.

So, we’ve decided to share our materials in the hopes that students, professors or journalists at other publications might find them useful.

Over the last four rounds of data training, Digital Transition has amassed dozens of spreadsheets, worksheets, cheat sheets, slide decks, lesson plans and more, created by me, my fellow Digital Transition editor Elaine Chen and various speakers around The Times.

 

Aside from including those key elements, the paper included a great tip sheet that echoes my own love of paranoia: How Not To Be Wrong.

Even if you don’t want to go through the whole course, it’s worth seeing to what degree these items could weave into your reporting toolbox. Even more, it’s worth seeing what the Times does because far too often, journalists excuse themselves from doing hard-hitting data pieces by saying, “Look it’s not like we’re the New York Times or anything…”

Well, now you can be. Give it a shot.