“Public archives are your best friend:” How student journalists broke the story on VCU’s history of blackface, “slave sale” fundraisers and more

Over the past few weeks, media practitioners vigorously reported on the “blackface” revelations associated with politicians in Virginia and the student journalists at the Commonwealth Times were no different. In digging deep into the archives of Virginia Commonwealth University, the students there found not only a history of blackface photos, but also racist references to Native Americans and Asians as well.

The article and photo package the students built showed that these racist elements included a “slave sale” and blackface imagery in a yearbook as late as 1989.


The front page of the Commonwealth Times at Virginia Commonwealth University. Courtesy of Allison Dyche and the CT staff.

Allison Dyche, the director of student media at Virginia Commonwealth University, said since the revelations emerged that a blackface photo ran on the yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam, the students at the CT pursued the story like many other journalists throughout the country.

“The students have been closely following the story about Gov. Northam since it broke,” she said. “We’re the capital of Virginia, so it’s all happening right down the street from us. The students from The CT covered Northam’s press conference, and published a timeline of events in their paper this past week. They’ve been covering the story nonstop, because they’re great journalists, it was changing on an almost daily basis with new updates, and because it’s happening where they live and go to school.”

News editor Fadel Allassan, a senior majoring in political science, said he saw stories about Northam’s situation as well as a story regarding racist photos in yearbooks at the nearby University of Richmond. It was at that point, he said he wondered what might be hidden deep in the VCU archives.

“We had been seeing old racist yearbook photos pop up all around us and I decided to look into it,” he said. “I went to the physical archives at VCU and looked for a couple of hours. I didn’t find anything until the building closed. On my way out, I started talking with the gentleman working at the archives as he closed up shop, and he told me to keep digging because I would find stuff, as he had seen some racist imagery in the books before.”

Allassan said he offered his reporters an opportunity to help him look into the yearbooks and news writer Hannah Eason jumped at the chance. Eason, a sophomore broadcast major from Farmville, Virginia, said she knew it was a big story and didn’t want to miss out on it.

“Considering the current journalism climate with every news organization pulling yearbooks– after Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook exposure– we didn’t waste any time,” she said. “I looked through the yearbooks all night on Thursday and we published on Friday. We didn’t want someone to break the story before us, considering (the books) were in public archives and anyone could be doing research about it.”

The staff had to make decisions on what would run and how to explain the photos, Allassan said. The goal was to provide a thorough view of what the yearbooks from the past presented and how recently racist images were included in these volumes.

“We had to edit the story, take out the photos we weren’t sure about,” Allassan said. “In some of the photos, it was too unclear as to what was going on, so we left them out. It was hard because some of the photos were from the ’40s and ’50s and hard to see. We then had to figure out the best web presentation and how to treat the story appropriately.”

Once the story hit the web, Dyche said the students received a lot of attention for their efforts, with publications like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Daily Progress and the Winston-Salem Journal   covering their work. She said she hadn’t heard any negative reactions from the administration.

“I’m not aware of any pushback the students received from anyone,” she said. “The library archive is available to anyone, so the students were able to access it easily. I have not received any emails or phone calls either. The story published on Friday afternoon on The CT’s website. The reporter, Hannah Eason, was interviewed by a local TV news outlet that evening.”

Eason said her experience with this story just reinforced the notion that stories are everywhere and that public documents are a valuable commodity for journalists.

“I would tell a student that public archives are your best friend,” she said. “There can be cool stories (or huge, in this case.) As a journalist, I think it’s easy to forget that police records, court papers, legal documents, and even library archives can be goldmines of information which can lead to a great story. Connect your research/findings to something current and important and — BAM! —  you’ve got a story.”

Eason also said she considers this story the most important one she has produced for the CT. In terms of the overall impact in the area, she said the university has consistently worked to provide a progressive atmosphere, in spite of issues like this one.

“I think we’ve all been pretty consistent that blackface is wrong, disgraceful, and outright racist,” Eason said. “That hasn’t changed. VCU has overall been pretty progressive in standing up for minority groups and making a point to make them feel included/welcomed/loved. I think that the hardest part of this has been Northam’s connection to it. I feel that Northam was pretty well-liked by the younger college demographic, especially in Richmond.”

Allassan said he hopes the story will help students at VCU reexamine the history of the area and think about it more deeply.

“As students we’re often not aware of what it means to be a campus located directly where the capital of the Confederacy stood,” he said. “That notion is pretty jarring if you compare it to how progressive and diverse our school is. We may have been ignorant as to what our history is, but I wonder if these recent events will change that.”

In terms of moving forward, Dyche said her students are continuing to cover the situation at the capitol and keeping track of what other elements might emerge regarding these issues on campus.

“I’m thrilled to see my students taking the initiative to go look through archives to find things to help drive a story even closer to home than it already was,” Dyche said. “They were timely with the story, and set aside hours to go search through the archives to see what they could find. I love to see students find new and old ways of finding new story ideas, and to see them put in the necessary effort to make a story happen.”

“The fact that the story was picked up by so many other news outlets just drives home the fact that it was a timely story and one that needed to be shared, and I’m glad to see my students are the ones taking the time and putting in the work to inform their audience,” she added.




Can you park in Boston after a snowstorm? How graphics, journalism and old-school Nintendo can lead to a fun time.

If you are pretty much anywhere above the Mason-Dixon Line this week, you are buried in snow. (If you are in Florida or somewhere else in which 55 degrees is considered an “arctic chill,” kindly keep your thoughts to yourself.) Between school closings, massive plows and the fairly frequent multi-vehicle crashes on the highway because SOME IDIOTS don’t know how to FRICKIN’ DRIVE… (sorry)…,  it become pretty obvious why many of us consider “snow” a true four-letter word.

However, guest blogger, founder of the LGBTQ+ Experiment and graphics guru Pat Garvin found a way to make snow emergencies fun for readers of the Boston Globe. A few years back, Garvin built an old-school Nintendo-style game for the Globe’s website that allows users to “hustle” for a street parking spot during a snow emergency.



A screen shot of Pat’s fantastic game.

“For years, I had wanted to make some sort of game for BostonGlobe.com,” Garvin said. “I renewed my interest after some Globe colleagues and I checked out an arcade bar that had recently opened. As we played these vintage 1980s games with their unmistakable look and feel, I got the idea that I wanted to make something that recreated that feel with that same quick visual shorthand that comes from those blocky visuals. What it would be, I don’t know.”

Garvin noticed something interesting about Boston: The way in which people deal with parking in a snow emergency.

“I went to work the next day and found inspiration from a pending snowstorm,” he said. “Boston is unlike anywhere else I have lived in that many in the city use household objects to save parking spaces after a snowstorm. They can — and will — use anything: a lawn chair, a traffic cone, old tables, etc. People take the practice with a religious seriousness, and people who take parking spots that had a space saver have returned to their car to find nasty notes and in come cases, their cars vandalized. I decided to make a game allowing users to hunt for parking spots after a snowstorm, knowing they might risk the chance that if they take a spot that has been saved with a space saver, they might get their tires slashed or their window broken.”

Garvin used the names of his colleagues as inspiration for the buildings (a music critic was the namesake of a record store while a movie house was named for a movie critic.) as he used Java Script and jQuery to create the game. The purpose, he said, was to have fun and yet focus on something truly associated with Boston.

“Projects that allow me to mimic a style that I know readers and users will recognize is fun because it gives me both structure to follow and creative license to convey something in a different way,” he said. “The hidden jokes in the background are fun because they will reward the people who pay attention to detail. This is not a traditional project per se, as there are no maps, charts, or information graphics. There are few words here other than the intro and kill screens. But this project is informed by the same news judgment that would inspire a react story or a features story.”

The game borders on the ridiculously impossible, which pretty much sums up how hard it is to get a space on the streets of Boston after a snowstorm. Every time a blizzard whips up some chaos out there, Garvin’s work becomes a welcome distraction for the folks in that area.

“A lot of the stories and interviews I had seen about parking space savers was from the perspective of Bostonians who felt a right to a spot because they had shoveled the spot and felt a sense of ownership,” he said. “The reasoning and justification seemed to begin and end there. But if you have to drive through the streets and need to park, what then? What if you’re a working parent and you need to drop your child off with a relative? Or what if you are a medical professional coming to visit a diabetic patient in his home? By taking the shovelers out of the game and focusing only on the cars and the spots, I hope I got people to think about space savers from a slightly different angle.”

Think you have what it takes to get a spot? Click here to play the Globe’s snowstorm parking game.

As student journalists, how do you report on rape allegations? Pretty much the same way you report on anything else.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article posted on a writing website that had her seriously concerned and had me grateful that I wasn’t in her shoes.

The college-aged woman who wrote the article stated that the head of a university’s student government had raped her. She outlined the history of their relationship, including previous consensual sexual interactions, discussed her own history of sexual encounters and detailed the incident in which she states the man had sex with her without using a condom and without her consent to do so.

In addition, she outlined specific allegations including:

  • She was not the only person with whom this man had non-consensual sex: “It appears that there are many more young women than just myself who have been assaulted or harassed by him,” she wrote.
  • She heard from another woman that this man had infected multiple partners with chlamydia. (She wrote that she underwent testing and her test came back negative.)
  • She heard from that same woman that this man had cheated on her with multiple partners.

My friend advises the student publication at the university where this woman attends (or attended) school and where this man serves as the head of the student government. In other words, this has massive ramifications for the audience her paper serves.

The question then becomes, “How does a student media outlet go about reporting on a rape allegation, made in this fashion, in a decent, fair and ethical way while also keeping a watchful eye on any legal ramifications?” The answer in the headline is a bit glib, but it is more true than not: Basically the same way you report on anything else.

Consider these basic building blocks:

Background research must come first: Nobody wants to look like an idiot when they get into a story where they have no prior knowledge of the topic. While really bad reporters kind of fake their way through a topic, good reporters dig deep to fully understand it well enough to speak intelligently on it. Consider this the first thing you must do for ALL stories, whether you’re trying to explain how the sport of curling works (my first “what the hell do I know about this?” story that required ridiculous amounts of research) or trying to figure out how to ask questions in an interview with a rape survivor.

No matter how scary the story, you are not the first person to cover any given topic. That means there are experts out there who can help you figure things out. In the case of a story on rape, the people at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the folks at the Dart Center can provide you with information on the topic at hand and how to navigate your reporting. In many cases, organizations like these have put together guides, tips and hints, such as the Dart Center’s guide to covering sexual violence and trauma or its step-by-step outline of how to report on campus rapes and sexual assaults.

The best way to not feel like you’re going to do something stupid in your reporting and writing is to make yourself as smart as possible on the topic.

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out: This is the first rule of all good journalism. In other words, go do some digging for yourself before you rely on anything you hear second hand. Ask for an interview with the woman who wrote the story so you can hear her story first hand. Ask for an interview with other people directly attached to the story, such as the man accused in this story. Look for things elements of the story that can be verified without traumatizing anyone or making it look like you have already decided who is right and who is wrong.

Cases involving false rape allegations are quite rare, but the premier example of a story like this that went off the rails in a horrifying way was the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The piece told the story of “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student who told the writer she had been gang raped at a fraternity party. “Jackie” also stated that the administration wouldn’t do anything to help her and that it was more concerned in protecting the image of the school than investigating her situation.

The piece ended up being retracted and it led to multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the magazine. The fraternity reached a $1.65 million settlement with the magazine, while the administrator made out to be the “chief villain” of the story reached a confidential settlement, after a federal jury awarded her a $3 million judgment that the magazine was appealing.

A post-mortem analysis of the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone found that the magazine had failed to do basic reporting to verify the claims asserted in the story and that the piece had basic facts wrong. The report stated the reporter never interviewed the friends “Jackie” had mentioned, instead relying on her recollections of what they told her. It also noted that specific parties and dates of events didn’t fit with actual events or parties, something that would have been easy enough to verify. The report also outline other similar things like this that could have been done to help put the magazine on a stronger footing or better decide how to proceed with the piece.

Simply put, you are a reporter, so report. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe someone, but you have to make sure you can support the content you publish to the best of your ability.

Check your legal liabilities: The Student Press Law Center provides student journalists with free legal advice on a wide array of topics. If you have concerns that a story might libel someone, a call or email to SPLC is worth your time. The “Dynamics” textbooks list off the key elements of libel as:

  • Publication: Did you disseminate the content to someone other than the person claiming to be libeled?
  • Identification: Is the person claiming to be libeled named or otherwise easily known based on how he or she is described in the story?
  • Harm: Can the person claiming to be libeled demonstrate serious damage to his or her reputation? This usually involves being accused of a crime or associated with “unsavory” illnesses.
  • Fault: Can the person claiming to be libeled show that the person publishing the content either did something wrong or failed to do something that should have been done to prevent the libelous content from being published?

In case you’re wondering, a story like this would go four-for-four in terms of these items. That means you’re into the defenses against libel, including truth, privilege and so forth. What also makes this interesting is the issue of what level of fault the man in this story would have to prove. Ordinary citizens only have to prove negligence, which is easier to show, while public figures have to demonstrate actual malice. In that instance, the public figure has to show the material was false and that the publisher had a reckless disregard for the truth. The SPLC is your friend, so give the folks there a call with questions before you publish.

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: If you do your reporting and you aren’t certain you have enough of the story to tell the story, wait until you can gather enough content to feel more secure. If you find that your reporting hasn’t revealed enough to support or refute conclusions crucial to the story itself, don’t feel pressured to publish something because you are worried about “how it would look.” You are responsible for what you publish, so you need to feel confident you can stand behind what you put out there.

It’s always better to be late than wrong.


Once you get deeper into the writing, you should pay additional attention to style, word choice and clarity to avoid creating problems for your sources and your readers. In addition, having a legal eagle and an expert in the field give you a quick review for some thoughts and polish points to consider won’t hurt either.

This is obviously a serious and delicate topic, which means tact matters as does basic human decency. That said you can do all of this and adhere to quality reporting standards to make sure you put your best possible story forward.

Faux-tography: What is real any more and how should journalists deal with it?

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, to borrow a cliche, the “beholder” today might be your camera’s AI set up.

Here are two interesting articles on what one writer deemed “faux-tography,” which is really the degree to which an image no longer represents the color, texture, vibe and feel of its original subject. As far as an artistic eye is concerned, I have absolutely none, so this isn’t even close to my field. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife how many times we get into arguments when she asks for a “blue” sweater and I end up picking out about nine of them that are in no way what normal people would consider blue.

Still, the idea fascinates me in the broader sense of journalism and reality. The concept of manipulation isn’t new, in that photographers and editors have merged images to create tension, moved pyramids to make photos more compelling and even changed how we view moments of historical importance. In most cases, it was the human being behind the camera or in the darkroom or at the keyboard making those choices actively and deciding to live with the consequences.

What is and is not allowable isn’t always that clear. Professionals who were around during the transition from wet labs to digital media used to argue that you shouldn’t do any more with PhotoShop than you can in the darkroom. Of course, a legendary photo manipulation from photo titan Matthew Brady occurred in the Civil War era, so there is that… Even more, we often note that toning, cropping, lightening or darkening images is completely fine, but then you run into things like this and like this so it’s not always so clear cut.

A good place to start any discussion of photo manipulation is the NPPA’s code of ethics, which you can find here. Another good thing to ponder is the degree to which you are actively making choices in what you shoot, frame, crop and tone. Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it matters a great deal, but it also helps to know that the HAL-9000 isn’t putting its interest ahead of yours.

The Life, Death and Rebirth of The Daily Cardinal: A Reminder of How We Still Need to Keep All Student Media Alive

Cardinal T-Shirt

The other student newspaper’s staffers put our failings on their front page. When we saved the paper from ruin, we put their front page on a T-shirt.

The Daily Cardinal gave me my entire life.

And 24 years ago today, it almost died.

I honestly intended not to write this today, as the story is old and threadbare at this point. When I tell it, I feel like the grandfather at Thanksgiving who tells the same story each year, only to experience the eye rolls and deep sighs at the table. But this time, something more important than commemoration is at stake, because the Cardinal’s story may be one of the last of its kind in student media, and that is a problem we must address.

Since 1892, The Daily Cardinal has served as a student newspaper and media resource for the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, making it the sixth-oldest student daily paper in the country. William Wesley Young launched it on April 4 of that year, and staffers long after his departure told stories of him racing his horse down the street with his proofs, hoping to make the printing deadline.

Since Young’s time, the paper has turned out more quality journalists, Pulitzer winners, entrepreneurs and legends that to start a list here would guarantee this post would go on forever and yet still omit numerous important people. On April 4, 1992, the paper celebrated its 100th anniversary, toasting these people and the thousands of others who had written, photographed, drawn, designed, sold, distributed and pressed it over that time.

Three years later on Feb. 7, 1995, the paper closed.

At the time, nobody on staff knew for sure why it wouldn’t print the next day or what led to the “reorganization” the paper’s administration tried to play it off as. We found out the next day, as all the other papers in the city seemed to know the truth: We were broke. We owed our printers more than $30,000 and they refused to print without the resolution of that debt. We also owed money to dozens of other organizations and companies. We couldn’t even get our lawyer to help us figure things out because we owed his law firm money.

According to Allison Hantschel’s incredible history on the Cardinal, when the debts were tallied and the cash on hand measured, the paper owed more than $137,700 and had $43.71 in its checking account.

It was both way too real and almost completely unbelievable at the same time.

Over the next two months, the publisher, general manager and sales manager all quit. Board members spent a lot of time in meetings, scrambling to find out what had happened, how it happened and who was to blame for it. Most of the staff left and at one point, there were basically three people left in the office.

I was one of them. I had been elected city editor about six weeks earlier. After “The Shutdown” I was responsible for trying to bill an entire year worth of advertising with the goal of paying off our debts and closing the paper “with honor,” as one of our board members used to say.

At one point, the other two people, also former editorial staffers, came to me and asked for my key to the office. They were done, tired and broken. They just wanted to go home. The plan was to turn in the keys to the board, shutter the place and go on with life. For reasons I still can’t explain, I gave them an old key that didn’t work anymore. They locked up the office and left. Once they were gone, I went back in and finished the billing.

For the next six months, it was life on a flaming high wire, as a skeleton crew of former staffers and crazy people worked to pump life back into what everyone else saw as a rotting corpse. Money came in, debts were paid and disasters continued to emerge. Every day, it was a sense of “We’re probably dead, but let’s see what we can accomplish today.”

I skipped six weeks worth of class, spending hours and days at the paper. (I don’t recommend that approach.) My two best friends, neither of whom were working at the paper at the time of “The Shutdown,” came back to rebuild the paper. It was like climbing a greased flagpole in a blizzard, but eventually it worked. “If we ever print again,” became “When we print again.”

On Sept. 1, 1995, the paper published again. It hasn’t stopped since.

Without The Cardinal, I never would have gotten a job at the Wisconsin State Journal shortly after the relaunch. Without that job, I never would have gotten a chance to teach at the college level. Those two experiences gave me just enough value that George Kennedy hired me to work at Mizzou three years after that. Without that, I don’t get a doctorate, become a student media adviser, work as a professor, publish books or a dozen other things that make my life my life.

Beyond the journalism experiences, The Cardinal introduced me to my wife, my two best friends, the godparents of my child and the people who would make me a godparent. It gave me a home and a life that I never would have had during college otherwise.

The reason I decided to write about this today is because my story is interesting but not unique. Student media has provided countless students experiences like the one I had. College students with half-baked ambitions and a shaky sense of self cross the threshold of newsrooms all across this country and find themselves every day. They learn skills, ply their trade and grow into amazing members of The Fourth Estate. They also find true friends and a surrogate family. Calling a student publication “an activity” or “a club” is like calling Godzilla “a lizard:” It’s true, but wildly inaccurate and extremely reductive.

It also occurred to me that The Cardinal’s story isn’t unique in one way, but is becoming more and more rare in another. As I was rolling through one of my feeds today, I saw this article on Drexel University’s student newspaper, The Triangle. The paper ran into financial difficulty and has likely published its last issue. Last week, I got word that The North Texas Daily, the student paper at the University of North Texas, had its funding cut and was heading into similarly dire financial straits.

Last year, we talked at length about The Sunflower at Wichita State University, which looked to be headed toward the end of its 123-year run. And, even though I don’t think I’m a jinx, our student newspaper found itself in a massive fundraising effort to keep the publication going. When it comes to publications ceasing to print or in danger of closing entirely, The Cardinal seemed to be ahead of its time. And, to borrow a phrase from a friend, it’s a club nobody wants to be a member of and we don’t want any more members.

The unique aspect of The Cardinal, however, is that it found a way back home. The presses rolled again, a web presence emerged and students continued to take part in an important part of life. Thanks in large part to folks like Anthony Sansone, who essentially built The Daily Cardinal Alumni Association, the students there get additional financial help from former Cardinalistas. The staffers also get opportunities to learn from alumni as well, thanks to the DCAA’s mentorship and training programs.

I don’t know how many of these other programs are lucky enough to find support for their news operations, be it through university funds, alumni giving or some other miracle I would like to know more about. What I do know is that student media is too important to too many people to let it die quietly among budget cuts, shrinking ad revenue and “I’ll just read stuff on Twitter” shrugs.

Below is a list of student media outlets that have active fundraising efforts available online. As I continue to get more names and links, I’ll continue to update them here. (Feel free to contact me via the form on this site.) Please spread the word and contribute if you can. As the folks at The Triangle noted, if everyone on Drexel’s campus gave a buck, the paper could run for a year.

Keep student media alive.

Dumb, stupid or idiotic? Questioning the questions we ask in interviews

The line I use when it comes to interviewing is, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” However, it dawned on me this week in reading through some students’ analyses of press conferences that some distinctions should exist regarding the specific level of “duh” related to questions journalists ask.

Dumb questions: Journalists fear looking like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I know that I sweated out more than a few interviews with the only thought running through my head being, “Please, don’t think I’m dumb.” Dumb questions, as outlined in Jason Feifer’s article here, aren’t questions that should embarrass you, provided you have prepared well for an interview.

In this sense of the word, these are basic questions that the source has easy answers for on topics that are common in his or her field. In some cases, people avoid asking a source to clarify what an abbreviation means or how a process works for fear of looking dumb (and thus avoiding asking a “dumb question.”).

Feifer is right that you should feel free to ask for clarification and to ask the person to explain things like he or she would to a 5-year-old. I always try to research a topic before I go there, but there are things that will come up that I don’t understand. If the source balks at explaining this or tries to treat you like a dummy, simply explain, “You are the expert at this. This is why I’m asking you these questions. I don’t know this stuff as well as you do and I want to make sure I get it right so we both don’t look dumb.”

Stupid questions: These are the questions that you want to avoid because they are flat-out goofy, incorrectly phrased, rely on misinformation or otherwise make the sources question the size of your brain pan. Here’s a list of the stupidest questions asked in court and it covers a lot of those areas of concern. Perhaps the best one is this:

Q: What happened then?
A: He told me, he says, ‘I have to kill you because you can identify me.’
Q: Did he kill you?

The legendary question of this variety is the one that so many people swear didn’t happen, even as others swear it did. In the lead up to Super Bowl XXII, the press focused on Washington’s Doug Williams, who was poised to be the first African American to start at quarterback in the NFL title game. At one point a reporter was said to have asked Williams, “So, how long have you been a black quarterback?” Despite frequent attempts to debunk this myth, the story lives on as an example of a question that was really, really stupid.

In most cases, you can avoid stupid questions by doing a few things:

  • Research your topic well. The more you know about something, the less likely you will be to ask something that sounds really stupid.
  • Read your questions aloud to someone else before you ask them of your source. A lot of times, questions sound good in your head but somewhere between your brain and your mouth, a translation issue occurs. This is why it’s always a good idea to ask them aloud. It also doesn’t hurt to have a second person go over them with you to make sure you’re asking what you think you’re asking.
  • If you’re not sure how something will sound, try to come up with a better way to ask it. If you can’t get at it that way, at least explain in advance to the source that you’re struggling to come up with a way to ask for some specific information. At least that way it won’t come out of left field.


Idiotic questions: These are the ones you should never ask at any point for any reason. They lack any semblance of decency and they often come across as really asinine. The question that got me rolling on this post was one a sports journalism student brought up that I had missed. A reporter asked Russell Westbrook if fellow basketball player James Harden was worth a “max contract.” In NBA speak, that means “Is he worthy of being one of the highest-paid players in the game?”

It isn’t easy talking about how much money you make, let alone commenting on what you think someone else should make. It’s an idiotic question and Westbrook dealt with it as such.

In other cases, it’s simply a rude question that no one should be expected to answer. Consider this one asked of actress Scarlet Johansson in an interview about her role in “The Avengers” films:

Because nothing says, “serious journalist” like asking an actress if she was “going commando.”

A similarly idiotic question came out when another male journalist decided to ask Anne Hathaway about her body:

(This blog could fill up the entire internet with nothing but idiotic questions male journalists asked of female athletes, actors and celebrities, so we will move on.)

It’s not always just what the question is but how it’s asked that can make it idiotic. Prior to the 1981 Super Bowl, a reporter was asking quarterback Jim Plunkett about his family’s unfortunate health history, including his father’s progressive loss of vision. However, he asked it this way: “Lemme get this straight, Jim. Is it blind mother, deaf father or the other way around?” Think about how you would react if that question were asked of you in that fashion.

When it comes to asking questions, you always want to put your best foot forward. At the very least, you don’t want to step barefoot into a steaming pile of cow dung. Do your research, look at your material, review your questions and ask them out loud before you get to your source. Then, you’ll likely be in better shape to conduct an interview that doesn’t embarrass you or your source or both.

What Super Bowl? The New Orleans Times-Picayune and knowing your audience

While the rest of the football universe spent Monday morning either celebrating New England’s sixth Super Bowl win or complaining about it, the folks in New Orleans woke up to a newspaper front that captured the city’s mood perfectly:


If you aren’t a football fan, or aren’t from the NoLa area, you probably didn’t hear about the NFC championship game that sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl and sent the New Orleans Saints home for the year. During the Saints final drive in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 20-20, the referees blew a pass-interference call that would have essentially won the gain for New Orleans. However, instead of getting a first down and a chance to run out the clock before a game-winning field goal, the Saints had a 4th-and-10 situation, so they kicked a field goal.

The Rams tied the game in regulation and went on to win 26-23 in overtime.

Still steaming two weeks later, the staff of the paper decided not to cover The Big Game and instead protest its existence with this cover. How good of an idea this was seemed to be directly related to your connection to the area.

A journalism education Facebook group I’m on posted this image and asked if this was a colossal waste of space, and the majority of folks initially thought it was:

This is almost an ethics issue. My reaction to this front is that it cheapens the front page. Think of all of the important content that could have been there.
NOLA has stewed over this for two weeks.


Blowing up the front may have jumped the shark.


Yeah, this was petty and shouldn’t have been done. Write an editorial about it. Sports really isn’t that important, and I’m a sports fan.


What a waste of space and opportunity! I’m sorry if you are a football fan–I’m not–but N.O. needs to get over it! … there is so much more important news than the silly Super Bowl, blown call or not. Jeepers.

My two cents on the matter was that I probably wouldn’t have done this because I’m usually a wuss when it comes to going way out on a limb, but that I did like it for two reasons:

  1. Audience centricity: These folks know their readership, particularly in the print-distribution area, pretty well, so if they have the vibe that this is what people are thinking and feeling, they probably hit a home run with their audience. Meeting your audience where they are and touching on what they think is important tends to work well, and a local paper, which the TP is, should know what matters most to the readers.
  2. Fail big: Even if this was a disaster-bacle and the readers ended up hating it, at least the paper failed big. It’s easy to try to hedge your bets against really screwing up by doing something minor, but it takes guts to go for it, which the paper did here.

To see if I was right about this, I put out a call to my friends and colleagues in the area and it turns out, the people down there loved this thing:

This is a great case of a newsroom knowing its audience. The city partied yesterday to celebrate the season and collectively mourn what coulda shoulda been. The Times-Pic covered it all on its digital platforms yesterday, so I think the front page was a great way to show the city’s sentiment, while still having coverage inside the paper. And people did not watch the big game. The numbers prove it: locally, the game got a 26.2 rating, compared to 55 last year.


It’s real, and it’s going over brilliantly.


Local reaction to Super Bowl and the blown call ranges from genuine outrage to dipshittery.

This reaction from the folks in the area reinforces the idea of audience centricity and the importance of knowing your audience. When it came down to it, the paper took a huge risk, but it ended up becoming the talk of the town and beyond. National media covered the paper’s front page live on air and on the web. The Washington Post featured all of the outrage, including the parade the fans had to grouse about the Big Game’s lack of value to them.

Even more, the paper clearly made an impact where it mattered most: Sales.

“The paper sold out at shops & paper machines,” a good friend told me.

When was the last time the paper could say that?

3 teachable moments for media students from the Gov. Ralph Northam “blackface” controversy

In case you missed it, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spent the weekend under pressure to resign after his association with a racist photo during medical school came to light. Northam, a Democrat, had a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page with a person wearing a KKK hood and robe and another other in blackface:


Follow-up stories also found that while at VMI, Northam had the nickname “Coonman,” which has racist overtones, to say the least. Northam has stated he will not resign, even as pretty much everyone else on the planet is telling him he has no choice.

In terms of “teachable moments,” we could easily list about 1,023,324 of them starting with “don’t be a racist idiot.” However, since this is a journalism-based blog, let’s stick to three items related to media concerns:

Student media leaves a long trail: When Brett Kavanaugh was up for his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, we talked about this issue at length, but it bears repeating here: Student media can be eternal. In that earlier post, we cited at least a half-dozen cases in which politicians, jurists and others had something they wrote as an under-informed undergrad come back to haunt them. What makes this case interesting is that this was from Northam’s days in medical school, which pushes his age much further into adulthood when his page hit the press.

Sure, it might seem cute to put something in press that you find to be “funny” at the time, like a drinking quote, a puffery-based quote about your virility or something else that would make you wince later, but consequences do emerge. Consider this “hysterical” moment from a college paper and its senior sendoff columns:


I never was a huge fan of drop caps, but this made them worse…

I suppose, if you were inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt, you could argue that this was a random lottery of accidental ordering, but five other senior sendoff columns on the subsequent page had drop caps that spelled out “PENIS.” I can’t recall what happened to the students in this case, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. It also isn’t great that this happened in the internet age, so I’m sure I’m not the only person with this photo.

As both media practitioners and people who plan to live a fruitful life past the age of 22, take a good, hard look at what you publish. The association you have with those choices doesn’t seem like it ever really goes away.


Before you open your mouth, figure out what you should say: Public relations and crisis communication experts get an unfair bad rap in many cases. The whole “Covington Catholic MAGA kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation had a contingency of people complaining that at least one of the kids involved hired RunSwitch PR, a firm linked to heavy hitters in the Republican Party, including Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney. The argument was that the kids knew they were wrong, racist and evil, so the PR firm came in to soften their image and “spin” this whole thing for them.

I’m not in any position to comment on that particular case, because I honestly don’t know what happened there in regard to the firm or the kids. I can tell you that people often argue that hiring a PR firm makes you look slimy, in the way that demanding a lawyer when you get accused of a crime makes you look guilty. I’ll disagree on that point because this is clearly a case where some quality public relations practitioners and crisis communication experts could have made a big difference in a positive and clarifying way.

PR experts will tell you that before you make a public statement, you need to know what you want to say. In addition, you need to have a handle on ALL the facts of the case before you take a stand. This is akin to the news rule that you need to report before you publish. Regardless of what happens next, that approach makes sense, and a good PR firm would have told Northam this. It also would have kept him away from the press until he knew what the heck was happening with this situation and what he wanted to say.

Sure, you can argue that we might not know the truth about the situation if Northam had time to “shape his message,” but how much do we actually know now? At first it was, “I’m very sorry I did this” and then it was, “I’m not saying which of these racist figures was me,” and then it was “I don’t think that was me in the photo,” and now it’s “I never put that photo on my page.” We’re about 10 seconds away from him doing a press conference run by Shaggy.

If Northam had taken a couple hours, met with a good group of PR practitioners, he could have formed the best possible message for himself going forward. Even if that message ended up being, “I was a racist chucklehead and I’m sorry,” at least it would have been a single message from a single voice that allowed him and the rest of Virginia to move forward.

Trust, but verify: The original story about the yearbook page broke on a website called Big League Politics, a right-wing website with ties to Breitbart News and other similarly inclined publications: 

Virginia Democrat governor Ralph Northam posed for a blackface photograph.

Big League Politics has obtained photos from Northam’s time at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, from which he graduated in 1984.

Northam and a friend were photographed together — one in blackface, one in Klan robes.

Two things come to mind upon seeing this:

  1. The publication clearly has a conservative viewpoint, so there’s always a risk that simply taking the negative information it published about a Democrat as gospel and running with it could lead to the spread of misinformation.
  2. The publication doesn’t cite a source to explain HOW it verified that Northam was in that photo, a charge that Northam now denies (while copping to something he somehow thinks is better, namely using shoe polish to “darken” himself as part of a Michael Jackson contest).

This is a case where the journalistic rule of “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out” applies. In other words, don’t ignore the story, but do find out for yourself if it’s true before you publish anything. CBS noted its efforts in this regard:

A reporter from CBS News affiliate News 3, Brendan Ponton, went to the Eastern Virginia Medical School library in Norfolk Friday afternoon and found the page on which the photo appears.

The Washington Post made a similar notation in its story:

The Washington Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook by viewing it in the medical school library in Norfolk.

You will also notice the nuances in the description these outlets use in regard to the photo. While BLP says Northam is in the photo, the others make it clearer that it appeared on his page, but Northam denies it’s him and no one can prove that it is at this point.

When it comes to something like this, it’s always important to make sure you have your facts straight and that you can demonstrate how you verified the information.

5 simple things Jimmy Breslin did as a reporter and writer that can make student journalists great, too

The name Jimmy Breslin probably means as much to anyone born after 1980 as the names of any president between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. However, in the pre-digital era of journalism, Breslin ruled New York as a columnist, writer and reporter without equal. (Breslin preferred the title of “reporter,” eschewing the term “journalist” as a “college word” that didn’t befit a man who didn’t go that route in life.)

Thanks to HBO’s latest documentary, “Deadline Artists,” a new generation of students and media practitioners can get a glimpse of Breslin and fellow columnist extraordinaire Pete Hamill, along with the way they practiced their craft. In watching this film, I picked out five simple things Breslin viewed as crucial when reporting and writing that can help student journalists easily improve their work:

Embrace noun-verb-object simplicity: Breslin and Hamill worked together for a time at the New York Daily News, and people who worked with both of them at that point talked about how different they were as writers. Breslin sweated over every word, while Hamill would breeze through a piece in no time flat. Hamill was a poet while Breslin used simple building blocks of verbiage to construct his epic pieces. However, they shared a set of roots that gave them the one thing they both swore by over the years.

Breslin and Hamill talked at length about growing up Irish-Catholic in New York and how the nuns used to drill grammar into them. In the film, they discuss the way in which “Noun-Verb-Object” became their primary “Holy Trinity” in the church of journalism. Breslin recalled the need for “concrete nouns, active verbs” to make sure he avoided the wrath of the sisters and that he carried it with him forever more.

If you go back and take a look at Breslin’s work, for all the detail and fluidity of it, the core of his sentence structure relies on those simple building blocks of concrete nouns, vigorous verbs and clear objects. He essentially wrote sentences from that NVO core outward to the various rings of descriptors that would accentuate his copy.

Even if you can’t style your work with a Breslin-like nuance, you can always start with that simple core and build your way on out.

Look for the story where nobody else is: Breslin is famous for a number of pieces he wrote in his time, but his coverage of the Kennedy assassination remains among his most-cited examples of how to work a story. When the president was killed, journalists flocked to Dallas to get the official story from the official sources, acting in an official capacity.

Breslin didn’t see value in “pack journalism,” so he went after the story a different way: He tracked down the doctor who was responsible for trying to save the life of the country’s 35th president. “Death in Emergency Room One” follows the day of Malcolm Perry, a surgeon who had to substitute in for his boss that day when Kennedy arrived at the hospital. In addition to getting Perry, he found others involved in the last moments of JFK’s life and the first few moments after it ended to help craft a compelling tale.

Breslin one-upped himself when it came to the Kennedy funeral. Everyone else wrote of the splendor of the day: The young widow with her children, the heads of state who came to pay tribute, the horse-drawn carriage that brought Kennedy to his final resting place and more. Breslin went the other way, getting out of the press pack and heading to the grave site to find the guy who actually dug the hole for the casket. His piece told the story of both “the common man” and a common man: Clifton Pollard, who worked on a Sunday in Arlington Cemetery in an effort he called “an honor.”

Both stories typified the basics of Breslin: Find the story that others aren’t telling and tell it well.

Get the details and use them well: The previous two pieces also showcase another hallmark of Breslin’s work: an amazing attention to detail. Look at the way in which he uses detail to paint a picture of Perry the moments before the president arrived:

Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,” he said.

“President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,” the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.”

Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the president of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.

Think about how much detail Breslin gathered there to paint a picture with his words: The brown door, the gray tiled walls and the cream colored ceiling. The aluminum hospital cart carrying the president with the lamp glaring down on it. Even more, Breslin thought to ask not only, “What were you doing when you got the page?” which likely would have led to the answer, “Eating lunch,” but also “What were you eating?” (salmon croquettes)

The story doesn’t end with Perry, however, as Breslin continues telling the tale:

Everything that was inside that room now belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy and Father Oscar Huber and the things in which they believe.

“I’m sorry. You have my deepest sympathies,” Father Huber said.

“Thank you,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.

Father Huber pulled the white sheet down so he could anoint the forehead of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy was standing beside the priest, her head bowed, her hands clasped across the front of her plum dress that was stained with blood which came from her husband’s head. Now this old priest held up his right hand and he began the chant that Roman Catholic priests have said over their dead for centuries.

“Si vivis, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis. In nomine Patris et Filio et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”

The prayer said, “If you are living, I absolve you from your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen.”

The priest reached into his pocket and took out a small vial of holy oil. He put the oil on his right thumb and made a cross on President Kennedy’s forehead. Then he blessed the body again and started to pray quietly.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,” Father Huber said.

“And let perpetual light shine upon him,” Jacqueline Kennedy answered. She did not cry.

The use of color was incredible in this piece: the plum dress, the white sheet and even the red blood. He also wove in the pre-Vatican II Latin version of the blessing and the other elements of prayer associated with Catholicism, something Kennedy himself had to often address as the first Catholic president.

In terms of the “Honor” story, Breslin gathers reams of tiny details that help paint the picture in vivid ways.

WASHINGTON — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does.


Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the 35th president of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Breslin has colors again: khaki overalls, yellow garages and a yellow reverse hoe. He also had the name of Pollard’s wife (Hettie), the name of his boss (Mazo Kawalchik) and even had Pollard’s nickname (Polly). Food again is mentioned by name (bacon and eggs) and his specific salary ($3.01 per hour) contrasts with the aristocracy surrounding the rest of the event. The details add the specific touches that tell the larger story.

When you go to a scene, profile a person or craft a narrative, look for the specific details that let your readers see what you see, hear what you hear and smell what you smell. Get the name of the dog that was barking, the brand of the beer the guy was drinking and the specific color of car the woman was driving. Even if you don’t end up using these things, it’s good to have them in case you need them.

Get out of the newsroom: Breslin talked a great deal about how he hated using the phone and how it wasn’t really a reporting tool. He would go places and meet real people who told him what was really going on. An African-American reporter who worked with Breslin told a story about how Breslin asked this guy to take him to the sketchiest dive bar for black people in the city because he wanted to tell the stories of the people there. The guy said he told Breslin that it might get ugly and Breslin would have no real protection there, but Breslin insisted. In the end, Breslin worked the bar like he did every other scene and had people telling him important stories all night.

It didn’t always work out well for him when it came to going places. In August 1991, the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn erupted into three days of rioting after a fatal car accident sparked tensions between the black and Jewish communities in the area. Breslin, then in his early 60s, took a cab down to the area to cover the melee, only to be dragged out of the car, beaten and robbed. The assailants also stripped him down to his underwear and trashed the cab. Still, he had no qualms about going down there and bristled at the notion that heavy punishment should be doled out to the young men who attacked him. It was his decision to go down there.

The phone, email and text messages often feel safer to newer journalists, even when life and limb aren’t on the line. However, you will never feel the tension of a scene over the phone, capture the sound of laughter over email or generally paint any picture worth painting via text.

As Breslin would have likely put it, get off your ass and get over there.

Don’t make stuff up: Calling the characters Breslin used in his columns “larger than life” would be a massive understatement. He talked about an arsonist he called “Marvin the Torch,” an art thief he dubbed “Rembrandt,” and “Fat Thomas,” an illegal bookie and maybe more. Breslin wove tales so rich with these characters and vivid description that some people argued that guys like “Fat Thomas” didn’t exist except in Breslin’s imagination. In true Breslin fashion, he told his detractors to head over to Costello’s Bar in Midtown, grab a drink with him and see for themselves.

Sure enough, there was Fat Thomas. And there was Marvin the Torch. And Rembrandt. And a bunch of other “There’s no way this guy is real” guys that Breslin wrote about. They were all exactly as Breslin had described them, even the 400-pound bookie who inspired Breslin to check into hotels in the South under the pseudonym, “Martin Luther Fats.”

The problem for those of us less-talented scribes is that we don’t have “those folks” about whom we can write. We lack access to wise guys, bookies, weirdos and other everyday people who create the rich tapestry of life. Because of that, our writing feels beige compared to the technicolor that Breslin could provide on a daily basis. That’s not an indictment of us, but rather a testament to Breslin.

Still, rather than accept these limitations and remain less vibrant than Breslin and others in his rare pantheon, many journalists have cut corners, exaggerated beyond reality and flat-out lied. There are the classic cases of Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, who created characters out of whole cloth in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley in the 2000s who fabricated content as well. Even well-meaning pieces rooted in a broader reality, such as the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” did more harm than good when a writer decided “color” was more important than “fact.”

The desire to find your own “Fat Thomas” is an admirable one that you should pursue doggedly. However, if your passion becomes an obsession, it can lead you to create an Ian Restil, a Jimmy or even a Jackie. Always remember that choosing to cheat like this rarely turns out well.




4 Feature Stories Inspired By Snow-Pocalypse

The weather out here is kicking us in the teeth and unless you’re a masochist or a polar bear, the frigid temperatures and massive snowfall aren’t thrilling to you, either.

That said, it gives us a good opportunity to consider what freelancer Jenna Glatzer once noted: If you open the aperture of your mind, anything can become a story. Sure, the standard weather stories are always part of news coverage, regardless of your media platform or geographic region. As a newspaper reporter, I think weather stories accounted for about one-third of my entire writing portfolio. How cold was it? How many accidents were there? How much snow fell? When was the last time it got this bad?

Sure, that can be exceedingly boring, but a wider aperture can bring in a few more stories of interest. Consider these ideas and see if you can come up with a few of your own:

SUPPLY RUNS: Grocery stores and gas stations become Ground Zero for panicked people who apparently decided to wait until the first flakes fell before figuring out that stocking the fridge might be a good idea. A narrative look at this real-life “Hunger Games” would be cool if you could spend some time at a store shortly before the snow hit.

If you can’t get ahead of the storm, a follow-up story on what tended to disappear fastest or what people tended to stock up on would be kind of cool to see. I have no idea why people grab things they wouldn’t normally grab when it looks like we’re stuck under a blanket of white for a while. Amy used to grab milk and bread, even though we lacked anything to put ON the bread and both of us are lactose intolerant.

When I went to the store today, I stocked up on comfort food: soup, mac ‘n’ cheese cups, Ramen, Hot Pockets, Diet Coke and snacks. The guy in front of me in line appeared to have a different approach to weathering the weather:


Seeing this guy unload his cart reminded me of a story a friend of mine once told about riding out a freak blizzard in Alabama one year on nothing but Twinkies and beer for about four days. If you are reading this and thinking, “There is no way that is true,” all I can say is you just have to meet Steve and it will all make sense.


BOOMING BUSINESSES: Speaking of people who need stuff, aside from the grocery store (and apparently the beer industry), which companies make money hand over fist in this kind of situation? Snow removal services are likely kept busy, but so are tow trucks and home-improvement stores where people can get shovels, salt, snowblowers, propane heaters and more.

A ride-along with a tow truck driver could be an amazing time if all goes right, or simply talking to service clerks about the two people who got into a brawl over the last Toro Snow Thrower could give you some neat anecdotes.


FRISKY BUSINESS: When Amy worked on the OB floor of a hospital, the nurses always joked about “snow babies.” When a blizzard hit and forced everyone off the roads and to shelter in place, the nurses would look nine months ahead on the calendar and immediately put in for their vacation, as they expected the delivery rooms to be overflowing with expectant mothers.

This could be an old wives’ tale or it could be a case of, “Well, honey, the cable is out…” but medical folks swear a surge of newborns come into play nine months after major snowstorms. It might be worth a look at this in your area to see if the hospitals are looking forward to a bumper crop of kids around October.


SCHOOL RULES: Does your school have an actual set of rules pertaining to when they cancel classes due to weather-related concerns? One weird question I have for UWO is that we always get emails saying that all the events are canceled on campus, but that “campus will remain open.” Why? Is this a way to force people on staff to use vacation if they want to stay home? Is it something regarding higher education rules pertaining to the campus needing to be open a certain number of days? Is it to keep the food services open for the kids in the res halls?

Also, what are the liability issues for the university in terms of bringing people to campus for work? Or for students, faculty and staff who might fall on snow-covered parking lots or slippery sidewalks? Something tells me most schools have some sort of legal coverage on this, or else half the students I know would be purposefully face planting around campus in hopes of getting out of paying tuition.


Hope these ideas help and that you get to stay safe and warm!

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