A Lack of Flo: A look at what can go wrong with an over-the-top approach to profile writing

Read the following opening to a story and see if you can identify what it will be about without relying on an internet search:

One needn’t eat Tostitos Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles to survive; advertising’s object is to muddle this truth. Of course, Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles have the advantage of being food, which humans do need to survive. Many commodities necessitated by modern life lack this selling point. Insurance, for example, is not only inedible but intangible. It is a resource that customers hope never to need, a product that functions somewhat like a tax on fear. The average person cannot identify which qualities, if any, distinguish one company’s insurance from another’s. For these reasons and more, selling insurance is tricksy business.

Once you give up, or cheat, click this link and prepare to be amazed.

Aside from the headline that mentions the topic, it takes more than 270 words (or approximately double what you’ve read to this point) to get a mention of Flo, the insurance lady for Progressive, and her alter ego, Stephanie Courtney.

In chatting online with several journalists and journalism instructors, I found a variety of opinions on the piece and the style of the writer, Caity Weaver. Terms like “quirky” and “brilliant” came up, along with others such as  “obnoxious” and “painful.” To give the writer and the piece the benefit of the doubt, I waded through this 4,600-word tome twice. In the end, I ended up agreeing with the second set of descriptors, but also found myself considering terms others hadn’t, such as “well-reported” and “solidly sourced.”

I learned a lot about Courtney/Flo in the piece and it really did a lot of things that good profiles should do: Inform and engage; provide depth and context; rely on various sources. It also did some of the traditionally bad things we’ve discussed here before: rely on first person; get too into the weeds on certain things; write for yourself, not your audience.

However, here are a couple areas in which this profile reached new heights/depths of god-awfulness that had me reaffirming my general hatred in this “self-important-author” genre:


OBSERVATION GONE WEIRD: One of the crucial things we talk about in profile writing is the element of observation, with the goal of painting word pictures in minds of the readers. In this regard, details matter, although I wondered about this level of detailed analysis:

Since appearing in the first Flo spot in January 2008, Courtney has never been absent from American TV, rematerializing incessantly in the same sugar-white apron and hoar-frost-white polo shirt and cocaine-white trousers that constitute the character’s unvarying wardrobe.

I am the first to admit that I’m not a clothes horse and that I have trouble telling black from blue. That said, I’d love to know how the author manages to distinguish “sugar-white” from “hoar-frost-white” from “cocaine-white” when describing Flo’s outfit. (My best guesses include that she was paid by the compound modifier or had massively consumed one of those elements before writing this monstrosity.)

Then there was this exchange about a purse that wasn’t:

Her purse immediately caught my eye: It appeared to be an emerald green handbag version of the $388 “bubble clutch” made by Cult Gaia, the trendy label whose fanciful purses double as objets d’art. Courtney handed it to me while rattling off tips for extending the shelf life of fresh eggs. It was a plastic carrying case for eggs, it turned out — eggs she had brought me from her six backyard hens. “Did you think it was a purse?” she asked merrily.

I’m trying to figure out what this was trying to tell me. My best guesses are:

  1. The writer wanted to weave in a product placement of some kind, in hopes of getting influencer swag.
  2. The writer sucks at fashion spotting as much as I do, in that she mistook an egg container for a $400 handbag.

The author clearly has the ability to observe and describe, but tends to use it in some of the strangest circumstances and for some completely unhelpful reasons. Like every other tool in your toolbox, if you’re going to use it, do it for a good reason (read: in some way that helps your readers).


FORCING A THREAD: The use of a narrative thread is something that can be extremely effective when it’s done well and done with a purpose. If you are writing about a forest ranger, for example, spending a day with the forest ranger in the woods, doing whatever it is that forest rangers do, can create a vivid set of experiences that provide a great thread.

The problem with this piece is that it lacks that kind of opportunity and is still trying to force a thread into the story. In this case, as with many cases, it’s a meal (or a coffee, or a drink) that serves as a thread, even as there’s no real reason for it.

This is how we get a chunk of the story like this:

In the absent glow of the patio’s still-dormant fire pit, Courtney and I considered the dinner menu, which included a small quantity of caviar costing a sum of American dollars ominously, discreetly, vaguely, alarmingly, irresistibly and euphemistically specified as “market price.” Hours earlier, my supervisor had told me pre-emptively — and demonically — that I was not to order and expense the market-price caviar. Somehow, Courtney learned of this act of oppression, probably when I brought it up to her immediately upon being seated for dinner. To this, Courtney said, “I love caviar,” and added that my boss “can’t tell [her] what [she] can have,” because she doesn’t “answer to” him, “goddamn it.” She charged the caviar to her own personal credit card and encouraged me to eat it with her — even as I explained (weakly, for one second) that this is not allowed (lock me up!).

Short version: I nuance-begged for caviar from a source and got it.

For reasons past my understanding, she then feels the need to add another 150-word chunk to explain what she did and why she did it and why it’s not an ethical violation:

Subsequently pinning down the exact hows and whys of my consuming a profile subject’s forbidden caviar took either several lively discussions with my supervisor (my guess) or about “1.5 hours” of “company time” (his calculation). In his opinion, this act could be seen as at odds with my employer’s policy precluding reporters from accepting favors and gifts from their subjects — the worry being that I might feel obligated to repay Courtney for caviar by describing her favorably in this article. Let me be clear: If the kind of person who purchases caviar and offers to share it with a dining companion who has been tyrannically deprived of it sounds like someone you would not like, you would hate Stephanie Courtney. In any event, to bring this interaction into line with company policy, we later reimbursed her for the full price of the caviar ($85 plus tip), so now she is, technically, indebted to me.

The author returns to the meal and such at frequent intervals, rarely with insight or depth that would aid in telling the story about Courtney or what her life has been like. It’s not a strong narrative thread and, at best, reads like someone who is describing a meal in an effort to expense it.


MEGA-DEEP-THOUGHTS CONCLUSION: The goal of a good closing is to bring a sense of finality to a piece that offers people a chance to reflect on what they have learned. Most writers struggle with this at some point in  time, as it’s not easy to create a sense of closure without either forcing the issue or sounding trite.

A  lot of students I’ve had who don’t know what to do use the “essay” closure where they try to sum up  the entirety of the piece in. In other cases, they do a “One to Grow On” conclusion, where they try to create some sort of morality  play that gives people a learning experience like these PSAs from the 1980s.

As God as my witness, I have no idea what the hell this conclusion was trying to do:

What sane person would not make the most extreme version of this trade — tabling any and all creative aspirations, possibly forever, in exchange for free prosciutto; testing well with the general market, the Black and the Hispanic communities; delighted co-workers and employers; more than four million likes on Facebook; and, though tempered with the constant threat of being rendered obsolete by unseen corporate machinations, the peace of having “enough”? Do we deny ourselves the pleasure of happiness by conceiving of it as something necessarily total, connoting maximum satisfaction in every arena? For anyone with any agency over his or her life, existence takes the form of perpetual bartering. Perhaps we waive the freedom of endless, aimless travel for the safety of returning to a home. Perhaps willingly capping our creative potential secures access to a reliable paycheck. Forfeiting one thing for the promise of something else later is a sophisticated human idea. Our understanding of this concept enables us to sell one another insurance.

I’m not sure if our earlier “guessing game” would have been easier or harder if we used this chunk of info as a “Can you tell what the story was about?” prompt. Either way, I’m still baffled by it as a closing or even a chunk of content.

I could make about 823 random observations about the entirety of this story, but if I had to boil it down to a couple basic thoughts, I’d go with this:

  • I think Weaver did a hell of a lot of good reporting here, which speaks volumes about her as a journalist. The things I got to learn in here really did engage and inform me about the subject of the piece and I’m better for having found them.  I would have enjoyed them more if I didn’t have to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” among all the rest of the stuff that was in here to find them.


  • This piece is basically Patient Zero for what happens when someone decides that their “voice” is a crucial element of a story and has somehow convinced themselves that readers are better served by their “unique flair.” A student once chastised me for editing out “the juice I’m bringing to this piece.” Save the juice for the grocery store and get the hell out of the story’s way.


  • I have often found that writers who go this direction of massively overwriting do so because they have convinced themselves of their own grandeur or because they lack confidence in their own abilities and thus bury the readers in verbiage as a dodge. Not sure which one is happening here, but the results are the same.


  • I’ve often equated this kind of writing to a “Big Mac vs. Filet Mignon” comparative. The steak is an amazing slab of meat, so all it needs is a little salt rub or something and it’s great. The meat on a Big Mac is grey disk of sadness times two, so that’s why McDonald’s slathers on pickles, lettuce, onions, special sauce and even an extra slice of bread to make it functionally decent. The more crap you have to pour onto something, the worse the underlying thing usually is.


  • A piece of this nature requires a lot of a reporter, but also a lot out of a reader. (This was tagged as a “21 minute read” and it took all of that and more.) When a  reader is asked to invest significant time into reading a story, the writer should do everything possible to maximize value and minimize waste. If you read the whole Flo story, ask yourself if you feel this was true of the piece.


  • And finally, if you think this blog post is long, realize it’s less than half the length of Weaver’s piece on Flo.


Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging with Xavier University

Had a weird moment recently when I got a notice from the folks at CustomInk who are producing the Furlough Tour T-shirts. The email said that there was an issue with the content and they needed me to call because it was too complicated for an email exchange.

I figured they wanted me to sign a release or have Jenny or Heather sign one for the artwork, as it clearly was original. Instead, I got a funny lesson on copyright and trademark infringement.

The problem was that I had included the names of the schools that were part of the tour, which was a big no-no.

“Unless you have a release from each of them, we’re getting sued and you’re getting sued,” the rep told me. “We’ve dealt with this before.”

“You mean I can’t even MENTION their NAMES?” I asked.

“Nope. You’re going to be sued.”

So, with that in mind, I quickly redid the back of the shirt to only include the cities in which said universities are located. (Someone suggested I misspell the names like University of Alabanana or something. With my luck, there would be a university named that and I’d get sued anyway…)

At least I can mention these places on the blog…

XAVIER UNIVERSITY – Cincinnati, Ohio

I loved the “X” thing here, especially after critiquing about 10 yearbooks where all the students seemed to be able to do was a “Thumbs Up” pose.

THE TOPIC: Profile writing and reporting

THE BASICS: Profile writing requires both in-depth interviewing and some strong observations. One of the most important things is to help the readers feel like they’re right there with you as you’re spending time with this person and learning about them.

We’ve covered the issues of reporters getting in the way of profiles before, using more “I’s” than Donald Trump writing an autobiography on a cocaine bender. The first-person crutch, as I call it, is based on a writer’s inability to feel confident in their scene-setting and interviewing abilities. Therefore, they try to turn what should be a solo performance for the source into a “1980s buddy cop movie.”

One thing that helps a lot in profile writing is to schedule a couple interviews with the source, each with a different angle on what you want to accomplish. Repetitive interviews allow you to have multiple bites at the apple when it comes to fact gathering, but it also allows you to feel less awkward with and more connected to your source. (Michael Lewis is one of my favorite authors and the guy has a TON of success painting word pictures for the readers. He spends hundreds of days with his sources, like disgraced FTX mogul Sam Bankman-Fried. We don’t get that same amount of time and grace, but a couple interviews won’t blow a deadline if you plan well.)

One of the things that came up in our discussion (or maybe it was a different one on profiles this week; my brain is turning into tapioca pudding right now…) was the idea of what happens when your approach to the story you want to tell runs head on into what you’re being told in your interviews. I noted that you might have an idea of what you want to publish, but you should be open to anything when you do your interviews and not try to make the subject something they’re not.

I remember reading something a famous sculptor said about his work and how he carved marble statutes and such. He said that the statue becomes what it is when you remove all the pieces of that giant chunk of marble that AREN’T the statue. In other words, the material guides you in what this will end up being. You just keep chipping away at the topic and it will become something.

The first interview gets you the meat and potatoes of the profile. This is where you ask the big ticket questions that help you gain a sense of who this source is and what makes them tick. It’s essentially knocking the big chunks of marble off the outside edges  to help try to define what the final piece will look like. During that interview, you should listen for things that you want to follow up on, pay attention for potential secondary sources that might come up during the interview and generally figure out what you’re looking at in terms of the basics of this person.

The second interview allows you to chip away more at the piece, asking questions based on what secondary sources told you in between the first interview and this one. (“I was talking to your buddy, Bob, and he said I should ask you about the ‘Banana Split Incident.’ What was that about?”) It also allows you to dig a bit deeper into specific areas you have found that really do matter to telling the story and that define who this person is.

The third interview is where you make those final touches that provide details and nuances as the final piece comes into shape. A lot of this can be done through observations: If colleagues said this person is really kind to everyone, it’d be great to see how they treated the lunchroom staff or the custodial crew. If a best friend explained how the source has this burning desire to win at all costs, it’d be nice to see how the source operates during a board meeting or a game of cards. The detail oriented profile can really paint some amazing word pictures for your readers.

One of the best pieces a student ever wrote for me had such great detail in it, I can still remember it decades later: A guy who was going to jail in the morning was cleaning out his apartment. The sound the rug sweeper made, the “specks of food and cat hair” it picked up, the throbbing vein in the side of his head… All of it comes back to me every time I think of that piece. And not once did he say, “I’m sitting in (SOURCE’S) apartment, watching him as he cleans the place up before going to jail.”

BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: What’s the secret to getting good interview material from a source when you want to go deeper on a profile?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: The key to all good interviews is being an active listener. As is the case with most interviews, I come in with a lot of prep work and some basic questions I want answered. I do this because I don’t want to be caught short or look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Paranoia has long been my best friend.

However, as we start getting into the interview, I’m constantly looking for moments where a source reveals something to me. I say it’s like when they open a door a crack and it’s up to me to decide if I want to peek inside. So when a source says something like, “I haven’t done that since 1983 and never plan to again,” they have given me a bit of a mystery, but they’ve opened a door that I can choose to open or ignore. Usually, the inner 4-year-old in me comes out and I’m asking, “Why?” In some cases, they’ll give me a great story that reveals more about themselves. In other cases, they might push it off with a “That’s a long story…” or say, “I don’t know. I just didn’t like it.”

Either way, at least I’m digging around.

Pay attention to what the source is saying (or what they’re not saying) during the interview and you’ll have more than a few doors to open.

NEXT STOP: University of Central Florida.


When Charissa Thompson fakes NFL reports, all sideline reporters take a whack to their credibility

This photo says so much and not nearly enough about what is going on in her mind in regard to being a serious sports journalist.

THE LEAD: Charissa Thompson, a sports journalist (remember that word), caught hell this week after she stated on a podcast that while she worked NFL games, she would make up her sideline reports on occasion.

“I’ve said this before, so I haven’t been fired for saying it, but I’ll say it again,” Thompson said. “I would make up the report sometimes because, A, the coach wouldn’t come out at halftime or it was too late and I was like, I didn’t want to screw up the report, so I was like, ‘I’m just gonna make this up.'”

She then explained there was no harm in anything she would say to audiences.

“No coach is gonna get mad if I say, ‘Hey, we need to stop hurting ourselves, we need to be better on third down, we need to stop turning the ball over and do a better job of getting off the field,'” she continued. “Like, they’re not gonna correct me on that. I’m like it’s fine, I’ll just make up the report.”

After every single journalist on earth seemingly did the obligatory “WTF?!?!” social media post, Thompson tried to walk this back with a more measured statement:

When on a podcast this week, I said I would make up reports early in my career when I worked as a sideline reporter before I transitioned to my current host role,” she said.

“Working in the media I understand how important words are and I chose wrong words to describe the situation. I’m sorry. I have never lied about anything or been unethical during my time as a sports broadcaster.

“In the absence of a coach providing any information that could further my report I would use information that I learned and saw during the first half to create my report. For example if a team was 0 for 7 on 3rd down, that would clearly be an area they need to improve on in the second half. In these instances I never attributed anything said to a player or coach.

So, if you’re following along at home, Thompson glibly did the “I’m so cool I can make stuff up and nobody cares” thing until she realized that EVERYBODY cares about the accuracy of sports journalism. Then, she did the “I chose my words poorly” thing, which is usually saved for when people make a career-ending comment and are desperately trying to save their careers.

DYNAMICS OF WRITING FLASHBACK: We’ve poked at sports journalism before about ethical breaches, blurring the line between reporting/fanboying and other similar things. We’ve also covered the issue of people in journalism making up quotes or sources when they didn’t really have the goods they needed to have in order to get stories they otherwise wouldn’t have.

It’s not a rare thing, unfortunately, to talk about people in journalism breaking the basic ethical codes of the field. It also seems to be in some of the dumbest possible circumstances, in that you rarely see a story like the one Jayson Blair made up about the D.C. Sniper and more so in situation where a reporter didn’t feel like asking a salt-of-the-earth pancake-eating source what they thought of inflation.

DOCTOR OF PAPER HOT TAKE: The first and most obvious thing is that, as a journalist, you don’t make stuff up. You can’t include the word “reporter” in your title and then pretend that the tenets of accuracy and honesty don’t apply to you.

When I look at the career of a sideline reporter, I can’t imagine a more difficult job because of who tends to fill it, how the world tends to perceive them and how hard they have to hustle. The majority of these reporters are women, and sports have never been too kindly to female journalists. The book, “Who Let Them In?,” does an amazingly and painfully detailed job of explaining what path-breaking women in sports journalism went through and what women in sports journalism still go through.

The television element adds the issue of physical attractiveness to the topic at hand. You might get a heavy-set guy with the remnants of a bad teenage bout with acne on the screen, but you’re almost assuredly not going to see a woman of a similar description.

One of the first women to have a nationally prominent role on an NFL television program was Phyllis George, a former Miss America. Critics pointed out that George had limited television and sports experience, and was intended merely as eye candy for men. Unfortunately, as viewers got a heavy dose of female reporters on the sideline over the years, each of whom was “visually appealing,” the rap on these journalists became that anyone who could successfully rock a “Hooters” uniform could probably do the job.

The fact of the matter is that these journalists have to hustle harder than their counterparts in so many ways and be ready for almost anything. As some reports on this topic mentioned, when Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field, the sideline reporters were the first and most direct line of communication to the public about his situation. When players are injured, when fights break out in the stands or when any other kind of bedlam takes place, these journalists are pushing for information and trying to keep the audiences informed.

When one person of a particular group (sideline reporters) breaks the code and kind of does it in a “oh, well, I’m not really a journalist anyway” kind of fashion, it hurts the remainder of the people in that group. That’s why you saw Laura Okmin, Andrea Kremer, Tracy Wolfson and dozens of other sideline reporters and female sports journalists coming out on social media to say, “We don’t make stuff up. Never. Don’t even think about it.”

Thompson’s actions and her disclosure in this fashion caused a great deal of harm to journalists who already have to work way too hard to be considered journalists at all, let alone equals of people who often have less journalism-based education and media training than they do. As we have seen in some of the other cases noted earlier, this is a firing offense and it should be.

‘Tis the Season to Avoid these Ho-Ho-Horrible Cliches in your Journalistic Writing (A throwback post)

Some things only need to be said once for people to get the message:

Y’know, the basics.

Then there are things that apparently need to be said repeatedly and they still don’t get through to people with anything short of a death threat:

We’re already getting our “Turkey Day” references in the media around here, along with some “‘Tis the season-ing” that will likely only get worse. With that in mind, we offer another reminder that you can actually write about holiday stuff without resorting to cliche…

‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking


The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out with Morgan State University

The Filak Furlough Tour took a stop at Morgan State University, where we covered a couple of really great topics in two classes. Milton Kent, the professor there, was extremely nice to me after I screwed up the name of his student newspaper in a post I wrote a while back, so I wanted to make it up to him and his crew as best I could.

In one class, we talked about some reporting and writing stuff while in the other, we talked about editing, fact checking and such. It was such a great time that I forgot to grab a screen shot photo for this.


Oh, well. You’ll have to take my word that I actually wore a different shirt.



THE TOPIC:  We went with a lot of Q and A in  the first class, and we’ve kind of touched on a lot of that already, so we’re going with  the second class a bit more, with the idea of how to edit and what to do.

THE BASICS: There are a couple key things that really help me when I need to edit something.  The first one is particularly helpful when I am trying to edit something I wrote.

Write, get the heck away from it, come back,  put on my “editor’s hat” and then go to work.

Editing right after you write something doesn’t tend to work that well in a lot of cases, particularly because you figure if you wrote it,  you probably figured it was right in the first place. It’s also hard to edit right after you wrote it, at least it is for me,  because my  mind kind of  “fills in” stuff that’s not there because I knew what I meant when I wrote it. That makes it harder to do a true word-by-word edit.

Getting away from the piece for a while can help you mentally reboot and come back at it with a fresh set of eyes. I also like to pretend a bit that this came from someone else, so I can be like, “OK, what the fresh hell is this?” Like most things when you’re working with writing and editing, you find little ways to make things  work for you. Once you find them, stick with them.

A couple other tips I liked to use:

ASSUME EVERYTHING IS WRONG:  One of the easiest ways to get something wrong is to assume everything is right and then  only check on things  that appear wrong. It’s a pretty  standard thing  editors who are strapped for time do. Editors who work with high-end pros a lot also tend to go this route, because  you expect stuff to be right if the person is a high-end pro.

Me? I work with a lot of students and I’ve read a lot of things that, while outlandish, tend to be true. I’ve also read stuff that seemed to be logical, only to find the kids made it up. This kind of weird confluence of experiences has put me in t he position where I just assume everything is wrong and I  have to go about proving it to be accurate.

For example, if a source said,  “I got arrested in  New York in  2004 for a string of burglaries and got sent to Smithton State Prison for 10 years. While I was there, more than 20 people got killed in prisoner on  prisoner violence.” I’ve got a lot to look at:

  • Can I prove the guy got  arrested and for what charges?
  • Can I prove the time and place of the arrest and conviction?
  • Can I  prove he went where he said he went and for that amount of time?
  • Can I  prove people got killed there and if so, can I prove the number of deaths?

The same thing is true of simple things like name spellings,  ages, job titles and more. Assume it’s wrong and prove it right.

SINS OF OMISSION ARE VENIAL, SINS OF COMMISSION CAN BE MORTAL: Going along with what we talked about above, if I can’t prove something is right, I’m probably not going to  use it.  This isn’t always possible.  I love going back to this argument in Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights,  Big City” where the main character (a fact-checker at a magazine) has a discussion with a notoriously sloppy writer:

“Where did you get this about the French government owning a controlling interest in Paramount Pictures?” you say.

“Don’t they? Well, shit. Run a line through that.”

“Your next three paragraphs depend on it.”

“Damn. Who told me that?”

In many cases, however, it’s easy enough to either check the fact and prove it so  you can  keep it in or  check the fact and disprove it so you can cut it. If you can’t do either, it’s better to leave the thing out than to  be wrong.

In writing, we talk about sins of omission and how they can undercut a piece. That’s true, but those sins,  to borrow from my Catholic upbringing, are  venial.  You can be forgiven for not being as complete as you need to be. If you screw up because  you guess wrong, those sins are mortal and you can pretty much kill a piece (or even your  career).

WHEN YOU  SCREW UP, ADMIT IT: Mistakes will happen. I think I make about 353,532 a day, and that’s when I’m only awake for 12 hours. The ones  you put  into the public sphere, however, can really damage your reputation among your peers and your audience.

The one thing I did when I talked to Milton Kent’s class was to apologize for screwing up the name of the school’s publication. I’d already fixed it on the blog weeks earlier and I made an email apology to Milton, but I wanted to let the kids know I was sorry as well. The goal was simple: Be a decent example.

It’s hard to feel OK about screwing up and it’s even harder to fess up when you make a mistake, but people tend to trust you more when you are honest and open about errors. Like most hockey goalies, even the best editors occasionally let one slip past  them. There’s no shame in raising one’s hand and saying, “That’s  on me.”

BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you think of  the situation with Hasan Minhaj and The New Yorker’s fact check of his comedy? He told some broader truths and after the  piece questioned  his accuracy, he did a video where he “brought the receipts” for what he said in his act. What’s your take on all this?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME (plus an update): (When  the student  asked me this, I’d read the New Yorker piece, seen some response pieces and heard the Bill Maher bit on this concept of “emotional truth.” I had not actually seen Minhaj’s response video, which I did explain to the class. After watching it,  I might have changed a couple things (which I’ll touch on after the main answer), but overall, I think the answer itself stands up.)

It felt kind of strange to me that a writer at The New Yorker would spend this kind of reporting capital on fact-checking a comedic routine. There did seem to be some problems with what he said in his comedy and the ramifications of those statements for other people.

(In one  part of his comedy that was examined by the writer, Minhaj mentions that he tried to take a white girl to the prom, only to be turned away at her doorstep because her family didn’t want her in prom pictures with a “brown boy.” According to the story the girl (now woman) and her family caught a lot of online harassment for this, even though it didn’t happen in that way, and she ended up marrying  another “brown boy” later in life. )

When you  make up stuff and it negatively impacts  real people, that’s not good, even if you’re doing it for comedic effect. Minhaj is operating in a world of comedy that’s different from the past days, as comedy and fact have become blurred. That means there is a greater risk when  you  bend the truth or play to broader issues with made-up examples.

Comics have always made up some parts of their act. The late Rodney Dangerfield notoriously made jokes about his wife cheating on him. (“When I come home, the parrot says, ‘Quick! Out the window!'” would be one of those.) While “Fat Albert” in Bill Cosby’s routine was based on a real person, there’s no real proof of people like “Mushmouth” or “Dumb Donald” existing. Richard Pryor, while turning significantly terrible aspects of his life into true comedy, did add elements to his comedy that didn’t exist or were untruthful.

(I’m not linking to any of Pryor’s stuff here, as I don’t want my editors at SAGE to have a heart attack. Speaking of which, one of Pryor’s go-to  bits was about how his father died, which is both truth and fiction. If  you look it up on YouTube, listen with headphones and don’t say I didn’t warn you…)

That said, those tweaks didn’t create significant negative impact for real people. If people had spray painted “WHORE!” on Dangerfield’s wife’s car or she got kicked out of her ladies at church because of his jokes, yeah, that’s something he’d need to answer for. If something terrible happened to “Fat Albert” because of Cosby’s comedy or significant harm happened because of Pryor’s tweaks to the truth,  the same thing applies.

Here were two things that stuck  out with  me about the Minhaj situation:

First, I’m not doubting that he experienced negative things like the ones he mentioned in his comedy  specials. The racism he discusses has been well documented in far too many facets of life for this to be viewed as just lies for the sake of a laugh. (Just like Pryor’s routine about being pulled over  by the cops because someone “looked just like you” probably didn’t happen the way he said it in his routine, I have no doubt he and others experienced that kind of thing and that it was terrible.)

Using humor to draw attention to social inequality and similar issues has merits. I think Minhaj just “punched up” a few of his real examples to make the comedy better while trying to make a bigger point. (I often joke about 12 years of Catholic school and getting battered about by nuns.  We did experience some significant smacking around and some emotional trauma from more than a few people, but it wasn’t all nuns and it wasn’t all the time.) Comedy creates awareness in some significant ways.

Second, I think that doing a deep dive on Minhaj just felt a little shady. There are hundreds of comics out there  talking about “real things” that weren’t 100 percent verified. For the sake of the exercise, go through this Jeff Foxworthy routine about his “Cousin Sherry’s Wedding.”

I have no idea of Foxworthy has a cousin named Sherry. If he does, I have no idea if she actually had a “hurry up wedding” in his Uncle Wayne’s backyard. I also don’t know if she was 8 months pregnant when she got married or, as his mother supposedly said, “That’s the same dress her mother got married in.” I found it funny, regardless.

But we could take apart that routine or a dozen others about his family (“The Clampetts go to Maui” is a classic for this kind of analysis) in the same way The New Yorker went after Minhaj if we wanted. Dare I say, we probably wouldn’t, which probably points toward the racial inequity Minhaj was trying to raise more than anything else.

POST SCRIPT: After I got done with the class, I went to find the video the student referenced that I hadn’t seen. Minhaj does a 21-minute video where he picks apart the article and explains  himself. He does apologize if he led anyone astray with his comedy, which I think is fair. I also think he’s probably more accurate than the New Yorker gave him credit for being. He “brought the receipts” in the form of emails, texts and other supporting evidence.

In most cases, he’s more right than wrong and where he did bend the truth, he made some solid explanations for why he did so. He also pointed to some of the spots where the article’s writer made choices that put a decided slant on how he was coming across. He’s not “emotional truthing” this thing to death, making claims that are untrue but feel like they should be. He realized some of the stuff he said could be a bit further out than maybe he intended initially, but he probably never figured someone would fact check him within an inch of his life.

If nothing else for me, this demonstrated the key principle I always try to push to my students: Before you make a decision, get all the facts you can.



Get the hell out of the way: How to avoid ruining profile stories by checking your self-importance at the door

In more than a few stops on the Filak Furlough Tour, folks have asked me to talk about news features and personality profiles. These appear to be among the most sought-after pieces in student journalism classes and student newsrooms while simultaneously being among the poorest written.

The openings tend to go one of two ways:

  1. “So and so is not your typical college student…”
  2. The “I… I… I…” approach that sounds like Donald Trump writing his autobiography on a cocaine bender.

With that in mind, I reached into the Wayback Machine and picked out a classic that looks at what to avoid while profiling people, specifically that the story is about the source, not you.

In short, get the hell out of the way and let the readers enjoy the subject.


Dear profile writers, Readers don’t give a damn about you, so get out of the story.

Personality profiles are among the best stories journalists will ever write. When reporters get the chance to enter the lives of the rich and famous, the eccentric and reclusive or even the “known but unknown” people around them, they can paint some amazing word pictures that will allow readers to gain incredible insight.

That said, journalists have ruined more than a few of these opportunities because they can’t manage to get out of their own way in telling the story.

Consider this opening of a profile on Woody Harrelson:

It’s a Saturday in June and I’m running on time to meet Woody Harrelson, but one subway delay, one wrong turn, one mother with a double stroller failing to keep pace and clogging the already clogged sidewalks of midtown and I’ll be running behind. Adding to my anxiety: the possibility that I have no voice, not so much as a croak (laryngitis, a bad case).

Brushing past a pair of doormen, I enter the lobby of a residential tower on the southwest tip of Central Park. I beeline for the elevator bank, press the up button, and glance at my phone. Two minutes after the hour. I’m now officially late. My pores open, sweat gushing out. At last, a muted ding as the doors slide apart. I board.

To calm myself, I pull from my bag a sheaf of clippings on Woody. The big takeaway of recent years: He spent his entire adult life cuckoo for cannabis and then, in 2016, gave it up.

In 164 words, the author references herself 12 times. Her subject? Twice.

Profiles recently have suffered from a lot of this kind of masturbatory self-importance, with the writers weaving themselves into the piece as being the one consequential element of the story.


The fact the writer is present should be considered both obvious and inconsequential: The readers came to this piece because they wanted to learn about the person being profiled, not about the writer.

In short, nobody cares about you. The more you find yourself verbally photo-bombing your way into the story for your own edification or out of sheer laziness, the more annoying you will be to your readers and the less valuable your piece will be.

This point became clear this weekend when several folks online were discussing a recent Adam Sandler profile that kept popping up in our news feeds. The opening wasn’t as self-absorbed as the one for the Harrelson profile, but it was similarly focused and similarly annoying:

We cruised down West Pico in Adam Sandler’s ride, a custom Chevy passenger van tricked out in the style of an orthopedic shoe. The cup holders jangled with suburban odds and ends — a pair of tiny glasses belonging to his daughter; a bottle of Dry-n-Clear ear drops. We were bound for Hillcrest Country Club, the oldest Jewish country club in Los Angeles. “You’re going to like this,” Sandler said. He whipped the van into the valet station. Alongside the row of town cars and coupes, it looked like an airport courtesy shuttle.

Compare this to the opening of Mary Jo Sales’ look at “Jon and Kate Plus 8” co-star Kate Gosselin:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu. She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

But Laurie Goldberg, senior vice president of communications at the Learning Channel, which airs Jon & Kate, doesn’t think Nobu’s such a great idea. Kate cried on the Today show this morning, answering questions about why she’s still wearing her wedding ring (“for them,” she said of her children, sniffling), and this afternoon she told People, “I am so emotionally spent” (from her husband’s behavior, which has included philandering with the daughter of the plastic surgeon who gave Kate her tummy tuck), and so it might not look good for her to be out enjoying herself at a hot spot.

“You’re like a prisoner,” Kate says of her newfound fame, annoyed.

Kate, who in the first season of Jon & Kate, two years ago, appeared on-screen as a dowdy, sweatpants-wearing mama hen, is now looking very much the celebrity—from her tanned, trained body to her curiously asymmetrical blond hairdo, now so iconic as to be the model for a popular Halloween wig.

Her phone rings. “Oh, it’s Kelly”—Ripa, of Live with Regis and Kelly—Kate says, holding up a French-manicured finger, signaling for us all to be silent. She’s going on the show tomorrow morning. She and Kelly gab. “Hiya!”

They both rely on description. They both open with a scene setter. However, while Sales puts the focus on the profile subject (Gosselin), Keiles seems to be writing a piece she wanted to call, “Adam and me.”

Keiles turns the focus on herself once again a few paragraphs after she and Sandler arrive at the club, explaining the story behind the story:

I started chasing Sandler in early 2017. His presence in my own childhood had been mythic — a Jewish cultural influence more imposing than anyone I’d ever learned about in Hebrew school. Thinking about the scope of his career, I was enchanted by the prospect of me, a person of modern and hardly coherent gender, grappling with America’s foremost man-child. I dispatched my editor to email his publicist. At night, from my apartment in Queens, I wondered if Sandman, from his mansion in the Pacific Palisades, was considering my offer.

We followed up. Time was marked by the arrival and deletion of my weekly “Adam Sandler” Google Alert, which detailed a still-persistent comedy career, achieved with infrequent engagement with the press. Soon he mocked me everywhere I went, his face staring down from the subway ads for his latest movie, “Sandy Wexler.” On Netflix, his new stand-up special debuted, and he did the late-night shows. I waited. Months turned to years. And just like that, the Google Alert started to spit out photos from a movie set: Sandler in a louche leather coat and diamond earrings, filming the indie thriller “Uncut Gems.”

Sandler had taken dramatic roles before, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film, “Punch-Drunk Love.” Then, as now, a question emerged: If he was such a good actor — and he was — then why did he keep making dumb comedies? This was a question I had long since learned that he resented, and in my pursuit, I had been careful to avoid it. Now it seemed the precaution had paid off. By some act of God — or, more likely, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting — we found ourselves together at last, standing in his country club, staring down the gallery of early Hillcrest members.

By this point in the piece, we are learning a lot more about the author than we are about Sandler. We learn about her pursuit of Sandler, Sandler’s influence in her life, how she got an editor to email Sandler, how she wondered if Sandler was considering her offer…

At this point, between the fawning and the overuse of first-person writing, I felt like I was reading a cross between my 14-year-old daughter’s diary and an autobiography Donald Trump wrote while on a coke bender.

Abiding by the theory of “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” I kept reading in hopes of learning something about Sandler that wasn’t tied to the writer.


To Sandler, everyone is “bro” or “buddy,” except for me; I was “kid.” Crossing the busy street that cut through the park, he rested a fatherly hand on my shoulder, then yanked it away, as if weighing the optics of touching a young stranger versus letting that same stranger be run over by a car.

Away from the street, we came across a guy absolutely shredding on the erhu. Sandler, who busked in the subway during college, stopped to throw some money in his hat, and I noticed the ease with which $20 seemed to float right out of his hand. I reckoned in that moment that a 20 to Sandler was probably something like $1 to me. Later, using dubious-but-still-plausible figures from CelebrityNetWorth.com, I calculated that his $20 was closer to my one one-thousandth of a cent.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Adam Sandler has a special nickname for the writer. (oooohhh…)
  • Adam Sandler makes more money than the writer. (So cool!)

I gave up at that point, only cursorily giving a glance at the close of the piece, where Keiles frets about being at a wrap party and wondering if Sandler will remember her. In other words, it ends as it began: All about the writer.

We could continue to beat the dead horse that is this profile, but Keiles is an exemplar, not the cause of this phenomenon. When I groused about a similar approach to a Megan Rapinoe profile, student journalists, professors, former reporters and more all chimed in:

THANK YOU. It’s been so hard teaching our new writers profile writing because they read stuff like this.

I remember this being a MUST DO when I took journalism classes in 1979!

Don’t even get me started with “I caught up with…” and “I sat down with…”

I 100% agree. I hate the inclusion of first person in these things They drive me nuts and ruin the story.

That first person writing drives me crazy!!! I don’t care how you first heard about the person…or how you had to travel to talk to them. You are not the focus of the article!!! It is (EXPLETIVE) lazy.

Based on all of this, consider the following helpful suggestions/concepts:

THE FRAME OF THE MONA LISA THEORY: The Mona Lisa is one of the best-known works of art on Earth. In writing about it for The Independent, John Litchfield called it “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world.” It serves as a metaphor for everything thought to be the best of anything and it is probably the most recognizable image ever created. I saw it in person about 20 years ago during our honeymoon trip to France. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still compelling in a way I can’t properly articulate.

Now, those of you who have seen it, tell me what the frame on the Mona Lisa looks like.

Chances are, like me, you have no damned idea what that frame looked like. Ask anyone you know who has seen it and they probably have no damned idea what it looked like. Nobody I know walked away from the Louvre saying, “Man, that chick was ugly but the FRAME! Now, THAT was something!” The reason? Nobody gives a damn what the frame looks like. It’s just there to display the artwork in a way that doesn’t detract from it or overshadow it.

Your job as a profile writer is to showcase the subject in a way that other people appreciate it. You display the individual in a fashion that helps the audience members connect to that person. You’re like the frame of the Mona Lisa: Hold up the painting for everyone to enjoy and get the hell out of the way.

SHOW, DON’T TELL: This is Journalism 101, but it bears repeating. If you want to let people know how great a game was, don’t tell them, “This was an awesome game!” Instead, show them what happened so that they independently come to the conclusion of, “Wow, this was an awesome game!” This is true in all kinds of journalistic writing, but it’s especially true in profile writing.

The descriptive nature of narrative storytelling should put your readers into a scene so they feel like they’re viscerally experiencing it for themselves. The distance provided by third-person writing often does this best, because it focuses the readers on the experience as opposed to the writer.

When you rely on first person, you basically are retelling an experience and that focuses the reader on you. Save that for Facebook posts, random blogging and roommates who ask, “So, how was your day?” For profiles, put me next to you at the scene and let me engage the situation as much as you did. That’s fun for both of us.

DON’T BE LAZY: Two of the comments above (one of them rather explicitly) mentioned the idea of how first person allows the writer to be lazy. Leads can be tough to write, so profile writers often resort to some version of, “I caught up with…”

Yeah, no kidding. Otherwise, how would you know whatever it is you are telling me? I’d give anything to hear instead, “I couldn’t catch up with (NAME OF CELEB) because I failed to do enough cardio. Thus, I’ll be making up this entire thing…”

First-person writing has its place: Columns, blogs, personal-participation pieces and several other spots in media. The question always should be, “Do I need to use it to make this piece work or not?” If you can get away without using it, you should aspire to do so for the reasons mentioned above. Consider this opening to a profile on former MLB pitcher John Rocker at the height of Rocker’s fame:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

The writer of this piece could have easily started with, “I’m in a car with pitcher John Rocker and I feel like I’m going to die.” Instead, the writing focuses on the subject and the situation. Even when Rocker is directly addressing the writer, first person never enters the mix. Still, we get the picture: John Rocker is a horse’s ass.

No profile is perfect in this regard. Even Gay Talese dropped in a few first-person moments during the legendary profile, “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” However, they are few and far between and limited to points where the writer NEEDS to do this instead of where it’s convenient or the writer can’t think of anything better to do.

Think of using first-person writing in a profile like being forced to take a Friday class that starts at 8 a.m.: It should be an unpleasant experience you only engage in when absolutely necessary. Even then, you should want to move on from it as quickly as possible.

Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out at Iowa State University (Part II)

It’s a weird thing seeing the cartoon version of yourself posted all over the place…

The Filak Furlough Tour landed in Ames, Iowa for a couple fun days of teaching classes and working with student journalists. This one was particularly neat for me because the first journalism teacher I ever had went here. Steve Lorenzo used to regale us with stories about his “sophomore year at Iowa State” when he would work for “The Daily.”

I remember one point where Steve did his “Back in (YEAR) when I was a sophomore at Iowa State…” thing and I chimed in with “Yeah, Steve, back in (YEAR) when I was in third grade…” I thought it was funny at the time because he was 30 and I was 19, but I have since gotten my “You Old” comeuppance, as students are now the same age as my kid…

Ugh. Let’s get on with Part II


Scientists aren’t sure what this represents…

THE TOPIC: Hanging out with the students at The Daily and learning about how they do student media.

THE BASICS: Student media has and will always have a spot in my heart. I loved working at the student media outlets like The Daily Cardinal and the Badger Yearbook when I was in school. I also really loved working with the kids at Mizzou, Ball State and UWO as an adviser, editor and whatever else. Students who take on student media have this thing about them that just makes me want to do everything I can to help them out.

(They also have a thing about them that makes Amy want to feed them constantly. We’ve done more than a few chili suppers, holiday dinners and other such “Eat! Eat!” events where we shovel food at them like it’s going out of style.)

The students asked a lot of good questions about how to find stories, how to make sure they’re covering the campus adequately and how to improve writing. The one thing that they asked that really hit home with me was this: How do you recruit and retain staff members?

Trying to find people to work at the various student media outlets I’ve worked with has been like trying to find volunteers muck out Port-A-Potties. They either refuse to come to work, agree and then bail or they try a little and leave. In most cases, students tell me they have too much other stuff to do, they don’t have the time in general or they “don’t plan to work for a newspaper. (That last one makes me crazy.)

Here are the best bits of advice I could come up with for the students there:

LOOK FOR SKILLS, NOT BODIES: In a lot of cases, we do the same thing we always do when it comes to recruiting: We go to the intro writing class, tell the kids there they need clips to get a job/internship and that we’re having a meeting that night. That can work in some cases but not most.

What we really should be looking for are skills that can benefit the newspaper and thus the readership, not people who seem to be majoring in the right field. So, start going to the places where those skills live.

You want better editorial cartoons? Check out the art department and see who has drawing classes you could talk to. Same thing is true if you want some different angles on photography.

You want some political coverage? Hey, poli sci people seem to grow on trees around most campuses. Everyone thinks they’re going to be the next political voice of a generation, so let’s see if they can make it work. This might be a great spot for coverage of the local student government, columns that deal with local politics or even a podcast that could give people a chance to hear about some topics they might otherwise miss.

Speaking of podcasts, see if there are people with interests in a field that would be willing to do one or two for publication on your site. Back when podcasting was really new, we had a couple kids who majored in science areas (I can’t remember what that major was, nor can I remember how we ended up with science kids in the newsroom… It might have been a fever dream…). They wanted to do a weekly podcast, so we let them. Turned out to be one of the better elements of our digital presence.

Think about the computer science or information services people who love computers for improvements to your digital end. Design folks might find an interest in reworking your color palettes or your home page structure. See who’s out there and bring them in.

LOOK FOR PROFESSORS WHO CAN BRIBE KIDS: One of the best bribes in the world is extra credit. I think I could probably solve world hunger if I had access to a big enough class and enough thirst for extra credit in it. Use that to your advantage.

Talk to professors in the media departments to see if they’d be willing to offer extra credit for various things that would benefit the newsroom. That could be getting a story they wrote for class published, working a copy desk shift for credit in an editing class, doing a ride along with sales reps for an ad/marketing class or a dozen other things. If so, you have a great opportunity to get some extra stuff for your publication while simultaneously getting fresh blood into your newsroom.

Sure, maybe those people only do one thing and leave, but you at least get a chance to convince them to stay. Even more, if the bug does bite them, you’ll have a staffer for quite some time.

SHARE YOUR PASSION: In going through this whole thing with the staff, I asked a bunch of them, “Why did you come to the Daily in the first place?” Most of them gave the standard answers: I needed clips, I wanted experience, It looks good on a resume etc.

Then I asked the second question: “OK, so why are you still here?” That one took a bit longer.

My point was this: If you came here for those clips and that experience, you have that already. A number of kids were there for several years. A couple actually had other media gigs they were working in the pro scene while still working at the Daily. If the goal was to get the goods, you are done. Leave. Move on.

The answer that they eventually came up with was the one that they didn’t think about every day but was as much of a part of them as their own hearts: They fell in love with this place and the people and even though there were days they’d rather eat ground glass than track down the head of student government for a stupid quote about a stupid thing, they found this place to be their home. They got a lot more out of this than just a line on a resume.

THAT is what you need to imbue in the newbies if you want them to come in and stay for a while. If you can connect with people when they come in, make them see what makes the place tick, help them understand what this place is beyond just a bunch of old desks and a whiteboard full of inside jokes, you’ll get them and they’ll hang around much longer than those who don’t see it.

It’s OK to love the place. Show them that and they’ll love it too.


I made a bat for the journalism school as part of the Furlough Tour Gift package and the people there really seemed to love it. They asked me to put the Jack Trice logo on it. If you don’t know who that is, well, I didn’t either but in learning about him, I was in awe. I was thrilled that they liked it:

When we passed it around the newsroom, I explained how and why the bat thing came to be. The EIC was really interested so I told him if he emailed me and asked for something specific, I’d do it. When I got back, I had the request:

Hello, it is Andrew Harrington from the Iowa State Daily. Thank you again for coming in to visit the Iowa State Daily, we learned a lot and had a great time.

People were extremely entertained by the bat that was brought in, and I was wondering if there was a chance we could get a bat with our logo on it sent to us?

Once again I appreciate it, and let me know either way.

Andrew Harrington

It wasn’t as hard as the mule from UCM, but it was a bit of a challenge. Still, I think it turned out OK. I asked if they wanted a slogan on it as well. I loved what they asked for:

NEXT WEEK: More stops…

Last Chance to buy a “Filak Furlough Tour” T-Shirt

Of all the things I’ve done with this blog, I have to admit, the most amazingly fun thing has been this Furlough Tour. I’ve got to meet all sorts of educators, talk to a ton of students I never otherwise would have met and burned a boatload of baseball bats.

When I pitched this idea, I jokingly said that if we sold out 11 days, I’d have tour T-shirts. Well, we ended up with almost three times that many stops (and good seats are still available if you want me to just randomly show up on one of my own days to do something fun for your class or newsroom).

The T-shirts were simply a promise kept, which is what I always try to do. When two really cool design folk got involved, they became my pride and joy. I don’t make money off these, but I’ve got to tell you, they make me smile every time I see them.

The order form closes tonight, so this is your last chance to buy a Filak Furlough Tour T-shirt.

Thanks for playing along with my lunacy. More tour posts will be coming up this week.

Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out at Iowa State University (Part I)

I think I only own one or two shirts. Also, I do not like my “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” profile…

The Filak Furlough Tour actually hit the road a few weeks back to drive out and visit a campus. Most people were fine with the “Vince on Zoom” experience, as it allowed them to shut me off and mute me when I got annoying. The good folks at Iowa State University knew me and decided that a couple days of me would be, at the very least, interesting.

Of all the campuses I’ve been on as a student, parent, faculty member and more, I found Iowa State to be among the best in terms of just feeling like it fit my personality. (I mean that as a compliment, not as a potentially libelous statement…) Nice people, smart kids, good questions and more. Totally worth the 4 a.m. car ride…



THE TOPIC: I did one class on finding stories and trying to come up with the best ways to tell those stories and one on sports journalism, sports marketing and DEI. Since I’ve done a lot on the issue of finding stories, we’ll go after the second one.

THE BASICS: This had to be one of the more interesting experiences I’ve had, in that the class was set up like a press conference, with the students driving the discussion on the topic and then live-tweeting the entire thing as they saw fit. The professor gave me the option of asking them not to record or put me on social media.

“Nah,” I said. “Let them do it. If I say something pathologically stupid, that’s my fault.”

Thus began my life on a tightrope for an hour or so…

One of the key things we discussed was the way in which race, gender and other similar issues get covered in the media. We talked a lot about how the “oddity” interest element tends to get played up when it comes to those topics. It’s often stories about “The first (fill in the blank) to do (job white guys have done for forever)” instead of “Here is a person who brings XYZ skills and valuable elements to the (job).”

I apparently made this case about not being at a point of equity yet in a truly “me” way:


A student asked me how we could get closer to that kind of thing, both in terms of news/sports coverage and in terms of sports marketing. I think the key is to look at the person first and what it is that makes the person worthy of focus. It could be an athletic skill set or their personality or a dozen other things. Then, help that person tell the story they want to tell about themselves, rather than focusing on whatever quick and easy distinction we can make, whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation or whatever:

The important thing to understand is that nothing gets done in an instant. That doesn’t mean we should accept mediocrity when it comes to making progress, nor should we say, “Well, that’s good enough for now.” However to fail to see that things have come a decent distance over a protracted period of time is to diminish the value of the people who worked and fought to get as much improvement as we have gotten to this point.


BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: What did you think of how Coach Prime dealt with the media and how the media was dealing with Coach Prime?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: Deion Sanders has always been very much his own person and has not really given a damn what other people thought of him the sense of if he was being “too much.” (Whatever the heck that means.) He was never going to come to college coaching and suddenly turn into a “We gotta play them one day at a time… I’m just glad to be here…” kind of person. He is who he is and he’s comfortable in his own skin, which I think is fantastic.

The person that I most thought of when I saw his situation in Colorado was Muhammad Ali: He was brash, confident and not afraid of telling people what he thought. In doing so, he ruffled a lot of feathers of people who didn’t like his approach. It was like the media was waiting for him to fail so they could say, “See? You’re not all that. Now sit down and shut up.”

That’s never going to happen. He will continue to be who he is throughout the process. Even if you don’t like him as a person or find him to be annoying on those Duck commercials, you gotta respect the sense of self he has and the way it can inspire and raise up his players.


ONE LAST THING: I saw these advertised in the campus bookstore.

Despite my best efforts, Amy wouldn’t let me come home with a pair of these.

Helpful Hints and Tips on Writing Obituaries (A Throwback Post)

Former basketball coach Bob Knight died this week at the age of 83. His family released the information on Wednesday, noting he had been in poor health for some time.

Actor Matthew Perry died over the weekend at the age of 54. Police reports state he drown in a hot tub at his home.

Both men were well-known and both men accomplished a good amount of incredible things. Knight won three NCAA championships and won more games than anyone in history when he retired. He was a hall of fame inductee and coached the last undefeated NCAA D-I college basketball team (the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers). Perry was an award-winning and Emmy-nominated actor, who had multiple film roles and published a best-selling memoir.

Both men had demons. Knight’s temper was always his undoing, whether it was throwing a chair across the court during a game or choking a player during practice. He was also hostile and belligerent in dealing with almost everything on earth at one time or another. Perry’s drug addiction was well chronicled in his book, “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing.” Between huge weight swings, rehab and trying to find dozens of opioids each day just to keep himself going, Perry made life extremely difficult on himself and others around him.

These two deaths made me reach back into the Wayback Machine and pull up this throwback post about obituary writing. To write about either without showcasing all of their best and worst aspects would be disingenuous and inaccurate. When we have to write about people who have died, keeping that in mind is crucial:


Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

In a discussion among student media advisers, one person noted that obituaries are probably the second-hardest things journalists have to do frequently. (The hardest? Interviewing family members about dead kids.) When a person dies, media outlets often serve as both town criers and official record keepers. They tell us who this person was, what made him or her important and what kind of life this person led. This is a difficult proposition, especially given that people have many facets and the public face of an individual isn’t always how those who knew the person best see him or her. Couple these concerns with the shock and grief the person’s loved ones and friends have experienced in the wake of the death and this has all the makings of a rough journalistic experience.

The New York Times experienced this earlier in the week when it published an obituary on Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. The Times produced a news obituary that focused on multiple facets of Monson and his affect on the church. This included references to his work to expand the reach and the population of its missionary forces as well as his unwillingness to ordain women and acknowledge same-sex marriages. The obituary drew criticism from many inside the church, leading the obituary editor to defend the choices the paper made in how it covered Monson. (For a sense of comparison, here is the official obituary/notification of death that the church itself wrote for Monson.)

You will likely find yourself writing an obituary at some point in time if you go into a news-related field.  Some of my favorite stories have been obituaries, including one I did on a professor who was stricken by polio shortly after he was married in the 1950s. I interviewed his wife, who was so generous with her recollections that I was really upset when we had to cut the hell out of the piece to make it fit the space we had for it. Still, she loved it and sent me a card thanking me for my time.

Some of my most painful stories have also been obituaries. The one that comes to mind is one I wrote about a 4-year-old boy who died of complications from AIDS. His mother, his father and one of his siblings also had AIDS at a time in which the illness brought you an almost immediate death sentence and status as a societal pariah. I spoke to the mother on the phone multiple times that night, including once around my deadline when she called me sobbing. Word about the 4-year-old’s death had become public knowledge and thus she was told that her older son, who did not have AIDS, would not be allowed to return to his daycare school. Other things, including some really bad choices by my editor, made for a truly horrific overall situation in which the woman called me up after the piece I co-wrote ran and told me what a miserable human being I was. She told me the boy’s father was so distraught by what we published that he would not leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me responsible for that. Like I said, these things can be painful.

No matter the situation, there are some things you need to keep in mind when you are writing obituaries:

  • Don’t dodge the tough stuff: Your job as a journalist is to provide an objective, fair and balanced recounting of a person’s life. The Times’ editor makes a good point in noting that the paper’s job is to recount the person’s life, not to pay tribute or to serve as a eulogist. This means that you have to tell the story, however pleasant or unpleasant that might be. One of my favorite moments of honesty came from hockey legend Gordie Howe who was recalling the tight-fisted, cheap-as-heck former owner of the Detroit Red Wings:

    “I was a pallbearer for Jack,” says Howe. “We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he’s … a dead, miserable sonofabitch.’”

    It’s not your fault if the person got arrested for something or treated people poorly. If these things are in the public record and they are a large part of how someone was known, you can’t just dodge them because you feel weird. Check out the Times’ obituary on Richard Nixon and you’ll notice that Watergate makes the headline and the lead. As much as that was likely unpleasant for the people who were closest to Nixon, it was a central point of his life and needed to be discussed. In short, don’t smooth off the rough edges because you are worried about how other people might feel. Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.


  • Avoid euphemisms: This goes back to the first point about being a journalist. You don’t want to soften the language or use euphemisms. People don’t “pass on” or “expire.” NFL quarterbacks pass and magazine subscriptions expire. People die. Also, unless you can prove it, don’t tell your readers that the person is “among the angels” or “resting in the arms of Jesus.” (Both of these euphemisms ended up in obituaries I edited at one point or another. They obviously didn’t make it to publication.) Say what you know for sure: The person died.


  • Double down on accuracy efforts: People who are reading obituaries about loved ones and friends are already on edge, so the last thing you want to do is tick them off by screwing up an obituary. I don’t know if this was just a matter of newspaper lore or if it was a real thing, but I was told more than once at a paper where I worked that there were only two things that would get us to “stop the presses:” 1) we printed the wrong lottery numbers and 2) we screwed up an obituary.
    True or not, the point was clear to me: Don’t screw up an obituary.
    Go back through your piece before you put it out for public consumption and check proper nouns for spelling and accuracy. Do the math yourself when it comes to the age (date of birth subtracted from date of death) and review each fact you possess to make sure you are sure about each one. If you need to make an extra call or something to verify information, do it. It’s better to be slightly annoying than wrong.


  • Accuracy cuts both ways: As much as you need to be accurate for the sake of the family, you also need to be accurate for the sake of the public record. This means verifying key information in the obituary before publishing it. The person who died might told family and friends about winning a medal during World War II or graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School. These could be accurate pieces of information or they could be tall tales meant to impress people. Before you publish things that could be factually inaccurate, you need to be sure you feel confident in your sourcing.
    Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be shaking the family down for evidence on certain things (“OK, you say she liked to knit. Now, how do we KNOW she REALLY liked knitting? Do you have some sort of support for that?”) but you should try to verify fact-based elements with as many people as possible or check the information against publicly available information. Don’t get snowed by legends and myths. Publish only what you know for sure.


  • Don’t take things personally: Calling family, friends and colleagues of someone who just died can be really awkward and difficult for you as a reporter. Interviews with these people can be hard on them as well as hard on you. I found that when I did obituaries, I got one of three responses from people that I contacted:
    1. The source told me, “I’m sorry, but I really just can’t talk about this right now.” At that point, I apologized for intruding upon the person’s grief and left that person alone.
    2. The source is a fount of information and wanted to tell me EVERYTHING about the dead person. I found that for some of them, it was cathartic to share and eulogize and commemorate. It was like I was a new person in their circle of grief and they wanted to make sure I knew exactly why the person who died was someone worth knowing.
    3. The source was like a wounded animal and I made the mistake of sticking my hand where it didn’t belong. I have been called a vulture, a scumbag and other words I’ve been asked to avoid posting on this blog. One person even told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right” because I had the audacity to make this phone call. I apologized profusely and once I hung up, I needed a couple minutes to shake it off. I knew it wasn’t my fault but it wasn’t easy either.

Your goal in an obituary is always to be respectful and decent while still retaining your journalistic sensibilities. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you do an obituary well, you will tell an interesting story about someone who had an impact on the world in some way. I like to think a story about this person who died should be good enough to make people wish they’d known that person while he or she was alive.

An Update on The Filak Furlough Tour: Hanging out with William Paterson University

QUICK UPDATE: The “Filak Furlough T-shirts” are live and have a few days left on their ordering clock. If you want to order one, here’s the link and here are the shirts:

Thanks to about a dozen random things, I fell behind a bit on the Furlough Tour updates. Part of it was we did a lot of stops in a short period of time and the other part of it was catching up with work after being furloughed. There’s something weird about having work pile up while you’re not allowed to touch said work. I think this is what vacations must be like for normal people…

In any case, it’s good to be back and we’re starting off on the East Coast with…

William Paterson University – Wayne, NJ

I think I was happy here because I didn’t see the kid wearing the Yankees sweatshirt until after the photo was taken. 🙂


THE TOPIC: What kinds of stories are out there and how do we find them?

THE BASICS: The students had some great story ideas when it came to things going on around them at the school. The one that sticks in my mind is about a woman who lives on or around campus and she takes care of stray cats that are around the area. (It was more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of what my age-addled brain can remember at this point.)

The other students had ideas that percolated from things they had seen every day as well, which is a pretty good way to go about finding stories: Open the aperture of your mind and look at the things going on around you as potential story ideas. In that way, if something is of interest to you, it’s probably going to be of interest to other people.


BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: One of the key issues that the person working on the cat story brought up was how best to make sure that she wasn’t exploiting the woman or portraying her in a way that might be offensive to her. How can a journalist tell a story about someone like this without potentially damaging that person?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: This is a good sign of a good reporter who is growing into their role in the business. Far too often, we think, “Get the story!” instead of “How can we do this in a way that causes the least amount of damage?” In many cases, we learn a lot by screwing up in that way, but it’s so much better for everyone concerned if we can avoid screwing that up in the first place.

One of the key things to do is to spend time with the source and get a handle on how that person feels about the story, the concept and the approach you want to take. In some cases, like crime or politics, this isn’t really a thing, in that the facts and the public’s right to know might outweigh how a criminal or politician would like to be portrayed. However, in the case of a feature story on a private individual who has no duty to be in the public eye, it’s important to make sure you think about these things.

If your approach and the person’s general sense of the situation match up well, it’s easier to move forward. If they don’t, you can either try to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing to that source, or you can see if that person’s thoughts should reshape your approach to the content.

At the end of the day, you want to consider if the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to doing the story and the potential collateral damage that could come with it.

NEXT STOP: Iowa State.