Gone Fishin’: Taking in a final breath of summer

I’m sure most folks are done with their summer courses at this point and the fall hasn’t started for a good many of you yet. (We start after Labor Day. I know some folks start in a week or so.)

With that in mind, I’m going to take a week off and enjoy the last bit of summer we have. I’m probably going to refinish some furniture and work on the Mustang. I hope you find a way to have as much fun with your time as I’m going to have with mine.

See you back Aug. 20!

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

Connecticut’s “vexatious” standard for open record requests should scare the hell out of student journalists

The state of Connecticut recently passed a law that allows public agencies to deny open records to any citizens the agencies feel are pests. Although the legalese is a bit more nuanced, this news piece captures the core of the law:

Citizens who routinely and repeatedly file Freedom of Information complaints over thin reasons are the subjects of a new law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy June 7.

House Bill 5175 — An Act Concerning Appeals Under the Freedom of Information Act and Petitions for Relief from Vexatious Requesters — gives additional authority to the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether a FOIA request or appeal is vexatious and if so determined, grant relief to an aggrieved municipality or public agency.

An agency may petition the commission for relief from someone the agency alleges is a vexatious requester. Upon receiving the petition the commission shall determine whether, given the allegations, a hearing is warranted.

If it is determined that no hearing is warranted, the commission can dismiss the petition, said state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), who voted for the bill. If, after a hearing, the commission determines the request rises to the level of a vexatious requester, it can grant relief to the municipality or public agency. That would allow a municipality or public agency to not respond to their requests for a period of a year, she said.

The term “vexatious” sounds like something predatory, but as the Student Press Law Center’s coverage of the topic explains, it simply means anyone “who repeatedly attempts to get information from their government through frequent or voluminous requests.”

(So, so, so sorry to “vex” you m’lord…)

This should scare the hell out of you as a student journalist, even if you don’t live in Connecticut. The idea of “how much is too much” is now in the hands of people who don’t want to tell you things, thus giving them a leg up in potentially punishing you for your requests. Also, if one state does something and it turns out to be a really bad idea that punishes journalists and gives people the opportunity to hide their weaseldom, it’s a safe bet a few other states are likely to try this thing. Keep an eye out in your state for similar bills that might wander into the statehouse.

Frank LoMonte, who has worked for and with SPLC for years, noted that the vague language in that definition, as well as the lack of any measurable to quantify the difference between “vexatious” and simply being a pain in the keester of a record keeper, makes this law a serious problem:

“While a journalist making legitimate use of FOI requests shouldn’t ever have to worry about being categorized as ‘vexatious,’ the Connecticut law doesn’t give adequate guidance about what makes someone a ‘vexatious’ requester,” LoMonte said. “Basically if a school district or a college got tired of a particular reporter, they could petition to have the person banned from making future FOI requests on the grounds that their requests were too frequent. But there’s nothing in the law that specifies whether thirty requests a year, or three, is regarded as too many.”

When I saw this, I remembered a student I had in Indiana named Justin Hesser, who started as the Ball State Daily News working as a quiet, unassuming sports reporter. During one summer, he made an open records request on some documents pertaining to a beef the school was having with its custodial and food employees. He dug into meeting minutes, agendas and all sorts of emails to find out what was going on with a contract dispute. The story itself turned out to be relatively pedestrian, but Justin was hooked on FOIA.

He started digging into tons of stories on campus, using the open records law to shine a light into all manner of dark corners at the university. He looked at allegations of sexual harassment, NCAA violations and more. My favorite story was the time he unearthed a $44.5 million “slush fund” the university developed based on unused student meal money. The best quote of the story came from Jon Lewis, the director of dining services, who admitted the whole thing was rigged against the students:

“If there’s not that much forfeited money we’d have to charge the students more so that we could put that money in the surplus,” Lewis said.

I had a meeting with the head of PR for the university at one point to talk about something or other, but the first words out of her mouth were: “You have to get a handle on this Hesser kid.”

Why? He’s not doing anything illegal. He’s actually doing his job better than a lot of journalists.

“He’s turning in like three requests a day!” she told me. “And he’s WALKING THEM IN!”

Justin had found a neat part of Indiana law that stated requests anyone mailed, faxed or emailed in gave the record keepers seven days to respond. However if the requester physically presented the request (as in walked it over to the record keeper and hand it it to him or her), the agency had to time stamp the request and reply within 24 hours.

So, he wants you to abide by the law?

“We have to respond within TWENTY FOUR HOURS!” she yelped at me, as if her tone would somehow convince me that Justin was doing something wrong. “We don’t have the personnel to do that for EVERYONE!”

I told her he was abiding by the law and that it wasn’t his fault she felt overwhelmed by a college kid filing FOIA requests out of a student newsroom. She couldn’t just deny his requests out of convenience. However, if this new Connecticut law was the rule of the land, this is exactly what could happen.

The concept of open records is the idea that citizens have the right to access documents to understand what public agencies are doing for them and to them. Record keepers have been trying to cut into those rights in a variety of ways, such as requiring requesting parties to pay exorbitant fees and delaying the fulfillment of the requests until the information the documents contain would be old news. In other cases, the records are so heavily redacted (where the record keeper “blacks out” portions of the text for a variety of reasons) they are essentially worthless.

(A quick post-script: Justin Hesser graduated from Ball State, to the relief of the university’s PR department, about a year after that meal money story ran. He went on to study law at the University of Wyoming and is now an attorney and a partner in a Cheyenne, Wyoming, law firm.)

Grave digger, cheese maker, bartender and amazing writer: Thoughts, insights and tips from George Hesselberg

George Hesselberg always fascinated me.

Hess, as he was affectionately known around the Wisconsin State Journal newsroom, retired from the State Journal in 2017 after 40 years at the paper, but his employment experience went far beyond that of the traditional ink-stained wretch.

According to his own recounting, he “worked as grave digger, night watchman at the Norwegian telephone company, bartender, translator at the Norwegian State Department, sign painter, stage hand, cheese maker, tin roofer.” Also, he spent his grade-school years working for the Bangor (Wisconsin) Independent, a weekly newspaper writing up the 4-H club meetings and the high school baseball games.

Hesselberg was a prolific writer and storyteller, the kind of journalist you always want to imitate for the simple reason that it would be impossible to do so.

His desk sat next to one of the few tiny windows in the newsroom, stuffed in an area away from the prying eyes of editors. His hours appeared to me to be random and his stories always called to me first when it was time to proof the first edition on night desk. The mug shot that accompanied his columns stared back at me with a confident, yet impish, smile that said to the readers, “Can you believe this?”

Even in retirement, Hesselberg continues to find those “Can you believe this?” stories that other people tend to miss. Case in point, in perusing the Sunday obituaries this week, he ran across a story of a 95-year-old man whose time in the military during World War II received only a passing mention. Hess dug in and posted his findings to Facebook:

Hess1Hess2

Hesselberg explained in an email how he developed the skill of finding these kinds of stories that would otherwise have remained hidden.

“There has to be more to this,” he wrote. “What am I missing here? Does anyone else have any interest in this and why? Will this help someone figure out what happened? Then go after the details… I think I developed this to survive while on the cop beat. There were several police reporters in Madison when I started and the competition was keen. I looked for something nobody else had… I read the fine print, always. I read the legal ads, I read the obits.

Hesselberg also wrote the obits, and he did so in a way that typified what I tell students: Your story should help readers learn about someone in death that they wished they’d known about in life.

“Imagine trying to tell a reader why he or she should care about what you are writing,” he said. “Go to Facebook and search ‘Hesselberg obituaries’ I have been posting my favorites over the years. Note the majority are about ordinary people, not captains of industry. A favorite is one I wrote after riding along with the coroner to a death call and finding a suicide. Newspapers don’t write about suicides, but this one has some good elements for a young reporter to notice. There are lots of interesting details, including the very last line.”

HessObit.jpeg

SIDE NOTE: My favorite obit was probably the one Hess wrote for himself and placed into his own clip file in the newspaper’s morgue. Hesselberg’s detail-oriented piece included his cause of death (stabbed in the back by management) and the way he was interred (his body was found in Lake Wingra, tied to a typewriter).

A knack for locating details and a penchant for critical thinking helped Hesselberg find stories where no one else would even think to look.

“When something doesn’t make sense, it is a story,” he said. “I try to find out something that nobody else knows, about any topic, from a cop brief to a series on cemetery plot swindles. (called ‘reloads’)”

Hesselberg’s ability to write for his readers endeared generations of Madisonians to him, as he not only found those “nobody else knows” stories, but he told them in a way that connected with his audience. (“There is a fine line that should not be crossed between telling a story and lecturing the reader,” he wrote.) The State Journal’s reach spanned the state’s capital city and towns of fewer than 1,000 people, which provided him a cornucopia of people with myriad interests.

I have to remind myself that not all readers are alike,” he said. “This is one reason I liked journalism on a daily newspaper: It was filled with all manner of news written in all styles about all subjects. I try not to assume I know what a reader already knows, and that makes a reporter write simply.”

In that same vein, the big question for Hesselberg had to do with helping my readers: How can students who are just starting their career tap into their own potential like you did and tell stories that engage readers? Or, put another way, what can students do to “make it” in this field? Just like his life and his writing, his answers included a wide spectrum of insightful ideas. Enjoy:

  • “Trite, but: Ask one more question of one more person. Doesn’t cost anything to ask, ever.”
  • “I wish I could remember the name of the editor who, when I rushed in to write on deadline and was trying to convey my enthusiasm on a topic, merely said: ‘Surprise me.'”
  • (As managing editor Cliff Behnke said,) “Get the name of the dog.”
  • “Go to the scene whenever possible. Even if it is after you had to write a breaking story. You never know what you might find.”
  • “A young reporter who asks for help in understanding an issue is going to be a good reporter.”
  • “Just because something has been done one way for 30 years does not mean it should be done that way now. Find a different way. (Editor Chris) Drosner made an unwittingly brilliant move in 2010 and told me to write the Jimmy the Groundhog story, which became my favorite three-paragraph bylined story ever.”
  • “There is no cheat sheet. Also, since you asked:  Don’t wait, learn a second language and study a third.”
  • “An editor is a necessary evil.”
  • “Be nice.”

Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

As the finishing touches take place on the next book in the “Dynamics” series (Dynamics of Media Editing), I thought it would be a good to give you a peek at a key area of writing and editing that often goes overlooked: Holes.

The idea of a hole is simple: It is the absence of something that should be there to make an item complete. A hole in a shirt, a hole in the yard or a hole in your story all fit that same basic premise. The goal of good writers is to fill in the holes that exist to keep your readers fully engaged and fully informed.

Or as we might say elsewhere, “Don’t leave me hanging, bro…”

Here’s a clip from the editing book so you can get a better sense of how this all works and how to fix it:

Filling holes

A hole in copy is when a writer raises an issue that interests a reader but doesn’t provide enough information to satisfy that interest. Editors develop an intuitive sense over time as to where holes exist and what is required to fill them. Here are some simple examples of holes and how to fill them:

 

A question with no answer: Writers often spend enough time working in a specific area of interest that they start to understand things that go beyond what readers will intuitively know. It can be jargon, historical references or “inside baseball” issues, and in most cases, the writer will assume that others know these items as well. A hole can develop in a story when a gap emerges between what the writer knows and what the readers do. Here’s an example:

Francisco Smart took over as San Antonio’s mayor six months ago, completing the end of his predecessor’s term.

This situation raises several questions including:

  • Who was the predecessor?
  • Why was he/she unable to complete the term?

You can easily fill in the hole with a simple edit:

Francisco Smart, who is completing Carol Jafkey’s term as San Antonio’s mayor, took on his current role six months ago when Jafkey moved to Arizona.

This might raise additional questions, such as “Why did Jafkey move to Arizona?” That said, you have plugged the bigger holes and you can address the additional questions later.

Any time you see a statement that has you asking a question that the writer hasn’t answered later in the story, you need to acknowledge the presence of a hole and find way to fill it.

 

An accusation with no response: News traditionally requires balance, but that’s not just an ideal associated with newspapers. Unless you want people to see you as a slanted source of information, you need to look for fairness when you are editing. In some cases, a source will fire a shot across the bow and accuse someone else of something nefarious. The first question you should ask is if that accusation needs to be in your piece in the first place or if it’s just a cheap shot that lacks value. If it merits inclusion, see what truth there is to that accusation or afford the accused an opportunity to respond so you don’t end up with a hole like this:

 

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement.

 

The accusation is pretty serious, so make sure you don’t just let it linger:

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. In each of those cases, the court has dismissed the case as being without merit.

OR

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. Wood testified in court each time that this was nothing more than a friendly poker game that Lazlo detested because he was not invited to participate.

The goal is to make sure that you don’t leave the door open on an accusation when you can easily close it and give your readers a more complete version of the truth.

 

An “oddity” with no context: Oddity is an interest element that writers often emphasize in their work to give readers a sense of how special an outcome or issue is. However, when a writer fails to provide context for that information, the readers often feel lost or don’t have a full appreciation of this rarity. Here’s an example:

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds pitched an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time in major league history that a pitcher accomplished this feat.

 

A couple questions are left unanswered here:

  • Who did it first?
  • When did he do it?

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds threw an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time since 1940 that a pitcher accomplished that feat.

Or

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis joined Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians as the only pitchers to throw opening-day no-hitters in major league history.

However, to plug both holes, you need to reconsider the approach a bit:

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis became the second player in the last 78 years to throw an opening-day no-hitter, joining Cleveland’s Bob Feller who first accomplished the feat in 1940.

That plugs both holes and helps the readers understand the rarity of the feat.

Any time you have an oddity, you run the risk of having a hole in the story. Make sure you edit to provide context and meaning to help your readers more fully understand the magnitude of what you want them to know.

 

Finish the Game: Why Emily Bloch is my hero (and should be yours, too)

In your collegiate career, professors like me tell you that you should work hard, play by the rules and seek a job that makes you happy. We tell you that the job is your reward for all of the things you endured during your four (or five or six) years in college, eking out an existence with food-service jobs and low-paying (or non-paying) internships. It’s why you spent all your collegiate life locked in that windowless basement that smells like feet and shattered dreams known as the student newspaper office instead of partying with friends.

Emily Bloch did all that. She worked for the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, ascending to the rank of editor in chief. She attended national media conventions, where I met her through her adviser, Michael Koretzky. She freelanced for Teen Vogue, blogged for Sunfest and contributed to the Miami New Times. In February 2017, she got her dream job: Community reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, an amazing publication that Tronc purchased in late May.

And last week, Tronc “restructured” her out of a job.

That’s right. The media giant fired her. As journalist and author Jeff Pearlman noted in his blog, “Tronc has kicked Emily to the curb—a multi-million dollar company saving (and this is pure guesswork) $35,000 a year and directly hurting its coverage.”

So, knowing that she got cut and that there was nothing she could do to change that, Bloch did something I doubt I would have had the strength to do: Her job.

EmPinned

I was told I was laid off BEFORE I started working on that politician story,” Bloch told me in a text message.

The story made the front page of the Sun-Sentinel, and it also went viral when Bloch tweeted the ironic juxtaposition of the newspaper and her severance papers:

EmSeverence

This is why Emily Bloch is my hero, and she should be yours, too. At that age, (hell, even at this age) I don’t know exactly what I would do if I lost a job I always wanted, just because some chucklehead in a suit wanted to nudge a profit-margin up for some stockholders. However, my best guess would be that I would have one of the following reactions:

  • Weep like an overwrought 12-year-old girl if the break up of my favorite boy band occurred on the same day my dog died
  • Launch into a social media rage that would make this clip of Nicholas Cage look calm and well-adjusted by comparison
  • Drink the state of Wisconsin dry while listening to every song by The Cure

Going out and breaking a major story for a publication that told me I lacked value to them wouldn’t even be in the ballpark of what I’d consider doing. Bloch typifies exactly what I try to tell students about the importance of finishing what you start, regardless of odds or obstacles against you, even if it feels like a lost cause. I fell in love with the phrase “Finish the game” as an exemplar of that concept (if you excuse the dated references):

This all sounds great in concept, but I don’t know how easy it is to do in practice. Once the applause from Twitter dies down, she still has to pay rent and buy food. It’s also a hell of a bruise to a person’s psyche to know that you can be trucking along at your job and then it’s like a mob hit: Bang. You’re gone.  What happens next?

“A lot of it’s up in the air but honestly I think I’m more excited than scared,” Bloch said. “To make ends meet, I’m bulking up on freelance. It’s actually ridiculous. Gearing up at my usual places, upping the hustle just a little, I’ll basically break even with my salary. Not sure if that a compliment to me or a diss to my wage.” 

She said she wants to stay in Florida and stay in news at some level. (Koretzky wrote to some folks who know Bloch and said that after her story went viral, two smaller Florida newspapers reached out to her and offered some employment.) By deciding to “finish the game,” she became a shining example of what’s good in journalists and “kids these days.” It also showcased her abilities and strength, two characteristics that are likely to open a lot of doors for her in this next stage of her career.

It’s OK to feel like you got stabbed in the heart if something like this happens. It’s what you do after that happens that will make the difference in life. Bloch said she felt bummed at first, but decided that she would pick herself up off the ground and “begin to hustle.” Her story on the politicians was the result.

“I think there’s a real lesson in there,” she added. “If you’re in this field, it’s likely not because of a tantalizing salary. It’s because you give a shit.”

 

 

Four things students can learn from a college newspaper’s coverage of a racist text (Covering a “triggerish” catastrophe, Part II)

Yesterday’s post looked at the George-Anne’s coverage of a racist exchange between two potential roommates at Georgia Southern University. Editor-in-chief Matthew Enfinger outlined the paper’s reasoning behind publishing certain aspects of the story while omitting other details, such as the screenshots of the text and the actual word itself.

Enfinger said that the paper’s story was successful for several reasons, not the least of which was the amount of people who contributed to the piece.

“I would have to say one of the lessons learned from this experience is that dividing (the) labor on this article really helped our paper be one of the first media outlets to have a story out,” he said in an email over the weekend. “One person could’ve (done) the story but dividing the work load really allowed our newspaper to make fast and accurate reporting all while working together as a team.”

The collaborative process also helped Enfinger decide what approach the paper would take on the story. Over the years in journalism, I often noted that the head editor was the person with access to “the big red button.” In other words, it was that person’s decision in the end, but it always helped to have other perspectives in the discussion prior to pressing the button.

“I would like to give a very big thank you to my staff, particularly McClain Baxely and Tandra Smith for really stepping up and working with me on this article,” Enfinger said. “Their dedication and drive to telling this important story really showed in the quality of the work. I’m forever grateful to them. I would also like to thank our advisor David Simpson of taking my hundreds of questions and using his years of experience in journalism to walk us through this story but still gave us the control over the article.”

I asked Enfinger if he had any particular takeaways or lessons he learned as part of this process and he came up with four great ones that should help you if you ever run into a big story with a lot of potential landmines. He had some great suggestions, so here’s Matthew:

There are so many things I’d like to share with students about this experience:

  1. If your community is showing concerns about a specific issue or topic, start looking into it and report on it. A past editor at The George-Anne, Corey Leonard, use to describe covering news like playing football. “If it hits you in the hands you’ve got to catch it.” This story hit out staff in the hands and we caught it. I believe there isn’t a bigger way to fail in journalism than not looking and reporting on topics that your community is concerned about and/or constantly talking about.

 

  1. Don’t write these stories alone. I worked closely with our Enterprise/Features Managing Editor Tandra Smith and Sports Editor McClain Baxely in working on this piece. Each of us had different tasks that allowed us to report fast but also be a good check system. If one of us were stuck at one point all three of us talked through it. At The George-Anne we have a rule that everyone reports breaking news. Working as a team not only helps you be among the first but to be right as well.

 

  1. Being right is always better than being first. Fact check. Fact check. Fact check. Especially in situations like this be sure to be very accurate with your attributions and your facts.
  2. Watch your bias. In journalism we work to be as unbiased as possible. For example. I do not tolerate the use of any racial profanity. It makes me sick to my stomach. However, in this article all we had was social media posts that showed the racial slur being used but we could not prove who said it. My staff and I had to make sure that this piece wasn’t a piece calling for punishment of the students but instead report the fact and reactions. Another way to stay unbiased as possible is to reach out to both parties involved and allow each a chance to speak out. In this case only “the receiver replied.”

 

To continue following the George-Anne’s work on this and many other stories, visit the publication’s website here.

Covering a “triggerish” catastrophe: Georgia Southern University’s student newspaper reports a local story of racism that went viral (Part I)

While scrolling through Twitter, Matthew Enfinger found his university, Georgia Southern, had become a hot topic for all the wrong reasons. The senior writing and linguistics major, who serves as the editor-in-chief for the school’s newspaper, located tweets and screenshots about texts between two women who were to become roommates in the fall.

After the basic pleasantries of “getting to know you” texts were over, the white student apparently thought she had switched over to text another friend and wrote that her new African-American roommate didn’t “look too n****rish.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: She used the full word. I will not.)  Upon realizing she texted that to her new roommate, the white student blamed auto-correct, saying she meant “triggerish” as in “nothing that triggered a red flag.”

After he  heard from staffer Tandra Smith that this topic was trending on Facebook as well, Enfinger knew his paper, the George-Anne, had a big story on its hands. (Read the paper’s story here.) He also knew this story would echo far beyond his campus, so his crew had to make some serious choices about what to publish and what to avoid. Several of those choices could have ramifications for the students involved, other students on campus and the paper itself.

“One of the first things our staff did was reach out to both of the students,” Enfinger said in an email over the weekend. “While we were waiting for responses our original article did include the names of both the students involved in the situation, student reaction quotes and information that we had based off of social media posts. However, we received a response from ‘the receiver’ telling us she would like both their names to remain anonymous.”

The decision of whether to include names of people involved in any kind of incident often comes down to several factors: Do you have the names at your disposal? Are you sure you have the right names? How will this affect the people you name or the people you don’t? Other publications, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chose to name the sender.

Enfinger said two key things played a role in the staff’s decision to remove the names.

“We left both of the names out to respect that student’s wish and also we had no real way of proving that her roommate was the one who actually sent those messages,” he said. “All we had was just social media posts and we wanted to remain as unbiased to the situation and report only the facts that we were presented with.”

The paper also had to decide whether to post the screenshots of the text exchange, which were available online, that showcased the racial slur and the student’s apology. Enfinger said he and his staff discussed this issue thoroughly with the publication’s adviser, David Simpson, before deciding not to use the shots.

“We had no real way of proving these were not fabricated,” he said. “What if this turned out to be false? What if someone (else) typed that message? We had no clue and couldn’t defend it with facts. I’m not saying other media sources were entirely wrong for posting the screenshots. Looking back on it now I’m sure there was a way to use the screenshots and attribute the posts to the social media user but we were more focused on showing the student population reaction, the university’s reaction and the facts we had at hand.”

Finally, the paper had to decide if it should publish the full “N-word” or not. Some publications have a policy of simply referring to “the N-word” while others will write the whole word in each instance in which it is required. In this case, it was a derivation of the word itself, so it isn’t as clear cut. However, Enfinger said after discussing it with Simpson, he made the decision not to publish the word.

“I ultimately made the choice of not using the racial slur for many reasons,” Enfinger said. “One, I think using the full word shouldn’t ever be used even in reporting. There are many alternatives to describing was was said. We used asterisk to block out most of the word (so) our audience could understand what was said. I personally felt uncomfortable with the thought of typing out the word. Two, this wasn’t our main reason for not using the racial slur but it definitely encouraged our thought process of not using the word, but A.P. Style states that even the term ‘N-word’ should not be used unless under extreme circumstances.”

The reaction to the publication’s story was swift and loud, he said. The African-American community on campus reacted to the story and pushed the university to pay attention to this issue. The school issued a press release regarding the text exchange, affirming the school’s position against racism. Other media outlets followed the paper’s coverage, including some major, national publications, which Enfinger said was good to see.

“I would also like to thank The Washington Post, Buzz Feed and any other big media outlets that quoted our original article,” he said. “Student journalists put their hearts into their newsroom and having big outlets like The Washington Post quote us showed us our work is really valued and respected.”

(Tomorrow: What Enfinger said he and his crew learned from this and the four big lessons others can glean from the George-Anne’s experience with this story.)

Take a breath: Four key ways to tighten and shorten your sentences

Following up on Tuesday’s post about good leads, one thing we didn’t discuss was lead length. This is primarily because we were looking into narrative leads, which often go multiple paragraphs before hitting a nutgraf, which sets up the rest of the piece.

A standard news lead should sit between 25 and 35 words and cover the majority of the 5W’s and 1H. It should also capture the readers’ attention and clearly explain what happened as well as why it matters.

Here is a lead that violates those elements in multiple ways:

When convicted bank robber Luis Marty Narvaez walked into the Far East Side Madison branch of Chase Bank on the afternoon of March 1, 24-year-old Charles Daehling was just weeks into his position as an armed, undercover security guard working without a state license and under contract to an unlicensed and now-defunct Nebraska security firm.

The story, which you can find here, attempts to unpack a bizarre incident in which a unlicensed security guard shot a would-be bank robber. The lead is 55 words, doesn’t tell me what the story is going to include and loses me among a wash of proper nouns and random facts.

Subsequent sentences in the story have similar issues. Here are several examples of sentences that go on way too long:

Narvaez’s head and face were covered with a black cap and black mask as he briskly stepped to a window where a teller was already helping a customer, stuck a bag under the window and demanded money but never displayed a weapon, according to a 124-page Madison police report and video surveillance footage of the incident.

<SNIP>

Daehling didn’t think giving Narvaez a verbal warning before opening fire “would have been appropriate” once he realized a robbery was taking place, because Narvaez and the female customer were close enough that he worried Narvaez could have taken her hostage, the police report says.

<SNIP>

Daehling also told police he thought about trying to provide Narvaez with medical attention after the shooting but “given that he didn’t know whether the suspect was armed, the fact that he had his hands inside his hoodie pockets and the fact that he was the only one in the bank armed and with two customers, he believed that it would be better to make sure that he covered the male suspect with his firearm, until police arrived.”

<SNIP>

Mark Warren, Strategos senior vice president and director of training, said his company no longer subcontracts with Bobbi Randall Inc. but that such subcontracting arrangements are common in the private security industry because no one particular security company can be licensed to work in every state.

<SNIP>

Chase Bank, which started using off-duty Madison police officers to provide security at the branch shortly after the Narvaez shooting, declined to say whether it has any minimal training requirements for security guards who work at its branches, or to answer any other questions about how Daehling came to work at the branch.

Those five sentences occur before the second subhead of the story. The shortest is 45 words and the longest is 78, or more than twice the length of the most a lead should be. Body copy sentences tend to be slightly shorter than the lead when done well, but at the very least, they shouldn’t make you feel like a sugar-addled toddler is telling you about his day.

To help you prevent run-on sentences like these, consider a few tips:

  • Start with the core: Both books argue the value of building a sentence from the core out, instead of from the front to the back. In other words, you want to identify the noun, the verb and the object of the sentence and build outward from that point in concentric rings of information. If you can’t find the NVO core without a searchlight and a posse, you probably have a pretty weak sentence. The NVO core should tell you what it is the sentence wants to explain to the readers. Find it in each of your sentences and then augment it with additional, valuable information.

 

  • Read it aloud: If you count words, you can usually hit the mark for a solid sentence that doesn’t wander too much. That said, the word “a” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each count as a single word, so math is only going to get you so far. A good idea to help you figure out if a sentence is too long (or too heavy, as we discussed in the basic writing sections) is to take a normal, human breath and read it out loud. If you do this and you start to feel tight in your chest when you finish, you might need to make a few trims. If you run out of air before the  end of the sentence, it’s almost certainly going to be too long.

    SIDE NOTE 1: When I say a “normal, human breath” I mean the kind of breath you take when you assume you can take another one relatively soon, not a “the Titanic is going under and we need to stay alive” breath:

SIDE NOTE 2: It doesn’t behoove you to cheat at this. I had a student in my class one year who was on the university’s swim team and had the lung capacity of a blue whale. She would read these enormous sentences aloud in one breath and then exhale all her extra oxygen to prove a point. OK, Freya, you got me, but that’s not helping.

  • Write once, edit twice: Once you write the sentence, don’t assume it works fine. Go back through with your critical editor’s hat on and dig into this thing. Strip out extra words that don’t add value. Look to see if you cranked up the prepositional-phrase machine and let it run roughshod all over your work. Determine if you are making one, solid point in the sentence or if you’re trying to do three things at once. Find the noun-verb-object core and make sure each piece of the sentence applies to that core. If not, you can always pull it out into a second sentence. Once you do all this, go back and do another fine-tuning edit to clean up any problems that remain or errors you might have introduced.

 

  • Ask yourself, “Would I read this if I didn’t write this?” for each sentence: As we discussed multiple times, you aren’t writing for yourself. You need to write for your readers, so keep them in mind when you write each sentence. If the sentence doesn’t make sense to them or isn’t valuable to them, you have failed at your job. Go back and make the necessary fixes to help your readers get the most out of your work.

“The man at the bottom of the grave opened his eyes:” Why a lead can make or break your story

I’ve spent the last couple days critiquing newspapers for a variety of institutions, during which time I’ve found one immutable truth:

Leads will make or break a story.

In most cases, people can write a solid news lead, with at least a few W’s and an occasional H in there, but when it comes to feature pieces, I find three types of leads that are horrible:

1) “Some people/Most people/Everybody/Nobody” leads: In most cases, these are straw-man leads where the author sets up the current situation with a generic statement about how “others” tend to view something. Then, the writer juxtaposes this with the source of the story doing the opposite or something quirky. Consider this opening to a story about a student journalist:

MONDOVI – Some college kids come home for summer and wait tables, paint houses or grab internships.

Nash Weiss is serving as interim editor of his local weekly newspaper, the Mondovi Herald-News.

He’s 21 years old, an incoming senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he’s studying journalism.

It’s an interesting story, but I’m bored right away as a reader. Also, it feels like I’m about to experience an infomercial or something:

(Whoever thought of this title was a marketing genius or went to work for the Pratt Tribune.)

2) “Not your typical” something or other: If I had a dollar for every profile that started with “So-and-so is not your typical college sophomore (or junior or senior or whatever),” I’d never have to work a day in my life.

Of course someone isn’t your “typical” anything if you’re doing a profile on that person. The whole point of personality profiles is to showcase someone who is special or interesting. A person who is exactly like everyone else probably isn’t really going to stand out as a profile subject. Here’s a look at a lead about someone who isn’t your “typical college sophomore:”

Santiago Gonzalez is already in his second year at the Colorado School of Mines, one of the nation’s top engineering colleges, where he has his sights set on degrees in computer science and electrical engineering.

But Gonzalez, who is 13 years old, isn’t your typical college sophomore.

Most college sophomores aren’t 13 years old, so… yeah.

Instead, tell his story, which you can find in the quotes below that lead in the story, which would further engage your readers.

3) “Imagine” leads: Unless you are writing about the John Lennon tune, you should avoid forcing your readers to imagine something. I had a student once who had an imagine-lead fetish, as he was seemingly unable to write any lead that didn’t include the word “imagine.” At that point, I told him if he wrote “imagine” in a lead one more time, I’d fail him. His next lead started this way:

Envision this scenario:

I don’t know if I felt pride in his weaseldom or amazement at how hard it was to break free of his imaginary friends. In any case, you want to avoid “imagine” leads for two reasons:

  • If something is truly imaginary, why are you writing about it in a news story or news feature? We want facts and information, not flights of fancy.
  • In most cases, the imagined thing is really true and thus should be the core of what you want to tell your readers. Therefore, instead of having someone imagine what life was like to be homeless as a 5-year-old boy, tell the story of that boy and what he really went through.

The reason I dug into leads today was that I read two narrative leads that knocked my socks off today. They came from varying sources and are of varying vintages, but they both did the one thing a lead must do: Make me care enough to want to read the rest of the story.

Start with the classic: Jacqui Banaszynski’s 1980s Pulitzer-Prize-winning series, “AIDS in the Heartland.” The series chronicles the way in which AIDS, then thought of as a disease for large cities with questionable morals, hit the Midwest. She did it through the eyes and struggles of Dick Hanson, a Minnesota political activist and farmer, who died at age 37. Although all three parts have an incredible narrative lead, the third part was the one I picked for an example here:

Dick Hanson died Saturday, July 25 at 5:30 a.m. Farmers’ time, when the night holds tight to a last few moments of quiet before surrendering to the bustle of the day.

Back home in rural Glenwood, Minn., folks were finishing morning barn chores before heading out to the fields for the early wheat harvest. Members of the Pope County DFL Party were setting up giant barbecue grills in Barsness Park, preparing for the Waterama celebration at Lake Minnewaska.

In the 37 years Hanson lived on his family’s farm south of Glenwood, he had seldom missed the harvest or the lakeside celebration. As the longtime chairman of the county DFL, it always had been his job to ran the hotdog booth.

But today he was in a hospital bed in downtown Minneapolis. The blinds of the orange-walled room were drawn against the rising sun. He had suffered a seizure the morning before. Doctors said it probably left him unaware of his surroundings, beyond pain and — finally — beyond struggling.

Yet those closest to him swore he could hear them, and knew what was happening, and knew it was time.

“Three times during the course of the night he brought his hands together and his lips would move, and you knew he was praying. I can’t help I but think he was shutting himself down,” said Roy Schmidt, a Minnesota AIDS Project official and longtime friend who stayed with Hanson that last night.

Hanson died holding the hands of the two people most dear to him — his sister, Mary Hanson-Jenniges, and his partner of five years, Bert Henningson.

“Amazing Grace” was playing softly on a tape machine in the corner of the room. It was Hanson’s favorite hymn, the one he had sung over his mother’s grave barely a year ago.

This is the final chapter of Hanson’s story. After having lived a year longer than he was expected to, he grew weary of fighting for his life and was willing — if not eager — for it to end.

After his death, he was cremated. Mourners came to his childhood church for a memorial service that was vintage Hanson — traditionally religious but politically radical and, inevitably, controversial.

Henningson is left behind on the farm with a legacy of love — and death. For now he, too, is sick, suffering early symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. No sooner will he finish grieving for Hanson than he must begin grieving for himself.

In this lead, small details add to the big picture. It also comes to a point of conclusion that shows this illness is not slowing down and more will die of it soon.

The second lead I ran into came from ESPN’s Tisha Thompson and Kevin Shaw. It is about a boxing trainer who had been marked for death by someone close to him. The beginning uses details in much the same way the AIDS series did, but then the twist at the end has me wanting to read the whole thing from top to bottom:

The police camera clicked. Click. Click. Click. Each snap shattered a silence brought on by Houston’s suffocating summertime heat. The lens pointed into a waist-deep hole.

At the bottom of the freshly dug grave lay a man in his late 40s with what appeared to be blood running from a gunshot wound to his right temple. More blood trailed from his nose. The man, clad in nothing but his underwear, had his arms pulled beneath his back as though he’d been bound.

Detectives from the Montgomery County Constable’s Office already knew his identity: Ramon Sosa, one of the best-known boxing trainers in southeast Texas. A former professional fighter, he’d taught pros and Olympic hopefuls how to spar the fast-paced Puerto Rican way. Dozens of kids from gangs and troubled backgrounds had funneled through his nonprofit Young Prospects Boxing program.

He also owned a successful gym less than two miles from this spot, surrounded by heavy forest on all sides and well-hidden from the bedroom community known as The Woodlands. The detectives knew too that Sosa’s gym brought in about $20,000 a month, allowing the trainer and his wife to buy a fancy new house, cars, motorcycles and designer shoes and watches.

Gangs and money. That’s what might have been behind this grim scene. But this wasn’t a predictable crime at all. Once the camera stopped clicking, the lead detective spoke: “We’re done, Mr. Sosa. You can get up now.”

And with that, the man at the bottom of the grave opened his eyes.

If you’ll pardon me, I have to go read the rest of that one now.

 

GAME TIME: AP Quiz with an EAA AirVenture theme

This time of year in Oshkosh, you can’t do anything without hearing the sound of a plane buzzing across the sky. The Experimental Aircraft Association or EAA hosts an annual fly-in event called AirVenture, which draws flight enthusiasts from around the world.

Many of my former students cut their journalistic teeth working at EAA as interns in all forms of media, ranging from news to marketing. Many of them still work there to this day as professionals.

In honor of the mega-event, here’s an AP style quiz with an EAA AirVenture theme. You don’t need to know anything about EAA or airplanes to play. You also don’t need to sign up for an account to play, but if you want to get a ranking, you should sign up. Either way, screenshot your score and post it here. Challenge your professor and seek bragging rights once you beat him or her.

Speed and accuracy count here, as is the case with flight in general.

Click here to play.