Another addition to the “club” of campus shootings, 5 injured at Morgan State University

The front page of The Spokesman, Morgan State University’s student newspaper, after someone shot five people during a homecoming event overnight. I’m not sure if it’s irony, coincidence or just a damn shame that the publication covered an event aimed at stanching gun violence two days earlier (see the recent stories rail).

I woke up to a news alert in my email to find that Morgan State University joined “a club we don’t want to be a member of and we don’t want any more members in it,” to quote a friend who survived a mass shooting on a college campus. Five people were shot overnight during a homecoming event at the Baltimore-area institution. The injuries are not life-threatening, according to officials, and the shooter hasn’t been captured.

The first stop on the Filak Furlough Tour covered the issue of crime, chaos and disasters. We discussed how to cover them and what kinds of things you need to do to keep yourself safe, both mentally and physically. In covering this topic, I’ve mentioned before the discussion I had with my friend Kelly Furnas, who was the adviser of the student newspaper at Virginia Tech when a mass shooting took the lives of 32 innocent people on that campus.

When I was able to secure him for a presentation at a college media convention less than a year after that event, it was a huge “get” because he and his editorial staff had experienced something so rare and mystifying that we all were desperate to hear what he had to say. He told me later that as he continued to do the “convention circuit,” he went from being an anomaly to being one of an increasingly growing group of people who had dealt with this. His sessions, he said, went from being a “here’s what happened” to a “here’s how you cover it when it happens to you.”

The students at The Spokesman did a good job of strong journalism on this one, and I’d argue they were stronger than the national outlets who somehow managed to not get the last names of sources or time elements into their stories. The Spokesman promised additional updates as more information becomes available and I’m sure by the time authorities capture this person, the big-wig media will have moved on to something else. Meanwhile, the folks at Morgan State will be left to pick up the pieces of their shattered sense of security.

Please keep an eye on this story via The Spokesman and think about those kids on that campus. They need to know we are watching and that we care.

The Filak Furlough Tour posts will continue next week.

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this called the paper “The Spectator” for reasons past my understanding. I think I had a brain glitch. Thanks to the folks at The Spokesman for bring it to my attention. You deserved better from me on this. Keep doing great work. –VFF



Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging Out With Siena Heights University

The one stop we did last week on the Filak Furlough Tour that we didn’t get to blogging about was at Siena Heights University. Renee Collins was nice enough to invite me into her class, where the goal was to talk about the importance of journalism and what the point of this career actually is.

There are many days journalism seems pointless or just an excuse to take a beating from the general public, but for those of us who have done it, or continue to do it, there can be something magical about the experience.

Plus, you don’t come home smelling like a McNugget most days, so there’s that…

Siena Heights University – Adrian, MI

The wonderful world of technical difficulties has me talking randomly until the mic works or the people outside my office think I’m in need of a stay at the local asylum…

THE TOPIC: What’s the point of what we’re doing and why we do it?

THE BASICS: Journalism carries with it a huge amount of opportunities and responsibilities. In most cases, I find that we can meet those challenges if we know our audience and have a general sense that fairness matters.

One of the things I didn’t talk about, but I think merits discussion here, is that people who read our stuff that think we’re biased are often more upset that we’re not taking their side in an issue. I remember covering some committee meeting that would lead to some recommendation to the city council. Clearly,  the meeting itself was not memorable, but the resulting discussions were.

The day it ran, I bumped into a source who said they read the article and then chastised me for putting a liberal slant on it. Not more than 20 minutes later,  another source saw me and complained about how the right-wing Wisconsin State Journal had co-opted another reporter and another story. In other words, I was both too liberal for the conservative and too conservative for the liberal.

I used to say that if your journalism ticked off everyone, you were doing a  good job. That’s not entirely true, but the underlying premise that you should not curry favor among a group with fawning or supporting coverage remains an important one in the world of media. This response from sports journalist Jeff Pearlman on Twitter/X makes a pretty good case for this concept:

My response?

Leave being liked to kindergarten teachers and birthday clowns. I’ll take being helpful to my readers and respected by my peers.


BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you need a master’s degree or more education to be a journalist?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: In most cases, no. If you have a bachelor’s degree in the discipline or a tangential discipline (I know not every school has a BA/BS in journalism, but a lot of them have certificates, minors, etc.) that’s enough to check the box for the degree part of the job requirements.

What’s more important is what you can do for the people out there who want to hire you. That’s why I’m always pitching student media outlets and groups to the kids in my classes. It’s also true that your GPA will not matter at the end of days.

I’ve had plenty of “C students” who got great jobs because they were out in the field for a student newspaper, a student radio station, a student TV station, an internship, a part-time media job or a mix of all of those instead of keeping up with their classwork. I’ve also had an unfortunate number of “A students” who couldn’t get a job because they didn’t have any clips, a solid reel or the other pro elements that hiring managers want to see.

(Conversely, yes, the opposites on both of those are true: A kids who who pour their lives into class and student media get great jobs as well, while C kids who can’t find their fanny with a road  map end up driving for Domino’s instead of working in media. Rest assured, I’m not besmirching students with GPAs above the Mendoza Line.)

The time to go for a master’s or a doctorate is usually dictated by one of two things: First, if you are in need of additional training in a specialty area that was not fully available to you in your bachelor’s, a master’s degree makes sense.

For example, let’s say you were doing a lot of writing and you kind of liked it, but you took a graphics course and you found your muse. However, your university only had that one course and you felt you wanted a lot more education on this topic. Taking a master’s program at a place like Ball State University, which is well-known for its graphic and design program, would be a smart choice.

Second, if you decided that you wanted to teach at the college level, most programs require a grad degree of some kind. If you thought about doing some adjuncting, a master’s usually cuts the muster on this, so that would make sense. If you thought about turning this whole thing into a tenure-track career, the Ph.D. has become almost a union card for universities that hire folks in this capacity.

Next Stop: The University of Central Missouri

Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out with the University of Delaware

Welcome back to the Filak Furlough Tour 2023-24. This stop was such a cool moment for me because I got to chat with Nancy Karibjanian’s class at the University of Delaware.  She runs the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication as well as teaching the next generation of journalism students at UD.

Nancy has tons of broadcast experience and is an amazing expert in political journalism. In fact, if you took all of Nancy’s expertise on politics and added it to all of my expertise on politics, you would have exactly the amount of expertise Nancy has on politics.

Thankfully, I wasn’t there to talk politics, so I had at least a fighting chance of adding something to the sum of human knowledge.

Welcome to stop three:


Yes, I own more than one shirt, but this happened all on the same day. No, that doesn’t mean you won’t see me wearing that exact same shirt in at least 11 other Zoom calls on the Tour.


THE TOPIC:  Doing solid multimedia journalism and the hunt for employment

THE BASICS: In dealing with multimedia journalism, we talked about the ways in which it’s really important to have a wide array of tools at your disposal. A student was concerned about how to make a print-style story into a broadcast-style story and if that was always something that should be possible. I noted that, sure, there are plenty of times that we can do something for one platform and then reconfigure it effectively for another.

That said, the issue I wanted them to think about was if they were using the tool/platform because it was the most effective way to reach the audience and help the viewers/readers get the message, or if it was a case of their own familiarity with that tool driving the choices. I still remember having this argument with an old-time broadcaster who was team teaching a class with me on news. I noted that there were some stories better suited for print, some for web and some for broadcast. He argued that every story can be told in broadcast.

I noted that print or web would do a better story on a budget than a TV broadcast. He noted ways in which he could toss a budget on a table and record that for b-roll, or how he could use iconic graphics like a dollar sign to transition in the package. He never quite got my point which is, sure, you can do that, but it’s not as effective as doing it with a different platform.

We also talked about the idea of how to find stories that will excite you as a writer and thus hopefully excite your readers or viewers. One of my favorite ways to make this happen is to think back to any time you ever spent with a 4-year-old kid.

What’s their favorite question? “WHY?”

This is shortly followed by “How does this work?” or “What are you doing?” or a dozen others that can really push the patience of any living adult and half the deceased ones out there.

At some point, we lost that sense of wonder as we grew up. Maybe it was because in middle school it was no longer cool to ask questions. Maybe it was in high school because nobody likes to look like they don’t know something. Whenever it was or whatever triggered it, we need to get back to that stage of wonder as journalists if we want to find stuff that makes us really engage with the content and then tell it to our audience members in a compelling fashion.

HELPFUL LINKS: Here are a couple spots on the blog that can reinforce these ideas.


BEST QUESTION (PART I): A professor last year told me that when I graduate, it would be best to start at a small (media outlet) instead of a big one. Is that the way you see it or not?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: There’s a way that I kind of look at jobs that’s a bit different from other people…

(EDITOR’S NOTE: These are the questions that have me breaking into a cold sweat at night. It’s not because they’re hard, but rather they feel like when my kid would say, “Mom says XYZ. Is that really true?” and I’d wonder if I’d be sleeping in the milk house that night because of my answer. Fortunately, this one had a solid, true work around that I do believe and yet prevented me from accidentally crapping all over another professor.)

I tell my students that I tend to look at three counterbalancing aspects of what you will face when deciding to take a job: Your professional life, your financial life and your personal life. These things tend to work in tandem to determine how good something is for you.

For example, you might look at a small place and see that you get a lot of opportunities to learn things and develop skills that will really make a big difference in your professional life. However, it might be counterbalanced by a smaller paycheck, which is something you need to consider. Journalism might feel like a calling, but you still need to pay the bills. In addition, it might be really close to a place you want to live, so you get a lot of personal benefits in terms of lifestyle, friends, food and fun.

Conversely, you might decide that it’s more important to make a lot of money, so you take a job where you’re kind of doing the same basic thing a lot and you’re not really going to grow much. In addition, it might not be where you want to live or it might be far away from your friends or it might be in some godforsaken place where it snows 11.5 months out of the year. Thus, the money is huge, but is it worth it?

In my life I’ve made trades where I took less money and got a ton of professional growth, even though I was really alone for a lot of that time. (Fortunately for me, I’m half hermit, according to my 23 and Me profile.) My most recent trade was one where I made a lateral career move at best, took a big pay cut and moved back home, where my kid got to grow up with both sets of grandparents within driving range, I got to see my folks a lot more and things like “garage sales” were basically everywhere. To me, the trade was worth it, even as I’m working on Furlough-O-Clock time here…

The point is, you can’t judge something by it being small or big, but rather in relation to the rest of these elements that can make life better or worse for you.

BEST QUESTION (Part II): Are the things we’re learning going to really help us get a job? (I simplified that one a bit, but that was the gist of it.)

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: Yes. What you are getting is a top-notch education in an area that really puts a lot of tools in your toolbox. You can take that toolbox anywhere you want. The people who I included in the book in the “View from a Pro” features all started out in one area of media and then ended up somewhere else in the field. Even more, people I didn’t include in there have made moves outside of the traditional media field and it’s because of the tools in their toolbox and the way they made use of those transferable skills.

Put another way: If you can think of a job where you don’t have to do research on an important topic, talk to other people, ask clear and insightful questions, translate information you have received into content that makes sense to someone else and generally communicate effectively, I’ll buy everyone in here a whiskey sour.

Also, when you get into the job field and you get to the point where someone offers you a job, feel free to reach out and I’ll teach you how to negotiate. So many people don’t like to haggle, but it’s a crucial skill you need to get what you deserve.

NOTE: We’re off to Missouri at the end of the week. More posts will follow the visit to the University of Central Missouri.

Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out with Lewis University

Welcome back to the Filak Furlough Tour 2023-24. The second stop of the day was kind of a fortuitous bounce for everyone involved. A friend reached out to ask if I could do a Zoom call for her class because a trip to a local TV station had fallen through and she was hoping to do something fun for her students.

(Clearly, I think she drastically overestimated my ability to replace the joy students would have felt from a visit to a TV station. It’s also safe to say they likely would have felt even more joy if she just cancelled the class for the day than had them put up with me. Still, I love her positivity…)

We managed to thread the needle perfectly and wedge her class in between the two others that day, so off we went to stop number 2:


I always tell students that working with them like this is the best part of my day. If that smile on my face didn’t convince them this is true, nothing ever will.

THE TOPIC: Basics of writing a story (plus a free-for-all open forum)

THE BASICS: We talked a solid amount about the basics of writing, including the idea of how to assemble a story. One of the key things I think students need to understand is that a lot of the writing is in the reporting phase, so it’s always worthwhile to be alert when it comes to your time in the field.

In many cases, when I’d use the expanded inverted pyramid, I’d be listening to someone and think, “That’s my bridge quote!” Or “That’s a perfect closing!” Being aware of those things can make your life easier. Also, you should know what your general background paragraphs will look like after you do your research but before you go to an event or start working a story. Therefore, it never hurts to bang those paragraphs out in advance, which cuts down on your time on deadline and helps you focus on the new stuff in the lead.

We also talked a lot about how to kind of “jump start” your writing and writer’s block. I explained that writing isn’t always a linear process, especially when you’re starting out as a journalist or when you’re working on a bigger piece. The key thing is to get content out of your head and onto your screen.

Sometimes, I’d just start chucking wads of paraphrase-quote pairings into a file, because I knew they had value somehow in the story or I thought the quotes were too great not to include. Then there were times where I would be doing book stuff and I’d write and write and write and then BAM. I’d hit this wall and not be able to keep writing on that topic or that subhead, so I’d hop somewhere else and start writing there.

I also realized that certain things made it easier for me to write, like where I’d be writing or what I’d be listening to or even what I’d be wearing. Knowing your own writing approach is a huge help to putting yourself in the best position to avoid writer’s block.

LINKS FOR MORE: Here are some things I’ve blogged about that fit with this and how to help you with your writing and more:

BEST QUESTION (PART I): How long does it take you to write a book?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: It varies a lot based on how well I know the topic, the audience involved and how engaged the publisher is. In terms of my recent run with SAGE, the shortest was about a year.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In looking back at this, it’s about a year to do a new edition for something I’d already written. Also, the shortest I ever took to write a book was three weeks, when my editor at the time did the “So… Did you finish the workbook that went with this?” thing, only to realize she’d never signed a contract for said workbook. I agreed to do it and make whatever deadline she needed, which turned out to be three weeks. Yes, it was only a workbook. No, I don’t ever want to do that again.)

The longest it took me for a book was five years, but that was a special case of insanity that might or might not still work out. Each time I have to do a book, I put up a giant Post-It note with chapters and deadlines and such so I don’t lose track of whatever I’m doing or have done.

BEST QUESTION (PART II): Where did you come up with the idea of personalized baseball bats for gifts?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: This goes back to my time in college with my friend Tony, who ran the yearbook. Since he had the personality of a garden weasel, he didn’t have much of a staff when I joined as a sophomore who hadn’t completed a single journalism class. Still, in less than three days, I managed to get promoted to managing editor, I think due to his lack of options and our shared desire to drink as much soda as possible.

I asked Tony what the difference was between being the editor in chief and being the managing editor. He explained that the EIC was the face of the franchise, the person responsible for external image work, the person who set deadlines and such and basically was the guy who had to make the final choices on everything.

The managing editor’s job was to walk around the newsroom with a baseball bat and say, “So… Where’s the story you promised me?” He then handed me a baseball bat.

When I told this story years later to a kid I was recruiting for the ME spot at the Advance-Titan, she jokingly turned down the job, saying, “I don’t have a bat.” So I bought a bat for the newsroom and when she graduated, I had learned how to do woodburning, so I did a personal bat for her. Over the years, the bat became kind of the prize for doing the scut work that came with the ME position.

Since people seemed to like them, I kept doing them. At one point, I offered one to the SAGE rep who was most successful in getting my first reporting book out to the public. About a week before the annual convention, my friend Staci called me up and asked if I could do three bats, as the competitive nature of the sales force was turning this fun little gimmick into “The Hunger Games.”

I did the bats and the folks loved them. After the event, a rep came up to her and asked, “How can I earn a bat?”

I just like the idea that it’s neat, it’s fun, it has a nice backstory and it’s not something you can buy at a Dollar Tree. It’s a nice way for me to thank folks.

ONE LAST THING: During the discussion of book stuff, we were talking about how getting to know what helps you write well, where I disclosed that I had a long-standing playlist on my phone that really just helped me zone in. Immediately, the kids wanted to know what was on it, so I kind of read some titles.

Professor Tracy Hemmingway asked me to provide it so they could listen to it during their next writing session. Well, here it is, although I’ve flagged a few titles in red, which means you either want to skip these or make sure you’ve downloaded the “clean” version from the iTunes store or wherever. I take no responsibility for whatever happens if you listen to this without headphones.

NEXT STOP: University of Delaware

Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out with Indiana University

The Filak Furlough Tour 2023-24 started with a bang last week, as we had three stops via Zoom in a row. The only hard thing about that is trying to remember to whom I told what stories that day. I now know what it’s like to be Grandpa at the Thanksgiving table. I think I pulled it off, though.

Before we get into the specifics of the day, I wanted to publicly thank my former student Brett Baehman for his artistic prowess and kindness. (He says he graduated seven or eight years ago. I keep thinking he’s just left. We call that grad-nesia…) He saw the Bat Signal on the blog and built us a logo for the series:

This is way too cool… Also, my friend from student media fun Jenny Fischer is working on the T-shirt design. Y’all are amazing. Let’s start with the first stop on the tour…



A quick screenshot of our time, where I’m shown in my natural state: mouth open, blathering about something…

THE TOPIC: Crime and disaster reporting

THE BASICS: This is a tough topic to teach because you can’t replicate it in a lab setting. Sure, I could do a “police press conference” with some basic information and make them ask me about a shooting or car wreck or something, but that’s not where crime and disaster reporting lives, nor is it the hard part about this kind of reporting.

That said, here are the two basic elements of crime and disaster reporting that will always remain important:

  1. Stay Calm
  2. Stay Safe

We talked a bit about those and also the importance of self-care after the fact. Honestly, even though I wasn’t reporting 50 years ago when people smoked in the newsroom and editors could call women “Toots” with impunity, we weren’t really advanced in our thoughts about the impact this kind of coverage had on reporters. The Dart Center was still in its embryonic state back then and even so, the internet wasn’t connecting us the way we have now.

I still remember some of the terrible things I saw and wrote about. I can still remember the name, age and cause of death of every dead kid I covered. I also go right back to the Madison Bus Fire whenever the smell of burning plastic hits my nose.

I also remember that in some cases I had a terrible editor, who shall not be named, but working for her was no great shakes because her attitude was, “Suck it up, kid, or I’ll find someone who will.” (She was also terrible for about 12,358 other reasons, but that’s another post…) Had it not been for Teryl Franklin, who became my editor later at the State Journal, I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am now as a professional, let alone a functional human being.

LINKS FOR MORE: If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, here are a couple times we covered stuff like this on the blog:


BEST QUESTION (Part I): Has there ever been a time where you felt like you SHOULDN’T go somewhere and see something because it was going to be too horrific or problematic?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: There were plenty of times I didn’t want to see something or I didn’t want to go somewhere because, dear LORD, it was going to be terrible. That said, I was young and I often didn’t have a choice. That said, it was always better to see those things because they helped me feel stronger about other reporting I would do later. (“Scared to talk to a state senator? Hell, you just saw a guy’s body getting pulled out of a piece of farm equipment. You can do this.”)

I also felt it was important because the duty to report isn’t the same as the duty to publish. Seeing something or going somewhere gave me the ability to be more genuine in what I as writing, or it gave me a stronger resolve NOT to write something because I could tell people honestly, “This isn’t something we want to publish.”

BEST QUESTION (Part II): There’s all this bad in the crime and disaster beat, which you’ve mentioned quite a bit. Is there ever anything good you felt came from covering this stuff?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: Honestly, I think that it helped me discover my humanity. When you see so much bad stuff, you not only start to reassess what’s really going on in your life, but you start to build a strong sense of empathy toward people that I don’t think I would have had I not done this beat.

I also realized that some of my best stories, in terms of the ones with the best impacts and the best responses, were obituaries. Some of those obits came from terrible situations, like dead kids, while others came from telling stories of long lives, well lived. I’d like to think those were better because I had covered crime.

COOL POSTSCRIPT: Got this email from a kid in the class:

You spoke to my class today at Indiana University about reporting on crime. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with us. After the meeting, we were asked to raise our hand if any of us were interested in covering crime, and I was the only person to raise my hand. I know it is not the most uplifting or popular topic, so I always appreciate those willing to discuss it. I am only a sophomore, so I am unsure where to begin with questions to ask right now. However, I can foresee myself reaching out in the future and therefore wanted to introduce myself.
Thank you again,

Like I tell all my students, the door is always open. Feel free to reach out.

NEXT STOP: Lewis University, Romeoville, IL

The Four-Word Interview (a throwback post)

A ton of stuff is happening right now, with the launch of the “Filak Furlough” tour, the removal of a college media adviser at Ashland University for teaching his kids “too much investigative journalism” and the general chaos of keeping up with the journalism world. We’ll get to all of that stuff next week (or at least some of it…).

In the meantime, today’s Throwback Thursday post looks at the simplest of interviews and why it worked. It’s also an opportunity to commemorate the anniversary of me making what I call “the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, other than getting married to Amy,” namely, purchasing this beauty and learning to love life.


The Four-Word Interview

(The subject of a four-word interview.)

I stopped off to get gas this morning when a man in his 70s approached me.

“What year?” he asked, pointing to the Mustang.

“’68.” I told him.

He nodded. “Nice.” He then got in his truck and drove away.

In the simplest of terms, this was a perfect interview and the whole thing took four words.

In all the reporting and writing classes I have taught, the biggest problem students tell me they have is interviewing. They don’t know what to ask or how to ask it. They feel awkward talking to other people or they get the sense that they’re being pests. They would rather just email people and hope for answers instead of approaching people in public and talking to them. This is why interviewing features prominently in both the Dynamics of Media Writing and the Dynamics of News Reporting & Writing.

Interviewing is a skill and like any skill, you need to practice it to become better at it. That said, it is important to understand that every day, you conduct dozens of interviews, so you are probably better at it than you think you are. You ask your roommates how their day went, you ask the waitress what the special of the day is and you ask your professor, “Will this be on the test?” If you don’t think of these interactions as interviews, it’s because you are overthinking the concept of interviewing.

The purpose of an interview is to ask someone who knows something that you need to know for the information you seek. When you get that information, you do something with it. The guy at the gas station wanted to know one thing: What year Mustang was I driving? He figured the best source was me, the owner of the car. He asked a question that would elicit the answer he sought. He got his information and he moved on.

Interviewing as a journalist can seem much more complicated than that, mainly because you have to do a lot of preparation, you need to troll for quotes and you need to figure out how the answers fit in the broader context of your story. That’s all true, but if you start with the basic premise of “What do I need to know?” your interviews can feel more natural and less forced.

Take it easy on the guy. He’s dead. (Or why AI shouldn’t be allowed to write obituaries)

We’ve bandied about the various pluses and minuses here of letting artificial intelligence do our work for us. Whether it was the complete lack of quality writing or using incorrect synonyms, there have been a few amusing moments here and there. Some argue this is a disgrace while others are in the “the AI is getting there, just be patient” camp.

That said, I think we have officially hit one thing we can all agree on: AI shouldn’t be writing obituaries. Case in point, this piece on former NBA player Brandon Hunter:

The headline kind of says it all in terms of why nuance matters. In some cases “dead” and “useless” are easily interchangeable:

“The flashlight is dead.”

“The flashlight is useless.”

In a case like this, however, we shouldn’t be swapping those words, and they actually do create harm. I’d hate to think of what Hunter’s family members thought when this popped up in the news feeds. Also, nothing says, “We don’t think your loved one matters,” like letting a computer take the wheel on the obituary. (MSN has since removed the story, but it lives on in screen shots and the wayback machine.)

That’s to say nothing of the godawful writing this thing did, from the line “performed for the Boston Celtics” (Was he doing a Mr. Bojangles routine at halftime or something?) to the line about how he was “handed away at age 42.” (Still not as bad as the “Maris traded to the Angels” obit headline, but pretty close…)

As with most things, we shouldn’t let the machines do all the work without at least checking on them from time to time.

What’s the male equivalent of “mistress” (or how does the media frame people who aren’t straight, white men)?

Today’s “Mass Com Monday” post takes a look at the idea of how the choices journalists make in their work can shape the way we see a person, an event or a concept. Broadly speaking, the idea of inclusion or exclusion of content to paint a specific picture is known as framing, a theory most journalism students learn about.

For example, let’s look at like Sunday’s Broncos/Commanders game: The Broncos led 21-3 early in the game. The Commanders scored enough points to take a 35-24 lead. The Broncos then scored twice to make the final score 35-33, after they failed in an attempt at a two-point conversion with no time left on the clock.

This could be framed as an epic comeback if you want to look at it from the point of view of the Commanders. It could be framed as an epic collapse if you looked at it from the Broncos side of the deal. You could also frame it based on the final play (Commanders held on to win/Broncos failed to complete the job and lost).

Framing isn’t always about picking a side, but in most cases, it’s about how the media can shape our view of thing, including bigger topics like race, gender and other social issues. Let’s look at one example of that:

In a long social media thread a friend had running about the trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a commenter noted how the Washington Post chose to lead a story on the prosecution’s most important witness:

Two women WaPo reporters crafted this lede:

AUSTIN — The star witness swept into the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, red coat and flashy Balenciaga-emblazoned handbag tucked under her arms, her white sheath, red lipstick and signature platinum pixie all a dramatic contrast from the somber-suited individuals who have testified for the past week in the historic impeachment trial of state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The star witness was Laura Olson, person who prosecutors said had an extended affair with Paxton. What she would bring to the table in terms of supporting the case against Paxton was unclear and eventually she was cut loose from having to testify.

What is clear, based on the thread and a general reading of how Olson has been portrayed, is that there is a heavy emphasis on her appearance. Her fashion and her physical being (sweeping in, being flashy etc.) are front and center.

It’s fair to say that this kind of framing wouldn’t be something you’d see in a description of a man in a situation like this.

Or as I put it, I’d hate to see how these esteemed journalists would have described me in that situation:

“The star witness awkwardly shuffled into court with the confidence of a drunk doing a field sobriety test, clad in a wardrobe likely abandoned outside a Goodwill by a homeless elf, his head shaped like a decaying russet potato with a horse shoe of graying mane around a shiny bald top that gave him the look of a cue ball wearing a hula skirt, a dramatic contrast to the other witnesses who clearly own mirrors and possess a sense of dignity…”

The authors also make some interesting choices on what to include, such as this tidbit about her shoes:

Olson arrived with her attorney in the morning, entering the Capitol rotunda and ducking into a restroom where she traded red, kitten-heel mules for tan pumps.

Wait! WAIT! Who is the fashion designer associated with these amazing pieces of footware? Were they Manolos? Louboutins? And did she go into a stall or was this done near the sink? Come ON, Washington Post! Are you committed to serious journalistic digging or not here?

And let’s look  at  how the authors framed her compare to how they framed Paxton in the realm of non-essential clauses: (I bolded certain spots for emphasis and clarity.)

 Paxton, a three-term incumbent reelected last year, has been among the state’s most prominent allies of former president Donald Trump. 


According to her LinkedIn profile, which she took down earlier this year, the four-times-divorced mother of two previously worked as district director for Sen. Donna Campbell (R) in San Antonio.

(Question: How many kids does Ken Paxton have? You wouldn’t know from this  story. Or this one. Or this one. Or a dozen others. That said, he has four kids and two grandkids, in case you think that matters.)

And then toss this in:

Paxton has not been seen in the Senate chamber since he entered a not guilty plea on day one, though his wife of more than 35 years, Sen. Angela Paxton, has been ever-present.

The picture being painted here is this: Married, thrice-elected civil servant is accused of philandering with a mother of two who apparently can’t keep a man.

This is not the only article that focuses more on what Olson looks like than what she might have to say in Paxton’s impeachment trial. Here’s one where they really dig into the clothing choice, as well as the way her high heels click-clack around the Capitol. Maybe that’s why she made the strategic move to the tan pumps…

One other thing that came up in this discussion of the Olson/Paxton situation was how Olson was described as a “mistress.” The question came up: “Is there even a male equivalent for this term, which seems to admonish her as a man-stealing home-wrecker?” As much as we had trying to make a term (“man-stress” and “side-weiner” were two I particularly enjoyed contributing), we couldn’t find one. That says something about the framing and the English language…

The point is, when we see content like this, we have our views on people like Olson shaped in one way while we have our views of people like Paxton shaped another. That’s not to say a story should never describe someone’s appearance or clothing or that all people should be treated exactly the same. What this is saying is to examine how we treat people in the media and if there is inequitable treatment based that unfairly shifts the frame.

In writing, we talked about this before on the blog, and these lessons merit a second look. As consumers, however, it really pays to pay attention to these issues as well and how they frame our views.

EXERCISE TIME: Read some stories on topics that interest you and look for specific frames that you think shape how a reader would perceive a person, event or outcome. Also keep an eye out for stories that frame individuals based on issues of race, gender, social status, sexual orientation or other similar elements. What do these frames present and do you feel they are fair?

Also, can you imagine framing people of a different group in a similar way? For example, would a man’s clothing be described in as intricate detail as a woman’s was in an article? Or would a story on a rich person focus as much on their single-parent household as a story on a poorer person does? Are there words that apply only to one group and not another, like the term “mistress?”

The best advice ever when it comes to getting an interview from an Emmy-award winning journalist. (A Throwback post)

As we start the unit on interviewing in my classes, a lot of students are getting nervous about talking to people. I like to blame it on a lot of things like COVID’s push to make everything a distance discussion, this generation’s over-reliance on digital communication and a general sense of fear that people will say no.

Truth be told, I was always fearful of calling people up or walking up to people for basic interviews. Strangely enough, I never had a problem walking past a burning building or stepping over something dead to ask a firefighter or a cop, “So, what happened here?” I think the adrenaline of the moment helped push me past my socially awkward nature.

In any case, getting what you need often comes down to knowing who can give it to you. Bothering people for an interview, a set of data or even a ride in a nuclear sub can be arduous, but when it comes to making it happen, this throwback post has some pretty good advice:


“Don’t Take No From Someone Who Isn’t Empowered To Say Yes”

My friend Allison used the quote in the headline this weekend when we were teaching her daughter/my goddaughter how to negotiate for better prices at a flea market in South Haven, Michigan. It turned out to be a golden bit of advice she learned from Peter Greenberg, a Emmy-award-winning journalist who was talking to the students at our old college newspaper.

Here’s the story as relayed by Allison (Greenberg himself recalled this story during a guest appearance on the “Destination Everywhere” Podcast):

Greenberg was explaining how to get an important story and how to persist when people didn’t want to be helpful.

He wanted access to a nuclear attack sub as part of a story he was working on. This was in the late 1980s when this was happening, which happened to be when we were still in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so letting a journalist wander around a nuclear sub was laughable at best.

Greenberg kept poking at Naval officials for access, each one basically telling him, “There is no way this is happening.” At one point he asked, “OK, if this COULD be done, who would be the one person who could allow it to happen?” It turned out to be the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Greenberg got the Navy to agree to give him the meeting, which was supposed to be kind of a 10-minute, “we had a meeting” meeting. Instead, Greenberg noticed a photo of a ship on the admiral’s wall and Greenberg knew a lot about that particular ship. Instead of talking about sub access, they started talking about the boat. By the time the 10 minutes had ended, the admiral invited Greenberg to lunch and eventually granted him the permission he sought.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes,’” he told the group.

At the heart of his story were three key things that can be helpful to you as a journalist:

TAKE A SHOT: When Greenberg kept hearing “no,” he asked for a meeting that the people essentially told him wasn’t going to lead anywhere. In the podcast mentioned earlier in this post, Greenberg said the people setting up the meeting for him basically asked him why he’d want to fly all the way to Pearl Harbor just to hear “no” from one more person. He figured he had nothing at this point, so he might as well take a shot in person with the one person who could get him what he needed. What was the worst thing that could happen? He might have no story and a case of jet lag and that’s about it.

If the story is important enough to you, you need to take a shot at it before deciding it’s not going to happen. You never know what you might get if you give up before you give it a chance to succeed.

FIND COMMON GROUND: The thing that made this work was a bit of serendipity. If the admiral had a picture of a sunset, a poster of Porsche or a velvet Elvis on his wall, Greenberg might have not found his in. However, as he explained in the podcast, he realized he needed a connection and he found it:

They gave me a ten-minute appointment at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. I flew up on a Saturday. I walked in to see him. He could care less about me. I was told to have a meeting. He didn’t want to be there. It was an office the size of Grand Central Station. Everybody was in their dress whites. They didn’t want me to be there. It was like a courtesy call, give him a commemorative coin and get him out.

This is the difference. You seek out common ground and I knew that I had maybe fifteen seconds to figure out what the common ground was. I got lucky because behind his desk was a photograph of a boat and it turned out I knew the boat well.

I said to him, “Is that a Bertram 31?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “That’s the best boat they ever built.” He said, “You’re not kidding?” I said, “Let me guess. When you make a hard right turn, the engine cavitates and the water pump overflows?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Here’s how you fix it. You’re going to do a bypass on the impeller.”

We start talking like that and ten minutes later, the officer is going to say, “Admiral, your time is up.” He looked at me and said, “Do you got lunch plans?” I said, “I’m all yours.”


That’s called chutzpah and luck.

If I’d walked into his office for that ten-minute meeting, he’s like, “Can I go on a sub?” “Get the hell out of here.”

You want to look for ways to connect with a source during an interview. That’s why doing it in person is often so valuable. You can look around and see things that they have around them to help you size up your subject. Starting with a discussion about a picture or a plaque or even a baseball card they have on display can get you an “in” that makes them see you as a kindred spirit as opposed to a pain the butt.

GO TO WHO CAN SAY YES: I think I’m going to use that quote with every interviewing class for as long as I live now, in that it perfectly captures what we should be doing when it comes to getting key information.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes’” is simple, direct and yet amazingly mind-blowing, as it dawns on me that I’ve probably failed in this regard myriad times in my journalism career and my daily life.

When you want permission for something, you need to go to the person who can grant it. Unfortunately, there are often underlings, minions and other pencil-pushers who get put in your path and try to dissuade you from getting that permission. If it’s important enough for you to pursue that permission, get past those people and go find the person who is empowered to grant it.

Like many things, this can be taken too far or in the wrong way. I am in no way saying you should become the snotty person who is holding up the line at the store, loudly proclaiming, “I need to speak to your manager!” because the bananas are ringing up at 39 cents per pound when the sign clearly said 36 cents per pound. However, I am saying most folks take the first “no” as a reason to give up far too easily.

Find the person empowered to say yes and see what that person says. If it’s still “no” at least you’ll know that nobody else is getting your story. If it’s “yes,” you got what you came here to get.

Two helpful tips to help explain massive stories in 30 words or less

Many of my students look forward to the time in their journalism careers when they can move beyond the the inverted-pyramid, paraphrase-quote structure of meetings, speeches and news conferences. The idea of sinking their teeth into something much longer, more complex and multifaceted feels like a rite of passage from beginner to expert.

Most of them, however, find themselves exceedingly frustrated when they attempt to ply their trade to those bigger pieces, as it can feel like juggling Jell-O while trying to herd cats. The pieces don’t fit together right, the focus seems to drift and the overall concept of the story becomes one blurry mess.

The key thing to writing any story is being able to answer two questions:

  1. What am I trying to explain here?
  2. Why should anyone care?

That is as true for basic meeting stories (“The city council made it illegal to park on the streets overnight, which means State University students will need to find private parking and pay a premium price.”) as it is for major investigations. (“Banks were improperly incentivized and got greedy in the subprime mortgage market, leading to  risky decisions that tanked the U.S. economy.”)

I remember catching a session at a college media convention many years ago, in which an investigative journalist for a popular sports magazine told the students in the room that if they were writing a story, they needed to be able to explain it in less than 30 words.

“If I ask you what your story is about and you tell me, ‘Well… It’s complicated…’ that tells me you really don’t know what your story is about,” he said.

After the session, I introduced myself, told him how much I liked his presentation and then I pressed him a bit on the “30 words” thing. I made the point that if we’re talking about a game story or a speech story or something, I could see his point. However, the work he did? That’s got to be impossible to capture in 30 words.

“No,” he said emphatically. “You need to nail it down like that or you don’t get the message across to the readers.”

To push back, I asked him about what he was working on at that point. This was in the early 2000s when baseball was starting to sniff around the issue of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. He was digging through records, leaked emails and other things that explained who knew what, when and where and how. He also had information on individual players, suppliers and owners who all found a way to kind of absolve themselves of the sin of cheating.

“How in the hell can you boil that kind of thing down to 30 words,” I asked him.

“As far back as the mid-1990s, players were taking steroids and everyone knew, but no one did anything because everyone was making too much money,” he replied.

25 words. Bam.

So how do you get to the point of being able to do something like that with your stories? Here are some simple ways to make it happen:

FOCUS ON THE CANDY: When we talk about basic writing and sentence structure in the book, we start with “The Holy Trinity” of noun-verb-object. The sentence starts with those three elements and then builds outward from that core. This ensures us that we’ve got the main idea at the heart of what we’re trying to say. As we add more content, it has to support and augment that, or it’s no good.

The same thing is true for when we write basic inverted pyramid stories: The lead is the essential foundation of what we’re doing in the story. Each subsequent paragraph has to support or augment that element or it needs to go away.

Writing longer and more complicated stories is no different. Just because you gathered 20 times the material you would normally gather for a simple news story, it doesn’t follow that all of that can or should be added to the piece. In fact, you want to strongly resist the urge for “notebook emptying” when it comes to bigger pieces.

Focus on the core element of what you want to say and get rid of everything that isn’t that. One of my favorite scenes from Aaron Sorkin’s old “Studio 60” show exemplifies this perfectly: Two rookie writers are trying to a sketch about the world’s worst criminal who takes hostages in a bank.

They try so hard to do so much with it, it doesn’t work. Once they essentially realize that problem, the do addition by subtraction and start eliminating stuff that isn’t about their premise. That’s where they get it to work.

FOCUS ON YOUR AUDIENCE: For generations, journalists have operated under the mantra of, “I write, you read, because I know what you need.” The fact was that the audience read the stuff or watched the stuff because they lacked for better options. When there’s one or two newspapers and three or four TV channels, well, you’re stuck with whatever is there.

Today, that’s not the case as not only do we have an almost infinite number of media platforms from which to choose, but we also have exponentially more content providers than at any point in time. The thing that’s going to make you stand out, and thus your story stand out, is understanding what your audience needs from you and then providing it in a clear, coherent and helpful fashion.

In big pieces, we try to show how everything we have gathered can affect everyone who might ever come across our work. It’s like we’re trying to be everything to everyone.

This is where audience centricity really comes into play. For WHOM are you writing this piece? What are the demographic, psychographic and geographic elements that you can use to tailor your piece to a specific group of folks that will benefit from your work?

In talking with my class the other day, we were going through the issues hammering our university right now, including an $18 million budget hole. In that, we started parsing specific audiences and what they would want to know:

  • Students care about their majors getting cut, the classes they need to graduate being available, tuition going up etc.
  • Faculty worry about increased teaching loads, the length of furloughs, the potential elimination of majors.
  • Non-academic faculty worry about getting fired, as we’re cutting about 200 jobs, and those that remain worry about what their jobs will look like after the culling.

In each case, you can create a solid focus based on the audience and then really know what your story is about. It can’t be about all of these things in depth, but it can be several stories that each focus on one key set of stakeholders and the issues that matter to them.


An Update on the “Filak Furlough Tour 2023-24”

This was essentially my reaction after posting an offer to teach people’s classes during my furloughs, minus the part where one of my furloughed colleagues stabbed a man in the heart with a trident.

Here’s a story that might explain what we’re looking at for the Filak Furlough Tour:

When Zoe was in Girl Scouts, we had to sell Girl Scout cookies and unlike previous generations of kids who were told to go door to door, this one was told, “Give your parents the sheet and tell them to take it to work.” I think this was because a) the parents were better at putting the squeeze on people and b) the Girl Scouts were fearful a kid would ring the wrong bell and be abducted or something and that never looks good on the news.

At that point, I was still advising the newsroom here at UWO, so I took the sheet down there, feeling guilty that I was essentially asking students to subsidize my kid’s cookie fund. So, I told them all, “Look, I have this sheet. You don’t have to buy anything. No pressure. No guilt. To make this more reasonable, for every box you folks buy, I’ll match it with one I’ll buy for the newsroom so you can eat up on production nights.”

What I failed to realize was a) college kids do actually have money and b) Girl Scout cookies are apparently laced with an addictive chemical that makes college kids buy like there’s no tomorrow.

Long story short, I ended up buying more than 120 boxes of cookies for the newsroom that year because my parents taught me to live up to my promises. (SIDE NOTE: Zoe still didn’t end up with the most sales, as the parents in her troop that year would make “Dance Moms” seem mellow and well-adjusted by comparison.)

This leads us to the “Filak Furlough 2023-24 Tour “update.

When I posted the offer to find a way to fill my 11 days helping you all out, I figured a couple people might be like, “Yeah, cute, but we’re good” or maybe one or two would ask for a Zoom call and I’d be scraping around for a month or so to fill the time slots.

The 11 slots filled in less than 8 hours. I then found out that I could divide my furlough days into half days, so I cut the ones in half where someone just wanted me to Zoom in and such, as opposed to come out and see their class. That filled up as well. I’m currently at about 23 schools that have locked in for this, along with several others that have asked me to let them know if I can slide them in for something or if someone drops out.

I’ll be traveling to Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, with other potential road trips possible. I’m also doing Zoom classes on crime coverage, sports journalism and why journalism matters, for sure. I’m also going to be on a panel with some really smart people talking about race, journalism and issues of DEI.

(In addition, I was offered opportunities to write for a journalism newsletter, blog for a lumber company and do a paid radio gig in Appleton. This doesn’t include the very nice offer from my chair, who asked if we could do kind of a “American Pickers-style” documentary together where he followed me around while I found and refinished furniture. Also my mom offered to pay me to come home and do tech support on her computer for a week. I’m coming home soon, mom, and you don’t have to pay me anything to fix the computer. Just make some shrimp salad…)

The point is, I’m thrilled as hell that people wanted to work with me on this. It feels good to be wanted and it’s a hell of a lot better than sitting around on a forced day off. I’m in the process  of making dates and times work, so keep an eye on your email.

Also, if you still want to participate in this, I’ll make it work. Just shoot me a message through the contact page and tell me what you want and such. Even if I do it on my own non-furloughed time, I don’t care. I’d love to help out and work with you and your kids.

(And to make this clear, this is all freebie. I had a couple people ask what my fee would be. The answer is nothing. All you really need to do is find out where the nearest supply of Diet Coke is to wherever I’ll be speaking if I’m visiting your campus.)

That said, I’m going to live up to my word and everyone involved is getting a blog post, a book and a bat. It just might take a tad longer to get the bats done than I had originally planned, but it’s gonna happen. Again, my parents raised me right: You live up to the promises you make.

Which leads me to the last point…

I NEED YOUR HELP: I kind of joking said that if I sold out all the dates, I’m making T-shirts for this furlough tour. After I wrote that, I had at least a dozen people reaching out, including my kid, asking, “How can I buy a T-shirt if you pull this off?”

Well, I sold it out. And I suck at art and design, as this look back at my last attempt at art will clearly illustrate. So, I need anyone out there with any kind of skill set or interest or ability to put stuff together in a way that other people would want to wear it to design the front of the shirt.

You can come up with whatever name you want for the tour, as long as it’s got Filak and Furlough in there and isn’t R-rated. Also, don’t violate copyright by stealing a meme or something. Nothing  says, “I’m a trustworthy journalism person” like violating basic tenets of media law.

The back will be the list of the places, schools and dates, so I’ve got that covered.

You can send that to me through the contact page as well, or through my gmail account (vffilak). If I pick yours, I’ll buy you one of the shirts and credit your work.

Thank you all so much and I’ll keep you all posted.

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