Exercise time! Pick a song and write a lead (or “Santa sought in hit-and-run homicide.”)

In many cases, songs are essentially stories, just told in a different way. If you want a lead-writing exercise that emphasizes critical thought and a bit of fun, have your students write a basic lead to capture the 5W’s and 1H of a popular song. If you want to make it a bit more challenging, add the rule that they can’t use the title of the song in the lead.

Consider this holiday favorite for a simple news lead:

Citing a recent break-up, a Memphis man said Thursday he will be depressed this Christmas, even as he wishes his former girlfriend well.

If you want to have a little more fun or dig a little deeper, this song has been on constantly around here:

Interesting-Action lead:
A North Pole man is accused of homicide after one of his reindeer trampled an area grandmother to death Sunday night.

Name-Recognition lead:
Santa is wanted in a hit-and-run accident that left one woman dead Sunday night as she left a family gathering.

Day-Two lead:
Members of an area family are in mourning Monday after their “grandma” was killed in a hit-and-run accident overnight.


Looking for a “concert review” lead? Try this one:

Review lead:
An area percussionist upstaged several other acts in an impromptu gathering Monday in Nazareth that marked the birth of Christ.


OK, enough with Christmas…

Summary/Event lead:
Many celebrities celebrate “the festival of lights” rather than Christmas during this holiday season, a Brooklyn man said Thursday.


If you want to get away from the holidays all together, you can always pick a song from the recent inductees at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame:

Interesting-Action lead (two sentence edition):
In spite of financial struggles and personal problems, a New Jersey couple said Thursday love has kept them together.
Tommy, an unemployed dock worker, and Gina, an area waitress, said they will continue to fight for a better life because “you live for the fight when that’s all that you got.”


No, I don’t know “any bands from this millennium,” and half the songs my students suggested had a little too much cussing in them to make the folks at SAGE comfortable, so here’s something more recent, less caustic and still really poppy.

Broadcast lead:
Don’t wait to have fun in life.
That’s the message a London-based boy band had for its listeners Thursday morning.

Pick some songs and have some fun!

A few tips on making the most of course evaluations (or Why “You suck! Your an asshole!” rarely helps.)

As the semester draws to a close, students have two equally important things to deal with: Finals and course evaluations. When it comes to finals, most students probably feel like this:

Perfectly normal response, when everything is due all at the same time, every final test or project is worth 80 percent of your grade and every professor thinks his/her final should take precedence over everything else.

And then there are course evaluations: The one moment in time where, behind a cloak of anonymity, students have the ability to grade their instructors. It’s easy enough to imagine you wanting your “Jules Winfield” moment:

I’ve had my share of evaluations over 20 years of teaching college journalism students, so I’ve seen quite a range of commentary over the years. The one that always stuck with me was the student who filled in the whole row of “Strongly Disagree” bubbles on the ScanTron sheet with what appeared to be a frenzied scrawl of a demented clown.

On the back, where students were asked to list three things they liked about me or the class, three things they disliked about me or the class and three things they’d like to see the class do in the future, he (I assume it was a guy) wrote one thing in giant letters:


It is that succinct and yet nonspecific response that led me to today’s post about course evaluations. Some students view it as an opportunity to “get back” at a professor while others use them to lavish praise with exclamation points and emojis to boot. Some students hope their comments will “fix” a class while others see them as never having an effect on how the professor operates.

The truth, as it is with most things, sits in the middle somewhere, as some professors will take every word to heart and others will use your criticism to light the yule log in their hearth. However, consider these thoughts when you fill out your course evals:

  • Numbers are fine but comments matter more: Some schools just give you numerical scales to rate a professor, so you don’t have much leeway here. However, if you are lucky enough to have an evaluation form that allows you to make comments, do so.
    If one student gives me a “3” on “The material made sense to me” and another student gives me a “4,” that doesn’t tell me anything. However, if both of those students wrote that a particular assignment, reading or whatever didn’t make sense or was confusing, I’m going to take another look at that thing. If you apply the “Filak-ism” of how grades don’t matter but what you learn does to your evaluations, you’ll see that one good comment matters more than all the 3s, 4s and 5s you can shake a stick at.


  • Tell me WHY: OK, I suck. Got it. Why do I suck? What specifically makes me suck? Just like you don’t like getting a paper back with no comments on it and a “D” grade, professors don’t like getting vague statements. I can say with absolute certainty that I have changed assignments, class structure and even my teaching based on “why” answers.
    Case in point: In one class a student wrote that he/she thought I was playing favorites by giving the students who worked with me at the newspaper special treatment. The student mentioned that I never called out a newsroom kid for texting during class, but I publicly admonished another student for texting. The student also said I called on the newspaper kids first when we were doing discussions. I hadn’t realized what I was doing, but the student saw it and it made me think twice about how I was conducting myself in the classroom and I altered my behavior. Had the student simply said, “You suck,” I never would have known why he/she felt that way.


  • Don’t undercut your own arguments: I might suck and I might be the other thing that person said about me, but when the student used the wrong form of “your” in proclaiming that edict, he (or she) really had me laughing more than anything else. Lousy grammar and spelling (especially in critiquing a journalism professor) will really diminish the impact of your words. So will statements like, “I quit going to lecture after the third week, but I didn’t feel I really learned anything from this course.” If you want to make me sit up and notice, write it in a way I’ll accept it: Use complete sentences, give me specific examples and don’t make mistakes in your writing.


  • Sunshine and lollipops are nice, but they don’t help either: Having one’s ego stroked is a great feeling. The more exclamation points used in the sentence “Dr. Filak is the best professor ever!!!!!!!,” the more joyous my day will be. That said, once I get past having sunshine blown up my keester, I’m left with little else that matters. Most of your journalism professors have thick skins, so telling them negative stuff will not have them at home drinking vodka and listening to Chaka Khan. However, feeding us sunshine and lollipops doesn’t help, either. Tell us WHAT you liked or wanted us to keep. In some cases, it’s something simple like “I loved that you told jokes to keep the class laughing.” In other cases, it’ll be about content: “I never had to learn about X before, but your approach made it easier.” You should feel free to tell us what to keep and what to get rid of.


  • It’s not personal: Our program assistant and I were chatting about various comments we’ve seen over the years on evaluations. She said when she worked for a different department on campus, she had to type up all the comments on course evals, regardless of content and without changing typos and so forth. Aside from the grammar errors that made her feel like she died a little inside, she said some of them were revoltingly personal. One involved the student’s supposition that the faculty members mother had mated with a goat. Another was for a female professor and commented about how “hot” she was.
    I used to get comments on how I dressed (One student noted that I dressed like a homeless guy. Another once noted: “What’s 12 inches long and hangs from an asshole? Filak’s tie.”) Someone mentioned on an eval that I was going bald. True? Yeah, even probably the tie thing, which is why I don’t wear them any more (well that and I feel more comfortable dressing like a homeless elf). Fair? Not a chance.
    It’s inappropriate to comment on the physicality of people unless it in some way diminishes your ability to understand the material. If a professor was too quiet, it’s fair to ask for that person to speak up. It’s not decent to note that the faculty member was “so ugly it made it hard for me to concentrate.” As they say in every “Godfather” movie: It’s not personal. So don’t make it that way.
    Think about the converse happening to you. If you got a paper back and the professor wrote, “I’d like to give you an A on this, but I could never give that high of a grade to a Chicago Bears fan, so here’s your C,” you’d be rightly upset. If a faculty member told you, “Keep wearing clothes like that and you’ll never get a decent grade” or commented on how “hot” you are, there is no way you would tolerate it. (And by the way, if any of those things do happen, especially the sexual harassment, tell an administrator immediately. There’s no place for that stuff anywhere.)


  • Don’t wait until evals: If you are sitting in week 5 with a lousy grade, no idea what the professor is talking about and a general sense that this class is essentially going to turn your life into a Dumpster fire, don’t wait until evaluations come around two months later to make mention of it. Talk to your professor about concerns when you have them to see if you can rectify a few of the problems you are having. See if you can find some common ground in making the class work better for you.
    If we can fix things before they become irreversible problems, we’re so much happier for it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I don’t get a Christmas bonus or a free set of steak knives for every student I fail, so I have no motive to avoid helping you. Tell me sooner rather than later and we’ll both be better off.

GAME TIME: “Inconceivable!” (or I don’t think that word means what you think it means…)

One of the benefits of having spell check on computers it that it keeps you from making spelling errors that can make you look stupid. One of the drawbacks of spell check is that it doesn’t always know what word you meant to use or if you’re using the right version of a word.

As an “AP rules meets dictionary definitions” bit of fun, see how well you do at this 10-item quiz that incorporates AP rules on word choices as well as Webster’s definitions on what certain words are supposed to mean.

If you think you have game, give this quiz a shot. Speed counts, but accuracy matters most. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to begin.

Guest Blogging: Don’t look for the best job. Look for the right one.

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of my favorite quotes that reflects a good life philosophy comes from the movie “Miracle.” Assistant coach Craig Patrick tells head coach Herb Brooks that the roster Brooks built is missing a lot of the best players available to him. Brooks response is, “I’m not looking for the best players, Craig. I’m looking for the right ones.”

Far too often, I counsel students who “chase” jobs because they think it’s what they’re supposed to want or do. They measure their worth by the size of their media market or the cache associated with their titles or the sense of gravitas connected to a publication. They want to be able to say, “I work at the (fill in name of giant media outlet here)” as it seems to codify and verify their self worth. When I talk to these students (and former students), I keep telling them, “Don’t chase something because you think it’s something you’re supposed to want. Instead, find what you actually want and enjoy and do that. You’ll never regret it.” 

When old friend and former student Pat Garvin posted about his experience speaking to students in the same way, I asked him to put his thoughts into a post for you all. The reason? He’s actually doing the media gig he wants. You might assume it’s easy for a professor to say, “I’m sure you’ll be amazing at the Northeast Southwestern Tattler! Who needs the New York Times?” However, Pat walks the walk, lives the life and has a great bit of wisdom for folks looking for “THE job.” Enjoy


Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Pat Garvin a visual journalist at The Boston Globe. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

The end of the fall semester is coming up at many colleges and universities, and for some students, so is graduation. Whether you’re graduating in a few weeks, a few months, or a few years, I’d like to put your mind at ease.

A few times a year, I get to speak to journalism classes at The University of Missouri about what I do. As I went there myself, the class instructor asks me to tell the students about where my career has taken me since I was a Mizzou student.

I look forward to these classes, as I enjoy showing them the work that my teammates and I have done, and I enjoy explaining the reasons behind the choices we made for each package. But I also enjoy being the voice that tells them not to measure their self worth by what publication they go to after college, especially if their friends end up at big name places at 23. I remember how easy it was for me and my friends to compare ourselves to each other based on who got what job and how big the circulation was.

If you’re a few weeks out from graduation, you’ve likely seen this scenario around campus, if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. But try not to get caught up in comparing who takes a job at which publication. To borrow a phrase from Admiral Ackbar in “Return of the Jedi,” “It’s a trap!”

For some people, the huge national papers are part of their path, and that makes them happy. They will do great work, and they will feel fulfilled. And that’s good, because we will all benefit from their work. Others might go to those marquee name outlets, be miserable, and burn out. It’s tempting to say that the people who are happy at big papers are successful and the people who don’t make it there are not successful. But that framing assumes that success for everyone is going to be measured by whether or not they end at the biggest website, newspaper, TV station, etc.

I make it a point to tell students that we need not — and should not — frame it this way. When my friends and I graduated, we naively equated big ambition with happiness. We assumed that once we got to a dream paper, then we will have “made it.” But that ties the idea of success and happiness to the name on the building, rather than who you’re with, what you’re doing, and what you’re learning. In the years since graduation, my friends and I have shifted our understanding of what it means to be a successful journalist. Now, we can appreciate that if you’re happy and your family is happy, and you’re learning and growing, then that is what success looks like to me. And that can happen at multiple places.

I often tell journalism students that it helps to follow five guidelines:

1. Identify what you want.
2. Figure out what you need to do to get that.
3. Start doing those things.
4. Be flexible, and if what you want changes, that’s OK.
5. Never take any interaction for granted. Each person you meet in a building is valuable, whether it’s the editor-in-chief or the custodian.

These are good to remember whether your ambition is to end up at a national news outlet or to become an editor at your hometown paper. These guidelines frame it in personal terms, and that’s hopefully relieving for any journalism student who felt pressured to pursue a path that doesn’t feel right. With these guidelines, the goal isn’t to end up at the biggest place you can, but rather, where you think you’ll be able to flourish. And maybe the biggest place you can be is where you will flourish. That’s OK. But it’s also OK if you find yourself happy and fulfilled at a smaller publication.

A bunch of things PR students always wanted to know but were afraid to ask

Thanks to the wonderful faculty environment we have here at UWO and the nice people I work with, I get a few benefits that some other places don’t. A lot of schools are so large or so “siloed” in their approaches to the various media disciplines that faculty and students don’t spend a lot of time together. Even more, once you choose your path as a student, you tend to end up in a silo or a bubble or whatever else you want to call it. In short, if you’re in PR, you spend all your time with PR students, PR faculty, PR textbooks and PR internships. If you’re in digital news, you are surrounded by news faculty, news students, news gigs and news texts. You never really get out of your zone or  your lane.

I’ve always submitted that this is problematic because you need to know how other people work and think and act in your field. I’ve done a ton of research on the issue of intergroup bias in this regard. (I’m not linking it here, but if NyQuil isn’t working for you, feel free to look for it on Academic Search Premier.) Even more, when people are people, it’s easier to understand and appreciate each other and be honest about stuff that can help them.

To help facilitate that idea, our PR guru Kristine Nicolini asked if I’d sit with her PR techniques class (a small group of about 20 student or so) and answer questions for them based on my experiences in news and working with PR folk. To help facilitate this, she had them write up a bunch of questions and then we kind of went from there. Below is a loose rehash of the items they asked, some things we discussed and a couple things they asked but we didn’t get to. It might not be everyone’s experience, but the answers reflected mine and I think it reveals greater truths as we get toward the end of the term:

“What’s your best advice for a PR professional when it’s the first time he/she reaches out to a specific journalist?”
“What makes for a strong first impression?”
“What’s your best advice for a PR professional who wants to create relationships with a journalist?”
“How do you go from just being the annoying PR professional to being an actual contact journalists will go to?”

I grouped these together (a few others were similar, so I avoided duplication) because they all hit on that same basic idea. In order to keep things simple, here are three bits of advice (and these swing both ways in the PR/News relationship):

  1. Get to know me before you need me. If the only time I ever hear from you is when you need something from me, you’re like that annoying friend on Facebook who tags me when their kid is selling Christmas wreaths or the “dude I knew sophomore year” who calls out of the blue to see if I can help him move into a new apartment this weekend. Building relationships takes time and it can’t just be a transaction-based arrangement. If you spend time getting to know me, my job, my needs and my publication, I will, in turn, get to know all those kinds of things about you.
  2. Bank capital and spend it when it matters: Every transaction you have with another human being leads to some level of benefit for one or both of you. It could be a small benefit or a large one, but it’s there. I like to think of this as “building capital” and it has its benefits. When you can help a reporter find a bit of information or provide a quote when you can, you build capital. It’s not like the person “owes you” favors, but when you are there for someone enough times, you feel like you’ll have a better shot of getting what you need when you need it. In other words, I helped you move 13 times over the past three years. Could you help me do X just this once?
  3. Know where the line is: I’ve been professional, decent, humane, friendly and so forth in many relationships with many PR professionals I’ve know. However, there is a line neither one of us can’t cross into “friendship” because that has huge risks. You can ask me for things that I can decline for any number of reasons: (“Hey I have this client who has a book about the benefits of eating yellow snow. You think  you could do a story on him?” “Uh… no. That’s gross.” “OK.”) However, you can’t ask me to break my own ethical code, violate the law or cover up something because “I thought we were friends.” If your boss’ kid gets a DUI and it’s newsworthy, it’s getting published. If your company’s new “Andy the Asbestos doll” is giving kids cancer, I’m not skipping that story. We both know there is a line and we both know how it works.
    I also have to know where that line is. When I know a PR person well enough, I know what’s off limits (it varies) and I also know if the line is a hard line or a flexible line. We agree on the parameters of our relationship and we stick to it.


“Why can’t I get stuff published when I send it to journalists?”

“What makes you want to write about something?”
“If something comes from a PR person, do you automatically think of it as bad?”

This was a collection of thoughts students had during a part of the chat where they clearly were frustrated. The idea is: “I put all this time and energy into this news release or event or whatever and ‘you guys’ just ignore it or crap all over it. What gives?” Two simple answers both focus on the same basic idea:

  1. I don’t care about you (and neither should you): The main point I make in both books is that audience-centricity is crucial to everything we do in the media. If you’re doing a whole campaign on snowblower safety in June, who the hell is going to care about that in my audience? If I run a magazine on duck hunting and you are pitching me ideas on how to hunt for elk, why would I want to run that? The biggest issue all media writers have is that we get attached to our topics. We feel that it matters to us and therefore it should matter to everyone else. It doesn’t. Focus on the benefits your thing has to the audience I serve as a journalist and we’re probably going to be on the same page.
  2. Do we actually need each other? Not every PR person needs every journalist. If I’m covering crime in Springfield, Missouri, I probably want to get to know the public information officer at the Springfield Police Department very well. I need that guy or gal to do my job in a lot of cases. Do I need to know the head of the local FFA out there? Probably not. Flip that around: Does that FFA head need me? Nope. Does the PIO need me? Maybe, depending on the attitude the police have regarding the local press.
    The goal is to figure out how a relationship between you as a PR person and me as a reporter is mutually beneficial. Why do I want to get to know you as a journalist or why do I want to get to know you as a PR practitioner? What value does each of us possess in that relationship that helps us do our jobs better? How does it help us serve our audiences? Answer that question and you’ll get a lot more out of the whole situation.

Random questions with quick answers that really didn’t fit into any particular area of anything.

“What’s your advice for working with difficult journalists?”
Find out why I’m being a jerk, figure out if it’s something you can/would care to fix and act accordingly. Also, figure out if I’m worth the time and effort. As mom always told me after I got dumped throughout high school, “There are a lot of other fish in the sea… you can do so much better.”

What’s the hardest part about being a journalist?
Mental scars, situational regrets and dead kids. I can remember the name, age and cause of death of every kid (17 and under) I ever wrote about and that goes back more than 20 years.

“What’s the worst thing a PR person can do (to a journalist)?”
Lie to me. If you lie to me, I’ll probably figure it out and then I’m going to be really peeved and I’ll make it my personal mission to make sure you regret it.

“What was the most interesting way a (PR/Marketing etc.) professional reached out to you?”
Someone sent the newsroom a giant box (and I mean like the size of a printer-paper box)  of condoms as part of a press kit promoting safer sex awareness. Also, some music label used to send us CDs in miniature “body bags.” I think it was supposed to make them look “bad ass.” I think our features editor used them to carry his lunch around. If you have a question you’d like to see answered, ask it here and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Got a question? Hit me up here and I’ll give it a go.

How to handle “I’m going to sue you” as a college newspaper (even if the person threatening you is Anthony Scaramucci)

“I’m going to sue you.”

Few phrases start more heart palpitations in a student newsroom than that one. Even though, as a good friend once noted, “It ain’t a lawsuit until it’s filed,” the sense that someone is coming after you with the full force of law can be terrifying. If you spend enough time in any part of the media field, you will likely hear that phrase and have it pointed in your general direction.

The student newspaper at Tufts University had that experience recently, thanks to a few columns written about a famous, outspoken alumnus: Anthony Scaramucci.

Scaramucci spent 10 days as the White House communications director under President Donald Trump. During that time, his wild ride included an off-color interview with the New Yorker, that disparaged several former colleagues and eventually led to his downfall. Scaramucci is also an alumnus of Tufts University where he served on an advisory board for the university’s law school. Graduate student Camilo A. Caballero penned several opinion pieces for the Tufts Daily, arguing that Scaramucci shouldn’t hold that position.

Scaramucci, a 53-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer with an impressive background in financial success, decided the best course of action was to threaten a lawsuit against the author and the paper, unless an apology was issued and the content was retracted.

Caballero has referred all questions to the folks at the ACLU with whom he is working, but Gil Jacobson, the editor-in-chief of the paper, was nice enough to exchange a few emails with me on the topic.

Jacobson said he first heard rumblings about Scaramucci’s board position in October, and The Daily ran a news article on the topic in early November. Around that time, the paper ran two of Caballero’s columns as well. On Nov. 20, he said the paper covered a session between administrators and concerned community members of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The cease-and-desist letter came the next day.

“I spoke on the phone with a lawyer from Student Press Law Center last week, and based on the information he gave me, we decided to print the cease-and-desist letter today and keep the original op-eds online in their original text,” Jacobson said in an email to me early last week.

In the mean time, all of the content pertaining to the Scaramucci situation remain online via the paper’s website.

“I have the final say as far as potential retractions and apologies go,” Jacobson said. “The op-eds remain online in their original text, and we’ll just have to wait and see where things go from here.”

Since that set of emails, Scaramucci has resigned his position from the board, he has not retracted his request for the paper to “unpublish” its content and the ACLU has helped craft a response to Scaramucci’s demands. In addition, in defending his honor against the commentary of a 26-year-old law school student who is writing for a college newspaper, Scaramucci got the Washington Post, New York Times and Boston Globe to shine a light on everything Caballero accused him of being and doing. When I touched base with Jacobson for a brief follow up on this, he remained pretty even-keeled:

“With anything we publish, we must be prepared for the full scope of outcomes to occur, no matter how severe. Words have consequences, just like actions,” he said. “We’ve seen this happen this week with Mr. Scaramucci, as well as many other cases involving journalists.”

This situation has about 91 things you can learn from it as a journalism student, not to mention at least 112 more amusing moments you can enjoy. (My personal favorite is the ACLU’s examination of this statement:)

Statement 3: “[T]he man who sold his soul in contradiction to his own purported beliefs for a seat in that White House”

Mr. Caballero’s statement about Mr. Scaramucci’s selling of his soul is both a constitutionally-protected statement of opinion and a statement that is  not actionable because it does not contain objectively verifiable facts. See Scholz, 473 Mass. at 250. The “contradiction” underlying this purported sale is of course well- documented; Mr. Scaramucci appeared to change his prior positions when he accepted his White House appointment. But the purported sale is an idiom meant to express an opinion about Mr. Scaramucci’s integrity, and it cannot be proved true or false. Your client clearly understands the idiom; he has in fact devoted a book to it.

That said, the best teachable moment to come out of all this is how to react when someone, even a rich-and-famous someone, threatens to sue you:

  1. Remain calm: The threat itself is enough to freak you out, but when you are nervous for no reason, you can make the most (and largest) mistakes. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: A threat. Take the threat seriously enough to gather crucial information and speak with the person involved, but remember, it is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully.
  2. Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. In one of the earlier articles on this topic, this was a key point legal experts were making: Just because you don’t like something that someone wrote, it doesn’t necessarily follow that libel or defamation has occurred. In the case of the Scaramucci letter, it was inordinately clearly what he and his legal team felt the problem was, so that made it easier for the newspaper staff to figure out how to proceed. In other cases, people are just generally angry, so you need to keep the dialogue flowing until you can zero in on exactly what happened and why this is so troubling to the angry person.
  3. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: A “fight or flight” instinct is pretty strong in most folks. When a person threatens you, the “flight” instinct to apologize profusely and promise to fix everything might feel like the best way to handle a situation. On the other hand, you might feel the need to “fight” the situation with some anger and vitriol of your own. Neither of these instincts tends to work out all that well when you are dealing with angry readers. The best thing you can do is work the situation like a reporter: Gather facts and opinions from this person, do some research digging and then come back with an answer when you feel fully informed. In some cases, those answers won’t even come from you, but rather a legal representative or someone higher up the food chain at your place of work. In either case, don’t back yourself in a corner out of fear.

The staff of the Tufts Daily seemed to nail this approach perfectly. It should be interesting to see what happens next.


Read it now, read it again: Tracy Everbach’s explanation on what journalists need to cover sexual assault

About three weeks ago, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, I reached out to a good friend, veteran journalist and feminist media scholar, Tracy Everbach, to see if she’d be willing to help me make sense of how this was all being covered in the media.

Given her expertise (and the insane amount of work professors like her have to deal with), her answer was about what I would have expected:

Yes I will. I am really slammed but will make time for this because it’s important. When do you need it?

My response was both honest, and unfortunately, prescient:

Thanks! As for “when” (and I hate saying this because it’s bad and yet I know it’s true) I’d be fine any time in the next week or so as I can’t imagine we’ve heard the last big “Famous person X is now accused of XYZ despicable sexual acts.”

In the time between that post and now, we’ve seen a number of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and other “what the heck is wrong with you?” situations among men of power being revealed. We even now have a case in which a woman tried to “catfish” the Washington Post into running a false allegation against Senate candidate Roy Moore. Today’s firing of morning show host Matt Lauer had me thinking, that it’s probably a good idea to shine a spotlight back on Tracy’s wise words.

Read her original post on this topic here. It’s worth it.

The Secret of the Briefs Bin (or how to write press releases that actually see the light of day)

I got a request for a post over the Thanksgiving break: “Can you talk about press releases? You cover this in the book, but what should we REALLY do to make sure our press releases (get published in news outlets)?”

Here’s a quick look at my actual experience writing news pieces from press releases. Hope it helps.

Of all the jobs I had working on the night desk of a professional newspaper, the one really annoying task was to tackle the briefs bin. The wire basket sat on my editor’s desk and was filled with press releases that various groups, clubs and businesses sent to us, hoping we would be enthralled enough with their prose to provide them with free coverage. Once every couple days, my editor would sort through a giant stack of releases and make some quick-glance decisions on their value.

I’d guess that at least one-third of them ended up in the garbage immediately. Those tended to come from out-of-state organizations or contained irrational screeds. A small number of the releases (maybe 5 or 10 percent) became actual stories: The editor would see a lot of value in these and hand them off to reporters who could pour some time and energy into them. Sources were called, people were quoted and stories were born.

The rest, however, had “BRF” scrawled across the top of them and were dumped into the briefs bin. These press releases would, at best, get a four-paragraph brief in the local section. Still, it would be something, so getting that far mattered.

The briefs bin was essentially a “do this when you have time” job for those of us who worked nights or general assignment shifts. When the editor asked, “Are you doing anything?” if you couldn’t plausibly come up with a job that you needed to do RIGHT NOW, she would say, “Well, why don’t you work through the briefs bin instead?”

So, what made for a “good” release, or at least good enough to get some level of coverage from a news publication? Consider the following thoughts:

  • A clear focus:  In a lot of cases, the most important stories were already gone, as my editor had pulled them out and given them to reporters. It was like someone had opened up a bunch of packs of baseball cards and pulled out all the major stars. I needed to find value in the semi-stars and commons that remained. When a press release hit the briefs bin, I knew it wasn’t something that was going to cure cancer, but I needed to find something that would matter to my readers. A strong focus in the headline and the lead sentence would help me figure this out. If the headline was something like, “City wins ‘Arborfest’ award for record-setting 23rd year in a row,” at least I had something to hang my hat on. If I’m reading six paragraphs into this and I’m hearing about “Ever since the dawn of time, trees have been an essential component of human existence on Earth…”, well, I’m probably skipping that one. If the release could be easily converted into a tight, clear brief, I wrote it up and pushed it over to my editor. If it couldn’t, I would usually slip the news release to the bottom of the briefs bin and pick another one. Eventually, if enough of us pushed a release to the bottom of the bin, it became “old news” and my editor would throw it out when she did a “cull” on the bin at the end of the month.
  • Write like I write: I once asked a friend who did press releases as a major component of his job what a “win” would be for him when he sends these things out to news outlets. His answer was, “I’d love it if you would just print the whole thing exactly the way I wrote it.” If that’s the goal, use the inverted pyramid, write in single-sentence paragraphs and follow AP style. Essentially, you want to write like I write for my publication. The less work you make me do, the more likely it is you will see your content published almost verbatim.
  • Appearances count: I say this as a chronically messy individual who will only “dress up” for weddings, funerals and court appearances. I also say this as someone who once tried to turn in a report that had tartar sauce on it. That said, as a professional, your job is to present information to me in a professional fashion. Yes, letterhead looks nice, but I’m talking about appearances in terms of things that make your release easy to read. Contact info should be easy to find and give me a named individual I can reach if I have a question. The font should not look like it was chosen by a toddler, a kidnapper or the Son of Sam. The paragraphs should be double spaced, so I can read them without getting a headache. At 1 a.m. when I was writing these things, ease of use made my day. If I felt like I was playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” I would usually give up.
  • It’s not about you: The goal of any form of media writing is to reach your audience members in a way that has them see why they should care about the story you are telling. The key way to do this is to tell the readers why THEY should care about something, not why YOU want to tell them something. In short, it’s not about you. The promotional aspect of press release writing allows you some leeway in how you tell them this information, but you want to keep in mind this press release isn’t about you or how cool your group is. If every release you write starts off with “The Smithton Company announced Wednesday an important (NEW PIECE OF INFORMATION)…” you are essentially writing the PR version of a “held a meeting lead.” You get to “play” in the release, but it shouldn’t be all about you.

Thanks for asking for this post! Hope it helped! By the way, I do take requests, so if you want me to cover a topic, pick at a story or generally deal with something on the blog, contact me and I’ll be happy to give it a go.


GAME TIME: Thanksgiving-themed AP-style quiz!

On the last day before most people take off for turkey, shopping, hunting or whatever you all do, beg your instructor to let you do this instead of actual work!

How well do you know AP style? Some rules seem eternal while others get added or dropped each year. If you think you have game, give this quiz a shot. Speed counts, but accuracy matters most.

Here’s a Thanksgiving-themed, 10-question AP style quiz for you. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to start your quiz.

Allegations of rap, a sheriff-groping student and other awkward mistakes to avoid

We have a couple examples today of what happens when journalists don’t think before they act or they fail to spend an adequate amount of time to check their work before publishing.

SPELLCHECK WON’T SAVE YOU: One of the main reasons you have so many headline issues or stories about “pubic speakers” or “pubic events” is because journalists misspell “public” and don’t notice it because spellcheck didn’t say something was wrong. Just because a word is spelled correctly doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right word, as Newsweek found out in its recent coverage of sexual assault allegations:


If you read the second sentence carefully, you will notice journalist says “Simmons allegedly rapped”  the woman, as opposed to “raped” her. (Def Jam is a label predominantly known for hip-hop artists, thus making the “rapped” reference additionally awkward.)

Regardless of if you are writing about a major figure accused of committing a heinous crime or if you are covering a bake sale hosted by local youth, edit carefully. It can save you from something truly embarrassing.

HYPHENS HELP: We’ve discussed the idea of reading everything from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy as a way to keep yourself out of trouble when writing things that could lead to awkward double entendres. This not only helps with word choices, but also in the use of punctuation. Perhaps the most famous one indicates how commas save lives:


In this case, the lack of a hyphen creates a problem for anyone wondering who was doing what to whom:


The YouTube video referenced here talks about a “Student Groping Sheriff,” which is a bit too vague for the casual reader. It could be a student groping a sheriff or, in an extremely odd reading, a student sheriff whose job it is to engage in groping. What you needed was the hyphen so it was a “Student-Groping Sheriff,” as in a sheriff who groped students.  Hyphens help to clarify what could be an awkward construction. This is why I tend to over-hyphenate, even on things like a “public-relations practitioner.” I don’t want someone to be seen as a “relations practitioner” who operates in public. Not sure what that would look like and I don’t want to know.

WORD CHOICE MATTERS: It’s not only about what the word says or means in some cases, but rather what the word connotes. Consider this word choice in a item about several hunting fatalities:


The phrase “a couple” does mean two, so the headline isn’t inaccurate, but the feeling of “a couple” is a bit too casual of a tone for a story in which people died. I have a hard time believing the recent Las Vegas mass shooting would have a headline like “Some guy shot bunches and bunches of people at concert.” Then again, this headline ran after the Texas shooting:

When it comes to crafting your content, think about how your readers will read what you are putting out there. Every word you choose or error you make has the potential to affect how your readers consume your work and what they will think of you.

In short, be careful out there.