Guest Blogging: “To work in PR, you need to be a good writer.”

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 Jonathan Foerster, the communications director for Artis—Naples, a performing and visual arts organization in Southwest Florida. He has worked in both news and public relations and makes the case here that the skills you pick up in journalism writing courses and jobs are invaluable for anyone in corporate communications, marketing or PR. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.


Like any communications job, the main role any public relations professional plays is storyteller. From press releases to pitch emails and from Twitter feeds to YouTube channels, if you don’t have a compelling story, no one is paying attention.

All of this is for the service of your company, product or event. We know that the best brands build layers of narrative around their products allowing for multiple points of entry and a variety of strong positive emotions. The style and content that appeals to one part of your target audience doesn’t work for another segment. So, you must have the ability to the same message and translate it to different groups.

The transformation of great ideas into stories that resonate with your audiences requires an understanding of narrative structures, the techniques used to draw in an audience and the ability to easily translate industry jargon into something anyone can understand.

To work in PR, you need to be a good writer.

There isn’t a day in my role as communications director for an art nonprofit where my writing skills, honed by years of working at newspapers and magazines, aren’t critical.
There are obvious areas where my journalism training comes in handy. For example, eight times a year we create a mini magazine that serves as the program book for our audiences. We treat these as not only direct marketing opportunities for performances and exhibitions, but also as a form of pre-concert infotainment. We want our readers to be informed and engaged with the content, which makes them more informed and engaged with our organization.

On a monthly basis, I write letters and speeches for our CEO, I craft language to be used by surrogates who promote the organization and I create uniform communications shared among departments so we always project organizational consistency. I also manage social media and work with vendors to create video projects.

These roles require the ability to subtly change voice from more formal language for the CEO to casual chatter for Facebook posts. I need to translate the same content from language suitable for a college graduate fluent in classical music to a middle school-level reader who doesn’t know an oboe from an elbow.

None of my work would be successful without writing skills and the dedication to keep them sharp and current. Understanding techniques (for example: framing and foreshadowing) and styles (inverted pyramid, anecdotal lede) opens up a world of possibilities that can help set your communications ahead of competitors in the marketplace.

Four things you can learn from Tom Llamas’ “looting” tweets

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback on a lot of decisions that happen while on the job. I go back to what legendary Cleveland Indians broadcaster Herb Score used as his “Two Rules” for announcing games:

  1. It’s never “us” or “we.” It’s always “the team,” “The Tribe,” or “the Indians,” but never “us” or “we.”
  2. Don’t be so quick to second guess. Sometimes, there’s a good reason a guy made a bad play.

The benefit of hindsight here is to figure out what should or shouldn’t happen NEXT TIME or when YOU end up in that situation as opposed to berating people who made the mistakes in the first place.

With that in mind, consider the case of ABC News Anchor Tom Llamas and the coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.

Llamas was in Houston covering the flood when he noted that people were “looting” a grocery store (more on that term later). He not only reported these people to the police, but he tweeted about it to the public:

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This spread quickly through social media, with many people condemning Llamas for a variety of things including diverting rescue workers’ attention away from search and rescue, acting in a manner incongruent with journalism ethics and generally ratting out people who were trying to survive. Llamas later clarified his initial statement that he “mentioned” to police that people with “covered faces” were going into the store. That did little to stem the tide of Twitter rage (and meme magic) that followed.

Let’s break down a couple things here in hopes of learning something out of this mess:

  1. Terminology matters: The use of the term “looting” is almost always loaded and it has been used in previous coverage of natural disasters in some truly ugly ways. A famous pairing of images from Hurricane Katrina demonstrates how word choice can matter in this regard:
    looting

    Notice that in the first photo, the term “looting” is used to describe the person carrying groceries. In the second photo the people are said to be “finding” groceries from a local store. In both cases, the same action is occurring: People taking stuff from a store, without paying for it (no duh), in the wake of a disaster in hopes of surviving. However, as many people have pointed out, the key difference is that the person in photo one is black and the people in photo two are white.
    In short, according to the media, black people “loot” stuff while white people miraculously “find” things. Always keep in mind the connotation behind word choices and how they can do harm in situations like this.

  2. Understand your ethical code: Ethics are a big part of what we do in journalism and the question of what Llamas should or should not have done fits into that. Several people quoted the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics in condemning Llamas’ actions, including this portion on minimizing harm:

    Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

    The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) code of ethics is even more specific about how journalists should act in a situation involving victims:

    o Journalism provides enormous benefits to self-governing societies. In the process,it can create inconvenience, discomfort and even distress. Minimizing harm, particularly to vulnerable individuals, should be a consideration in every editorial and ethical decision.

    o Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination. Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.

    In short, the code of ethics for your profession should serve as a road map for you as you are going into the field, especially if it’s a dicey situation. I know I didn’t read the code of ethics vigorously every time I went to a planning and zoning committee meeting, but when I was faced with a tough decision, it really did serve as a nice set of parameters to help me figure some things out.

  3. It’s not about you: Journalists should report the news. They should not be the news. We are the frame to display the content. Nobody goes to the Louvre, sees the “Mona Lisa” and walks away thinking, “WOW! What a great frame on that painting!” The more involved you get in the story, the more you draw attention to yourself and the less the story is about the people involved. As much as it feels great to be important and “part of the saga,” just tell people what happened.
  4. Think, then act: You can find a dozen or more things that could have gone better if thought preceded action in this case. Ponder the following items as “One To Grow On” moments:
    1. Figure out why you are going to do something before you do it: Why was it important to tell the police about the grocery store? Was it more important than the dead body or a dozen other things they could have been doing? Was anyone in danger in the store, as in people were beating other people to death over a can of vegetable beef soup?
    2. “Dig Me” rarely works: Why was it so important to let your 22,100 Twitter followers know that YOU called the cops on somebody?
    3. Avoid swinging and missing twice: If you are going to take a second swing at a topic where people are already in a frenzy, it’s probably worth putting some time and effort into it. At the very least, do better than toning down the language from “We informed police about looting” to we “mentioned we saw ppl w/faces covered going into a supermarket nearby.” This is something anyone in public relations or who works in crisis com would have clearly pointed out.

What I don’t know and what would be interesting to find out would be to see what Tom Llamas thinks now in the wake of the decision. Would he do it again? Is he sorry he did it at all? Were there actual ramifications (I can’t find info on if the people in the store were arrested or if resources were diverted or if other things got worse because of his decision) to his decision?

I sent him a message asking for any insight, but something tells me he might be avoiding reading Twitter for a while. I’ll keep you posted if he gets back to me.

What journalists really mean when they say…

This week already feels 182 days long and I’m not in a flood zone, a hurricane path or a country that just had a missile fired over it. In an attempt to add a little relief for those feeling burnt to a crisp or who just need a laugh, here’s a post on the lighter side: A list of things journalists say and what they actually mean:

BASIC TERMS

Recently: The reporter lost the press release

In recent memory: As far back as the reporter can remember or at least past last Tuesday.

Arguably: The reporter didn’t have time to look up the facts

Debatable: These people are clearly wrong but we need to look objective

“It has been said…” : Where the hell did I hear that from?

“Declined to comment,” : When contacted, person said, “I really want to talk but my lawyer said no. Please don’t hate me.”

“Refused to comment,” : When contacted, person acted like an ass before hanging up.

“Repeated attempts to reach the source were unsuccessful,”: That jerkweed is screening his calls.

Breaking news: We’re telling you about it at the same time everyone else is.

Gone viral: We just found out about something everyone else already knows about

 

POLITICAL TERMS

Spry: Person over the age of 80 who doesn’t need portable oxygen

Feisty: Short, female.

Concerned citizens: Busybodies with nothing better to do than complain

Engaged citizens: People who lead the busybodies

An outsider: “Who the hell is this guy?”

Fake news: Anything that tells me something I don’t want to hear.

Repeatedly: (as in repeatedly declined or repeatedly defended) Person is sticking to his/her stupid position no matter how many times we ask.

Assured: Said more than once but only because the cameras were on; In reality, this won’t be happening.

 “An exciting new opportunity” or “A lifelong dream.” : The reason a public figure gives for leaving public life shortly before the lawsuits start rolling in.

“Trim the budget” : Cut stuff for other people but leave my stuff alone.

 “Devastating budget cuts” : They cut my stuff.

 

SPORTS:

“All he does is win,” : His stats are bad.

“Can’t quantify his value,” : His stats are atrocious.

“A great clubhouse guy,” : He plays cards with the manager and hasn’t had an at bat since the Bush administration.

“He gave it a shot,” : A coach defied all logic and common sense and it backfired.

“He went with his gut” : A coach defied all logic and common sense and it actually worked out for him.

 

CRIME AND DISASTER

Fortunately, Luckily: Somebody just got royally screwed but we’re trying to put a good face on it.

“The altercation escalated” : Somebody said something about somebody’s mama.

 “Sources say,” : I attended a press conference.

“Sources tell me,” : I made a phone call.

“Sources have confirmed,” : Somebody told me that what other people already reported was right.

“Sources exclusively tell me,” : I was trapped in an elevator for an hour with a source who was bored.

“It remains unclear,” : Everyone knows something but nobody’s telling me.

Destruction: Something a fire yields

Devastation: Something a hurricane or tornado yields

“The following images are disturbing…” : Holy crap! You’ve gotta see this!

An uncertain future: The guy is going to jail

If you liked these, the book “Journalese” by Paul Dickson and Bob Skole takes on a wider array of similar terms from a variety of perspectives.

Good “fishing holes” for campus reporters: Five places to find stories that will continue to pay dividends

The saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man To fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” applies pretty nicely to journalism. Last week, we talked about five stories you could do once you got back to campus and hopefully at least a few folks found those to be helpful. However, once those are done, the question of, “OK, now what?” emerges and it can feel like another uphill slog to find good content.

We can’t exactly teach you how to fish here; that job is up to your instructors, advisers and other folk who work with you. However, here are a couple of our favorite “fishing holes” brought to you by the Hivemind:

  1. City Records: Even though it is often an island unto itself, your campus is still part of a larger area, namely a city, town or municipality of some kind. Your campus food services are likely checked over by the city health inspector. Your dorms have to meet codes for structure, electrical work and other similar issues. Beyond the campus itself, you can find inspection records for various properties, including restaurants, businesses and rental properties. Find out which rental company has the most complaints or if a certain restaurant or tattoo parlor has been cited for unsanitary practices.
  2. Job Services: The most common question I answer when students tour is the one my own father asked many, many years ago when I was entering college and choosing a major: “(Fill in name of major)? Can you get a job with that?” Many higher education institutions have some sort of job-placement service either through administration or through individual colleges and schools within the university. Find out who helps people get jobs or at least who tracks the data regarding job placement for graduates that are one, five or 10 years out of school. Which majors have the highest and the lowest rates? What careers yield the best financial return on investment?
  3. Health Care: We’ve all heard it before: “I’m sick, but I’m not going to Student Death…” Although healthcare records themselves are private, more general information on the overall services aren’t. How many people has your student healthcare center seen over the past year or two? What are the main drivers of health-related visits on your campus in that time? Also, what programs are available that go beyond, “Take two of these and call me in the morning” as a solution? Some campuses have therapy animals, mental health services, weight-watcher programs and other things that can benefit student if they know about them.
  4. Student Organizations: Not every story you look for has to cure cancer. In many cases, telling stories and alerting people to things they didn’t know about (but probably would appreciate knowing) works just as well. Grab a copy of a list that outlines every official student organization on campus and see if you can find trends: Is your campus particularly laden with political or environmental groups? Do you see more social or activity-based opportunities? Are there clubs for things you never thought would lead to a club, such as squirrel clubs or organizations for concrete canoe makers?
  5. Budget Office: Follow the money. Always. If you want to figure out where things are going and how people value certain things on your campus, it pays to learn how to read a budget. Save yourself the agony of trying to learn how to do this on a deadline by visiting the budget office when you have no pressing needs, asking to see a fairly benign budgetary document and asking for a chance to talk to a budget specialist about it. This will help you understand how to see where money goes, what certain budget categories mean and how best to track money in a system. It’s not easy, but once you figure it out, you can find great financial stories and be less susceptible to having someone pull the wool over your eyes.

Owner of productive womb wins Powerball Jackpot! (or how NOT to write about people based on group identities that don’t matter to the story)

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The headline of this NBC story gave me hives when I read it, and not just because it was in passive voice. It seems somewhat innocuous but then you get into the story…

 

The winner of the $758 million Powerball is a medical center worker and mother of two from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Mavis L. Wanczyk, who successfully produced two live offspring during her lifetime, won the massive fortune on Wednesday night after the numbers — 6, 7, 16, 23 and 26, with a Powerball of 4 — were drawn at 10:59 p.m.

“I had a pipe dream and my pipe dream has finally come true,” said Wanczyk, a human woman who completed two reproductively successful sexual encounters during her life.

Powerball is played in 44 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands by all people, including women with children who somehow manage to find the time to purchase tickets, what with all the childcare and nurturing they must do on a daily basis.

Wanczyk’s win is the largest on a single ticket in North American history. The odds of picking all six numbers correctly were about one in 292.2 million, even more when factoring in the odds of successfully creating life twice from one womb…

(If you don’t get the point yet, go back and read Tracy Everbach’s post on how to write about women without taking a side trip through Stereotype City.)

Obviously, the “rewrite” above is a (slight) farce, but humor often reflects unpleasant truth. In the 1990s, it somehow became a “thing” for news stories to make it known when a member of the LGBTQ community was quoted or cited, regardless of the story’s topic. In response, The Onion wrote perhaps my favorite bit of biting satire:

Area Homosexual Saves Four From Fire” presents a standard fire story with a “reminder” at every possible turn that the hero of the story was gay.

It’s easy to blow off the Powerball story as a fluff piece, but the question remains valid: Why is it that the headline focused on the fact she is a “mother-of-two?”  It could have focused on her job, her life outside of work or a dozen other facets of who she is. Instead, the headline zeroed in on her role as a mother for no real reason other than to point it out.

This is not to say that details don’t matter or that any reference to a “manhole cover” is somehow creating a gender gap that can never be healed. However, just like everything else we do in journalism, it is important to understand not just WHAT we are doing but WHY we are doing it. With that in mind, here are a few simple suggestions for dealing with group-based descriptors:

Would you use the same type of descriptor if another race/gender/group was involved? Look back at the last dozen “big lottery winner” stories and see if any one of them describe a man as a “father of two” in the headline. Chances are pretty slim you’ll find those descriptors as common as you will references to a “mother of two.” When only one group gets a descriptor, it demonstrates a sense of “difference.”

One of my favorite examples of this comes from the book “Ball Four,” where several baseball players are discussing the issue of race. One player notes that he wouldn’t mind that newspaper reports kept referring to him as “the black first baseman” if they would also refer to his teammate as “the white first baseman.”

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that you will find a lot of stories that note, “Bill Smith, a straight white man who has two children, said he is planning to run for mayor.”

Does the descriptor add something important to the story? A legendary story about this idea focused on how newspapers used race in describing suspects in crime stories. According to legend, a newspaper’s crime round up once described two suspects of a beating this way: “Police said they are looking for two black men carrying sticks. They may have discarded the sticks.”

Well, that’s a helpful bit of information for anyone hoping to call Crime Stoppers…

The point of a description is to provide readers with a chance to locate the suspect. Thus, something closer to, “Police said the suspect is a white man, 5-foot-5, 380 pounds, brown eyes, a bald head and he has a tattoo of a dragon on his right hand” is what we’re looking for.

Had the lottery story in any way explained WHY it was important that she was a mother of two, MAYBE that headline works. If everything that came out of her mouth at that press conference focused on her kids and how integral they were in her winning, MAYBE we’re not pushing this point as much, but that’s not the case here.

(Side note: I’m trying to do math in my head here, but if she’s 53, her children are likely grown, so it’s not like she’s raising two small children at home and supporting them on a meager salary at this job the writer mentions. My mom always says that I’m always going to be her child, but at a certain age, she stopped hanging my drawings on the refrigerator…)

In some stories, references to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other “group” demarcations would make sense. A line like “Smith said that, as a mother of two, she is able to get more financial assistance to attend college, thus making her transition back to school much easier” gives a reader at least a fighting chance to understand WHY the mention of motherhood matters. However, “Mother of two wins lottery” doesn’t come close.

Does the descriptor lend itself to a stereotypical connotation that likely does more harm than good? People often say dumb things that touch stereotypes about certain groups. During a 1981 playoff game, NBA commentator Rick Barry described a photo of fellow hall of famer Bill Russell, noting the wide smile on Russell’s face as a “watermelon grin.” The racial undertones left Russell stunned. Even though Barry swore he never meant for the comment to be viewed in this way, a few years later, he referred to a dunk by Michael Jordan as a “Chinese Superman” because he came in on “a slant.”

Think about how a group is traditionally viewed in a stereotypical way and then review your inclusion of descriptors to see if you are reinforcing those stereotypes. Some forethought can help you avoid gaffes like this awkward Time magazine cover:

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If you want an even more egregious example of this kind of stereotyping, consider the lead from this New York Times obituary:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

Oh… and by the way… Yvonne Brill was worked at NASA and revolutionized the country’s position in outer space, which is something we find out about in the second paragraph:

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

But, hey, how about that beef stew?

Guest Blogging: “Transgender people should no longer have to prove that we exist”

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, Bethany Grace Howe, a doctoral student who has written extensively on issues pertaining to the transgender community, discusses the importance of journalistic standards in coverage of transgender people. In the wake of the White House’s recent move toward the banning of transgender troops and the media coverage of the shooting death of a transgender woman in St. Louis, this seemed particularly timely and helpful for journalists.

You say you’re a Christian. Prove it.

Teaching journalism as I do, I’m often tempted to tell my students this should be one of their questions when interviewing people about subjects of religion.

“Excuse me, Mr. Francis, but I notice your rosary beads are shorter than Mr. Benedict’s. Are you sure you’re Catholic?”

No, I am not singling out Christians. But living in Eugene, Oregon, Christianity is the majority religion around here, and I really want to see evidence they’re a Christian. If I was teaching in Saudi Arabia I’d ask the same of Muslims, Japan the Buddhists, and so on.

And no, this is not singling out religion.

If I they’re writing a story on a leader in the LGBTQ community I’m tempted to have their subjects prove they’re gay. If they’re interviewing the director of La Raza I’d like them to prove they’re Hispanic. And so on and so on, assuming that the claim I’m investigating is in fact how they publicly identify.

I don’t do this, of course. For one thing, I’d probably get fired. The University of Oregon is a pretty free-thinking liberal place, but there are limits. More importantly, however, I know how insanely unfair that question would be – because transgender people have to deal with it all the time.

Always have, still do.

In her defining work, “The Empire Strikes Back,” Sandy Stone outlines the history of transgender self-identification in America, a history largely defined by the narrative that transgender people suffer from a disorder and therefore need help. On the surface, this seems benevolent; psychologists and surgeons wanting to help those in need.

Then as now, however, there was no mental or psychological test which could determine if someone was disordered, dysphoric as the condition is now labeled, or simply transgender, as many non-cisgendered people prefer to be identified. Equally confounding, the mental and emotional process in each patient could not only vary greatly from one another, but they weren’t even consistently differentiated from the rest of the general population.

For a doctor to cure a disorder, however, there must be evidence of one – so they “discovered” one. By the 1960s nearly every therapist engaged in diagnosing transgender patients started with psycho-dynamics, the mental and emotional processes developed in early childhood as they related to adult mental states: “It started young, and I’ve been miserable the whole time,” or something like that.

More than just common knowledge among doctors, however, the “evidence” of transgenderism was common knowledge among patients. And as transgender people began to assert their need for help in the 1960s, they very quickly learned that the only way to convince doctors to help was to talk about a lifetime of distress and dysfunction. Regardless of what symptoms they truly felt, Stone writes, they “unambiguously expressed (their feelings) in the simplest form: The sense of being in the ‘wrong’ body.”

A half-century later not much has changed; the media knows what it wants to hear us say. Just as early doctors wanted to hear stories of distress and struggle, the media and others want to hear about struggles, surgeries, evidence of what we’ve done for ourselves – or to ourselves – as some type of “proof” that we are who we say we are.

You only need to look as far as Katie Couric vs. Laverne Cox, Piers Morgan vs. Janet Mock: They want proof that we are as we say we are, something “only” surgery can provide. Couric and Morgan might argue that they are simply asking the questions that people want to know. But in doing so, they are every bit as complicit in wrongly defining the transgender experience as those physicians 50 years ago.

This constant demand from the media, the mental health establishment, the academy, to prove that we exist is not only debilitating, it is unique. Cisgender people are assigned at birth, race can be determined by a blood test, lesbian, gay and bisexual people are usually now taken at their word; why would they lie? People choose and even switch religions and it’s literally accepted on faith. Only we must “prove” we exist.

Certainly there are bona fide tales of struggle, and many transgender people do choose to consider their choices as their own personal barometer of transgender status. That is not, however, every transgender person’s story or actions – and it never has been. I certainly do not define myself that way. I am a transgender woman, and I do not need to prove it to the media or anyone else by virtue of what I choose to do with my body. I won’t pretend I have not struggled with what medical procedures I wish to have. But that struggle does not define me; it is not evidence that I exist.

Journalists need to ask themselves what motivates their questions when they talk to transgender people. Is it because the answer might illustrate a greater truth? Or is it because you want to verify to your audience that this transgender person has credibility? That they are “serious” about who they are?

Transgender people should no longer have to prove – to anyone – that we exist, nor how we should define that existence. Indeed, Janet Mock called these narratives that are demanded of us – by the media, by doctors, by scholars – the most damaging of all: those that would demand we prove our realness. Indeed, I would ask you to consider this: the fact that each transgender person’s ultimate agency – the right to control and determine the nature of their own body – remains in the power of another: what does that do to a person, a culture, a discourse?

No, that’s not your question to answer (though I’d be happy to talk to you about it). But as a journalist it is in your power to change it.

Transferable skills: Why you should major in journalism (and why people should hire you)

One of the primary themes in both books is “transferable skills.” I borrowed this from a former student and editor at the student newspaper I advise here at UW-Oshkosh.

Andy was looking for staff members to fill out the ranks of reporters, designers, photographers and graphic artists, but was coming up short in the journalism department. In an attempt to improve his odds of building a staff, he took his pitch for the paper to a wide array of other departments on campus, telling students in English, sociology, art, poli sci and more that the paper had something to offer them: transferable skills.

In other words, if you can write for a class, we can help make you better at it and therefore make you more marketable. If you can shoot still-life images in a studio for an art class, we can get you opportunities to shoot a wider variety of images and thus make you more marketable. Not everyone bought what he was selling, but we did get a broader swath of people.

Jill Geisler, one of the pros in the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing, published a piece for the Poynter Institute on why people outside of journalism should hire journalists. At its core are the principles of transferable skills: Journalists can write well, think critically, make deadlines, solve problems and more.

The underlying assumption here is that journalists learned these skills at some level through schooling and experience. Most of the reasons she offers as rationale for hiring journalists also applies to explaining why people should consider journalism as a major and participate in student media opportunities.

Consider this a cheat sheet the next time someone says, “Why are you majoring in journalism?”

Five random story ideas that you could try during your first week back at school

One of the hardest things about reporting on stories that aren’t event based is trying to find things that could lead to neat stories. We’re going to try to throw out some random, story ideas you could look into at your school. Not all of these will apply to everyone’s campus (public schools have open records rules that don’t apply at private institutions), but consider this at least a jumping off point for you.

If you have any ideas you’d like share, feel free to use the contact function or just post your ideas below in the comments. Here we go…

Who has the most unpaid parking tickets and how much do they owe? This might be a fairly pedestrian (pardon the pun) story or it might be a case of a massive scofflaw on your campus. In any case, it’s always interesting to figure out who has the biggest problems finding a legal space and what they have to say about it.

Who is currently suing your university and why? A quick perusal of your local court records might find some people who truly demand justice or a few folks who likely wear tinfoil hats to bed. Former athletes alleging assault and claims of racial discrimination within the administration could lead to some serious coverage while suits because “the president of the university has taken over my brain” could be downright amusing.

Is your school buying or selling wins? One of the more interesting aspects of college sports is the contractual obligations between academic institutions. Some Division I schools with limited resources and lower-caliber teams will sign contracts for “guarantee games,” in which a football or basketball program goes to a major D-I school to get slaughtered. The rub? The major institution “guarantees” the lesser program a certain amount of money for the privilege of getting killed 94-0 on the field or court. In other cases, it could be a simple promise of a free lunch to get the two programs onto the same field. Pull the contracts and find out.

(A word of warning to schools who try this. Sometimes you aren’t guaranteed a win, as Michigan found out in 2007)

Happy (or unhappy) Anniversary! Take a look back in the archives of your school newspaper to find out what was big news 10, 20, 30 or 50 years ago. You might find out that there was a riot on campus or some racial injustice at the time. You could also discover a rare event, a special graduation or an incredible sports event.

How much for that guest speaker at the union? If you are a public institution, any contract between your university and any outside vendor is a public record, so feel free to pull some of them. It might be interesting to find out how much the “Campus Speaker Series” is costing your campus or see who gets paid the most or the least for their speeches. The same is true of concerts, carnivals or other events that cost cash. Pull those records and see how much stuff is costing or if the “super stars” are asking for anything special in the “rider.” (See the world’s most famous “rider” to a contract here: Van Halen’s 1982 “No Brown M&M’s” document)

Happy reporting! Feel free to send us any links to anything you covered on this list. (We’d love to post it.)

Remembering that first journalism class: “I was scared out of my mind.”

I was recently on a panel that discussed student media and self-censorship. Most, if not all, of the people on the panel were former journalists and several people in the audience had made the transition to the field to the classroom. One theme that came up repeatedly was the way in which students “these days” didn’t have SOMETHING about them. It might be drive, it might be curiosity or it might be a skill. In any case, many of the people who spoke recalled that when THEY were students at THAT age, THEY had whatever it was that the students today seemed to lack in their estimation.

Me? I remember my first journalism class where I thought I knew everything. After working on one assignment, I thought I should go back home and work on that mechanic’s apprenticeship at the gas station.

The instructor was a former journalist, who was working on his Ph.D. He always graded in green because he said green was an affirming color. Well, he affirmed the crap out of me in that first assignment. The paper looked like a shamrock patch had thrown up on it. Arrows and lines were zigging and zagging all over the place like John Madden getting overly excited while using a telestrator. I figured I’d never make it in this business.

A few years later, I had a job at a good local paper, I had been publishing stories frequently and I was given the opportunity to teach that same “first journalism class” that the green-pen instructor taught many years earlier. When he found out I was teaching it, he called me to his office and handed me a file folder with one piece of paper in it: It was my first assignment, still green as a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago.

As I read through all that tortured prose, I remember telling him, “Wow. I sucked.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You were just new at this. When you go to teach your class, remember that in most cases, these students are going to be even worse than you were back then. You need to be patient with them and help them be patient with themselves.”

I thought about that moment after the panel. Maybe those folks were really great journalists since birth. Or, maybe the “Johnny Sain Axiom” on Old Timer’s Day applied here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

To get a better perspective on this, I asked the hivemind what the folks there could recall about their first journalism class, as in the first time they had to sit down and write for a course. The answers made me feel a little better about my initial experience and I hope they will give you a sense of hope as you start your semester:

This is from an award-winning journalist and professor who spent more than a decade at the Dallas Morning News. She covered the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas:

The class was full of typewriters. A grizzled old reporter from The Boston Globe taught it. He made us write an obituary on the first day. I got a C. I was scared out of my mind.

Here’s an ode to people who marched to the beat of their own drum from a former Wall Street Journal editor who now works for an Ivy League university as a social sciences writer:

My first journalism instructor in college was a longtime news editor at big metro papers. Along with lots of practical stuff, he taught me that desk editors — and particularly the good ones — tend to march to the beat of their own drummer. He was never on time to class — ever. He told jokes no on else got. He waxed on about obscure figures from his past jobs. But when the lead started flying, he was the guy you wanted in your foxhole. He taught me to appreciate all the weird, talented people newspapers attract.

A longtime photo journalist and college journalism professor had this take away: If your experience with your first journalism course isn’t perfect, don’t give up right away. Take another course or two before you decide that maybe truck-driving school is right for you:

My undergraduate writing Journalism professor was very intimidating. An older guy who had lots of real life experience. I can’t say as I enjoyed the class, but I made it through and went on to be a photojournalist for many years.

FROM THE GOSPEL OF BULL DURHAM

As the movie “Bull Durham” teaches us, in the major leagues, everyone can hit a fastball, so you’ll need to work a little harder to be “the best” (It also helps to have a curve ball.)

A former PR professional in the medical field who now teaches all forms of writing noted that her first experience in a journalism class made that concept clear quite quickly:

The professor asked everyone who was “one of the best writers” at their high school to raise their hand. Lots of hands went up. He asked us to look around. “You have competition, now. And not all of you can still be the best. Get used to it.” It was true – I’ve used that line in my classes as well.

The first writing class can be scary as hell for some people and a piece of cake for others. (One member of the hivemind told me that his class was a piece of cake as he was “ the college paper’s editor before I took J101. Doing the work before taking the class made the class pretty easy.” Score one more for getting involved in student media.)

You aren’t going to be the same writer going out of that class as you are coming in. Give yourself a chance to develop and work with the instructor to improve each time you try something. The more you practice, the better you will get.

One last story: One of the toughest women I ever taught was about to graduate and head off to a prestigious job at a top-flight newspaper. She was dogged, determined and relentless in her reporting. She was a disciplined writer and a demanding editor at the student newspaper. For some reason, the students were reminiscing about their first class in journalism and this woman spoke up:

“You know, you scared the shit out of me that first day,” she told me.

“Me? What did I do?”

“I really don’t remember exactly, but I remember just being freaked out of my mind,” she said. “I went home and cried for like two hours. I thought I’d never make it and I thought about changing my major.”

Go figure.

“The Paragraph:” Lessons to learn from journalism’s “filthiest” screw up

Every year, as part of a final exam in my media writing class, my students read the story “Inexperience faces Green Wave Soccer.” The pedestrian look at a high school soccer team more than 20 years in the past seems like no big deal until they hit “the paragraph.”

I can always tell when they do. The class is silent until the fastest reader in the class gasps out loud. Then a few more “Whoa!” and “Pshht!” noises emerge. Eventually, they’re all saying some version of the same thing: “No way! This CANNOT be real!”

The paragraph makes obscene comments about a teenage boy on the soccer team. The writer, Nick DeLeonibus, intended it as a joke that he expected his editor to catch. Instead, the paragraph about Garrett “Bubba” Dixon made its way on to the sports page of Tennessee’s Gallatin News-Express, establishing (for me at least) what is the absolute perfect case of libel.

The story had long ago passed into myth among journalists, journalism teachers and adviser of student media. Some people just “recalled hearing” it while other “swore they had a copy of it somewhere.” Legends emerged about staffers running across lawns to steal back copies from people’s doorsteps and the publisher using the copies to build a bonfire. All we knew for sure was that this was bad.

I always kept a copy at the ready as to demonstrate that, no, this was real and, yes, there were dire consequences. One thing I didn’t know was what happened in the subsequent years since that 1997 story first hit the paper. Veteran journalist Jeff Pearlman, who has a copy of the story taped above his desk, filled in the gaps this week when he published the story for Deadspin. The story walks through how this error was made and the severe ramifications for everyone involved. If you don’t mind coarse language and you really want to know what that paragraph said, this is worth a read.

The reason I posted this and the reason I show this to my students goes beyond the shock value. The lessons behind “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” are as important today as they ever were:

  1. In journalism, you are always playing with live ammo. Gun safety experts tell you to always treat every weapon as if it is loaded. In short, you can kill someone if you’re goofing around or if you don’t keep your head on straight. In journalism, this rule is important, especially in the age of digital and social media because a) you often shoot from the hip and b) you don’t always have an editor between you and a tweet. So when you’re standing in line at the grocery store and some elderly woman is paying for a pack of Freedent gum with a third-party check, you might want to vent your anger on Twitter. Or when you get irritated at a student government official for blowing off an interview, you might feel the urge to tweet about the guy, speculating as to which farm animal he was likely cavorting with instead of showing up.

    Don’t.

    You are publishing content, just as sure as if you were pounding out that soccer story for the paper. Every time you put something out there, you take certain risks. Make sure you keep that in mind when you publish anything on any platform.

  2. If you wouldn’t want it published, don’t write it. I’m fairly confident that the majority of journalists (myself included) has gotten punchy near a deadline or frustrated while writing a headline. Thus, the instinct to write “Quote from Congressman Dipshit goes here if he ever gets off his ass and calls us back,” in a story or “Replace this shitty headline with something less shitty later” into a headline hole kicks in. We do it to just “get something in there.”
    Fight that instinct with every ounce of your being, as it’s not always a guarantee that you will remember to get back to that paragraph or that headline hole and fix it. Also, whatever you think is “so funny” at deadline probably isn’t. (A similar rule exists in broadcasting, which is to treat every microphone like it’s “hot,” in other words broadcasting to the audience. Thus, cussing on the set is highly discouraged.)
  3. Ramifications always exist for your actions. Everything you write will have a ramification of some kind, be it good or bad. Your story about the local kid winning a spelling bee will be the source of pride for parents and grandparents who will clip the story out and hang it on the refrigerator. The piece you wrote about someone being arrested for robbing the local gas station could make people wary of stopping there for gas or it could bring shame onto the robber’s family. Each action has a reaction of some kind.
    The thing that stuck with me all those years was, “Why Bubba Dixon?” The legend was the DeLeonibus had dated the kid’s sister and, as a bit of revenge for a bad break up, decided to pick on him. Another version had the editor picking on DeLeonibus for giving Dixon special treatment as a way to get back with the sister, so he decided to shock the editor by “slamming” the kid. Pearlman’s story demonstrates that neither of these were true. It just happened to be the player DeLeonibus picked out. It could have been Sean Sparkman or Travis Watson or Michael McRee as the butt of DeLeonibus’ attempt at humor.
    Instead, it was Dixon, an honor-roll student with a deeply religious background, who went through hell because of this. Why? It just was. And the ramifications were unending.
    Keep this in mind every time you ply your trade and think about what could happen as a result of your actions. Don’t let it paralyze you, but let it serve as a bit of caution before you hit the “send” button.