Storify is dead. Long live the Storify approach to storytelling.

Getting something done early isn’t always the best idea when it comes to journalism. I worked a night desk for a number of years at a couple newspapers and I’ve had to perform triage surgery on more than a few stories and layouts because “breaking news” emerged, events fell through or entire stories changed. Once I got into academia, I thought I would be able to leave my “baling wire and duct tape” approach to fixing things behind, but that hasn’t been the case when it comes to writing textbooks that focus on an ever-changing field.

Case in point,  I bragged to my editor that I had updated the entire social media chapter in my media-writing book, fixed the Twitter references to include the new character limits and infused a number of key tools that were popular among reporters. And I was done two months early, to boot.

Her response was, “Wait, did you read about how Storify is no more? Do you want to take a second pass through (the chapter)?”

Less than a week after I was singing its praises, Storify got killed. Adobe, the tool’s owner, stated it would no longer allow for new people to sign up for Storify accounts and by 2018, pretty much everything “Storify-related” would be gone. I thought I was basically “so 26 seconds ago” about a tool that nobody used.

(This feeling went away when I told a hip high school journalism teacher about the news and she said, “I just learned how to use this thing and now it’s going away?”)

The truth is Storify is going away because a) it didn’t make money (biggest reason) and b) the tool itself lost value when we no longer needed it. It’s the same reason people aren’t making a ton of money in the phone-cord detangler industry or as door-to-door salesmen anymore.

The folks at Niemanlab interviewed Storify co-founder Xavier Damman about the death of his creation earlier this month. He noted that it would be great if Storify could continue in an open-source format, but the bigger takeaway was how Storify changed how journalists told stories:

Damman hopes that endures as Storify’s legacy: “When we started there was no Twitter embed and no Instagram embed or Facebook embed. The idea of using the content that people post as raw material was novel,” he said. “[Today], it’s more important than ever that we have journalists that actually go and tell stories using what people post on social media.”

Damman’s point (and the one I’m trying to make here) is that the “Storify approach” to journalism lives on, even as the tool itself is becoming obsolete. Blogging sites like this one allow writers to embed photos from various spots, include tweets in their original format and more as part of a post. Major news outlets have drawn content from a variety of social media platforms to tell breaking news stories and augment their own coverage of bigger topics. They mix and match posts, tweets and images through a series of embedding and sharing options to let their readers see a well-rounded story. All of that will continue without Storify itself.

What will also remain are the underlying skills associated with storytelling in a journalistic format. What Storify allowed users to do was make choices and present content in a way they previously couldn’t so that the users could do the best job possible when informing their readers. If the users were lousy at storytelling, content selection or any other “journalism” skills, the tool itself couldn’t make the story any better. However, having the skills and applying them through tools like Storify seriously enhanced the content the audience received. For those users who applied their skills in storytelling via the “Storify approach,” the death of the tool won’t matter.

6 thoughts for new journalism graduates on the job hunt that have nothing to do with actually getting a job

Graduation swept through town this weekend, and along with it came the speeches, the pomp, the circumstance and academic regalia (When I wear mine, I look like Henry the VIII got a Mr. T starter kit for Christmas).


Along with all this comes the anxiety of, “OK, now what?” Some students have jobs and they’re worried about how well they’ll do at them. Others have no jobs and wonder if they’ll ever get one. Parents worry that their children will be happy. Some probably also wonder if they’ll have to give up the home gym or a spot in the basement for a returning grad who hasn’t “found it” yet (whatever “it” is). What comes next?

For journalism grads, the anxiety can be even more palpable, as everyone seems to be telling you that your field is dead and you should have gone into business. Other fields can spend months or even years cultivating students for a job that’s waiting for them upon graduation. Journalism? I’ve been told once during a first interview, “We’d like to offer you the job today (Saturday). Could you start Monday?”

I asked the hivemind of pros and profs what advice they had for you all and it was really a mixed bag this time. Usually, everyone chimes in and it’s all in the same vein. This time, things were all over the place. One professor friend of mine noted:

My adult daughter just moved back home, soooo I got nuthin’.

I have often relied on the famous William Golden quote about Hollywood as well: “Nobody knows anything.” Whoever tells you, “This is how to get your perfect job” is either lying to you or trying to recruit you into a cult. Unlike all of those multiple-choice tests you’ve taken over the years, this question doesn’t have a right answer. That said, here are a few to think about as you try to game up for the next stage of life:

  • You have to be idealistic, but you have to be practical: U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks once said this in explaining his team’s chance to do well in the 1980 Olympics. His point was you should shoot for the best possible outcome, but you shouldn’t do so without a reality check. In the case of the job search, take a shot. You want to work at a top five newspaper, in a top 10 TV market, a Fortune 500 company or whatever right away? Toss an application out there. What’s the WORST that can happen? They say no and you don’t get the job, which is right where you are right now.
    That said, a 22-year-old journalism graduate with five clips from an internship at the Tamany Tattler and a year’s experience at the student newspaper isn’t likely to land at one of those spots right away, so feel free to look elsewhere. Apply to starter jobs, smaller firms and other places that have openings and you think would be worth a shot. You have to eat. You have to pay rent. And, as they mentioned in “Bull Durham,” it beats selling Lady Kenmore’s at Sears.


  • Don’t become a desperate psycho-hose-beast: As Tom Petty noted, the waiting is the hardest part. For you, this is the most important thing ever, especially if you’re searching at this time of the year. Even if it’s not cold, snowy and gray where you are, a winter job search can be danged depressing. You know that you don’t want to go home for the holiday where every well-meaning relative will ask, “So, what are you doing now that you’re graduated? Do you have a job?” (Side note 1: When you say “No” and they look at you like you just came down with an incurable disease, remember that look so that you never give it to anyone else ever. Side note 2: Realize that these people will always ask you questions like this that will sap your will to live, even after you get a job. “Do you have a job?” will become “Are you dating anyone special?” will become “So when are you getting married?” will become “Don’t you two want kids?” will become “Are you sure you only want (1, 2, 3…) kids?” Your only hope is to outlive this person so you don’t have to hear, “Are you sure you want to be buried here?”)
    This can drive you crazy and it can manifest itself in a number of ways, none of which are good. The worst thing you can do is take it out on potential employers as you decide to call, email or text repeatedly to find out exactly WHERE they are in the hiring process. Most people can smell desperation a mile away and it naturally repels them. Think about the guy at the bar who is insistently trying to buy a gal a drink, a shot, an appetizer, a game of darts or a 1979 Chrysler Cordoba. Does that interaction ever end well for that guy? If you ever need a reminder of how bad this can get, catch the classic “Mike from ‘Swingers'” scene (NSFW- some cussing) or the “Wayne’s World” look at Stacy’s unrequited love.
    In short, don’t push it. Breathe.
  • Look more deeply into your toolbox: The premise of both of these books is that we’re putting tools in your toolbox that you can use in a variety of ways. If you can find the perfect job that  makes you happy right away, that’s great. If not, don’t be afraid to apply those tools elsewhere. A recent grad sent me this note, which touched on something I never considered:

    After I graduated while I was looking for work I hooked up with a temp agency. It’s a great way to try different stuff without major commitment, you gain experience (and interview skills), you get to network, and you get a weekly paycheck. And some positions are temp-hire.

    A journalism professor noted something similar:

    Think creatively about ways you can use your journalism skills for other professions, such as PR, teaching, trade publications, advertising, web producer and social media manager jobs. Many more people cross back and forth into journalism and other careers these days than they did back when we were journalists.’

    Look around you and see what kinds of places need your skills and don’t fret if they don’t have your exact degree specified in the requirements. You will bounce a lot in this day and age (sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, sometimes against your will), so look for things that you think might pay the bills and give you a leg up the next time your perfect job comes around.


  • Remember the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old-Timers Day: Sain, a longtime pitcher and pitching coach, used to disdain Old-Timers Day. It wasn’t the concept he opposed, but rather that banter among the older players. Sain used to note that “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”
    The same thing can be true for you when dealing with people who are more than happy to tell you that when they were “your age” they got a job right out of school or they had a perfect job waiting for them or whatever. In their mind, they had it all figured out perfectly and made a seamless transition between their education and a career, so why can’t you?
    The truth is, it wasn’t that easy for most of them. Some people just got a fortuitous bounce, a lucky break or a family connection. Others don’t work in your field, so comparing your search to theirs is like comparing apples and Hondas. It’s not that they’re better or stronger or faster or whatever. It’s just the way it happened for them. Each search and each job is unique (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word), so don’t let what other people tell you about how great life is get you down.
    Even more, don’t presuppose that people you see as your role models nailed the perfect job on the first take. I met with a couple students last week who kept referring to a recent grad as “having it all worked out.” She was their role model who, according to them, interned at Company X, graduated into a full-time job at Company X and then got promoted at Company X in less than a year. She was their Golden Goddess.
    What they didn’t know was all the anxiety she had about getting ANY internship, how she had been rejected twice by Company X for an internship and how she ended up sobbing in my office multiple times after that. They also didn’t know about the office fights and other less-pleasant aspects of Company X. In short, the grass isn’t always greener.
  • Don’t keep up with the Joneses: The easiest way to make you hate yourself and your job search is to compare yourself to other people in a constant game of one-upmanship. If Billy gets a job in a top 75 market, you shouldn’t try to get one at a top 50 market. If Jane gets a job as a writer at a 50,000 circulation newspaper, don’t just go looking for a job at a 100,000-circ paper to prove a point.
    I watched this happen constantly among peer groups of students at several of my previous stops, in which it wasn’t enough to get A job, but rather it was crucial to get a job that was better than someone else’s job. Here’s the problem: Just because a job is at a bigger place or somewhere with more cachet, it doesn’t follow it’s a good fit for you. This was how one of my former students ended up in Kentucky doing night-cops, despite not wanting anything to do with Kentucky or a night-cops beat, simply so he could look more impressive. It didn’t work out and he was miserable, before eventually going back to a job that was more “him.”
    I know it’s hard to push back against that competitive thinking. (Trust me, it happens everywhere, even in my gig. Former professors will tell their former doctoral students, “Oh, I see you’re at (less prestigious university)… Did you know that James is now at (mega-university) and he’s a dean?”) However, if you find something you like doing, you’ll never really work a day in your life.
  • Never forget this moment: You will eventually get a job and  you will do well. You will get older and get more responsibility. You might change jobs or careers or whatever. However, what should never change is your memory of this moment right now, when you’re scared out of your mind about getting any job at all, making rent, dodging Aunt Ethyl and her questions at the family holiday party, trying to avoid calling the Beaver County Tidbit 1,002 times to find out if they are still interested in you and everything else you feel.
    If you can remember the feeling you have at this moment, you will never lose your empathy for the future generations who are going through it. It might help you in little ways like not asking the “Aunt Ethyl” questions of your younger family members or hustling a bit more to get through that stack of resumes you need to read. It might help you in big ways as well, like thinking a little better about the next generation instead of a little worse of it. (People  more than occasionally ask me if being around younger people all the time doesn’t make me kind of envious of their youth. My answer is always, “Hell, NO!!!!!” I survived my 20s the first time and made it this far. There’s not enough of anything in the world to make me want to go back to that point in time).
    When it comes to getting employed, things almost always work out. I know that sounds ridiculous, but my batting average on things like is pretty good and in the end, you’ll have some great stories to tell.
    And thanks to your journalism education, you’ll tell them well.

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.