In the wake of the Capital Gazette shooting, I worry about “my kids.”

I have told anyone who will listen to me over the years that I only have one child, a daughter I love more than anything in the world. But, I have hundreds and maybe even thousands of “kids” I have taught and advised that I love and care about as if they were my own children.

Someone once chastised me for using that term, as they felt it demeaned students or treated them as less than. For me, I couldn’t imagine a more honest and heartfelt way to explain to these students what they mean to me.

They come to the classroom on unsteady journalistic legs and with fuzzy concepts about who they want to be. They arrive at the doorway of the student newsroom with the trepidation of a shy first-grader entering a new school where everyone else seems to know everyone else. They knock tentatively on my door, asking if I’m “Dr…. Filak?”

Years later, they graduate with a stronger sense of who they are and what they can be. They depart a newsroom where they are now “the big kids” who welcome the newbies with a confident handshake or a self-deprecating joke. They enter my office like Norm entered “Cheers,” flopping down in a chair and saying, “Hey man… what’s up?”

What they don’t understand is that I, like so many of us in this field of education, never stop thinking about them or worrying about them. We cheer for their professional successes and mourn their painful losses. We take pride in their work, whether it’s at the nation’s leading media outlets or in fields far from where they thought journalism would take them.

Once our lives intertwine over discussions of “noun-verb-object,” or why it is the Indians can’t seem to win a World Series, we never really part, regardless of the physical space between us or the amount of time between contacts.

I thought about this all last night as the coverage of the Capital Gazette shooting poured into my news feeds. Five people killed, two others seriously wounded at the hands of a disgruntled and imbalanced man. I knew none of these people personally, as was the case for most of the people I know. However, the overwhelming number of posts, tweets and stories journalists and journalism educators shared told me I wasn’t alone in my sorrow over this.

A friend who advises a student media outlet out west posted that one of her “kids,” who graduated in 2011, worked at the paper but was safe. Others on our adviser listserv shared a supportive sigh of relief for her, even as we knew five families lost a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife or more.

And somewhere, some journalism educator or adviser lost a “kid.”

Reminders of “my kids” are everywhere around me. A wedding invitation is posted on our refrigerator. A fundraising T-shirt for a woman recovering from breast cancer sits in my dresser. A printer’s plate of our “We Need the A-T” page rests against a wall in my basement. Two paintings hang on the walls of my “man cave.” A resume from a mid-career professional sits in my in box with a “could you please see if this is OK” email accompanying it.

In my office, post cards, thank you notes and personal letters jut out at all angles from an overflowing cork board. Pictures of former staffs cover wall surfaces, next to the framed receipt that commemorates the time I tried to get the university to pay for some porn film an editor bought. (Long story…) Facebook updates tell me about their new jobs, new careers, new spouses, new children and new lives. Even as they reach their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, they remain to me one of “my kids,” mentally trapped in my head as the 21-year-old who showed up hung over out of his/her mind for my 8 a.m.

A few years back, two broadcast journalists were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague as they filmed a morning-show puff piece on the chamber of commerce. A local news crew interviewed me to do a localization on safety issues that should be addressed for journalists after this shooting.

Most of what I had to say didn’t make the final cut, mainly because I was arguing against the station’s premise that journalists needed to find ways to be careful these days. How? What could I possibly say that would have kept Vester Lee Flanagan from shooting two people in broad daylight? What lesson would have kept the Capital Gazette safe from Jarrod Ramos and his violent rampage?

And that’s what really kept me up last night. That’s what really bothered me.

I can teach them almost everything, but I can’t teach them this.

So, I do the best I can with what I have. I dance at their weddings and I mourn with them at funerals. I light holy candles in my hometown church, hoping it helps as they face “the Big C.” I edit resumes and I answer emails with supportive messages. I try to help them in any way I can.


Just before I headed to bed last night, a message popped up on my screen from one of my more recent graduates. He left journalism and now writes scripts for a telemarketing company. He’s content and yet restless, finding his way in this whole “adulting” thing everyone else seems to have under control.

He had a link to the quote from a staffer at the Capital Gazette who declared for all the world that not even something as abhorrent as what had just occurred would stop the presses that day:

“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

He then wrote: “I read that quote in your voice by habit.”

Thanks, kid. That means more to me than you know.


“I wasn’t going to roll over and give up:” Catching up with Alex Nemec and his “No-Comment Story” open-records lawsuit

Back in April, I posted a story on how to make a story out of a series of “no comment” statements. Alex Nemec, now a general-assignment reporter with the Oconomowoc Enterprise, matched wits against a system meant to tell him nothing in hopes of making sure he could tell students at UW-Oshkosh something about the removal of a professor from a classroom.

Nemec’s story, titled “The Curious Case of Willis Hagen,” is just one part of a reporting experience that has led to a yearlong court battle over open records. Last week, an appeals court in Wisconsin ruled that Nemec was entitled to the records he sought about previous university investigations into Hagen. The records will remain sealed for 30 days, during which time, Hagen can decide if he will appeal the decision to the state’s supreme court. If he chooses not to do so, the records will be released. If he decides to appeal, the case will continue.

I checked in with Nemec after the court made its ruling for an update on the case and his thoughts about the process:

You graduated back in December, your current job has no attachment to this at all, it’s been 18 months since the catalyst (his removal from class) that got you interested in this and you still have no idea what is in these things. Why did you continue to push for this release when you could have said, “To hell with this” and let it go?

I continued to push for this because it was the right thing to do. Open records laws are important to journalists and the more cases we win as journalists, the more cases there are to point to when we are receiving push back from people who don’t want to release them. If we continue to rack up the reasons why, there won’t be many reasons left as to why not.

In addition, I kept fighting this cause I wanted these records and wanted to know what was going on. A professor being pulled out of class by police officers is a big deal and I don’t really care if it wasn’t some huge scoop where he did something awful at the school, the students and taxpayers should know why.

This could have all been done and over with for a long time now if Hagen or the College of Business had just talked to me and told me what was going on. I intervened in this lawsuit because I believed it was the right thing to do after talking with you. I wanted to make sure this thing went my way and that the people understood what happened.

Lastly, I wasn’t going to roll over and give up just because I’m not affiliated with the case anymore. One, that’s just lazy and you can’t be lazy in this business. I had to fight the good fight for the sake of the industry. Two, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that he had beaten me or succeeded in delaying it for so long that I just gave up.

Who has been helpful to you on this and what can you say to other student journalists about the SPLC?
Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center helped me in the beginning with the circuit court case and getting things moving for me to be an intervenor. After Hagen had appealed, he referred me to Christa Westerberg and Aaron Dumas at Pines Bach LLP, both of whom have been incredibly helpful in writing briefs and keeping me updated where the case was in system. They explained to me every step of the way what was going on and answered questions when I had them. I can’t thank any of them enough.

The SPLC is a wonderful resource that every student journalist should be aware of if they are having issues with records request or any other legal matter with their student newspaper. They are there to help and I’m so thankful they were there for me.

If you had it to do over again, would you? Why or why not?

I would absolutely do it over again given I had the same resources I have now. Receiving all this help pro bono is obviously a HUGE help, I don’t know what I would have done had it not been pro bono. But yes, given the same resources I have now, I would do it again because it is important that the University community and the taxpayers know what is going on and aren’t being left in the dark.

Anything you’d like to tell student journalists out there who are looking into a “big story” via open records?
To the students who have a scent of a big story of open records, absolutely go for it. Open records is a great thing to get a handle on and understand, not even as a a journalist, but as a citizen. Journalists are suppose to inform the public of happenings in the community and open records is a great way to do that. If someone is denying the open records request, they are more than likely hiding something, which is in turn, a great story to write.
Given my experience with open records requests, they can be either quick and easy and you’ll get what you want fairly soon, or you end up in a year and a half lawsuit. Long story short, pursue open records stories.
More often than not, my money is on that if they won’t give you the records, it’s a good story and one you’ll enjoy writing.

The application of ethical, accuracy and accountability standards to Time’s “Welcome to America” cover

The photo of a nearly 2-year-old Honduran girl sobbing while she and her mother were detained at the U.S. border has become a cultural touchstone in the debate over immigration. Photographer John Moore was a few feet away when he snapped the iconic frame and said it was one of the most emotionally draining photos he has taken in his career. Moore said at the time he did not know if the girl and her mother had been split up, as the government’s policy at the time was one of family separation. It turned out the girl and her mother had not been split up and that she had stopped crying once her mother picked her up.

All of this made Time magazine’s decision to up the ante with this cover concerning to people across the journalistic spectrum:


The photo illustration has led media outlets to call the cover a mistake or worse. Time’s editor recently defended the publication’s cover, even after it ran a correction about it, saying the girl became “the face of the story.” With all of this in mind, consider a few thoughts:

The face of WHAT story: The defense editor Edward Felsenthal offers about the girl being the face of the story depends on what you see as “the story.” She’s not the face of family separation at the border, as everyone found out later in the process. She’s possibly the face of children of people who try to enter the country illegally under this administration. She’s definitely the face of what happens when toddlers are hungry, thirsty or over-tired, which is what her mother explained to the border patrol. The problem with this cover is that it leaves too much open to interpretation and it appears that the story Time thought it was telling at the time turned out to be inaccurate.

Ethics and accuracy: In the ethics chapter, we broke apart several of the big journalism organization’s ethical codes into some key areas of agreement, one of which was accuracy:

 Journalists view accuracy as their primary professional value. The RTDNA code places “truth and accuracy above all” while the NPPA code dictates that journalists should “be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” SPJ notes that, “ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.” When journalists fall short on accuracy, they open themselves to accusations of sloppiness and bias, both of which undercut their credibility.

Early in the discussion of the photo itself, Moore said he didn’t know what happened to the girl and her mother in terms of separation but feared the worst. However, it didn’t take long for multiple outlets to find out from governmental and family sources that the girl was not separated from her mom. As a national magazine, Time probably has the resources to check this out and should have.

This nails why Time screwed up: It wasn’t accurate and comprehensive in its use of this visual. It also didn’t place truth and accuracy above all else (although some might argue it told a larger “truth” that overrode the issue of pure “accuracy). However, it’s important to consider this line from the RTNDA’s code:

The facts should get in the way of a good story. (emphasis in the original) Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.

Instead of looking at this from a perspective of “Does this fully and accurately reflect the reality of this situation?” Time decided to “go for it” with a visually stunning and iconic cover. In doing so, there’s a trade off between nuanced accuracy and guttural emotion. In terms of accuracy and ethics, it seems like a bad trade.

Corrections and Accountability: The ethical codes used in the text all espouse accountability. Making a mistake sucks. Having to tell people you made one really sucks. However, the ethics of the field demand this of us for a good reason:

The RTDNA code states, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.”


It might seem counterintuitive that telling people you made mistakes will make them trust you more. However, journalists and researchers have found that audience members trust people more when they acknowledge and correct their mistakes. This is why SPJ states simply and clearly: “Acknowledge mistakes and correctly them promptly and prominently.”

However, there’s a difference between correcting the record and being accountable for a mistake in a couple specific ways. For example, you can correct the record while holding others accountable for their screw ups. I know I’ve run at least a few, “Due to inaccurate information released by X Police Department…” corrections because something went wrong upstream from me and I ended up publishing something incorrect. That’s legitimate when it’s clearly someone else’s fault. However, when you screw up and it’s your screw up, you should both correct the record and be accountable for your actions.

In Time’s case, the editor tries to have it both ways: Correct the record but say we were right anyways. In defending the decision to run the cover, the editor talks around the accuracy issue with the “nobody in the media knew” arguments. He also argues that this was more symbolic of a larger issue that goes beyond one girl and one moment.

That’s crap.

If journalism is really about telling people what happened and why they should care, we have to be willing to do that as well when we screw up. I would have had much more respect for the guy (and the controversy would likely die down more quickly) if he had said something like, “Look, we probably should have vetted this more and if we didn’t know for sure she was separated, we should have gone with a different shot. That’s on me.” He could have said, “Had we done more with text on the front to provide nuance and layers, people might not be so upset and that’s on me.” Heck, he could have said pretty much anything better than what he said about this if you wanted accountability. In that interview, he almost walks back the correction in a way, explaining they technically didn’t correct the cover.

A good lesson to take away from this is simple: If you screw up, own it.

Could be worse: As much as this is the outrage du jour, this isn’t the first time that Time magazine had a cover that fell on its keys. The classic example is the “darkening” of O.J. Simpson’s mugshot, but here are a couple other covers Time probably wishes came with a “do-over” option:


In 1938, Hitler strikes a reflective pose for his “Man of the Year” cover. No, really, that happened…


The “Look! Smart Asians!” cover was another head-scratcher…

And of course, who can forget the cover that asked the question:


No… No, I am not… But here is an interesting follow up from Jamie Grumet in 2016 about her experiences in being “the breastfeeding mom” on that cover.

GAME TIME! AP quiz, county fair edition

The annual county fairs are starting to take place out here, where you can smell farm life and eat anything anyone has ever thought of making with batter and a deep fryer. To honor our traditional days of being overfed and cheated out of a prize by a carnie, enjoy this classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 short, “A Day at the Fair.”


Also, here’s an AP style quiz based on those fun fair days.

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.

Click here to begin!

“Doctor of Paper” origins and some journalistic thoughts on titles and the #ImmodestWomen discussion

A friend of mine at the University of Oklahoma posted this picture of her Twitter feed shortly after she added the “Dr.” title to her name:


She pointed out that this was the first time something she put out there really went “viral” and that it wasn’t all love, luck and lollipops when it came to the responses she got:


The roots of the #ImmodestWomen movement started with Dr. Fern Riddell, who posted on Twitter her desire to be called “Doctor,” based on her expertise and her Ph.D.:


Others joined, as noted in the article, while some folks griped or condemned or just flat-out trolled this idea. I’m sure for some people, who haven’t walked the academic walk, the whole “Doctor” notion can feel like this:


This issue has batted around for years in various social media groups, and I know the hivemind chatted about it a bit ago with folks noting that male professors often got the “Doctor” or “Professor” honorific while female professors got the “Miss,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.” or first-name treatment. I mentioned that I often eschewed the title of “Doctor” because a) I look like a homeless elf half the time, so putting a title on me is like putting prom dress on a pig and b) I never really felt like a “real” doctor.

Which leads us to the origins story of how I came up with “@DoctorOfPaper” and what it means…

When I graduated from Mizzou with my Ph.D., I did the “doctor” thing on graduation night and made dinner reservations under “Dr. Filak” for Amy and me at a fancy restaurant. Later that night, we ran into a student of mine who had just graduated and who was celebrating at a patio bar with her family.

She brought us over so she could introduce us to her mom and sister and everyone else there. During the chit-chat, I mentioned that I had just received my doctorate, which led to this:

Student’s Mom: “So what is your specialty then?”
Me: “Oh, no… I did my Ph.D. I got my doctorate in journalism.”
Student’s Mom: (Pauses before bursting out with laughter) “Wait… You mean… you’re a DOCTOR of PAPER?” (continues to laugh into her alcoholic slushy)

Amy loved that, so whenever she felt I needed to come down a peg or two, she’d remind me I was a “doctor of paper.” It was good-natured ribbing, but the point was clear: When someone’s dying in a restaurant and someone shouts, “Is there a doctor in the house?” I shouldn’t stand up and explain, “Yes! And please allow me to explain how the human surveillance need as part of uses and gratifications theory is why people all over the restaurant are staring at this choking guy.”

Thus, I usually let the whole “Doctor” thing slide with students. That said, one thing that a friend pointed out, which I hadn’t thought of at the time, was that I had the privilege to do that because, as a male professor, students showed me deference up front. For her, she had to fight to get that respect and she wasn’t giving it up for anyone. It’s an important point and a key difference.

Titles can be a weird thing in a lot of ways. A guy my dad worked with used to coach my basketball team from fifth to eighth grade and I always knew him as “Coach Groppi.” When I was about 30, my grandmother died and he came to the funeral. I hadn’t seen him in more than a decade but when he tapped me on the shoulder and said hi, the first words out of my mouth were, “Coach Groppi!” Habits can be hard to break, apparently…

So why is this on a journalism blog and why does it matter to you? Because there are some key things you can take with you as you report and write. Plus, it adds a good critical thinking notion to your thoughts as well as an ethical element. Consider a few points:

  • Style matters: When it comes to the simple idea of style, AP has gone out of its way to make things a little easier on you when you write in this area. Everyone gets “last-name-only” treatment on second reference and we eschew courtesy titles for folks up front, including “Mr.” “Mrs.” “Ms.” or even “Dr.” (The New York Times has its own thing with courtesy titles I’ve never understood, so I’m sidestepping that one.) As a writer in a publication that follows AP, abide by the rules in your copy and you’ll be OK there.
  • Inequity: Style wasn’t always so “up with people” about how it treated people who weren’t straight, white men. Women in publications used to be referred to as “Mrs. John Smith” as opposed to something like “Mary Smith” on first reference. I remember once seeing a story about a city council action in the 1960s, in which one guy was referred to as “the Negro councilman.” Nobody else had a racial identifier. We discussed the idea of how words create hierarchy and word choice is essential to equality here before. If one race, class, gender or whatever is getting X treatment, use X treatment across the board. The whole goal of style is consistency, but the underlying issue should also be fairness in how you deal with folks.
  • The “Mudcat Grant” theory: Jim Grant pitched in the majors for 14 years in the majors, becoming the first black pitcher to ever win 20 games in the American League. He became known as “Mudcat,” he once explained, because some coach at his first Spring Training or Rookie Camp thought he looked like he came from the south, so he nicknamed him as “Mudcat.” Grant said he almost got tossed out of camp because when someone called for “Mudcat Grant,” he just assumed it was someone else. Eventually, Grant had a discussion with the coach about this and explained that it wasn’t his name. “It is now,” the coach, who was white, told the scared rookie. At the end of the day, he dealt with it because he had to but the point is, people deserve the right to be called whatever they feel is most appropriate. We do it with names, as some people go by Vince or Vincent, but not Vinny or Vito. I had a friend who went by his middle name (Andrew) because his first name (Michael) was also his father’s name and he didn’t want to go by “Junior.” We do it with titles, such as university leaders. (I don’t recall a lot of Twitter rage when a university head is called “President Smith,” with people saying, “You’re not a REAL president! Where’s your army, you pencil-necked geek?”)
  • Just the smart thing to do: There’s one other thing I liked learning about with Jim Grant’s experiences. He had a simple philosophy: “I try to be nice to everybody.” That’s a pretty good idea for everybody, but specifically for journalists who are approaching people and asking for some of their time. I’m not a person who puts a lot of emphasis on etiquette (I can hear Amy laughing already with the use of “a lot” there…), but when people want something from me, they tend to get further with honey than with vinegar. When students send me emails that start with “Dr. Filak” and then they ask for something, I’m probably more inclined to read on and consider it. When I get the salutation of “Hey Filak” or even once “Brah” (not even a “Dear Brah” or “Dear Dr. Brah.” Just “Brah.”), I’m probably less inclined to read it. Why take a strike against you for no good reason right at the start of the at-bat? When you research the person to whom you wish to speak, look for the Ph.D. and address your email, text or call accordingly. As we noted in the interviewing section, let the source dictate the tone of formality and act accordingly. It’s just the smart thing to do.



“Definitely Doable:” Either hire or fire a pervert and other headline advice for the rest of us.

Whenever someone screws up a headline in the worst of all ways, it doesn’t take long before people I know are shining the Bat Signal in my direction:


The headline in question is a little easier to see here:


The story about a young woman winning the Miss Kansas Outstanding Teen carried the double entendre headline “Definitely Doable,” which includes a term that is that at the heart of this classic SNL skit. When I initially saw the headline, I told the person who asked me about it that this was likely a case of one of two things:

  1. The phrase was in the story somewhere and it made sense there, but out of context, it’s truly horrifying.
  2. Someone in the newsroom did the “I’d do her” joke, wrote the headline as a spoof and said, “We’ll change that before it presses” and never did.

Turns out, it was the first issue, as the story (which has a more appropriate headline on its web version) included this quote:

“It was really hard for me to be away from my family for a week because we are have always been so close, but it was good for me coming here,” she said. “This week taught me that this is definitely doable.“

There are about 93 problems with all this, including that this young woman will be the “definitely doable girl” for a long time, but here’s the worst one: This isn’t the first time the Pratt Tribune has landed in the headlines for a headline. This classic was the Tribune’s as well:


We talked about this when it happened, along with a series of other headlines that went awry, and provided some advice to the Trib and other folks who want to avoid these problems. The best advice I can give them after this screw up is to find out what went wrong and do one of two things:

  1. If the same person keeps writing these headlines, fire the pervert before he or she (OK, if I had to put money on it, it’s a he) gets you into even bigger trouble.
  2. If it truly is a situation where nobody really saw either of these headlines as being potentially sexual, hire a pervert to read everything you write and have him or her (probably a him) try to turn anything you type into something dirty.

For the rest of us, here are a couple other headline helpers beyond what we covered last time:

  • Create better headline specs: One of the reasons I’m sure “Definitely Doable” ended up in the paper was because the space left for the headline didn’t give the writer a lot of options. One basic rule we used to have at a paper I worked on was, “If you cut the hole, you need to know how to fill it.” In other words, you can’t give someone a one-column head space for a story about California kindergarten rules under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, unless you can suggest a decent headline for that space.
  • Do a headline throw-down: When you get into a jam with a headline, get away from the computer and do a throw-down session that will give you a fighting chance of coming up with something decent. Create a list of potential nouns, verbs and objects that could tell the story, based on what you read. List everything you can think about and empty your head. If you have some colleagues around, get those folks involved as well. This will provide you with a potential word bank for the headline and a chance to see how certain words might fit that space. If you find a pairing or an NVO structure you like, see if it fits. If it doesn’t, try swapping longer words for shorter ones on your list. Get close and see if some minor tracking or a small reduction in point size would help.
  • Consider a deck: This headline probably wouldn’t have been helped by a deck but other versions might have. If you don’t have the width for a good noun-verb-object headline, see if you have a punchy word or phrase that could be explained well with a deck head, conversation deck, c-deck or whatever else people are calling that secondary headline these days. If you don’t have to win the day with a single headline, you can make the deck head carry the load for you.

And, it goes without saying, think like a 12-year-old boy before you publish something. If that kid can turn your head into a “head” joke, get rid of it. You could always ask for different headline space or simply ask someone else to give it a try. When all is said and done, that headline should be “definitely doable.”



When life gives you lemons, turn them into marketing gold: Country Time and its “Legal Ade” campaign

If you want to see a perfect example of how to use a stupid situation into a great marketing opportunity, look no further than what Country Time Lemonade is doing this summer.

Stories have emerged throughout the country of over-zealous officials slapping fines on little kids for the crime of running a lemonade stand without a business permit. The argument, somehow, is that trying to peddle the semi-warm watery grave of several gnats for a quarter a cup requires city or state sanctions. Although many have ridiculed these ham-handed approaches to justice, Country Time took it up a notch.

According to Ad Week, Country Time is fighting fire with fire by offering its “Legal Ade” services to the kids who find themselves at the wrong end of the long arm of the law. The program offers to pay the legal fees arising from their entrepreneurship. The company set aside about $60,000 for this program, which is peanuts for the Kraft-owned brand. The free media and attention has got to be worth exponentially more, with major news outlets running glowing stories about this campaign.

If you go back through the marketing chapter in the media writing book, you can see a few reasons why this works and how you can emulate this approach in your writing:

  • Simplicity: The message is an easy one for people to grasp. Kids are getting screwed and we’re standing up for them. This doesn’t go deep into the weeds on how or why or whatever about the law. Instead, it shows sad kids and how the company is giving them a big bat to play ball against the chuckleheads who have hit them with fines.
  • Tone: The whole idea of fining 4-year-olds for running a lemonade stand in their front yard is ridiculous. It smacks of being officious and arrogant, and has the feeling like these governmental agents have so little power in life they have to lord over children. The Country Time campaign plays right back at that vibe with a faux-serious tone: “OK, you think you have the law on your side? Check out our legal dream team that’s gonna make you wish you were never born!” It’s a fantastic approach to take that makes people laugh while still supporting the main assertion: Kids are getting screwed and we’re standing up for them.
  • Strategic relevance: The idea here is to make the creative aspects of the campaign relevant to the product itself. This is a lemonade company standing up for little kids who have lemonade stands. Had kids been getting shafted for running rummage sales or bake sales, this “Legal Ade” campaign wouldn’t work as well. However, this is like Briar Rabbit in the briar patch. The components go together perfectly.

This is a great example of how creativity and circumstance can really propel a brand into the public consciousness. If you see an opportunity to serve your clients when a situation like this emerges, go for it.

Resources to help student journalists cover suicide in college media

College journalists must often contend with difficult issues, painful stories and problematic coverage decisions, and a topic like suicide touches on all three. What to say or not say, how to explain the situation or how not to offend people and other issues often leave writers feeling lost and unsure of themselves.

The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain drew a great amount of coverage from media outlets throughout the world and raised the issue for journalists as to what constitutes proper treatment of suicide. Although it is never easy to cover situations like these, it can be even more difficult for student journalists who must cover the topic when it emerges on their campus. The limited amount of experience in covering these issues can make it difficult for student journalists, as can the connections between the journalists’ peers and the person who died. In some cases, the journalists themselves know the person who died, which also leads to even more difficult discussions and considerations.

To help you understand how various outlets cover it, what mental health professionals have to say and some straightforward advice on the issue, professor Jena Heath compiled an incredible set of resources that you can use to guide your efforts. In the wake of Bourdain’s death, the Poynter Institute also released some “best practices” for the coverage of this topic. They include:


  • Avoid stating the means of death. Yes, we are all curious. Responsible news organizations who feel compelled to include some detail will report it low in the story, but avoid putting it in headlines, teasers, captions, or social text.
  • Use neutral photos of the individual. And avoid photos that invoke melancholy. Images of a person who appears peaceful, calm and serene send a message that suicide will get you to that peaceful place.
  • Use neutral headlines like, “John Doe, dead at 60.”

Also, multiple pieces Heath cited and others that discuss this topic from a journalistic point of view note that the inclusion of resources to help reduce the risk of suicide is a helpful practice.

One final tip: Just like everything else in media writing, if you aren’t sure what you are doing or you are worried you are doing something wrong, ask for help. Experts listed in these pieces, as well as veteran journalists and professors, can give you guidance and help you get a better feel for how best to do your best. Your best efforts might not make everyone who reads your story happy, and you still might face angry readers who are hurt or sad, but that’s a risk of any story that has painful elements to it. A large part of journalism is doing your best and dealing with the fallout.


The “Do We Need J-Schools?” Debate, Part II: Solutions based on the World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge and 1970s self-esteem commercials

In the last post, where I dug into the special report from Columbia Journalism Review on if we need J-schools, I promised that all was not lost if you chose this path in life. I doubt you all have waited with bated breath for the answer, but I hope this post will give you a sense that having two dudes with a myopic view of journalism education that starts and stops on the corner of 116th and Broadway argue about your future shouldn’t scare you.

Consider these points when you look at what you’re getting out of your J-school experience and see if this helps you feel a bit better:

What do you want to get out of this? Let’s call this “The World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge” argument.

At one point, I owned a really nice mini-fridge to keep soda and beer cold in my basement. It was clean, new-looking and jet black and I really liked it. However, when my mother-in-law was put into assisted living, she needed one of these things and she didn’t have a lot of money, so I gave it to her. I then needed to replace it, as there’s no way I’m running up and down a flight of stairs every time I need a Diet Coke. If I did, I’d have thighs like Eric Heiden…

In any case, I ran into a lady at a rummage sale who told me she had one for $10. “It’s not that pretty, but it keeps stuff cold,” she told me. I bought it on the spot, even though the “it’s not that pretty” part was a drastic understatement:


Here’s the point: All I wanted out of this thing was to keep soda (and beer) cold. It did that. I could care less what it looked like. So why didn’t I just give my mother-in-law this one and keep the nice one? Because she has OCD (really) and she would rather die than have this Rorschach Test of an appliance within 20 feet of her. I got what I wanted (cold beverages) and she got what she wanted (a nice appliance that didn’t embarrass her) so it all worked out.

The point is, you have to start with an understanding of what you want out of your journalism educational experience because this makes the difference in terms of which side of this argument you want to be on:

The assumption both authors in the “Do We Need J-Schools?” debate make is equating journalism school to Columbia’s God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. As we talked about last time, there are a ton of other journalism schools out there that will provide you with opportunities to get a great education, good opportunities and a fine life without having to hock a kidney at your local pawn shop. You will also have the opportunity to gain a strong sense of media literacy, something a colleague told me I shouldn’t forget when talking about J-school. (She was totally right. You get to be wicked smart on how media works in this world and why it matters if you go to J-school.)

What you want out of the experience is really where the rubber meets the road in this discussion. As I mentioned earlier, I had students who wanted to go home and run a local newspaper, so coming to us at UWO, getting a good degree they could afford and going home worked for them. I always push students to be as good as they can be, but I would never slight a student whose goal wasn’t to be the next Jake Tapper or Bob Woodward. Even more, I have had plenty of good students who came through this program and landed jobs at Facebook, ESPN and more. They set some goals, met some good instructors and got what they wanted.

If you feel that having the ability to say you went to Columbia or Northwestern or any other “name” school is the end-all and be-all, then by all means, go that route. The degree and its cache matter if they matter to you. I equate it to the guy next door to me at work who loves designer clothing. If I ever say, “Hey, nice shirt,” he’ll tell me, “Yeah, it’s a Ralph Lauren…” or whatever. (Every piece of clothing he owns has a name to it.) The niceness and the label matters to him. If you say to me, “Hey, nice shirt,” I’m more likely to say, “Thanks. I think Amy bought it for me for Christmas about five years ago…” For him, it’s the label. For me, it’s about not spending $200 on a piece of clothing I’m going to ruin by dropping my lunch on it.

If where you are is getting the job done in the way you want, J-school is worth it.

Weigh cost versus value: This goes along with the first point, namely that you’re trying to figure out what you’re getting and what you’re giving in this kind of relationship with your school. There is no doubt that student loan debt is scary, so treat it like the food trade off in “The Hunger Games” where you got extra eats if you put your name in the reaping more often: Keep this approach to a minimum as best you can and avoid it whenever you can.

With that in mind, and acknowledging that student loans are as much a part of life now as professors who think they’re funny and assignments you blow off until the last second, the best way to keep the loans low is to go places where you pay less and get more. I’m sure Columbia University is a fine institution, but that nearly $216,000 price tag seems to have the cost/value balance way out of whack. That costs more than TWICE what I paid for a really nice four-bedroom, two-bath house in Muncie, Indiana about 15 years ago. And this leads to the point: I’d rather have two of those houses in my really nice neighborhood back there than two years in Columbia, preparing me for a job where I’m making about $32,000 a year.

Journalism has a strong element of meritocracy to it. The people who hire you care what you can do for them, not where you went to school or what your GPA was in college. I have had more “C” students get great jobs because they got published, took good internships and showed skills than “A” students who could recite the meaning behind Times v. Sullivan. Are you getting good value for what you are spending? If so, you need the school and the school needs you. There is balance in the force.

All of which leads to the next point…

The “Mizzou Brain” discussion: I spent five years at the University of Missouri working on the Columbia Missourian and finishing my Ph.D., so I spent a lot of time at a place that calls itself “The World’s Journalism School.” My first job after that was at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where the kids there were mostly state students who had a strong interest in journalism. One of the big questions they had for me was, “Are we as good as the Mizzou students you taught?” The assumption there was what I call the “Mizzou Brain Theory.”

The Muncie students seemed to think that going to Mizzou was like opening the Wonka Bar with the Golden Ticket inside: You get lucky enough to go there and you get this magical experience that transforms you. I had to explain that the kids at Mizzou start off at the same point they all do (as in they can’t find a decent lead with two hands and a flashlight), but they get better through taking advantage of the experiences they have over the years (and there are many unique ones) that make them who they become.

Yes, the degree is a little shinier and the experiences are a bit broader and more available, but the students there don’t show up, hang out for four years and get a “Mizzou Brain” at graduation that has all the answers. In other words, the smartest kid I ever would get at Ball State wasn’t going to be dumber than the dumbest kid I ever got at Mizzou, simply as a result of their presence at that institution of higher learning.

And I was right about that: Many of the students I had back at Ball State went on to incredible careers as head editors of major news outlets, reporters for big city newspapers, graphics experts for international TV outlets like CNN and marketing professionals from everything from casinos to the UFC. They got a ton of experience at student media outlets, parlayed that into great internships and then leveraged that into great jobs. All for quite a bit less than what Columbia University charges.

In short, it’s not where you go, but rather what you do when you get there. Finally…

It’s all about you: I spent the last three-to-five books telling readers that they need to write for an audience, not for themselves. In short, “It’s not about you” should have been translated into Latin and emblazoned on my family crest. However, this is a case where it is ENTIRELY all about you.

With that in mind, look at the following things when you consider where you are and what you’re getting:

  • Professors:Are these people truly invested in you or not? This doesn’t mean you should approach this like you’re a customer at a restaurant and you expect the professor to be the waitstaff. I mean it more in terms of where the professors priorities sit. A lot of the “name” programs reside at what are known as “R-1” institutions, where professors are judged heavily on how much research they do and how many journal articles they publish. This “publish or perish” approach means less time spent helping you and more time figuring out the difference in uses and gratifications for media use by left-handed guys named Ted. A lot of institutions like this will have instruction completed by teaching assistants and graduate assistants. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, as two of my best teachers in college were TAs. Are you getting meaningful connections with quality educators who can help you reach your goals, whatever they are? If so, you’re fine. If not, see if that can change. If it can’t, look elsewhere.
  • Learning type:You know how well you learn, even if you can’t explain it to anyone else. For some people, it’s the small lab setting or bust. For others, they can learn in 900-person lecture halls just fine. Some folks need a lot of one-on-one time while others are completely fine being left alone. This goes back to the first point in this list, which is that if you feel you need to spend a lot of time with an active and engaged professor to succeed, you want to make sure those people exist where you are. If you go to a smaller school with classes that meet your needs, you’re fine. Don’t worry so much about how everyone else does things or how the God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification does things. Worry about how YOU need to get stuff done to be the best you can be. Take inspiration from the Jamaican Bobsled Team on this one:

  • Experiences:You get a job in this field based on the number of opportunities you have to improve your craft and publicly showcase your wares. In other words, you will live your own version of “publish or perish,” so you need to know if you can publish so you don’t perish. Does the institution have student media outlets where you can get cracking on building a skill set? How hard is it to get involved? What forms of student media are there? Newspaper? TV? Radio? Magazine? More?
    Also, does the place have an internship coordinator for journalism students, a strong alumni network of people who want to hire you and other ways to get you into the field? If you want to know the real “wizard behind the curtain” thing that makes Mizzou amazing, it’s all of this. The place owns the city a.m. daily newspaper, an NBC affiliate and a magazine. And that’s just the start. Add in the national and international program options for journalism students and massive network of “Mizzou Mafia,” you now know why it is that place pumps out J-grads like Alabama produced first-round NFL draft picks. Some places with a killer rep don’t have this while other places you wouldn’t think twice about have quietly built an amazing network of these opportunities.

I don’t know if this makes you feel better or worse about your journalism school choices, but I hope it helps somewhat. Either way, you’re always welcome to swing by and have a cold beverage of your choice here in Omro, courtesy of the ugliest mini-fridge ever.

Three major problems with Columbia Journalism Review’s “Do we need J-schools?” debate (Part I)

The special report from Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Do we need J-schools?,” landed in almost every social media feed and email chain I saw this week, to the point that I felt like this in terms of having to read it:

After reading it, my reaction was pretty much the same as Regan’s in “The Exorcist,” as I sat here screaming, “IT BURNS!!! IT BURNS!!!!”

Almost any absolutist position that comes from two talking heads trying to prove a superior position will contain all the valid logic of an overtired toddler who is losing his mind at Walmart. This exchange of ideas, set out to question some of your most important life choices to this point, is only slightly better than that, even as it has several massive flaws.

Today, we’re going to unpack three basic problems with “Do we need J-schools?” The next post will you some general hope and advice as you wonder if you just flushed your entire education down the toilet.


Problem 1: Consider the sources

Good reporting requires journalists to consider the source of the information and take that into account when deciding how much credibility to lend it. In short, if you ask a vacuum salesman if you need a vacuum, you pretty much know what kind of answer you are going to get.

The pro J-school piece came from Bill Grueskin, the current dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He has a background in newspapers and media that is quite impressive:

He worked as a reporter and editor in Baltimore and Tampa before moving to The Miami Herald where he eventually became city editor. On his first day in that post, Hurricane Andrew hit Dade County, and the Herald’s coverage of the storm won the Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service.

Grueskin joined The Wall Street Journal in 1995, editing Page One features and projects. In June 2001, he became managing editor of (link is external) and oversaw the staff during and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, next to WSJ’s offices. While at, the number of subscribers doubled to more than one million, and the site introduced blogs, interactive graphics and video.

In 2007, he was named WSJ’s deputy managing editor, overseeing 14 domestic news bureaus, and combining print and online editing desks.


In June 2014, he was named an executive editor at Bloomberg, overseeing efforts to train the global news staff to reach broader audiences across digital platforms.

He also has an educational background that is dressed to impress:

Grueskin has a B.A. in classics from Stanford University and an M.A. in international economics and U.S. foreign policy from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

Felix Salmon, who proposed the abolition of J-school, also has an impressive array of media work to his name:

The American Statistical Association presented Salmon with the 2010 Excellence in Statistical Reporting Award “for his body of work, which exemplifies the highest standards of scientific reporting. His insightful use of statistics as a tool to understanding the world of business and economics, areas that are critical in today’s economy, sets a new standard in statistical investigative reporting.”

Salmon published an article in Wired magazine on 27 December 2010 explaining high-frequency trading on Wall Street. This was followed by an interview on NPR; the program aired on 13 January 2011.

Since May 10, 2014, Salmon has been the host of Slate magazine’s weekly Slate Money podcast along with regular Slate financial columnist Jordan Weissmann and financial blogger Cathy O’Neil, who left the program in 2017 and was replaced by Anna Szymanski, a former emerging markets risk analyst.

In 2016, Salmon’s salary at Fusion was reported to be $400,000. He left Fusion in January 2018.

And again, his education is something to behold:

Salmon has an MA in art history from the University of Glasgow along with an Honours background in mathematics.

Y’know, just two regular dudes who walked the standard path through life…

Not every student who enters a J-school does so with the expectation of this kind of resume being the result. (Truth be told, Salmon’s salary dwarfs mine, although I doubt he owns this T-shirt, which I do, so I guess you can say we’re even.) There are plenty of students I teach who want a degree so they can go back and run the local paper in their home town or work somewhere other than the factory or farm that all previous generations of their family have worked. One of my favorite former colleagues spent much of his newspaper career doing science and environment writing in Wisconsin. He once charged a couple dozen night crawlers to his expense account because he had to go fishing with a source as part of a story.

If this pro/con argument contained one source who interviewed a town mayor who doubles as an Elvis impersonator or once told a coroner to go cuddle up with his buddies in the freezer, I’ll cede the elitism argument. In the mean time, the fight these two aristocrats engage in reminds me of this:


Problem 2: Generalizing from a ridiculous exemplar

One of the main arguments here revolves around the cost of school, a concern every student I know has when it comes to college. Many of my students work two or three jobs just to make rent, never mind covering tuition or beer money. Salmon touches on this here:

J-school attendees might get a benefit from their journalism degree, but it comes at an eye-watering cost. The price tag of the Columbia Journalism School, for instance, is $105,820 for a 10-month program, $147,418 for a 12-month program, or $108,464 per year for a two-year program. That’s a $216,928 graduate degree, on top of all the costs associated with gaining the undergraduate prerequisites.

I know that things have changed a lot in the couple of decades since I finished my undergrad degree at a state school, but this is a ridiculous example. The approach here is akin to saying a car isn’t worth owning because look at the Lamborghini Veneno, Plenty of decent Honda Civics and Ford Focuses (Foci?) don’t require you to hock a kidney to make the payments. Also, these folks (including Alexandria Neeson, who wrote the middle-ground argument I’ve sidestepped in this discussion) are all debating the value of a graduate-level journalism degree as opposed to something a bit more on par with what most students pursue.

Journalism schools exist outside of the pantheon of the God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification at Columbia (or if you’re slumming it, Northwestern). I might be wrong here, but I doubt these two gents are thinking about this program at Madison Area Technical College or this one at Southwestern College Chula Vista or this one at at North Dakota State University or this one at California State University – Sacramento. These schools have strong programs and great student media programs as well.

Everything when it comes to spending should be a question of cost versus value, so unless Columbia University hands out whatever the journalistic equivalent is to Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, that price tag seems a bit high for whatever you get out of it. That said, you can get through a decent journalism program for a fraction of the cost and get a job that will lead to a decent life. You might have crushing debt forever, but that’s indicative of the state of education itself these days, not specifically journalism school.

A good friend of mine graduated from high school at the same time I did (1990s) and went off to a small, private school in Iowa while I stayed in Wisconsin and went to the state school. Her tuition was at least eight times what I was paying per semester and kept going up each year. She is still (at last check a few years back) paying off her musical education degree having never gotten a job in the field. She works office temp jobs and it’s not the fault of a journalism school.


Problem 3: An inaccurately presumed outcome

A key misconception present in both positions is the presumed outcome of journalism school. The authors argue from the assumption that students go there to become news folks (writers, reporters, etc.) and based on that outcome, the school is either a good idea or a bad idea. The problem with this assumption is that the skills journalism student garner can benefit them in a broad array of fields that have little or nothing to do with working for an editor who wants to know a police spokesperson’s middle initial.

Grueskin lists some of the key outcomes of J-school and many people would agree that these things are taught in this discipline and that they have value:

But a strong journalism program will help young reporters challenge their presumptions and prejudices, will encourage them to meet people and go to neighborhoods outside their comfort zone, and will force them to develop the resilience that journalists need, especially now.

The best programs will also enable students to develop the intellectual dexterity to deal with unending technological change, so journalism can emerge more interesting and more dynamic than ever before.

Salmon also makes similar points pertaining to these valuable skills, noting that they should be taught in the newsroom in kind of a socialization among learned professionals.

Both men miss the broader point: Not everyone who goes to J-school becomes (or wants to become) a news journalist. Even more, the skills they learn as students in a J-school have value to dozens of other fields that will allow them to get jobs and communicate effectively. (We’ve talked about the idea of transferable skills in the book and on the blog quite a bit. People now swing from job to job and field to field, taking skills with them.) Students with an interest in news, advertising, public relations, social media and more emerge from quality journalism programs and get snapped up by employers who see the skills they possess. These skills also come tangentially via journalism school, as many students in these programs are exposed to student media, where they really make their bones and hone their craft.

(I’m sure my alma mater wouldn’t like hearing this, but I considered my degree program secondary to my work at the student newspaper and school yearbook. I learned more at those two places than I learned in the classroom, where I was once required to read a book that the professor wrote about Ronald Reagan. A scintillating passage on Reagan’s early life included his library card number from his youth… Good grief.)

Case in point: A few years back, I had lunch with a former student who had gotten her degree, worked long hours in the student newsroom and gone off to a career in the federal government. She worked for NCIS as some sort of terrorism expert (she was never really allowed to explain it all to me) and she was really good at the job. She explained to me that if something was going on in one of her watch areas, it would be her and the president in a room somewhere talking about what happens next. I was amazed, but not nearly as amazed as what she told me next:

“I can’t thank you enough for everything you taught me,” she said. “Without you and those experiences at the newsroom, I’d never have this job.”

I thought that was ludicrous and I told her as much, but she explained that she meant every word. She said the experiences in journalism taught her how to talk to new people, how to not be afraid of situations, how to communicate clearly, how to cut through the BS people would sling and more. In other words, all of these things Grueskin listed as valuable for journalism students trying to get into newsrooms also had value to this kid who never once wrote a news story once she left college.

If the true purpose of journalism school (or journalism-based activities like student media, which I’ll hit on more next time) is to teach people valuable skills that will make them employable and valuable members of society, it works in a lot of ways. It might not be worth $216,928, but that’s a personal call. (It’s also a case of massive overcharging in my book. The only thing more ridiculous in my mind is the $4.25 I paid for a bottle of Diet Coke at a big city airport. Given my addiction to the beverage, I’d have to seriously choose between Diet Coke or a grad degree at that level.)

Just because the students don’t go where you think the should, it doesn’t follow that they didn’t get value out of their experiences.