Gone Fishin’: Taking in a final breath of summer

I’m sure most folks are done with their summer courses at this point and the fall hasn’t started for a good many of you yet. (We start after Labor Day. I know some folks start in a week or so.)

With that in mind, I’m going to take a week off and enjoy the last bit of summer we have. I’m probably going to refinish some furniture and work on the Mustang. I hope you find a way to have as much fun with your time as I’m going to have with mine.

See you back Aug. 20!

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

Connecticut’s “vexatious” standard for open record requests should scare the hell out of student journalists

The state of Connecticut recently passed a law that allows public agencies to deny open records to any citizens the agencies feel are pests. Although the legalese is a bit more nuanced, this news piece captures the core of the law:

Citizens who routinely and repeatedly file Freedom of Information complaints over thin reasons are the subjects of a new law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy June 7.

House Bill 5175 — An Act Concerning Appeals Under the Freedom of Information Act and Petitions for Relief from Vexatious Requesters — gives additional authority to the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether a FOIA request or appeal is vexatious and if so determined, grant relief to an aggrieved municipality or public agency.

An agency may petition the commission for relief from someone the agency alleges is a vexatious requester. Upon receiving the petition the commission shall determine whether, given the allegations, a hearing is warranted.

If it is determined that no hearing is warranted, the commission can dismiss the petition, said state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), who voted for the bill. If, after a hearing, the commission determines the request rises to the level of a vexatious requester, it can grant relief to the municipality or public agency. That would allow a municipality or public agency to not respond to their requests for a period of a year, she said.

The term “vexatious” sounds like something predatory, but as the Student Press Law Center’s coverage of the topic explains, it simply means anyone “who repeatedly attempts to get information from their government through frequent or voluminous requests.”

(So, so, so sorry to “vex” you m’lord…)

This should scare the hell out of you as a student journalist, even if you don’t live in Connecticut. The idea of “how much is too much” is now in the hands of people who don’t want to tell you things, thus giving them a leg up in potentially punishing you for your requests. Also, if one state does something and it turns out to be a really bad idea that punishes journalists and gives people the opportunity to hide their weaseldom, it’s a safe bet a few other states are likely to try this thing. Keep an eye out in your state for similar bills that might wander into the statehouse.

Frank LoMonte, who has worked for and with SPLC for years, noted that the vague language in that definition, as well as the lack of any measurable to quantify the difference between “vexatious” and simply being a pain in the keester of a record keeper, makes this law a serious problem:

“While a journalist making legitimate use of FOI requests shouldn’t ever have to worry about being categorized as ‘vexatious,’ the Connecticut law doesn’t give adequate guidance about what makes someone a ‘vexatious’ requester,” LoMonte said. “Basically if a school district or a college got tired of a particular reporter, they could petition to have the person banned from making future FOI requests on the grounds that their requests were too frequent. But there’s nothing in the law that specifies whether thirty requests a year, or three, is regarded as too many.”

When I saw this, I remembered a student I had in Indiana named Justin Hesser, who started as the Ball State Daily News working as a quiet, unassuming sports reporter. During one summer, he made an open records request on some documents pertaining to a beef the school was having with its custodial and food employees. He dug into meeting minutes, agendas and all sorts of emails to find out what was going on with a contract dispute. The story itself turned out to be relatively pedestrian, but Justin was hooked on FOIA.

He started digging into tons of stories on campus, using the open records law to shine a light into all manner of dark corners at the university. He looked at allegations of sexual harassment, NCAA violations and more. My favorite story was the time he unearthed a $44.5 million “slush fund” the university developed based on unused student meal money. The best quote of the story came from Jon Lewis, the director of dining services, who admitted the whole thing was rigged against the students:

“If there’s not that much forfeited money we’d have to charge the students more so that we could put that money in the surplus,” Lewis said.

I had a meeting with the head of PR for the university at one point to talk about something or other, but the first words out of her mouth were: “You have to get a handle on this Hesser kid.”

Why? He’s not doing anything illegal. He’s actually doing his job better than a lot of journalists.

“He’s turning in like three requests a day!” she told me. “And he’s WALKING THEM IN!”

Justin had found a neat part of Indiana law that stated requests anyone mailed, faxed or emailed in gave the record keepers seven days to respond. However if the requester physically presented the request (as in walked it over to the record keeper and hand it it to him or her), the agency had to time stamp the request and reply within 24 hours.

So, he wants you to abide by the law?

“We have to respond within TWENTY FOUR HOURS!” she yelped at me, as if her tone would somehow convince me that Justin was doing something wrong. “We don’t have the personnel to do that for EVERYONE!”

I told her he was abiding by the law and that it wasn’t his fault she felt overwhelmed by a college kid filing FOIA requests out of a student newsroom. She couldn’t just deny his requests out of convenience. However, if this new Connecticut law was the rule of the land, this is exactly what could happen.

The concept of open records is the idea that citizens have the right to access documents to understand what public agencies are doing for them and to them. Record keepers have been trying to cut into those rights in a variety of ways, such as requiring requesting parties to pay exorbitant fees and delaying the fulfillment of the requests until the information the documents contain would be old news. In other cases, the records are so heavily redacted (where the record keeper “blacks out” portions of the text for a variety of reasons) they are essentially worthless.

(A quick post-script: Justin Hesser graduated from Ball State, to the relief of the university’s PR department, about a year after that meal money story ran. He went on to study law at the University of Wyoming and is now an attorney and a partner in a Cheyenne, Wyoming, law firm.)

Grave digger, cheese maker, bartender and amazing writer: Thoughts, insights and tips from George Hesselberg

George Hesselberg always fascinated me.

Hess, as he was affectionately known around the Wisconsin State Journal newsroom, retired from the State Journal in 2017 after 40 years at the paper, but his employment experience went far beyond that of the traditional ink-stained wretch.

According to his own recounting, he “worked as grave digger, night watchman at the Norwegian telephone company, bartender, translator at the Norwegian State Department, sign painter, stage hand, cheese maker, tin roofer.” Also, he spent his grade-school years working for the Bangor (Wisconsin) Independent, a weekly newspaper writing up the 4-H club meetings and the high school baseball games.

Hesselberg was a prolific writer and storyteller, the kind of journalist you always want to imitate for the simple reason that it would be impossible to do so.

His desk sat next to one of the few tiny windows in the newsroom, stuffed in an area away from the prying eyes of editors. His hours appeared to me to be random and his stories always called to me first when it was time to proof the first edition on night desk. The mug shot that accompanied his columns stared back at me with a confident, yet impish, smile that said to the readers, “Can you believe this?”

Even in retirement, Hesselberg continues to find those “Can you believe this?” stories that other people tend to miss. Case in point, in perusing the Sunday obituaries this week, he ran across a story of a 95-year-old man whose time in the military during World War II received only a passing mention. Hess dug in and posted his findings to Facebook:

Hess1Hess2

Hesselberg explained in an email how he developed the skill of finding these kinds of stories that would otherwise have remained hidden.

“There has to be more to this,” he wrote. “What am I missing here? Does anyone else have any interest in this and why? Will this help someone figure out what happened? Then go after the details… I think I developed this to survive while on the cop beat. There were several police reporters in Madison when I started and the competition was keen. I looked for something nobody else had… I read the fine print, always. I read the legal ads, I read the obits.

Hesselberg also wrote the obits, and he did so in a way that typified what I tell students: Your story should help readers learn about someone in death that they wished they’d known about in life.

“Imagine trying to tell a reader why he or she should care about what you are writing,” he said. “Go to Facebook and search ‘Hesselberg obituaries’ I have been posting my favorites over the years. Note the majority are about ordinary people, not captains of industry. A favorite is one I wrote after riding along with the coroner to a death call and finding a suicide. Newspapers don’t write about suicides, but this one has some good elements for a young reporter to notice. There are lots of interesting details, including the very last line.”

HessObit.jpeg

SIDE NOTE: My favorite obit was probably the one Hess wrote for himself and placed into his own clip file in the newspaper’s morgue. Hesselberg’s detail-oriented piece included his cause of death (stabbed in the back by management) and the way he was interred (his body was found in Lake Wingra, tied to a typewriter).

A knack for locating details and a penchant for critical thinking helped Hesselberg find stories where no one else would even think to look.

“When something doesn’t make sense, it is a story,” he said. “I try to find out something that nobody else knows, about any topic, from a cop brief to a series on cemetery plot swindles. (called ‘reloads’)”

Hesselberg’s ability to write for his readers endeared generations of Madisonians to him, as he not only found those “nobody else knows” stories, but he told them in a way that connected with his audience. (“There is a fine line that should not be crossed between telling a story and lecturing the reader,” he wrote.) The State Journal’s reach spanned the state’s capital city and towns of fewer than 1,000 people, which provided him a cornucopia of people with myriad interests.

I have to remind myself that not all readers are alike,” he said. “This is one reason I liked journalism on a daily newspaper: It was filled with all manner of news written in all styles about all subjects. I try not to assume I know what a reader already knows, and that makes a reporter write simply.”

In that same vein, the big question for Hesselberg had to do with helping my readers: How can students who are just starting their career tap into their own potential like you did and tell stories that engage readers? Or, put another way, what can students do to “make it” in this field? Just like his life and his writing, his answers included a wide spectrum of insightful ideas. Enjoy:

  • “Trite, but: Ask one more question of one more person. Doesn’t cost anything to ask, ever.”
  • “I wish I could remember the name of the editor who, when I rushed in to write on deadline and was trying to convey my enthusiasm on a topic, merely said: ‘Surprise me.'”
  • (As managing editor Cliff Behnke said,) “Get the name of the dog.”
  • “Go to the scene whenever possible. Even if it is after you had to write a breaking story. You never know what you might find.”
  • “A young reporter who asks for help in understanding an issue is going to be a good reporter.”
  • “Just because something has been done one way for 30 years does not mean it should be done that way now. Find a different way. (Editor Chris) Drosner made an unwittingly brilliant move in 2010 and told me to write the Jimmy the Groundhog story, which became my favorite three-paragraph bylined story ever.”
  • “There is no cheat sheet. Also, since you asked:  Don’t wait, learn a second language and study a third.”
  • “An editor is a necessary evil.”
  • “Be nice.”

Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

As the finishing touches take place on the next book in the “Dynamics” series (Dynamics of Media Editing), I thought it would be a good to give you a peek at a key area of writing and editing that often goes overlooked: Holes.

The idea of a hole is simple: It is the absence of something that should be there to make an item complete. A hole in a shirt, a hole in the yard or a hole in your story all fit that same basic premise. The goal of good writers is to fill in the holes that exist to keep your readers fully engaged and fully informed.

Or as we might say elsewhere, “Don’t leave me hanging, bro…”

Here’s a clip from the editing book so you can get a better sense of how this all works and how to fix it:

Filling holes

A hole in copy is when a writer raises an issue that interests a reader but doesn’t provide enough information to satisfy that interest. Editors develop an intuitive sense over time as to where holes exist and what is required to fill them. Here are some simple examples of holes and how to fill them:

 

A question with no answer: Writers often spend enough time working in a specific area of interest that they start to understand things that go beyond what readers will intuitively know. It can be jargon, historical references or “inside baseball” issues, and in most cases, the writer will assume that others know these items as well. A hole can develop in a story when a gap emerges between what the writer knows and what the readers do. Here’s an example:

Francisco Smart took over as San Antonio’s mayor six months ago, completing the end of his predecessor’s term.

This situation raises several questions including:

  • Who was the predecessor?
  • Why was he/she unable to complete the term?

You can easily fill in the hole with a simple edit:

Francisco Smart, who is completing Carol Jafkey’s term as San Antonio’s mayor, took on his current role six months ago when Jafkey moved to Arizona.

This might raise additional questions, such as “Why did Jafkey move to Arizona?” That said, you have plugged the bigger holes and you can address the additional questions later.

Any time you see a statement that has you asking a question that the writer hasn’t answered later in the story, you need to acknowledge the presence of a hole and find way to fill it.

 

An accusation with no response: News traditionally requires balance, but that’s not just an ideal associated with newspapers. Unless you want people to see you as a slanted source of information, you need to look for fairness when you are editing. In some cases, a source will fire a shot across the bow and accuse someone else of something nefarious. The first question you should ask is if that accusation needs to be in your piece in the first place or if it’s just a cheap shot that lacks value. If it merits inclusion, see what truth there is to that accusation or afford the accused an opportunity to respond so you don’t end up with a hole like this:

 

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement.

 

The accusation is pretty serious, so make sure you don’t just let it linger:

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. In each of those cases, the court has dismissed the case as being without merit.

OR

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. Wood testified in court each time that this was nothing more than a friendly poker game that Lazlo detested because he was not invited to participate.

The goal is to make sure that you don’t leave the door open on an accusation when you can easily close it and give your readers a more complete version of the truth.

 

An “oddity” with no context: Oddity is an interest element that writers often emphasize in their work to give readers a sense of how special an outcome or issue is. However, when a writer fails to provide context for that information, the readers often feel lost or don’t have a full appreciation of this rarity. Here’s an example:

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds pitched an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time in major league history that a pitcher accomplished this feat.

 

A couple questions are left unanswered here:

  • Who did it first?
  • When did he do it?

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds threw an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time since 1940 that a pitcher accomplished that feat.

Or

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis joined Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians as the only pitchers to throw opening-day no-hitters in major league history.

However, to plug both holes, you need to reconsider the approach a bit:

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis became the second player in the last 78 years to throw an opening-day no-hitter, joining Cleveland’s Bob Feller who first accomplished the feat in 1940.

That plugs both holes and helps the readers understand the rarity of the feat.

Any time you have an oddity, you run the risk of having a hole in the story. Make sure you edit to provide context and meaning to help your readers more fully understand the magnitude of what you want them to know.

 

Finish the Game: Why Emily Bloch is my hero (and should be yours, too)

In your collegiate career, professors like me tell you that you should work hard, play by the rules and seek a job that makes you happy. We tell you that the job is your reward for all of the things you endured during your four (or five or six) years in college, eking out an existence with food-service jobs and low-paying (or non-paying) internships. It’s why you spent all your collegiate life locked in that windowless basement that smells like feet and shattered dreams known as the student newspaper office instead of partying with friends.

Emily Bloch did all that. She worked for the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, ascending to the rank of editor in chief. She attended national media conventions, where I met her through her adviser, Michael Koretzky. She freelanced for Teen Vogue, blogged for Sunfest and contributed to the Miami New Times. In February 2017, she got her dream job: Community reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, an amazing publication that Tronc purchased in late May.

And last week, Tronc “restructured” her out of a job.

That’s right. The media giant fired her. As journalist and author Jeff Pearlman noted in his blog, “Tronc has kicked Emily to the curb—a multi-million dollar company saving (and this is pure guesswork) $35,000 a year and directly hurting its coverage.”

So, knowing that she got cut and that there was nothing she could do to change that, Bloch did something I doubt I would have had the strength to do: Her job.

EmPinned

I was told I was laid off BEFORE I started working on that politician story,” Bloch told me in a text message.

The story made the front page of the Sun-Sentinel, and it also went viral when Bloch tweeted the ironic juxtaposition of the newspaper and her severance papers:

EmSeverence

This is why Emily Bloch is my hero, and she should be yours, too. At that age, (hell, even at this age) I don’t know exactly what I would do if I lost a job I always wanted, just because some chucklehead in a suit wanted to nudge a profit-margin up for some stockholders. However, my best guess would be that I would have one of the following reactions:

  • Weep like an overwrought 12-year-old girl if the break up of my favorite boy band occurred on the same day my dog died
  • Launch into a social media rage that would make this clip of Nicholas Cage look calm and well-adjusted by comparison
  • Drink the state of Wisconsin dry while listening to every song by The Cure

Going out and breaking a major story for a publication that told me I lacked value to them wouldn’t even be in the ballpark of what I’d consider doing. Bloch typifies exactly what I try to tell students about the importance of finishing what you start, regardless of odds or obstacles against you, even if it feels like a lost cause. I fell in love with the phrase “Finish the game” as an exemplar of that concept (if you excuse the dated references):

This all sounds great in concept, but I don’t know how easy it is to do in practice. Once the applause from Twitter dies down, she still has to pay rent and buy food. It’s also a hell of a bruise to a person’s psyche to know that you can be trucking along at your job and then it’s like a mob hit: Bang. You’re gone.  What happens next?

“A lot of it’s up in the air but honestly I think I’m more excited than scared,” Bloch said. “To make ends meet, I’m bulking up on freelance. It’s actually ridiculous. Gearing up at my usual places, upping the hustle just a little, I’ll basically break even with my salary. Not sure if that a compliment to me or a diss to my wage.” 

She said she wants to stay in Florida and stay in news at some level. (Koretzky wrote to some folks who know Bloch and said that after her story went viral, two smaller Florida newspapers reached out to her and offered some employment.) By deciding to “finish the game,” she became a shining example of what’s good in journalists and “kids these days.” It also showcased her abilities and strength, two characteristics that are likely to open a lot of doors for her in this next stage of her career.

It’s OK to feel like you got stabbed in the heart if something like this happens. It’s what you do after that happens that will make the difference in life. Bloch said she felt bummed at first, but decided that she would pick herself up off the ground and “begin to hustle.” Her story on the politicians was the result.

“I think there’s a real lesson in there,” she added. “If you’re in this field, it’s likely not because of a tantalizing salary. It’s because you give a shit.”