4 Things Beginning Journalists Can Learn From the Steve King vs. “Success Kid” Mom Story

Bloch Head shot

Emily Bloch of the Florida Times-Union has long been one of my favorite journalists because of her news sense, her ability to understand an audience and her unyielding dedication to her craft.

Back in 2018, we wrote about how Bloch broke major news about several Florida politicians breaking the law by taking pictures of their ballots and posting them on social media.

In a strange twist of irony, the story ran the same day she was officially “restructured” out of her job at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent her “two-weeks notice” banging out that piece, something I still don’t think I’d have the intestinal fortitude to do.

Between then and now, she did freelance work before taking an education reporter position at the Times-Union.

And she’s still hitting home runs with her work, like Tuesday’s piece about a local mom threatening to sue Iowa Congressman Steve King for using her son’s photo in his campaign efforts.

Laney Griner was on Facebook when she received a notification. She was tagged in a post. It’s not a new occurrence for her. A photo she took of her son, Sam, 13 years ago, became a commonly used meme.

Success Kid,” as it’s been deemed online, features a then-infant Sam, staring straight on at the camera, clutching a fistful of sand. The meme has been widely used over the years, Sam’s withering stare being featured by Coca-Cola, the White House and President Barack Obama’s administration, to name a few.

But last week, when Success Kid was featured in an ad for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, Griner wasn’t having it.

Her attorney sent the congressman a cease-and-desist letter early Monday, requesting the meme featuring Sam be removed from all platforms associated with King as well as for a public apology. By Tuesday, the post was taken down.

Bloch’s story is a great one for many reasons, but here are four things you can learn from her efforts on this piece:

READ PAST THE HEADLINE: Here’s the head that ran on the top of Bloch’s story:


If you read the lead of Bloch’s story, you can see how this isn’t accurate:

A Jacksonville mom is threatening to sue an Iowa Congressman for using photos of her son to raise money.

Griner sent King a cease-and-desist letter, which means she’s telling him to knock it off or she WILL sue him. As the update to the story notes, King pulled the “Success Kid” memes from his ads, so the letter had the desired effect.

“There’s a small percentage of folks who don’t understand copyright law, and, of course aren’t reading the whole story that are peeved,” Bloch said in an online interview Wednesday. ” ‘Does she sue everyone that uses the meme?’ She’s not suing. ‘Should I delete my posts that use the meme?’ Obviously not.

(As we’ve pointed out a dozen or more times here, a lawsuit isn’t a lawsuit until it’s filed.)

When you run into a story on any platform, it always bodes well for you (and anyone else) to read beyond the headline. In trying to crunch a nuanced concept (cease-and-desist letter) into headline specs, sometimes a shorter, but inaccurate, word shows up (sues). Always give something like this a deeper look, or at least read two paragraphs into the story.

FIND THE LOCAL ANGLE: Bloch said she saw the story in the Washington Post’s “Morning Mix” and the word “Jacksonville” caught her eye. While every other outlet was focusing on King and the meme, Bloch saw the local angle and figured this would draw her readers to the story.

So in 2013 a bunch of local outlets actually wrote about him, but then it died down again…,” Bloch said. “In 2013 I wasn’t living in (Jacksonville) yet, so them being local was news to me.”

Bloch’s nose for news is important, but so was the idea that this story is more important to local folks who don’t just know of “Success Kid” as a meme, but rather as Sam, the local kid who became an internet legend. Even though other people had touched on the local angle before, both the time that had passed and the time peg of the cease-and-desist letter made for a good reason to punch down a local story here.

“Like I said, everyone wrote about them being from (Jacksonville) in 2013,” Bloch said. “So unless you’re an editor, you had no clue. So most of my Twitter feed is ‘I HAD NO CLUE SUCCESS KID WAS FROM JACKSONVILLE!'”


ASK. IT CAN’T HURT: Bloch could have easily written this story without an interview. The court documents have plenty in there for her to quote and plenty of people have written extensively on the meme and King, so she had no shortage of background from which to draw. However, she decided to take a shot at an interview.

“(I) immediately found the mom’s twitter account and DM’d her,” Bloch said. “Did the interview that afternoon.”

Bloch was able to get a good, strong local explanation from Griner about her experiences with the meme as well as why she wanted King to cease and desist. If you compare Bloch’s story to the national ones, you can see how this not only localized the story, but helped it make more sense, as Griner spoke like a human being, not like a legal document.

The lesson here is that it never hurts to ask for what you need. Griner could have said she was too busy or that everything had to go through her lawyer. She also could have just ignored the “local press,” given the reach of this story. However, she was willing to talk to Bloch that day and really push the story forward for local and national readers.

It’s always easy to assume you can’t get an interview or someone won’t want to talk to you. Give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen in most cases? Someone says “No,” which means you have no more and no less information than you did before you asked.

A GREAT STORY CAN BE A SIMPLE ONE: When I saw Bloch post this, I immediately sent her a handful of questions like an over-excited toddler who saw Santa for the first time. Her reaction seemed to be one of gracious bemusement:

“(It’s) not a sexy story, but hey, they’re not always sexy,” she wrote with an “LOL” to make her point.

I’d like to disagree on that point. It’s an amazing story for about a half dozen reasons:

  • It’s local (Let’s not belabor that, but it’s worth noting. If it’s in your backyard, you should own the story.)
  • It engaged and informed the audience (Her Twitter feed proves that point, as people are starting to realize this kid is in their area, something they didn’t know before.)
  • It grabs most of the FOCII elements: Fame (King and the meme), Oddity (A mom threatening to sue a congressman over a meme featuring her son is likely rare), Conflict (King vs. Griner) and Immediacy (The story was out shortly after the letter was filed).
  • It’s a simple, fun read. (Bloch didn’t try to blow this thing up into some sort of epic battle over copyright or layer on legal precedent. She just told people what was going on in a way they’d understand it.)
  • It inspired additional ideas in her. (In chatting about this, we talked about how old Sam is now, if he’s known around school as this kid, how life has been and so forth. She mentioned wanting to check in on him in 10 years. We then talked about maybe a high school graduation story in five years when he turns 18. Then, I stopped bothering her so she could go do actual work instead of dealing with me…)

I’m sure there’s more here, but the point is, you don’t have to catch the governor of your state funneling cash from the state budget to oversee a human trafficking and drug ring to have a great story. If you can develop a sense of wonder and a nose for what makes things interesting to other people, you’ll have plenty of great stories like this and keep readers wondering what you’ll write next.

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