A few reminders of how the First Amendment works in the wake of the NFL’s “no kneeling” rule

One of the key reasons many journalism programs include a J-law class is to make sure you fully understand the rights that are afforded to you as a citizen and as a member of the media. (This, of course, goes against the popular theory that students have, which is the class is there to see how quickly a GPA can crash and burn after a single semester.) In many cases, people think they know the law after watching a few episodes of “Law & Order” or hearing a couple words that sound legal like “libel,” “habeas corpus” and “cappuccino.” (If I had a nickel for every time someone threatened to sue me for libel, when it was clear they had no idea what they were talking about, I could keep an old-fashioned slot machine spinning for quite some time.)

The National Football League made a recent rule change that had people arguing about the law and how it works in relationship to free speech. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Wednesday that the league would fine teams if they had players who failed to stand for the national anthem. Over the past two years, players have kneeled or refused to stand for the anthem as a protest against racial inequality and police brutality, a movement started by Colin Kaepernick.

The NFL’s announcement has led to the question of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the rights of the players in the NFL. In a satirical piece , The New Yorker noted that the NFL “added the First Amendment to its list of banned substances.”

We talked a bit about the reasons the First Amendment doesn’t do everything people thinks it does when we covered Harley Barber, the Alabama sorority member who took to her “finsta” to spew racist language. Given this set of concerns, it’s important to take a look back at the First Amendment itself and some of the misconceptions people have about it:

No one can stop you from publishing content or expressing yourself: The First Amendment clearly notes, “Congress shall make no law,” which was later extended to all forms of government. However, the government isn’t the only body or organization that can prohibit you from publishing things. Corporations that own your newspaper or magazine can prohibit certain things from being published. The Federal Communication Commission has a say in what can and can’t be done on television news. Even certain web platforms place specific rules and regulation about content in their user agreements. In this case, the NFL is a private entity that can make certain rules and regulations for its players, and this happens to be one of them. The new rule might be popular or unpopular, but it doesn’t violate the First Amendment. In addition, the consequences of his choice to kneel have been severe for Kaepernick, who was unable to find a team to quarterback after he protested in this fashion.

Nothing bad can happen to you after you publish or express yourself: The ability to publish without governmental prohibition isn’t as great as it sounds in some cases. People erroneously equate “free press” and “free speech” with “consequence-free press” and “consequence-free speech.” Whatever you publish can run afoul of the law and that can lead to some negative outcomes. If you publish incorrect information that harms someone, you can end up on the wrong side of a libel suit. If you enter a private area without permission, someone might sue you for invasion of privacy or trespassing. Even if you publish accurate information, you could still be harmed in the “court of public opinion,” with readers turning their backs on you. The First Amendment doesn’t protect you from every potential harm, so you need to be careful with what you publish. It also doesn’t mean that there won’t be backlash for the NFL or its players.

The First Amendment is clear and absolute: The amendment is neither of these things, as the government has limited speech and press during times of war, as it did with the Sedition Act during World War I and with the Smith Act during World War II. Courts have limited speech with time, place and manner restrictions, prohibiting people from doing certain things at certain times in certain areas. Although the phraseology of “Congress shall make no law” sounds like a rock-solid judgment from on high, plenty of people have found out the hard way that the First Amendment is open to interpretation.

In the end, the NFL will be able to stand on this from a legal standpoint as far as the First Amendment is concerned. However, as the players, owners and fans debate and discuss the merits of this rule, other consequences may develop for any or all of them.

The Junk Drawer: Some great helpful advice on storytelling, getting people to trust you and some thoughts on “fake news”

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need. Consider some of these items:

Tell me a story and make me care:
People always ask about how they can improve their overall approach to storytelling, as it is the primary element that links all of our media-writing disciplines. Here’s a really solid article that outlines some of the habits you can break that will immediately improve your storytelling ability.

Trust, but verify:
Why don’t people trust “the media?” The Knight Foundation published a list of 10 reasons, many of which should concern any media student. I wish I could remember who said it, but it is true that we have seen a fundamental shift in how we engage media. It used to be that we read news to help us develop an informed opinion on a topic. Now, we have the opinion and we seek out content that will support what we already believe. As media-writing students (and instructors) we need to figure out exactly how we’re going to deal with this idea going forward and how best to help people see the value of what we create.

Fake news (or is it?):
President Donald Trump has mused about taking away the press credentials of news organizations that do not provide him with favorable coverage. This should concern anyone at any level of media whether they like or dislike Trump and if they cover the president or they cover their campus. The goal of a free and unfettered press is to shed light on anything that might be of public interest, regardless of how “favorable” it is to any particular individual. Any attempt to chill that arrangement can limit what people have the right to know about things that could affect them. If this happens at a national level, what is to prevent other public organizations from trying similar things when they decide the coverage is getting too hot for them? Also, here’s an interesting take on why it has become problematic that the term “fake news” has become synonymous with the concept of “news that I don’t like to see because it’s mean to me.”

Failure is an option. Just don’t take it: I’m a huge fan of the late comedian W.C. Field’s line about success and efforts: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damned fool about it.” To be fair, it often seems we don’t get to the second “try” before quitting, so here’s a pretty good look at where failure comes from, why we tend to do it and what we can learn as we process it.

 

 

 

“He’s dying anyway.” (A primer on how not to do PR)

If I had a nickel for every stupid thing I ever said, I’d wouldn’t need to work anymore and I could probably eradicate world hunger. This is one of the many reasons I have a lot of respect for good public relations practitioners: They manage to keep on message, make key points clear and connect with an audience in some of the more difficult situations out there.

In discussing public relations with my buddy Pritch (a member of the College of Fellows and a decades-long PR professional and instructor) a number of years ago, he told me that one of the more underrated elements of PR is honest empathy. It’s hard to get across a message while still realizing that there are other forces at play, many of which can be painful for others. I translated this into “be humane” in one of the books and several lectures, and I think it sticks well.

I thought about this when this story broke about a White House staffer’s reaction to Sen. John McCain’s stand against confirming CIA nominee Gina Haspel:

“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” press aide Kelly Sadler said about McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel at a meeting of White House communications staffers, according to an unnamed source cited by The Hill’s Jordan Fabian.

McCain is battling brain cancer and is unlikely to win that fight, according to all available information. As we noted in the book, the accuracy of a statement like “He’s dying anyway” isn’t the issue, but rather the fact it makes Sadler sound cold and calloused. Even worse from a PR perspective, she has now become the news and that news is clearly negative.

Consider the following thoughts as a short primer on the idea of keeping yourself out of trouble:

 

You are like plumbing: We talk in most of my classes about good media professionals being conduits of information, moving content from valuable sources to interested audiences. I often equate this to being like plumbing: The water exists at Point A and you want to drink it at Point B. You don’t really know how every single thing works, but you just want it to work.

Perhaps more to the point, the only time people notice plumbing any more is when something goes wrong. If the water in your tap comes out in a lovely shade of beige, like mine did in my first college apartment, you notice it. When a pipe breaks under the house and starts spraying water all over the crawl space, like it did when we lived in Indiana, you notice it. When it’s running fine? I don’t think, “Man, that toilet can FLUSH! So awesome!”

Get the information that matters from Point A to Point B in its best possible form and you’re doing the job well.

 

You aren’t the news: The 1980s show “The Fall Guy” follows the adventures of a TV and movie stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, thus getting into all sorts of danger and wacky mishaps.

Perhaps the only enduring thing about this program was the theme song, in which the show’s star, Lee Majors, sings about life as an “Unknown Stuntman” with lyrics like:

I might fall from a tall building,
I might roll a brand new car.
‘Cause I’m the unknown stuntman that made Redford such a star.

If you do your job well, people behind the scenes will know your name, appreciate your professionalism and use the information you provide to them. However, you will never BE the news. Your clients may bask in the spotlight thanks to your hard work. Your organization might succeed because you did the dirty work. Your company may have a sterling image that you built, brick by brick. However, you are the unknown stuntperson who needs to make them look so fine.

 

Stop. Think. Then Speak: One of the hardest things in the 24/7 news cycle and the constant demand for information is the ability to pause before communicating without looking like a weasel. It often feels like if we don’t have an answer RIGHT NOW, we are clearly scrambling for some well-worn cliche or a bit of BS. However, once you open your mouth or send a release or do anything else, you can’t get it back, so it pays to be on top of your game.

Collect yourself before you speak on something. Think about who might hear what you have to say or share what you publish. Some PR professionals have told me when they have something they have to say, they imagine their grandmother was in the audience. I often tell students that there is no crime in not knowing something, so instead of going rogue, tell the people, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find it out for you.” As long as you live up to that promise (and it isn’t the answer to every question), you should be OK.

 

Stupid is eternal: Mardela Springs, Maryland is town of about 350 people in the western part of the state and the only reason I remember it is because of Norman Christopher, who was a town official in the early 1990s. Christopher famously brought attention to this tiny hamlet with his explanation as to why he couldn’t reach county officials on Martin Luther King Day:

He reportedly was explaining to other commission members why he could not reach county workers by telephone Jan. 20, the King holiday. “I forgot no one was working. Everyone had Buckwheat’s birthday off,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Times in Salisbury. Buckwheat was the stage name of a black child who starred in the “Our Gang” comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s been more than a quarter century since he made that comment and I still remember it as a “What the hell was THAT?” moment when it became news. In a similar way, I will never forget Justine Sacco and her “hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet, that we feature in the book.

Sacco has managed to find work recently, as IAC brought her back on board for a separate venture. In looking back at all of this, she had a pretty decent observation for anyone involved in any form of media:

“Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life.”

Kelly Sadler worked on a number of projects before and will likely have many more years of professional work in the future, but this might hang around her neck like an albatross for a while. If you think about anything stupid you have ever said, imagine that being the one thing people remember about you and then act accordingly.

 

Changing jobs, changing fields and how to “be realistic about your skills and how far they can take you.” (Catching up with Jonathan Foerster)

In working on the second edition of the Dynamics of Media Writing book, I had the chance to catch up with a few folks who had been nice enough to do the “View from a Pro” segments. Things change quickly in this field, and I found that several of them had engaged in the mantra of this book: Transferable skills.

One such person is Jonathan Foerster, who now serves as the director of community affairs at Humane Society Naples, leading the fundraising, marketing/communications, events and volunteer efforts for the organization. When we last spoke, he was the communications director for Artis—Naples, a performing and visual arts organization in Southwest Florida. Foerster spent more than a decade as a news journalist, working for magazines (Gulfshore Life) and newspapers (Naples Daily News and Scranton Times-Tribune). Today, he reflects on the changes he’s seen over his career and things learned in college that he still uses today.

Of all the jobs you transitioned to, which one was the “sharpest turn” so to speak? In other words, was it this one or was it the one where you moved from the newspaper to your first marketing/PR gig? What was it about that job that made that turn so tough and how did you handle it?

“There have been three steep transitions in my career. First going from newspapers to magazines, but that was because I went from a mostly reporting and section planning role into a managerial role. There is nothing in journalism school that really teaches you how to be a good manager or leader. Being a teaching assistant at The Missourian was close to that, but it’s still different when actual jobs are at stake.

“Second, the transition from media to nonprofits. There were two big challenges there: adjusting to the pace of the real, non-media world and in knowing that your job now is always to put the organization in the best light, not necessarily the most correct light. Media has been speeding up to a breakneck pace in the Twitter age, even monthly magazines move quickly. The rest of the world does not move at that pace. Although that seems like an easy thing to deal with (better to wind down than ramp up) it takes a while for your metabolism to adjust to the new reality. It was also difficult to go from talking directly about a thing (either positively or negatively) and then switch to always finding the most positive light. I never had lie, but there were plenty of times where not telling the whole story was the order of the day. I think that was a tough thing for me at first, especially while I was trying to build trust with my new colleagues who had very different work experiences.

“Finally, this most recent change comes with revenue expectations and serious budgets. That’s another thing they never teach you in journalism school. There really should be more required course work for any college student in entrepreneurship and business acumen. It would have made my reporting life easier, because I would have known from the jump how to read a county budget or a nonprofit’s 990. Luckily, I’ve had patient bosses and great teachers along the way who gave me enough responsibility to feel ownership of things but with some training wheels for those first few spins around the block.”

One of the funniest things about talking to you now is that I just finished proofing the second edition of the media writing book, which goes to press this month and you’re in there at your old job. It also speaks volumes about the point I’m trying to make in the book: Transferable skills are crucial in this area of work. What media skills are crucial, regardless of the area of the field you worked in? In other words, what are things that some people dismiss as “Oh that’s only for newspaper people” that you rely on heavily in your various roles in your various jobs?

“There are tons of skills you learn in reporting and writing classes that are transferable to many other fields. First just the general soft skills you learn in terms of how to get information from people, how to read body language and how to know when to press forward and when to hold back. Those are things that reporting stories (even just for a class) teaches you in spades.

“But the most important thing is storytelling. This is something people in other educational disciplines don’t do as well at. Whether I was writing a Facebook post or a radio ad, the story is what actually sells your organization or product. In my limited (six weeks and counting) experience in the fundraising world, storytelling is still the most important skill.

“You have to convince people to buy what you are selling, whether that’s a mission statement or a tangible product. People need to relate on an emotional level to what you are talking about and learning how to tell a compelling story is the easiest way to make that happen.”

 

If Jon now could talk to Jon back (in his college days), what would you tell that version of yourself in regard to the skills that matter, the things that are important in the field and the general sense of how to get somewhere good in this wonderful world we call media?

“The best advice I could have given myself is to have a niche and to learn everything you can about it. The people in media who are the most successful today are rarely generalists unless they are incredibly skilled storytellers and reporters. It’s just so hard to have the time to immerse yourself in a new subject each time out so that you can be competent to write about it well.

“That’s why sports writers always seem more advanced as younger reporters. They know their subject matter inside and out, so they can look for the small things that really make a story sing. If you are worried about just keeping up, you will never see the nuances. It’s tough, though, because most young news reporters are given generalized beats. I would have double majored in something like economics or environmental sciences if I could do it over again, just to give myself an edge.

“I would also say not to have a set idea of your career trajectory so that you are willing to take the chances needed to get yourself into good situations. I graduated about 15 years ago, and I knew plenty of people who thought they would be copy editors or page designers for their entire careers. Sadly, especially for folks like me that need the second set of eyes on everything, those positions are pretty rare now. But none of us saw that coming. Not even the most prescient media thinker in 2002 would have imagined a world without a big copy desk at metro papers.”

 

Anything else you want to say or anything else you think I’ve missed?

“Be realistic about your skills and how far they can take you. Don’t give up on your dreams, but know that even the very best have limitations. It took me almost 10 years to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to ever write like Gary Smith or David Grann. No matter how hard I worked, there were going to be things that came naturally to some people that I would never be able to achieve.

“But I’m pretty damn good at generating new ideas (be it beat stories, front of book magazine sections or marketing campaigns). So, I learned to harness those gifts. When I worked for an arts organization, I asked our CEO how she got into arts administration. She was a musician by training. But in one of her first orchestras, someone took her aside and said, ‘the world has plenty of gifted violinists, but not enough people to run the organizations.’

“So, she started learning about the behind the scenes part of the business. By 35, she was running at $30 million a year arts organization.”

Motivational Poster for Graduates (plus a “Gone Fishin’ note”)

Graduation here at UWO takes place Saturday, so I figured it was a good time to break out a motivational poster for all the students who will be getting congratulations, parties and 121 copies of “Oh the Places You Will Go!”

GetAJob

This caricature of me came from Jason Brooks, one of the most amazingly talented artists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Back when we were both in school at UW-Madison, he drew a version of this idea as a recruitment ad for our student newspaper. I clipped it out and hung onto it until this day, as it now is taped to my office bookshelf, yellowed and taped up after years of moves.

When I wanted to include the jobs chapter/appendix in the reporting book, I reached out to him and asked if he had that art still and if I could buy some usage rights so I could add this to the front of the chapter. Instead, he graciously redrew the whole thing for me so you could see it in the book. I loved it and I hope you did too.

As the end of the term is here, I’m going to take a time out next week. If something truly bizarre happens that needs a “right-away write-up” I’ll take a shot at it, but I think we could all use a break. In the mean time, if you have anything you’d like me to add, cover or create, email me, tweet at me or use the contact form and I’ll take care of it when I return.

New posts start on Monday, May 21.

Thanks for reading, and congrats to all the graduates!

Vince (aka The Doctor of Paper)

Thanks, Mrs. Shebesta. (An ode to teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week.)

If you can read this, thank a teacher.

If you’re being forced to read this, blame Mrs. Shebesta.

Cheryl Shebesta taught typing at my high school, back when you learned how to type on top-of-the-line IBM Selectric typewriters that required you to use correction film when you made a mistake and pull out the “ball” of text when you wanted to change fonts. My freshman year, students were given an elective option for their schedule and my parents figured that, given my atrocious handwriting, typing might be beneficial to me.

(Yes, these things really existed, and they taught me to appreciate computers…)

I learned how to type by banging out pages of a’s and s’s and d’s and f’s on those old clunky machines as Mrs. Shebesta cranked up the latest Duran Duran songs, so we learned how to type in rhythm. When she would time us, I could bang out upwards of 55 words per minute without an error. I learned how to keep my eyes off my fingers, as looking at your hands was an unforgivable sin.

Over the years, I became like a lapsed Catholic of typing. Without Mrs. Shebesta’s watchful eye, I often would peek at my fingers or make more errors than I cared to. My speed lapsed a bit, as I was more often typing from my own thoughts than I was copying from a book page or a letter I needed to replicate. Still, without her, there is no way I’d be anywhere in life and I sure as heck wouldn’t be a journalist, a blogger, a teacher and an author. Typing is a skill I use every day and it’s one with which I could not live without.

I thought about the most influential teachers I ever had today because this is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I often refer to Steve Lorenzo, who taught my first journalism class in college and was a man whom I desperately wanted to impress. I also think back on people like Esther Thorson, who advised me throughout my doctorate and would constantly beat the heck out of my work for my own good. Many others provided me with “a moment” at a time I needed it to move forward and eventually get where I am today.

My mom taught grades 3 through 8 for 45 years at a school that often served the kids of factory workers, immigrants and the working poor. Teachers at other, richer schools often talked about their lavish Christmas or end-of-the-year gifts, while mom taught more than a few kids who wore the same clothes to school every day and at least one who slept on the couch of a drug house. Still, the times a student would stop by and thank her or provide her with a tiny token of appreciation meant the world to her. I still remember how she treasured a box of candy canes a young Hmong girl bought from a dollar store and gave to Mom for Christmas one year. It literally was the thought that counted and it counted a lot.

I know it can seem self-serving here to say, “Thank a teacher this week,” but the truth of the matter is that most of us do this job because we believe in it and we hope we helped you in some way. For the longest time, two of my diplomas were stuffed under my bed next to some old football cards and my doctoral “sheepskin” was stuck on a bookshelf under some old Sports Illustrateds. However, the thank you notes I got from students were pinned to my walls, covering every inch of wall I could give them.

This week, as our students are getting ready for the summer or to graduate, a number of them have stopped by to say goodbye. The kids I thought I had little more than a tangential affect on have told me how much the writing class they took with me helped them. The students who groused about me CONSTANTLY have said things like, “I really hated your grading, but you REALLY made me better at this.” You don’t have to turn in an Academy Award performance when you say “thanks.” Just be honest and let the teachers who mattered know they did so.

I honestly don’t know where Mrs. Shebesta is right now. Last I heard was Florida, but that might be wrong. However, as I type this up, I can still hear this song playing in my head, so I learned to type on rhythm, even though I literally have none of my own to speak of. Also, every time I make a mistake typing, I think back to that wretched correction film we had to use, thus spurring me on to think before I type (another maxim of Mrs. Shebesta).

So thanks, Mrs. Shebesta. I appreciate you more than you know. And so do all the teachers after you who could read my papers, thanks to your hard work with me in typing class.

The Junk Drawer: Randomly bad ideas and poor journalistic execution

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need. Consider some of these moments:

“Are we giving up on ‘Phrasing’ now?” As the hit TV show “Archer” often notes, something can be said in such a way as to evoke a dirty mind to play with it, even though it’s not likely the intent of the source. Still, SOMEBODY should have caught this odd verb choice in a headline about a “Toy Story” homage:

Woody

Sexual assault isn’t funny so don’t get cute: There are times to try headlines that will evoke wordplay, cultural touchstones or other rhetorical flourishes. When the topic is sexual assault, it’s best to play it as clear, concise and coherent as possible or else you might get this:

CosbyGuilty.jpg

Thankfully, this was just a proof and it never saw publication, but the use of the “Fat Albert” line of “Hey, Hey, Hey” was definitely a wince-worthy moment.

Welcome to wherever you are: When running a big story, you often want big art. A few nice shots of Coors Field to go along with “The Ultimate Visitors Guide to Coors Field” seemed like a great idea. Only one problem:

CoorsOOPS

If you look reeeeeeaallly carefully into the background of this photo (or stare at the zoomed shot in the lower right corner of the tweet), you can see the problem: This isn’t Coors Field in Colorado, but Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The whole “Phillies” scoreboard really kind of clues you in. Nothing says, “We know everything about this ballpark” like not recognizing that the photo isn’t right.

Ow… Just… Ow: The designer’s motto is that “Design is content, and content is king.” This is all true because design is more than “just making things pretty.” Designers are required to show prominence and value through the placement of certain elements. They are also required to make sure things that don’t belong together don’t go together, like this unfortunate pairing of advertising and editorial copy:

SunSentinelGun

On the same page as a Parkland shooting story, you had an ad for the local gun show. Not exactly what the designer probably had in mind when beginning the day.

Just because it’s funny, it doesn’t mean it’s true: When errors lead to some unintentional humor, it is fantastic. This is especially true when someone is trying to promote something. The infamous “South Bend Pubic Schools” billboard remains a standard bearer for the fantastically awkward. This week, it looked like Kansas City joined the club of bad spellers:

Anally

As someone noted on Twitter, “You had one job…”

However funny, it turns out to be a fake. Officials at Visit KC said no such misspelling existed and even shared the original image, complete with proper spelling and the same silver car in the background.

Just one more reason to follow the journalist’s adage: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.

Bicentennial Blogging: A look back at 200 Posts

SAGE: “We want you to write a blog to go with the book.”
Me: “What the heck do I know about writing a blog?”
SAGE: “We know you’ll figure it out.”

That was the conversation that launched the DynamicsOfWriting.com back in late June, where I started wandering into this like a kid who lost his mom at Walmart. The great hope was that I was able keep up a blogging schedule that didn’t have people wondering, “Is this thing still on?”

With 200 posts in less than a year, I’m guessing I got there, so I figured it’s time to take a look back at some of the various things that were helpful, interesting or just amusing.

From Humble Beginnings: When in doubt, focus on the audience. That’s the theme of the book, the blog and my very first post.

Filak-isms: At some point, I’m going to need to translate the random theories, ideas and other sewage that swirls around in my head so that more people can understand what I’m saying on the blog. In the mean time, check out the concept of a handful of Jell-O, why you shouldn’t change a light bulb with a hammer, how you earn the fungus on your shower shoes, how I rely on only a specific amount of pain in teaching and how you will never end up on a lunch box, so it’s OK that you screw up occasionally.

Student Journalists Rock (and so can you): One of the biggest things I tried to incorporate into the book and the blog was student journalists and their work. The reason is that if you only put things from the New York Times or Washington Post in there as examples or only rely on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, students can say, “I’m not that and there’s no way I’ll ever do that kind of stuff.” However, students do incredible journalism on their campuses and they’re people just like the folks reading the book. The students at the University of Virginia covered the “Unite the Right” march and they talked to us in a three-part series. Student reporters at Rice talked about Hurricane Harvey’s wrath and their work to cover it, even as it messed with their campus. A student at Southern Illinois University dug into the shady past of the school’s top administrator. And the ongoing saga of The Sunflower at Wichita State showed how students balanced their own crises and the need to hold public officials accountable. College students with the same issues, class schedules, work requirements and experience did all this and more. So can you.

Why Did You Tell My Professor About This?: As if instructors don’t have enough ways to make school painful, I shared a couple of my favorite things we did in class. The boatload of AP style quizzes should be more than enough to sharpen your editing, but the bigger things were probably the “labs” and exams I pitched. The “Feel It” Lab is still a classic that students remember years after participating in it.  The same is true for the “Smell It” Lab. However, the “You don’t even know, man…” exercise my students often reference in their course evals is “The Midterm from Hell.” Whatever you think of these exercises, please don’t mail me a bag of dog excrement. We have a high-strung mini-Schnauzer, so we have plenty of that as it is.

Beating the Drum on the Basics: Just like everything else, your writing improves when you practice the basics over and over. That’s why we talk about the “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object, show you an example of how the inverted pyramid can keep you from finding out about a naked man on fire only in paragraph 11 and why attributions will save your keester at every possible turn.

Understanding Your Professors: Professors often gripe about students and students gripe about professors. It’s the natural order of being. In an attempt to use humor to break down those walls and improve your class, we offered you a few ways to prevent your class from sucking, the “five conversations journalism professors have in hell,” better ways to ask questions that drive your professors nuts and how to make the most out of you course evaluations.

The Bad, The Weird and The “OK, so THAT Happened” Moments: Journalism reminds us that there’s a lot of stupid out there, some of it comes from the journalists themselves. Still, there’s plenty to learn when a company puts out a racist sweatshirt, a sorority member decides she can use the “N-word” on social media because she’s “in the South,” how to avoid digging yourself any deeper into a social media rabbit hole after you call a U.S. citizen an “immigrant” on Twitter, how women in the news should be covered as more than the owners of a productive womb, how to avoid talking about hand jobs in your publication and other random screw-ups you should avoid.

In looking back, we covered a lot of stuff in a small amount of time. It went by in a blink, thanks in large part to guest bloggers, professional journalists and other folks who gave their time to break up the monotony of me. I hope it’s been as helpful for you as it has been for me. And, as always, if you have any questions or need something you haven’t gotten, just ask.

Vince (aka The Doctor of Paper)

 

 

 

 

The Sunflower makes its mark: Kansas Legislature says student-fee meetings should be open to the public

Score one for openness in government:

If Gov. Jeff Colyer signs the latest budget bill passed by the Kansas legislature, Wichita State will have to open its student fees deliberations next year.

The Kansas Legislature sent a budget bill to Colyer with an amendment that will require Wichita State, and five other regent universities receiving state funds, to hold open deliberations and provide access to documents related to student fees.

The amendment was due in large part to the situation at Wichita State University, in which reporters were barred from covering the student fee deliberations. Behind closed doors, the student government cut funding for the student newspaper, The Sunflower, by half with no explanation as to why. Subsequent actions restored some of the funding, but the question regarding the required openness of the meetings remained murky.

The goal of good journalism is to “move the needle,” so to speak. Journalism should draw attention to problematic situations, provide insight as to these issues and inspire action to make things right. Although it was a long and personally painful process for the staff of The Sunflower, I would argue here that the juice was worth the squeeze.

Congratulations, folks. You made a difference.

 

A few more things PR students wanted to know but were afraid to ask…

Last semester, 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. What came out of our discussion can be found here.

This semester, she was nice enough to ask me back, so here are a few more questions from her PR students and some moderately decent answers I managed to cobble together for them:

 

What are your pet peeve when it comes to PR professionals?

Liars and weasels are my pet peeves about ALL people with whom I interact, not just PR folks. If I feel like I should check my wallet or wash my hands after talking to you, I’m not all that inclined to spend time with you.

When everything about you feels like a performance or a veneer, I really get annoyed. It’s why I feel like I’m better as a press agent for myself in some cases and so does my book publisher when they tell me to call on a potential adopter of the book. I’m like, “Hey, here’s who I am, here’s what I honestly believe and at the end of the day, I understand if you don’t agree.” Honesty is refreshing, but so is honest enthusiasm. I can tell when you like what you’re doing and I can tell when you’re faking it.

 

How do you communicate/deal with pushy PR people?
How much is “too much” when it comes to contacting a journalist about a story? (Assuming the reporter hasn’t answered)
What’s something that you should absolutely not do?
What should you avoid when contacting a journalist with a press release?

I grouped the four of these things together because they all fit the same basic paradigm. The premise I espouse here is the “Guy at the Bar” thing. All of us have seen the “Guy at the Bar” who is really too damned desperate for his own good. He offers to buy a woman a drink, an appetizer, a game of darts, a steak dinner and a 1998 Honda Civic, shortly before she calls the cops on him.

You don’t want to be the “Guy at the Bar” when it comes to approaching journalists about the story you want to pitch. They’re either going to be interested or they aren’t and that’s part of the process, so you have to understand that some times, they’re just going to say no. That doesn’t mean “no” forever, but it means “no” now. However, the more you start pressuring them, the more they’re going to try to wriggle away out of panic and just “eeew.” It’s like a fist full of Jell-O. The harder you squeeze, the less you have.

To that end, don’t grip it so tight. Just let things go. People in general, journalists in particular, can just SMELL desperation.

Do you have any NO moments when reading a pitch or email from a PR professional?

Yes:

  1. It’s clear I’m part of a laundry list of emails/faxes/phone numbers/addresses that somebody left you and said, “Go spread this generic crap to these random people.”
  2. They make a fact error that lets me know they don’t know anything. A person pitching me on a charity event kept telling me about how great the Advance-Titan was as our student newspaper, but she kept saying we were at UW-Superior.
  3. You’re trying too hard. Don’t tell me. Show me. If you come across like a crappy used car salesman, I’m dodging you.

 

How do you handle negative feedback/move forward from it

Negative feedback sucks. Here are some things that help me kind of “partition” it a little bit.

  1. Is the negative feedback part of a pattern or is it a one-off. I got feedback on my book when they put it in the field. Of the 24 responses, 23 were positive. The one-off told me that I didn’t know how to write and that I clearly didn’t understand journalism. (I, of course, obsessed about this with the hope that I would somehow meet this yutz in a back alley and scream, “Who can’t write now? HUH?”) If it’s a pattern, let’s go to point two.
  2. Is the feedback negative because of me, my client, my approach or the person on the other end of the feedback? If it’s me or my approach, it goes in one pile. If it’s my client or the other person, it goes in another pile.

The “me” pile: I look at the feedback and see what’s there that’s actually workable in terms of me and my approach. What did I do that the person didn’t like and how much of this is alterable behavior? If the feedback is, “God, he’s so ugly I couldn’t focus on his pitch.” Well, I guess I’m bald, old and ugly. Screw you anyway, Bucky. If it’s “The whole presentation felt like nothing but hype” then I look at what I did and see how likely it is that this is true, what I can do to dial it back and what else I can do to improve this?

The client/that guy pile: Some things can’t be fixed. If this person constantly hates you because “PR people suck,” forget them. The more you suck up, the more they’ll beat you like a dog.

 

What was your favorite article you wrote based off a PR pitch?

A jewelry store sent us one that gave away a diamond ring as part of a Christmas Promotion. The winner was a lady who wasn’t rich and had lost her diamond out of her engagement ring a few years back. The reason it worked was that a) the store was local, not a chain, b) the winner was the exact person you’d want to win the thing, c) the timing was right for a “Christmas Miracle” story and d) the owners were friendly and helpful in the whole process. In other words, it was perfect in a PR moment: Planning that led to luck and the confluence of events that just screamed “WRITE ME!”