“We just lost our friends.” Journalism at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

You never know what’s going to happen next in journalism. It’s what makes the job both exciting and terrifying at the same time. A group of high school journalism students discovered this truism in a horrifying way when their seemingly regular day became global news.

David Beard at the Poynter Institute tracked down the staff of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper to find out how the shooting at their school shaped the paper’s approach to journalism. His introduction illustrates the normalcy of the day, right up to the point when everything changed:

Suzanna Barna was just shutting down her computer in journalism class, thinking about her too-long story on her high school’s internet filtering policy.

The school newspaper story was 1,600 words, and her workaround was to chop it into two 800-word segments.

A few desks over, Lewis Mizen had finished a draft of his op-ed on DACA and President Trump, and Kevin Trejos, behind the other two on his assignment, had just gone into the hall to refill his water bottle.

Then the alarm went off at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Barna, Mizen and Trejos haven’t touched those stories since.

Reading that put me in my own student newsroom: My editor harping on the kid who writes too long and refuses to cut his story. The opinion desk banging out a draft on a national topic that will have me asking, “OK, how does this impact readers here?” The “last call for water” kid, heading upstairs to the water bottle refilling station with everyone’s cup or bottle before security locks off that part of the building off for the night.

Normal day, normal problems. And then none of it was normal.

In the weeks since the shooting in February, the paper and the yearbook became engaged in a crowdfunding effort to help provide each student with copies of the publications as well as to augment them in the wake of the shooting. Allison Miller, a student media adviser from Texas, started this cause and has worked with the students in Florida and on behalf of them in these efforts.

“Journalism doesn’t take a break in the face of tragedy, so they have to carry on,” Miller said. “We decided to start this to help raise the funds for these students to pursue any avenue that they choose to pursue and to use their voices without the fear of the costs and the fear of the repercussions.”

Unfortunate and truer words could not be spoken. About a day after Beard published his piece on Stoneman Douglas,  a student at Great Mills High School in Maryland shot two classmates before he died of a gunshot wound.


3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.


  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.


  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2


This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

Explore the lore for stories (or do more people get a snip-off before March Madness tipoff?)

I have to hand it to Jim Stingl and the staff at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, because the opening on this story border on magical, so much so, I’ll ignore the AP style error in the lead:

Well-timed vasectomies put lots of guys on the couch for March Madness basketball

Jeff Kopesky is synching his surgical snip-off with the first round tipoff of March Madness.

Stingl takes a look at the lore behind men who get a surgical procedure that has a lot of guys doing the “SSSSS…. AAAAHHHHH….. MMMMPHH…” noises in their heads and how it can be used as an advantage. I have to admit, this story felt like I was watching a car wreck: I literally found myself gaping at it, unable to look away while thinking, “This is so, so, so wrong…” That said, I marveled at it for a few key reasons:

  • That lead is just… well… damn. To call it memorable is an understatement. I will likely be watching the games this weekend, thinking “snip-off” each time I hear “tipoff.”
  • The number of sources that go into this is amazing. Men have a hard time talking about almost anything, let alone something like this. Still, he had four sources (five if you count his aside about his own surgery) and it was a relatively short piece.
  • He uses facts to support the legend of “everybody has heard about…” The doctor says he’s doing double the number of surgeries of this type that he normally does around this time of year. Other information about medicine and so forth supports the narrative.

This story is a great launch point for story ideas based on urban legends, campus myths and “stuff EVERYBODY knows.” Explore the lore so to speak with things like this:

  • GENERAL CAMPUS LEGENDS: There are long-held, erroneous beliefs about college life that go beyond individual campuses. The movie “Dead Man on Campus” touches on the biggest one: If your roommate dies during the year, you automatically get straight A’s. What other myths are out there regardless of if you attend school in Maine or Arizona? What commonalities do they have and how real are they?


  • YOUR CAMPUS LEGENDS: Each campus has a specific legend that is germane to something that happened or didn’t happen on campus. A certain dorm is haunted by a kid who died there. A book exists in the library that has all the dirt on every administrator ever to threaten a certain frat. A system of tunnels run under the school that allowed students to avoid going outside in hot or cold weather, but they were sealed up after “an incident.” What are the specific legends on your campus and how did they get started? Are they rooted in fact and then spiraled or are they just old wives’ tales that got blown out of proportion?


  • THEMES OF LEGENDS: Maybe you could take a look at the broader ideas of legends themselves and what they say about the people on college campuses. Certain themes continue throughout various legends, even though they are campus-specific. For example, sex is always a hot topic on campus, which is why the legends relate to people who have or haven’t had it yet. At UW-Madison, the large statue of Abe Lincoln, seated in front of Bascom Hall, was said to stand up if a virgin walked by. The angelic “Beneficence” statute on Ball State’s campus was said to flap her wings if a similarly chaste individual walked by. Concrete lions on Penn State’s campus were believed to roar if student who hadn’t “done the deed” passed by.
    There are also legends of luck: If you rub the nose of a statue or throw coins into a certain fountain, you were more likely to pass your midterms or finals. For example, the “Tecumseh” bust on the campus of the Naval Academy is dubbed “the God of the 2.0” as in grade point average. Cadets offer a left-handed salute and toss pennies in front of the statue for luck prior to exams or athletic events.  What other themes exist? How do they matter and what does it say about what we all value.

Have a great spring break (if it’s coming this week like ours is) and enjoy March Madness (with or without a bag of frozen peas, as is the legend).

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

What someone else thinks of me: A review of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.”

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode. -VFF)

I’d be willing to bet most of you have seen the “How people see me” memes out there, in which they lay out how you and others see yourself. People have created them for doctors, lawyers, students and more. Obviously, I’m partial to the professors one:



The reason I bring this up is that I got the first review on the News Reporting and Writing book, the first time someone else did a “this is how I see what you did.”

I’m biased a bit because I know the student and was more proud of how she worked on the piece for her outside job and did a good job of writing this up. It’s often awkward for students to talk to professors about anything, but she was a good interviewer and I think she wrote better than I wrote at that stage in life. Or even up to last week Thursday.

In any case, give this a read and see if it helps you figure out what I was trying to do, what I actually did and if I should be doing something else to make this a worthwhile endeavor. Comments are always welcome.

The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

Growing up as a Catholic kid, who spent way more time near nuns than is now recommended by the FDA, I found the concept of hell horrifying. Conceptually speaking, it was a place of fire, brimstone and evil where you went after you had sinned without repenting, angered God through evil acts or accidentally ate a Slim Jim on a Friday during Lent.

Later in life, I asked a priest who was a little more “new school” about the faith for his views on eternal damnation. He told me it was probably more of never-ending sorrow and sadness than the torture outlined by those who grew up before the Vatican II era. It was a a longing and pain for better things and regret over what we should have been. In other words, hell is more individualized and accounts for what we did and who we were.

If hell hits somewhere in that “sweet spot” between those points, I’m sure I know exactly what I’ll be getting myself into if I’m not a decent human being. Since I’ve invested most of my life in teaching and journalism, I know that hell will involve reliving certain conversations I’ve had with students over the past 20 years that continue to sap my will to go on.

So without further ado, I bring you the five conversations journalism professors have in hell and how you can help us avoid them while we’re still alive:



Look, I get it. Textbooks are expensive. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that textbooks cost too much, change too often and usually have the lifespan of a mayfly. That said, we assign them for a reason: They actually contain stuff you’ll need to know. This is particularly true for books like the AP style guide. Here was an actual conversation I had with a student half way through the semester:

Student: How much are these books?
Me: What do you mean?
Student: This AP book, how much does it cost?
Me: About $20-25. Why?
Student: It must not have been listed on the criteria for the class. I think I’ll go buy it though.

OK, let’s pretend that I hadn’t mentioned it about 10,002 times already and that I didn’t include it as a required book in the syllabus and that I didn’t mention this as a MUST HAVE for the class (as in, “If you are broke, don’t buy the textbook, but buy the AP book.) AND that it wasn’t stocked at the book store.

Every other student in that class had the book. What, they were clairvoyant and just figured I wanted them to have it?

Making things weirder, a student in the very next section of that class, sitting in that very same seat asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION about the AP book, swearing he had no idea that this thing would be important. I think I need to call in some sort of holistic medicine person to burn sage on that chair or something…

Still, this pales in comparison to the year I told the students in WEEK 12 that they should bring their AP style guides to class, only to have one student reach into his backpack and whip his out. “GOT IT!” he said, proudly displaying the book he was supposed to have read by that point in time.

It was still shrink wrapped.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Buy the books and read them. If you are REALLY broke (as in, stacking pennies for Ramen broke) and you CAN’T afford them, talk to the professor and see what is absolutely essential and what you might be able to dodge. However, do this somewhere before the midterm.


The constant yelling of old people (read: me) about “damned kids these days” come from the fact that we often wonder how hard students really tried before giving up all hope and saying, “Just give me the answer.”

Damned Kids

Case in point, here was a conversation I had about a midterm question in which students were asked to rewrite a lead on one of four stories. Each story included a specific time peg, so I told students to use the day specified in the story (e.g. The game happened Saturday, so use “Saturday” as your “when” element.) when they wrote their lead. About an hour into the test, here was the conversation:

Student: I know you said that there is a time element we need to use with each of these stories, but I honestly can’t find one in this story I’m using.
Me: OK, pull it up and let me see. (he does)
Student: I looked through this whole thing and there’s no time element.
Me: Really?
Him: Yes, I can’t find it anywhere.
Me: Read the first sentence out loud for me.
Him: Oh.

Yep. Right there in the lead was that elusive time element he sought. I suppose I was lucky the student didn’t have trouble finding his pants before showing up in class…

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Don’t give up so easily on figuring things out. There is something to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. Print it out or magnify the text or whatever you need that will help you consume the content. Also, if you really CAN’T find the content, when you ask, do so in a way that doesn’t immediately insinuate your professor is an idiot who failed to include the content.

Trust me, this is a great fear of many instructors and there are days we can’t remember what we ate for lunch, so screwing up a test is always a possibility. We then panic when you are “so sure” that whatever it is you’re looking for isn’t actually there. Finding out that, no, it actually is present and, no, we don’t have early onset dementia, is both a relief and a moment of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?”



Rules are put in place to assure fairness, standardize procedures and give everyone guidance on how to proceed with a test, an assignment or a project. If you want to curdle a professor’s soul, explain to him or her that, yes, you understand rules exist for all those reasons, but the rules really only apply to other people.

Student: I know you said we can’t interview relatives for this assignment, but I was wondering if I could interview my mom.
Me: OK, what does your mom have to do with (the story topic)?
Her: Well, she’s a parent of a college student…
Me: But that’s really not what the story is about and even if it was, there are like 14,000 students on this campus, many of whom have parents. Does she have some special insights that none of the others would have had?
Her: Um… I don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t I just interview my mom?
Me: Again, she has nothing to do with the story and I need you to get out of your comfort zone and interview people that you don’t know. It’s a skill you’re going to need as a reporter.
Her: So that’s a no?
Me: Yes. That’s a no.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Start by assuming that the rules, however arcane, have a reason behind them. Envision that “Karate Kid” moment where Daniel realizes that he hasn’t just been an indentured servant, but rather has been learning karate:

Also, realize that we WILL give people special dispensation for certain things, but it has to be germane to what we’re doing and provide a rare glimpse into something no one else could provide. If you’re doing a story on what it’s like to be an NFL referee and your uncle is an NFL referee, we might think, “That would actually work.” However, if you’re doing a story on how bad parking is on campus and you want to interview your best friend because he owns a car, think twice before asking on that one.

Nothing sounds worse to a professor than a student essentially saying, “Look, I know you told me what to do here, but you have to understand that rules don’t really apply to me because I want to do it my way and obviously that’ll be better for me, so can you just rubber stamp my demands? Thanks!”


Professors have a ton of stuff to do and most of them feel like they’re not doing it well enough to make anyone happy. The ability to focus well enough to deliver a two-hour lecture on something you will need to know to succeed in the class is the Educational Dream of the Millennium.

When you blow it off, fail to take notes or get way too into a SnapChat battle with your roommates during lecture, it can be irritating to us. When you then ask us to “fill you in” on what you “missed,” We tend to have this reaction:

Actual email:

I was just wondering what exactly the group interview project is again and what needs to be turned into you by Friday! I don’t quite remember everything you said at the end of class yesterday so if you could remind me that would be great.

At least that guy showed up, unlike the student who blew off class, skipped an assignment she knew about and then sent this:

Sorry, I was not able to attend class today. What did I miss? When is the interview paper due?

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Go to class. If you don’t go to class, get notes from somebody before asking us to rebuild a lecture for you. If you went to class and forgot to write something down, ask a classmate. If you are going to class, writing stuff down and still failing to remember major things, seek help immediately.


Me: Hello? Anyone out there?
Voice: Welcome to hell. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, evil incarnate, the lord of the underworld. Do you know who you sinned against to land you here?
Me: Do you mean, “Do I know against WHOM I sinned to land here?”
Voice: Oh great. Another journalism professor. Y’all are down the hall, third door on the left.


Writing sports leads that don’t suck: Avoid cliches. Rely on facts. Tell me what happened and why I care.

Newer sportswriters tend to go one of two ways when confronted with writing a lead:

  1. This was the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational event in all of human history! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yeah, take a back seat to this 0-0 soccer game between the Northeast West South-Central State Barbers and the Our Lady of Perpetual Motion Twitchers!
  2. Fill in flat cliche here. That is all.

While we’ve talked about the problems with hyperbole and the need to rely on facts before, a) we haven’t talked about it much in sports and b) the bigger problem in sports tends to be the latter issue. Sports lend themselves to cliche more than any other area of journalism and they do nothing good but bury the actual lead.

Case in point (and a minor plug for our school): The UW-Oshkosh men’s basketball team earned its first trip to the NCAA Final Four. It had been more than 15 years since the Titans even made the Sweet 16. Here are some things to consider as “important” that took place on Saturday night:

  • The team made its first Final Four game in school history.
  • The underdog Titans defeated the No. 9 team in the country on its home court.
  • Ben Boots scored a career-high 36 points to help the team win.
  • One of the reason Boots scored so many is because senior guard Charlie Noone was tossed out/fouled out after catching a technical foul for his fifth foul of the game in the middle of the second half. Noone was a career 1,000-point scorer, a big deal at this level.
  • Down 6 points with 1:45 to go in the game, Boots hit two key threes to knot the score.
  • The game went into overtime, the second time this season a clash between these teams went into overtime. (The previous one was a double-OT game.)
  • Refs called 45 fouls, costing Augustana two of its key big men.

In short, there is no shortage of amazing things you could use for a lead. Here is what the local newspaper posted as its lead:

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – History was made by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh men’s basketball team Saturday night.


Three quick things here:

  1. The lead is a cliche and a bad one at that. History is ALWAYS made. You reading this blog post is technically making history.
  2. The lead is written in passive voice. The cliche of “Titans make history” wasn’t even active.
  3. HOW the Titans made history is probably something people would like to know in the lead. What did they do? Did the coach murder a referee after a bad call? Did the whole team lose its uniforms and play the game in clown costumes borrowed from the circus? Did the team steal basketball powers a la “Space Jam” to win a game? Did they lose by more points than any team ever? Good grief…

When it comes to writing a sports lead, here are three key things to remember:

  1. Rely on the facts and tell me what happened: You don’t have to sell me on something being amazing. Just tell me what happened that was factual and yet cool and let me figure it out for myself. If the authors had woven in any of the components listed in bullets above, they would have had a great lead.
  2. Don’t assume people will read beyond the lead: Deadwood in the lead is a death knell for a story. The second paragraph is better and the head and deck include key information. However, you can’t rely on other components of the story to save you when you write a lousy lead. It’s like telling the cop who pulled you over for speeding how everyone else was driving faster: It doesn’t make you any less guilty.
  3. Remember your audience: Write for your readers, as in people who probably didn’t attend the game. If you went home after watching that game and your roommate asked, “Hey, how was the game?” what would you tell your roommate? “We won! We’re in the Final Four!” Would you ever imagine walking into your apartment and announcing, “History was made!” in response to that question? Probably not.

“The Midterm From Hell”

I often get to hear students complaining about classes and professors, as that comes with the territory of being an academic adviser and a newsroom adviser. When they don’t think I’m listening, I’ve heard students mutter about the amount of reading I assign in Feature Writing or the way that AP style is way too big of a deal in the Writing for the Media class.

However, two grievances have been repeated about two specific things I force students to do that are both points of annoyance and points of pride for them. When they gripe about these things in the newsroom, they do so loudly and with an odd tone like someone in a really bad 1980s movie yelling, “I was in ‘NAM, man! You don’t even know!” It’s a mix of irritation and self-congratulations.

The first we’ve discussed here before: The Feel-It Lab.

The second is what one student referred to as “The Midterm from Hell.”

Conceptually speaking, it’s reporting in its purest form: You get an assignment you know nothing about, you research it, you find sources and you turn the story in for publication immediately. Maybe working night desk where asking “Can I get this done tomorrow?” would have gotten me mocked and then fired and then mocked again has jaded me to the difficulty of this, but I doubt it.

Below is the outline for “The Midterm from Hell” as it is presented to the students. Feel free to use it as you see fit or adapt it as you need. Consider it a “share the hate” moment from me to you.


Reporting Midterm Assignment

The 24-Hour Story

As promised, this isn’t going to be your standard “memorize some facts, regurgitate them and move on” type of midterm. Reporting is a skill that you hone over time and in many cases, you don’t have a lot of time to do the honing. You will be responsible for your own fate and the fate of your colleagues in this midterm exercise.

Part I: The Pitch

As per your syllabus, you will have to email me a midterm pitch no later than Sunday at noon. If you do not turn in your pitch, you will not be able to participate in the midterm itself on Tuesday. What you are attempting to pitch is a story that you believe you could accomplish within a 24-hour period. The pitch itself should include the following things:

  • Your name
  • Your contact information (phone number, email address etc.)
  • An introductory paragraph of about five or six sentences that outlines what the story is about, what makes it worth doing and why it matters to a specific readership.
  • A list of at least THREE human sources, including contact information and rationale behind these people being used as sources.

You should attempt to create a quality pitch, obviously. If your pitch is too weak or fails to meet the basic elements of the assignment, your pitch will be discarded and you will not be allowed to participate in the midterm.


Part II: The Story

Everyone who turns in a pitch will be expected to be in class ready to go on Tuesday. I will print off all of the acceptable pitches and give each pitch a random number. Each participant will select a number and thus receive the associated pitch. YOU CANNOT RECEIVE YOUR OWN PITCH. I will read the pitch to the class and give you a copy of the pitch. The person responsible for the pitch can then augment the pitch with additional information or suggestions. We then open the floor for other people to suggest other sources or other places for information. Once you feel comfortable with your pitch, we move on to the next person.

When all the pitches are handed out, you will then have approximately 24 hours to complete a solid news story on that topic. It must be at least 2 pages, typed, double-spaced. It must contain no fewer than three human sources. You do not need to use any or all of the sources suggested to you in the pitch. You can augment the list or stick to it. The pitch is merely meant to guide you.

Your story must be in at noon on Wednesday.  If you are late, you fail the assignment, so remember the old line we repeat in here: Journalism is never done. It’s just due. Your completed work will be graded along the same lines as your previous stories, with one-third of the grade being assigned to each of the three main areas: Reporting, Writing and Style.

This is going to typify the quote on the front of your syllabus: You have to improvise. You have to adapt. You have to overcome. Stuff can go wrong. People might not get back to you. Sources might be out of town.  Your job is to be a reporter and figure out how to get the best possible version of the story out of the assignment based on what you have available to you at the time. Perfection is unattainable, so don’t panic about that. Make sure you’re accurate, clear, concise and balanced. Work on smoothing out your writing without obsessing about how perfect it is.

You can do this. We’ve been preparing for it all term.

Questions? Ask ‘em.

Scummy weasels and death peddlers: What some people think about journalism (and why we tolerate their ignorance.)

“Your mother didn’t raise you right.”

I forget the context of that comment, but I know a woman yelled it at me over the phone once when I had the temerity to ask her a question about something someone she knew had done that landed that guy in jail. The implication was that I had nothing better to do than make people miserable and that if my mother had raised me properly, I’d know how sleazy I was being at this very moment.

The reason I bring this up is the story that is making the rounds, thanks to Dana Loesch’s speech at the recent CPAC event. Loesch, a National Rifle Association spokesperson, told the room that the mainstream media just loved it when someone went on a massive shooting spree:

“Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it,” Dana Loesch said Thursday. “Now I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many in the legacy media in the back (of the room).”

As someone who spent a good amount of time in a newsroom and even more time teaching budding journalists, it’s a little hard to swallow that statement. (I’m not alone in that regard, as multiple journalists have called out Loesch for her statements at CPAC.) The point here, however, isn’t to poke at Loesch but rather to let you know that although the statement is a bit more hyperbolic than most of those made about the media, it’s not rare that people think about journalists this way.

Former college basketball coach Bobby Knight turned hating the media into an art form and a cottage industry. Here are 10 of Knight’s most “memorable” soundbites, about half of which involve him fighting with the press. (Number 8 is my favorite, in which he compares journalism to prostitution.)

Knight isn’t the only person to hate the media for being the media. The clip of CNN’s Jim Acosta trying to get then president-elect Donald Trump to let him ask a question went viral in the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration:

And he wasn’t the first president to rip on the media in front of a large group of people:

However, perhaps the greatest diatribe regarding how journalists react to disasters came not from a politician, but rather from musician Don Henley. His 1982 release of “Dirty Laundry” was No. 1 on the charts that year and really picked apart the way in which TV journalists appeared to enjoy “disaster porn.”

Personally, I’ve been called words I’ve been asked to avoid using on the blog. I think “scum” was the most user-friendly word I could include here. I’ve been accused of having vendettas against people for reporting that the caller’s son got involved in a shooting some place. I’ve been told to get a real job. I’m sure if you asked any of your professors who worked in the field, any one of them could tell you similar stories in which people took out their gripes on a journalist or two.

Still, as Allison Sansone noted earlier, you are serving readers who need you to get them information, even if that information is unpleasant. Of all the things I’ve seen that were nauseating, destructive or worse, I’ve never felt particularly happy about them. Sure, the adrenaline is pumping and the anxiety goes through the roof, so I can see how people would think I was “up” a bit while on the scene of something. However, I was never happy to see a dead guy, a fire-scarred woman or a flaming house full of dead dogs (all things I had to witness.).

This field can be a rough one to enter, especially if you enjoy people liking you or your work being positively appreciated on a universal scale. (I remember somebody once remarking about this idea, “If you want to be loved, go plan kids’ birthday parties for a living.” Personally, I find that more terrifying than covering a lot of the stuff I covered.) However, if you read through the responses the reporters gave to Loesch’s statement, you’ll find that they felt the job was worth it and the experiences associated with some of these traumatic events led to a greater sense of self.

I can’t think of many careers that will get you all of that. Even if it means you have to apologize to your mother for what people think of her child-rearing skills.

Picasso at the NFL Combine: Patrick Finley and his drawings are back in the news

Back in August, we spoke with Patrick Finley, the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Sun-Times, who was tasked with covering the team’s training camp. During certain parts of the practices, the media was not allowed to take pictures or capture video, even though the general public could do all of that and more, thus frustrating Finley and his colleagues.

Finley decided to “work around” the problem by creating artists renderings of the players and the actions in camp. The only problem? He can’t draw.

“I wish I could say I planned it out, but it made my giggle the first day I drew one, so I kept doing one a day,” Finley said. “I knew it was silly, but also subversive. Also, that’s the way I draw; I didn’t make it look toddler-ish on purpose.”

Twitter exploded with fans sharing his drawings, WGN did a piece on him and he gained more than a bit of notoriety among his peers.

Just last week, Finley’s art skills came to the rescue once again. While covering the NFL combine, rules prevented journalists from photographing or recording certain portions of the event. Behold:


With more than 240 retweets and 800 likes, that tweet blew away anything else he posted that week on Twitter.

A month or two back, Finley talked a bit more about this “artistic phenomenon” for the upcoming second edition of “Dynamics of Media Writing.” He said he didn’t really understand why people loved his artwork but he enjoyed the fact that they did.

“It taught me that Twitter appreciates something unique, no matter how absolutely silly it might be,” Finley said. “I don’t pretend to grasp exactly why it went viral — It was intended to be a gentle mocking of a training camp policy where fans could take pictures but media members couldn’t’ — but I imagine it reached beyond my typical football fan followers. My experience with the sketches was a fun one, though Bears PR staffers finally got annoyed by it by the end of camp, I think. It’s still weird that some people know me as the guy who sketches stuff, when I’d rather them know me for the job I do.”

The Sunflower at Wichita State: A testament to how journalism should work

The Sunflower at Wichita State is continuing to update readers about the funding situation it finds itself in.

Today’s editorial is a blistering example of how to lay out the facts and drive home a point: Behind closed doors, the people responsible for an equitable distribution of student money are lining their own pockets while cutting things they personally dislike. Here’s the best line of the piece, for my money:

It’s interesting how that works. The very organizations entrusted to equitably distribute student fees decided their own organizations deserved more money than those who had no say in the matter and weren’t even allowed to witness the deliberations. The only organization with a platform to question that decision was recommended a massive, intentionally-destructive cut.

Can you say self serving?

The Sunflower staff members, however, know that fire and fury alone isn’t going to get the job done. Overall, the paper is also providing readers with great examples of how to do journalism right, even when you become the story.

Here are a couple great things the staffers have done that serve as good examples for other writers:

Stick to the facts and let them do the work for you: I often have to tell students that they need to just let the facts speak for themselves, because the more they inject opinion or hyperbole in a piece, the less I want to hear what they have to say. This often happens at the end of some beginning-writing stories where students will write “summary paragraphs” like this one for their news stories:

In sum, it is important that people donate blood, as it’s not only lifesaving but it’s the right thing to do.

I often refer to these closings as “One To Grow On” closings, calling back to the 1980s PSAs where “stars” of the day would “guide” young people away from making bad decisions during a role-playing exercise. At the end, the “star” would make the case about how good it was that the kid did what he/she was told, ending with “And THAT’S one to grow on!” Seriously, it got really annoying:

(That’s right kids! Tootie from “Facts of Life” wants you to avoid smoking!)

It’s the same thing in sports where people decide to slather on the adjectives and adverbs to try to make something sound incredible. Often, if you just tell me a fact or two, particularly if you place them properly in the story, I’ll get the message.

This brings us to our ongoing look at The Sunflower at Wichita State and the attempt of the student government to slash it’s budget. Rather than grouse about everything happening, the staff members of the paper have been writing just what happened and letting the readers figure out if this is a hatchet job or not.

In one case, they literally just lay out each statement the SGA made as a part of the fee cuts and then fact check each statement.

However, my favorite use of facts to just drive home the point is this use of two simple statements that run back to back in an update of their situation:

Funding for other programs would have increased with the proposed budget, like Student Affairs, which was recommended an increase of $118,811.

Vice President for Student Affairs Teri Hall is the chair of the Student Fees Committee.

Just read those two sentences over again and let them sink in. No build up. No superfluous writing. Just….


Open records are your friend: Of all of the strange things that have emerged in this story, the strangest might have been a 1977 memo from the Kansas attorney general that gives some cover to the SGA for closing its meetings. (Feel free to click here to see how that all unfolded, as well as a great example of how polyester made a mockery of us all…)

OK, if we can’t go to the meetings, The Sunflower staff figured, let’s see what they’re going to talk about instead and share it with the readers.

The staff used the open records law to get the whole binder of funding requests the committee would be reviewing and posted the whole thing online. In looking at the budget for student affairs, the staff discovered that while the committee would cut The Sunflower budget by about $50,000, the Office of Student Affairs would see an increase of more than $118,000:


(The thick black line separates the 2017-18 actual budget from the 2018-19 request. Each column moving back from there is the actual funding for each previous school year.)

Not only is the division seeking to have its budget increase by a six-figure sum this year, this would be on top of a nearly half-million-dollar increase from 2016-17 to 2017-18. Collectively, the SA’s office, whose vice president (Teri Hall) sits on the fee board, will see almost $600,000 more in its coffers over a two-year period if the budget goes through as it stands. In addition, the specific line item attached to Hall’s office accounts for approximately $32,000 of this year’s increase.

As we’ve noted before, documents are amazing tools.

Keep telling stories that matter: It would be easy for the staff of The Sunflower to get buried in this story. Heck, I know I am and so are a lot of you if this freakish spike in blog traffic is any indication. Consider this “global” interest:


That’s right. We’re killing it in Somalia and Bahrain…

The point is, the staffers know they aren’t the only game in town and that other things that matter are happening. The Automotive Engineers got hit hard by budget cuts, the oldest literary journal in the state might die as a result of budget cuts, the 11th-ranked men’s basketball team lost the conference title by a single point and the team celebrated senior night as well. That’s just a taste of the great stuff the paper has produced, all while being the center of attention for a reason they’d just as soon get past.

At the end of the day, this paper is a testament to how journalism should work.