Jargon or Vocabulary? 3 ways to determine which one you’re using

The use of simple language is the bedrock of what we do in journalism. Introductory writing courses pound the idea of eliminating complex terminology, removing unknown acronyms and generally cutting anything that might be considered jargon.

This approach makes a lot of sense when it comes to general-interest, mass-media publications, in which a wide array of readers who might be unfamiliar with the verbiage of a particular field come together to understand a complex topic.

However, the media isn’t always so “mass” these days, which means writers are serving thinner slices of narrower target audiences with content on niche topics. To that end, what might be “jargon” to a broader group of readers is merely “vocabulary” to the people who are reading, watching or hearing it.

Here’s a fun example from one of my favorite movies, “Dazed and Confused:”

In less than 15 seconds, Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) proudly describes his beloved car, Melba Toast, to Clint (Nicky Katt) in a form of shared “gear head” language. Clint clearly isn’t impressed, but he’s also not confused.

(If you are confused, here’s a general translation of what he said. If you don’t care, skip past the bullets and pick up after them to get to my point):

So, how do you know if you’re relying on shared vocabulary or burying people in jargon? Here are some helpful hints:


When it comes to writing for your readers, you need to have a strong sense of who is out there and what they know or don’t know about your subject. This might require you to do some additional research about the people who are in your target audience before you start whipping around insider terminology. It might also require you to write various versions of the same piece for different groups of readers.

For example, in public relations, you might do some internal PR that explains some changes to the way in which your company’s factory will be dealing with the creation of certain product lines. If the readers are all coworkers who fully understand the ins and outs of the old process, some company-based shorthand and shared verbiage is probably fine. However, if you then have to put that information in a press release for general media outlets or shareholders who don’t have those same insights, you need to rework your writing to meet their needs.

In the blogging class, I find myself working with students who write about competitive swimming, sorority recruiting, offensive line play, k-pop and “mumble rap.” In each case, I am reading at a level well below what the expected audience will be, but I’m still expected to be able to help the writers reach those readers.

Thus, I often ask, “Is this a word/concept/process your readers would understand?” I then ask them other questions, like “At what level of swim do you learn this concept?” or “Is this a term that sororities use outside of UW-Oshkosh or even outside of Wisconsin?” After we poke at that idea for a little bit, it either stays or it gets a rewrite.

Not every reader will be able to follow everything you write, regardless of what that topic is or for whom you are writing, but knowing who you’re trying to reach can help you make the first cut on the jargon versus vocabulary decisions.



Probably my favorite story about this came when I was reading a draft of a final project story one of my reporting students was doing on the concept of raw milk. The student was a farm kid, who saw firsthand the various people who had angles on the topic, including farmers who wanted to sell it, organic fans who wanted to buy it, legislators who were for its legalization, legislators who were against its legalization, milk conglomerates who opposed, food-safety administrators who had concerns about its safety and more.

I’m reading through this thing and I’m learning a ton about this, as the writing was complex and yet clear. I had heard about this concept before, as the local newspaper had covered it, but not to this extent. With that in mind, I suggested to her that she should get it published, but that she should target one of the farm publications that dotted the newspaper racks around here.

When I mentioned those publications, she looked at me the way that a parent looks at a small child who just said something adorably innocent.

“Um…” she began. “This is a little… basic for people who read those papers…”

I still laugh thinking about that moment because it perfectly captures the concept of writing at the acumen level of the audience. For me, she had to make certain things a bit less (OK, a lot less…) complicated in how the farming stuff worked. She get more detailed with the legislative stuff, because it was more universally understood. However, she used the right words to make her point based on how educated her audience was on the given topic.

As mentioned in the earlier point, not every reader is going to be at the same level as every other reader in your audience, but understanding the level at which you should be writing will make life easier on everyone involved. For example, if you’re writing about something like car repair, you might be targeting people with Wooderson-level acumen or people who want to be able to solve a few basic problems to avoid going to the repair shop for everything.

So, if you’re writing about what to look at when it feels like the gas pedal isn’t working, you need to determine how much knowledge your audience has in advance. For the regular folks, you might say, “Open the hood of the car and look at the right side of the engine, next to the big plastic piece that says ‘NISSAN’ on it for a small half-circle of black plastic with a silver cable attached to it. Have a friend step on the gas pedal and see if this moves at all. Also see if the cable moves but it doesn’t rotate that half-circle.”

For a gearhead, you might  say, “Look to the right side of the engine block and find the throttle body. Rotate it to see if the engine responds. Check the throttle cable to see if it has become dislodged or detached.”

This kind of thing applies a lot for student media outlets because some things are universally understood by students from the first minute they hit campus while others might be common knowledge to seniors but new concepts to freshmen. (I once went to a summer camp at a university where I was the only person from outside of that state. The students kept saying “I’ll meet you at the duck,” so I went looking for a statue of a duck or a pond. Eventually, I found out it was the DUC, which stood for Dobbs University Center.)

Everything from what you call the transcript of your classes as you move toward graduation (the STAR report at UWO) to the nearby off-campus housing (the J-Slums at Mizzou) is up for grabs based on how well your readers know your topic.



Regardless of how much you know about your audience or how smart those folks are, you still want to create readable content. When you start tossing around a boatload of acronyms, abbreviations and inside lingo, you can really find yourself sounding less like a storyteller and more like this scene from “Good Morning, Vietnam:”


As with most things in writing, the discretion of the writer and the editor come into play here, but make smart decisions when it comes to which items get the shorthand and which ones get some additional explanation. For example, “mph” is pretty much understood university as “miles per hour” so that car blog would be fine using it regardless of any user. However that CFM abbreviation might need expansion for some audiences and almost no explanation for others. Either way, when you find yourself writing something like, “The CFM determines the MPH or KPH based on the RPMs, IMA, MJ, CAT and the presence of an HIC.” you want to do a significant rewrite.

Gone Fishin’ Thanksgiving Edition

I have the best students… Or at least they listen to things I say that aren’t on the test, which is pretty close to the same thing…


I found this going through my desk while cleaning in advance of important people showing up at the frat house/disaster zone I call my office. The story behind this is that during a reporting class, where I was using example after example that somehow involved either a drug dealer or a dead body, one kid asked, “Did you ever cover anything alive or legal as a reporter?”

I then explained that I spent almost my entire journalism career on a night desk or on the crime beat. “I’m sorry, folks,” I told them. “If you had a normal professor who covered city government, you’d have a lot more planning and zoning stuff. If you had someone who covered education, you’d have stories about kids making cute hand-print turkeys and school board meetings. You’re stuck with a guy who was told if it caught on fire, got shot, ended up dead or got arrested, I’d likely have a byline in the next day’s paper.”

The next day, one of the more artistic students in my class pushed this under my door. She later told me, “Everyone deserves a hand-print turkey.”

With that in mind, I think everyone deserves a break as well, so I’m off until after Thanksgiving. I hope you all get a break and a chance to recharge and we’ll see you on the other side of the holiday.


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

Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher took time out of his busy schedule to crap all over student journalists at the University of Virginia for being humane in the wake of a mass shooting

Marc Fisher of the Washington Post has more than 30 years in at the paper, a fistful of Pulitzer Prizes and a resume that would leave most journalists, and journalism students in awe.

Which is why it’s a damned shame that he decided to punch down at the staff of the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia for what he considered to be a terrible approach to their coverage of a mass shooting on their campus:

If you haven’t been following the news, UVa student Christopher Darnell Jones, Jr. is accused of killing three Virginia football players and wounding several other students while returning from a class field trip Sunday. Jones was on the run for about half of a day and the school was on lock down during that time. Following his arrest, the campus went into a state of mourning, with multiple tributes made to the victims and sports activities being cancelled.

The school’s paper, the Cavalier Daily, had dutifully and professionally covered the initial incident and the subsequent fall out with stories like these:

Apparently, that wasn’t good enough for Fisher, as he lambasted the students for not going door to door, rooting out grieving fellow students and demanding answers as to how they’re feeling about all of this. When the twitterverse asked him to look at what he was ACTUALLY doing (punching down, pontificating, acting like an arrogant jerk), Fisher doubled down with a loud sniff:

In a situation like this, there are MANY ways to gather and assess information. In the case of the ongoing investigation, the students are doing just that: finding out what is going on and telling people on campus about it. In less than three days, they’ve punched out at least a half-dozen good stories on this issue, including a breaking-news piece. That’s on top of all of the other things that the Marc Fishers of the world no longer have to do, like attend class, work a service-industry job to pay the rent, study for tests and keep up with their other school responsibilities.

And, of course, they spent time calming down their own parents, who are likely freaked out of their minds that their kids are on a campus in which a fellow student seemingly randomly stood up on a bus and killed three people and shot at several others.

It’s also worth noting that this is not whiny snowflake of a paper. It’s one of the best in the country, in which its student journalists have repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to get the story. For example, here’s a look back at the series we did on how the Cav Daily covered the “Unite the Right” rally back in 2017, gathering information among marching white supremacists,  while dodging public brawls and gagging on tear gas.

Y’know, journalism.

It’s really hard not to curse like a sailor with his hand caught in a blender right now, primarily because these students deserve praise for behaving like professionals, covering an untenable situation with dignity and providing their readers with both important information as well as a respectful amount of space to process their own grief.

To that end, here are three key points I’ll end with:

COVERING DEATH TAKES PRACTICE: I have told every student I’ve taught that it’s impossible for me to adequately teach them how to cover crime and breaking news because we can’t emulate it. I can take them to a city council meeting to practice meeting stories or a ball game to practice sports stories, but there is no parallel for crime journalism. Until you have to ask someone about a dead friend lying on the ground in front of them or approach the parent of a dead kid in the hospital for a quote, you have no idea how you’re going to do at it.

I started covering things like that when I was the age of these Cav Daily kids and it really messed me up a lot. I can still remember the name, age and cause of death of every dead kid I ever covered. I can remember how some people would want to talk to me for hours about their loved ones and how others would say such foul things about me and how “your mother didn’t raise you right,” that I wanted to shrivel up and die myself.

I got better at it and one piece of advice stuck with me, years later, from Kelly Furnas, the adviser of the Virginia Tech newspaper back when that campus experienced the deadliest mass shooting of its kind: When you have to cover something like this, you offer people the opportunity to speak. If they choose not to, that’s fine, but you offer. That’s what the kids did here, even if it wasn’t exactly the way that Marc Fisher thinks he would have done it.

JOHNNY SAIN WAS RIGHT ABOUT GUYS LIKE THIS: The Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers’ Day applies perfectly here: “There sure is a lot of bullshit going on around here. The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I have no doubt that Marc Fisher is a fantastic reporter, editor, writer and more. That said, when you get to a certain point in life, you can really forget what it’s like before you became all of those really great things.

According to his bio, Fisher graduated with an AB in history from Princeton in 1980. That would put him there roughly in the latter half of the 1970s, which means we don’t have a true sense of what he was actually writing or reporting on back then. (I lack the time and resources to head to New Jersey, pull down some old dusty bound volumes of the Daily Princetonian and dig around for his clips.)

What I can say is that I know a ton of award-winning journalists who I had as students or worked with at college media outlets who were nowhere near as good back when they were in school as the kids at the Cav Daily have been in their coverage of this situation. I can also say that I’d rather look back at photos of me in god-awful polyester suits as a kid than go back and read what I wrote for the student newspaper in college.

We all sucked at some level as student journalists, which is totally understandable. We were learning the craft by making the mistakes that made us better. We were trying things because we saw other people doing them in their writing and we found out the hard way that it wasn’t easy to emulate the great ones. We made choices we’d cringe at in our later years, asking ourselves, “What the hell were you THINKING?”

If Marc Fisher is honest and actually took a look back, I bet he’d find out he wasn’t as great as he remembers himself being.

DON’T BE A DICK: I have yet to come up with a better way of expressing this, so I apologize to those with more sensitive disposition. However, it’s the best way I can get at the core of what’s bugging me the most about this.

Marc, believe it or not, you are an aspirational figure for a lot of these kids. I bet they’ve read your stuff, seen your books, caught your act on some round-table show or in some other way come in contact with what you do. What you say MATTERS to these people because you have done a lot with your career and it is a hell of a career at that. A snotty tweet, picking on a staff of students for what you perceive to be a journalistic faux pas (which it actually isn’t) does absolutely no good.

When you hold a position of value, people remember their encounters with you, even long after you have forgotten about them. I still have students to this day tell me things I’ve told them that meant a lot to them, even when I have absolutely no recollection of having said those things.

I also know what it’s like to be on the other end of this, and how a kind and supportive word from a person  you deeply admire can make all the difference. In 2000, I was working the night desk at the Columbia Missourian when we got a tip that Gov. Mel Carnahan’s plane had crashed during his campaign tour for a U.S. Senate seat. I had about two years of experience as an editor at that point and I was scared to death that I was going to screw everything up.

I scrambled to get staffers in, connect the dots and build the story. In the middle of all of this, my boss, George Kennedy, called in to find out what was going on. George wrote the book I learned from and the book I taught from. He had decades of experience and he was like a god to me. The first words out of his mouth that night were, “So… you’ve got kind of an interesting night, don’t you?”

He asked me to fill him in, which I did, before I asked him if he was coming in. I figured he would want to take the wheel on a story like this and make sure it was exactly perfect, especially since we were tearing the front page to shreds on deadline and we still weren’t sure if the governor was alive or dead. I’ll never forget what he said next:

“Why? I’ve got you.”

Then he hung up.

To this day, nothing meant more to me than that did in terms of building my confidence and making feel like I could do this job. Kennedy could have said, “Well, if you promise not to suck like you normally do, I suppose I could stay home,” or “Sure. I doubt you could do this without me.” Instead, he made me feel like a professional and an equal. I STILL would step in front of a bus if George Kennedy asked me to because of this.

THAT’S the kind of impact people like you have, Marc, over people who are still finding their way. What you might see as a tweet in passing has a lot more of an impact than you might ever know.


UPDATE: A friend forwarded me this while I was driving home with the line “Looks like his bosses pressured him to delete his tweet.”

For such a gifted wordsmith, Marc Fisher really sucks at saying, “I’m sorry for being a chucklehead.”

Moms are usually right, so it helps to listen (A Throwback Post)

Whenever things seem tough around here, I like to poke through the blog’s archives because I often find inspiration here and there. Today is my mom’s birthday, so I went back to 2020 when I first wrote the piece below.

A lot has changed, in that I’ll actually get to see her this year for her birthday and she actually got to travel to see my grandfather this year as well. Despite feeling like I’m a cat trapped in a washing machine half the time this semester, at least I’m less worried about killing my parents with COVID every time I see them and hugs have returned to part of our normal lives.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the advice below. In reading through it, I found that these maxims still work, particularly number one. At a time like this in a semester like this, when people feel drained, outgunned and just ready to chuck it all, it’s nice to have someone in our lives who knows that this, too, shall pass.

So thanks, again, Mom. Looking forward to seeing you soon.




Happy Birthday, Mom: Four things my mother taught me that might help you, too

Back when we didn’t have to socially distance, Mom and I caught a Paul McCartney concert that was absolutely amazing.

(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.

Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my mom a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)

Six months ago, I had to find a way to celebrate my dad’s birthday virtually, thanks in large part to the emerging pandemic and the fear associated with climbing case numbers in Wisconsin.

No way, I thought at the time, this is going to impact Mom’s birthday in November. I wasn’t optimistic enough to assume we’d have a cure by then, but I figured we’d have some sort of control over this thing, mitigating its spread or at least keeping the numbers low.

This is why I don’t get paid to prognosticate.

Numbers are skyrocketing, especially here in Wisconsin and ICU beds are packed to the gills. It also seems like the disease keeps getting closer and closer to us, with more people at Amy’s work testing positive and various family and friends either testing positive or locking down thanks to close contact.

The governor of our state is essentially telling people, “Stay the hell home as much as you can. And if you want to see your family for Thanksgiving, buy a Swanson’s Hungry Man turkey platter and hook up a Zoom call.”

The same 100 miles of I-41 separate me from my folks that did back in March, although it now seems so much longer and bleaker. I held on to Mom’s birthday card until this weekend, planning to sneak down there and throw it to her from a six-foot distance across a frozen backyard. Then, I got a text from Amy saying ANOTHER person she was in contact with tested positive.

I put the card in the mail the next day.

In what is a rather perverse irony, as much as I miss my mother and I know Mom wants to see me, the ability to persist through this giant crap taco known as 2020 was instilled deeply in me by my mother over a lifetime of love and lessons.

So, without further ado, here are four things my mother taught me in life that might be helpful to you, too, as you try to hang in there for as long as it takes:


You’re tougher than you think you are, so pick yourself up and get back to work: The kitchen table in every house I ever occupied served as an important place for the family. It was where we ate, sure, but it was where we had family discussions, where we paid the bills, where we did our homework, where we worked through important business and where we just talked out whatever needed to be talked out.

When I was in college, I would come home on a Friday and sit at the table  and talk to my mom about whatever was kicking my ass that day, week or month. Mom would have the ironing board propped up and she’d be plowing through a massive pile of wrinkled laundry as she listened to whatever was happening.

She didn’t always understand exactly why I was so upset about something or why I thought the way I did about the problem at hand. (Truth be told, I was probably being way more of a drama queen than whatever I was complaining about required me to be…) Still, she listened and asked questions and poked back when I went too far into the “woe is me” realm of self-pity.

In each discussion, I found that Mom somehow helped me realize that the problem I brought wasn’t insurmountable or that the impossible task could be done if I’d just work through it. She always told me she loved me, but she never blew sunshine up my keester. She gave me practical advice, helped me see things in a way I hadn’t and set me back on the path I needed to walk.

In short, she told me, “You’re not beaten. Get up. You are tougher than you think you are.”

And she was always right. And still is.


Use your gifts to help others as often as possible: Each year of her 45-year teaching career, it seemed, Mom would go back to her school and there would be at least one new teacher who looked as lost as a kid who got separated from their parents during Black Friday at Walmart. In the “teams” and “partners” that the schools used over the years to group the faculty, Mom constantly found herself paired with someone that had about six months of student teaching under their belt and a terrified look on their face.

It would have been so easy for her to have a “Crash Davis grouse session” each time she got paired with a newbie and had to start all over again, explaining everything from the location of the teachers lounge through to how to instill classroom discipline among a throng of hormonally challenged pre-teens. Instead, she found a way to get the best out of these people, giving them ample access to her materials, her lessons and, above all else, her experience.

Mom had a gift for being there for other people in the exact way they need it. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but it’s still something I’ve yet to master. In watching Mom operate, I realized this is part skill, part art and part gift.

What I have been able to do, however, is mimic her giving spirit in this area. When the pandemic hit, I had friends and colleagues in a panic over what to do or how to handle assignments, so I stopped everything I was doing to throw together the Corona Hotline page for journalism instructors. The fact that other people were struggling and I had a line on how to fix those struggles meant it was my responsibility to do something to help them. It’s also the reason I volunteer to critique newspapers, visit classrooms, speak at conventions and more.

If I could help someone, especially because I’d been lucky enough to have a gift that made it possible, well, I better damned well do it. That’s how I was raised.


Don’t let others dictate the terms of your life: If others were allowed to set the parameters of how my mother’s life were to play out, she would have been a wonderful housewife who would have raised a kid in a duplex and maybe seen a few of our 50 states while visiting random family members during the summers.

Even that might have been a bit much. The legendary family story had Mom and Dad explaining to my mother’s parents that they wanted to get married, only to be told, “You can’t right now. We need to buy new furniture.”

Instead, she spent 45 years teaching literal generations of kids in Cudahy, Wisconsin, having earned a college education  during the early years of her marriage to my father. She wanted a college degree, so she fought for it. She wanted to teach, so she made it happen.

She has visited Canada, Mexico, Germany, Greece, Italy, England, France, Singapore and probably a dozen other places I’m forgetting, traveling with family and friends to see some of the greatest things this world has ever produced. She always came home and shared her photos and stories with as many people as possible (see the point above) and reveling in the opportunities to learn and grow.

She also spent 53 years (and counting) married to my father, outlasting the furniture that once populated my grandparents’ living room.

It would have been so easy for this shy daughter of a police officer to acquiesce to the demands of other people, particularly growing up in a small town during a time in which norms dictated actions. However, she decided that she had one life and she was going to use it as she saw fit. She wasn’t about to let other people tell her “no” for no good reason.

Her courage served as a model for my life.

The first journalism teacher I ever had the displeasure of meeting told me that I would never be a journalist and I probably wouldn’t be much of anything unless I learned a trade so I could provide for a family.

My undergraduate academic adviser and it seemed like half the student media world told me it was a fool’s errand to try to bring the Daily Cardinal student newspaper back from the brink of insolvency.

My doctoral adviser told me I should look for a high-level research institution so I could do scholarship and avoid dealing with undergraduate writing classes.

In each case, and dozens more, people thought they knew better than I did about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. In each case, I would politely nod my head and then go out and do what I knew I should do. Like Mom, I wasn’t going to let the expectations of people who didn’t have to live my life determine how I would go about living it.

In the end, that sense of self-evaluation gave me the most wonderful life possible.


Love what you do, no matter what: For her entire teaching career, Mom taught grade school and middle school students in one school district. Some people would wonder why she hadn’t earned a master’s degree, “moved up” to the high school and taught there. At the very least, why not bounce around to several districts and jack up your earnings and value?

Others, including her own father, thought she should have climbed the ladder, becoming an assistant principal, then a principal and maybe even a superintendent.

I’m glad she didn’t do any of these things because she essentially taught me to love what I do, no matter what.

She easily could have gotten a master’s out of the 1,923 academic credits she seemed to amass over the decades of “continuation learning” that was required of her to keep her teaching certification current. She had more than enough skills, expertise and knowledge to teach any college class on history or English, let alone teaching introductory composition to freshmen in high school. She oversaw plays, musicals, events and more that would have befuddled half the administrators in her district, so the ability to run a school or a district was in no way beyond her capabilities.

However, that’s not what she loved doing. She loved to teach specific subjects to those students in that district. So she did it.

The pressure to move up and climb ladders is always all around all of us. A “better” job is always one that offers more money, higher levels of responsibility and bigger organizations, it seems. If there’s one thing Mom taught me that I try desperately to teach my students is that they shouldn’t chase other people’s dreams. If they want to be happy, they need to find what makes them happy and do that.

If I had the inclination, I’m sure I could be a chair or a dean or a provost or whatever. (Amy would likely love it, dragging me into Brooks Brothers and telling the guy behind the counter to “Fix this.”) I’ve had the chances to do those things, but I’ve begged out of those opportunities every time.

The same is true about moving to a “better” job or a “name” program. Every so often, a friend will tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, we’ve got an opening and you’d be great here…” I politely thank them, think about it and then stay right where I am, teaching kids the difference between “libel” and “liable.”

Being happy doing something you love is like a double rainbow: A beautiful thing that doesn’t come around all that often. Mom found it and stuck with it. In doing so, she showed me that I could (and should) seek the same kind of thing for myself.

That’s one gift I could never thank her for enough.

Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.

The Junk Drawer: The “What were you THINKING?” edition

Compared to the rest of my life, this is actually pretty well organized…

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

We start this week, as most Catholics do, with a confession…

For the first time in the history of the blog, I killed a post after I published it when a reader wrote in to complain. Tuesday, I was a bit out of my lane when I wrote a post titled “Vote or Whatever,” that tried to do something for Election Day. The post wasn’t coming together the way I wanted, but I figured I’d force things a bit and see what happened.

The point I was trying to make was that people have rights in this country, regardless of if they vote or not. For example, the line about “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain,” is completely untrue. The First Amendment gives you the right to grouse up a storm if you want, regardless of if you cast a ballot and pick up an “I Voted” sticker. However, if people don’t vote, the folks that do might elect people who decide to take back a few of the rights you like.

The reader made the point that it sounded like I was telling people not to vote and that voting didn’t matter. After a few exchanges, I went back and reread the post, which I already knew I was forcing to begin with, and realized the reader was right. I tried fixing it a couple times before I remembered “Filak’s First Rule of Holes,” so I killed it.

Just like I tell myself when I’m working on a car, a pinball machine, a piece of furniture or an appliance around the house: Don’t force it or you’ll turn a bad situation into a worse one. This was one of those cases, so I apologize to whoever read that thing before it mercifully was relegated to the dustbin of history.

Speaking of bad ideas that were poorly executed…


Not every promotional effort on social media is perfect, but when you’re trying to get people to enjoy a sandwich by commemorating a Nazi atrocity, you’re definitely going to catch some blow back:

KFC’s German branch has apologized for seeming to encourage its customers to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht — the notorious Nazi pogrom against Jews — by eating chicken, saying that a promotional message was sent in error as a result of an automated push notification.

The pogrom that began on Nov. 9, 1938, is known as the night of broken glass, and is widely commemorated as the start of the Holocaust. It was a coordinated assault on German Jews and their homes, businesses and synagogues.

On Wednesday, KFC Germany sent a message to users of its app with the title “Anniversary of the Reich’s pogrom night,” according to reports in the German news media and screen shots of the promotion that circulated widely on Twitter. The message invited customers to enjoy “tender cheese with crispy chicken.”

KFC Germany “quickly followed up with an apology” and then noted it was the work of an automated program that paired promotional tweets with historical events commemorated on a calendar. If true, they might want to look ahead to April 30 to prevent a “stock the bunker in case of guests” 2-for-1 bucket promotion.

Let’s move on…

From the “Does that period key work?” department:

The general vibe in most media writing is that short and tight sentences are better than the alternative.  Leads are generally about 25-35 words, particularly if they’re straight news pieces. Then there’s this one:

WASHINGTON – A West Bend man who police say entered a city polling place last Tuesday with a knife and demanded staff “stop the voting” had been arrested just days prior and was free on a signature bond for reportedly posting hand-written racist and threatening political messages downtown and sending photos of those notes to Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

At 65 words, you’re almost more than double what you would normally expect for something that basically says, “Dude making threats made threats before.”

It could have been worse, as this writer demonstrated with another monstrosity of writing. The only person whose getting away with a sentence this long is Bret Easton Ellis if he’s writing from the perspective of a coked up hedge-fund manager:

Johnson, coming off a victory that secured him his third term in the Senate, joined a chorus of Senate GOP colleagues last week in pushing to delay the chamber’s Republican leadership elections set for Wednesday until the conference can have “serious discussions” about what the party can do to improve its chances of winning the presidency and both chambers of Congress in 2024, according to a letter the senators sent to colleagues.

As is the case with all writers, the Journal-Sentinel invites us to follow this guy on Twitter. I might actually do that, just to see what happens when he’s hemmed in at 280 character, or roughly 60% of that sentence.

Speaking of Twitter….

Is it midnight or is that just the NYT throwing shade?

I always loved sentences in news stories that basically wrote themselves. If I didn’t have to try to hype a story because the facts alone  made people say, “Damn….,” I was a happy camper.

I would have basically given anything to have written this sentence in a story about Elon Musk booking Twitter for a one-way ticket on the Titanic:

That was such a sick burn there isn’t enough water in the world to put it out.

Speaking of dry spells…

From the “homophonic bias” department:

I found this one back when Aaron Judge was chasing Roger Maris’ home run record in the American League. Apparently Judge had a bit of a dry spell when it came to dingers, or he stopped for a frosty beer along the way to the park…

In case you are unclear, a drought is a lack of rain, or whatever else is supposed to be showing up (in this case, home runs). A draught is an English spelling of anything drawn from a keg. To be fair, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle tended to tip a few before launching balls into the stratosphere, so maybe Judge was trying to stick with tradition…

Speaking of baseball…

I got this promotion for some reason in my social media feed and even after reading it three times, I still found myself laughing like a 12-year-old boy.

For the Fanatics promotional staff, I’d like to offer this post that covers about a dozen or more terms you probably want to avoid…

Have a good rest of the week.


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

Hey YOU! A brief discussion of using second-person writing in news stories

My subdued reaction when my students use second person in their news stories…

One of the more difficult habits to break for beginning journalists is the use of second person in news stories. Although they tend to mix first, second and third person into their work, it’s usually easy to kick “I,” “We” and “Us” to the curb after a few sessions. Third person generally becomes the default option for them, based on the years of research papers that demand the detachment not found in first or second person. However, for some reason, second person seems to show up without rhyme  or reason within news stories, particularly news features.

This concept took on new relevance for me this weekend when Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote an epic story about his colleague, Mary Kay Cabot. Cabot has covered the Cleveland Browns for 31 years and was recently inducted into the The Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. His story begins this way:

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Thirty-one years.

You’re Mary Kay Cabot, and you’ve been covering the Cleveland Browns for 31 years – the same team you watched on TV every Sunday while growing up in Lakewood.

Your dad was Joe Cabot, a Lakewood fireman and a Korean War veteran. He always had a game on of one of the local pro sports teams. But the Browns … the Browns were special. Your father “lived and died” with the Browns.

To see his daughter cover the Browns, that was as meaningful to him as if you had played quarterback for the orange helmets.

“If I ever run into that (Mike) Trivisonno, I’ll take care of him,” your father told you. He had heard the late WTAM talk show host rip you on the radio. To this day, you love that story.

Now, they’re your Browns, the team and the job that has loomed over you for three decades.

“It’s the Browns and our three kids,” is how you describe your life with Bill Murman, your husband of 29 years.

I’m not going to second-guess Terry Pluto, who has won more awards, published more books, covered more sports and done more amazing writing than I could ever hope to, when it comes to the use of a literary device. What I will say is that when I read this thing, I found the approach mentally jarring. It was like my brain was fighting against the way the whole “you” thing kept trying to make me a married, middle-age woman in Cleveland with a dead father.

The first time I ran into this kind of cognitive dissonance was when I was about 17 and I was going through an “’80s nihilistic authors phase” in my reading habits. Jay McInerney, a brilliant writer who has penned some of my favorite novels, used the second-person approach for the entirety of “Bright Lights, Big City,” which begins this way in a chapter titled: “It’s Six A.M. Do you know where you are?”

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not…”

So there I was, a teenager from the Midwest who had yet to take an illegal drink, trying to put myself into the shoes of a coked-up magazine copy editor who is trying to get laid in a New York City night club at the crack of dawn. It didn’t work out all that well, despite my best efforts.

In both cases, the writers were skilled professionals who were taking calculated risks, based on a variety of factors they seriously considered before stepping into the “you-niverse.” As we have said here before, if you learn the rules well enough, you can figure out when it’s best to break them. (In short, you earn the fungus on your shower shoes.)

That said, most of my students haven’t earned that right yet and tend to use second-person missives as a writing crutch.

To figure out if second person is the way to go, consider these questions:

  • How will your audience respond to this? Like most things we talk about in media writing, the audience should be front and center when you decide if you should go with second person or not. If the readers aren’t at the forefront of the decision-making process, a lot can go wrong with second person. People don’t like being told what to do, especially if it seems like you’re coming at them from a higher moral position. Thus, telling them “You should give money” or “You should donate blood” or anything along those lines can feel off-putting. Second person is also something that readers aren’t used to in certain formats and platforms, so using it can be really jarring to some folks. In thinking about my experience with Pluto’s story, I would be really interested in what the general Cleveland sports audience thought about the Cabot piece and the use of “you,” especially because Cabot is such a rare gem in the field.


  • What is the tone of your media outlet? “You” has become a staple of television news over the years, as has “I,” because broadcast is an interpersonal medium. When done well, broadcasters make viewers feel a one-on-one connection that is less like a news report, and more like shared information from a trusted friend. Columnists and bloggers often get away with “you” as well, in that the format is less formal and more conversational. To pretend to carry some sort of objective detachment feels fake or even snobby. More traditional or general-interest outlets still need that sense of detachment, primarily because the audience is so varied and the tone of formality has been ingrained over time.


  • What is the tone of your piece? Standard news stories tend to have multiple angles and facets, thus it’s hard to know which one  “you” the reader will connect with. Even a story about a landlord evicting poor tenants on Christmas Eve has multiple facets, and second person can make it look like you’re taking sides. Conversely, “how to” pieces on niche blogs or websites might need a lot of “you” moments to guide readers along and reassure them that they can fix the garbage disposal or Bedazzle a jean jacket.


  • Are you just being lazy? In the case of the two authors noted above, the use of second person was a clear, conscious choice that they stuck with all the way through the piece. They decided to ride or die with second person. Most of the pieces I’ve read that contain second person don’t take things to this extreme with this kind of forethought. It’s a case of a writer shifting into second person because they don’t want to take the time to rewrite a sentence in third person. Using second person as a literary device is worth a shot here and there. Using it as a writing crutch is just plain lazy. If you can easily rewrite a sentence into third person and the majority of the piece is in third person, take the time to do it. If you have a clear and coherent reason to go into the “you-niverse,” take the risk if you have worked your way through the points above.

Like most tools in your writing toolbox, second person can be useful in certain situations. If you use it for the right reason, you can do a lot of good for your readers. If you use it for the wrong ones, you can undermine the value of your piece and annoy your audience.

Time once again to give thanks for journalists who avoid holiday cliches (A Throwback Post)

With Thanksgiving mercifully two weeks away, I’m sure most of us are ready for a well-deserved break in the semester. What we’re probably less ready for is the deluge of cliches that accompany it, and the rest of the holiday season.

Given that we’ve just gone through an election in which well-worn phrases have pelted us like a hail storm (red wave, radical agenda…) that it feels like we won’t get a break from this kind of stuff unless we all pitch in to prevent this kind of thing.

With that in mind, here is a throwback post to the cliches we tend to see the most this time of year:



‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

Four questions you will likely get asked at a media job interview and how to avoid killing your chances with your answers

With Thanksgiving around the corner, a number of you out there are headed toward that awkward moment at the family dinner in which some relative asks, “So… You graduate next month… You got a job yet?”

The fear of unemployment after college is not without merit, regardless of when you graduate (or graduated) and how well (or poorly) the economy is rolling along. The job-seeking process is filled with awkwardness, anxiety and anguish, a situation I have frequently compared to a bad dating experience.

During that process, a number of things can make or break you. Some of those things are out of your control:

  • You lack the experience or expertise for the position.
  • The company is looking for something else other than what you provide.
  • Some chucklehead on the committee makes a stupid-yet-compelling argument that knocks you out of the pool.
  • A ringer ends up in the pool for some reason and thus you find yourself competing against someone like Bob Woodward for a night GA job at the Beaver County Tidbit.

One thing that is mostly within your control, however, is the initial interview phase of the process, in which your potential future co-workers ask you a string of random inquiries based on whatever HR approved for them. We are currently going through this kind of thing here at the U, where we are searching for a colleague in the journalism department, so I’ve gotten kind of a refresher on the questions and answers that work and that don’t.

To help you along in this narrow way, here are a few questions you might hear in that initial phone/Zoom call, what the questions are trying to ascertain and how to answer (or not answer) them:


“What do you know about (NAME OF ORGANIZATION)?”

What they want to know: This is usually the warm-up question outside of “Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?” The goal here is simple: They want to find out if you did any research between when you discovered the job and this phone/Zoom interview. If you are going into a journalism-related field, you damned well better have done some research on this before you get there. Nothing says, “I’m going to be a lousy reporter/editor/PR practitioner/marketer” like the answer, “Oh… I know you have a job opening!”

The Answer: Don’t turn this thing into a 1950s Chamber of Commerce film that includes every tidbit you can find on Wikipedia.

Instead, look for key things associated with the organization itself. In most cases, place post information that matters to them on the “About Us” section of their website. Dig around in there for some elements that can form the broad strokes of your answer. Then, do a decent Google search on the organization, and rely on trade press or recent news pieces. This is where you can find if the agency just won some major award or if the newspaper is currently digging into something particularly shady. Highlight those elements as well, as they show you are looking into not just what they are, but also what they are doing/have done that is impressive.

Finally, look for ways to integrate yourself or your interests into the answer. This will help the interviewer start to imagine you as part of the organization’s story. It can be something like, “I know that you just won the IRE prize for investigative reporting. That series of trash collectors selling rat meat to unsuspecting grocery stores was amazing and I’ve always had a strong interest in big projects like that. I’d love to work with Bill and Sue on their next investigation.”

WHAT NOT TO DO: There are many ways you can screw this up, but here are the two basic ones:

  1. Don’t do any research and spitball it, hoping for the best. This is usually something people figure out right away and that will almost immediately place you on the “reject” pile. If they think your answer to a question is BS, they’re likely to start wondering what else you BS-ed along the way.
  2. Confuse the place with some other place you are applying for a job. It feels like the “I, Ross, take thee Rachel” moment from “Friends” for the people on the other end of that interview.



“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

What they want to know: Of all the possible interview questions, this one has always felt like the stupidest one to me. I wish I had the gumption to answer in one of two ways:

  1. “Probably stuck here, doing an interview with a job candidate and asking that stupid question of them.”
  2. “If I knew the future in any meaningful way, I’d be buying lottery tickets, not applying for this job.”

That said, what they actually want to know is if you have any kind of longer-term plan for your life and to what degree you see yourself growing and developing in their organization. Nobody wants to hire someone with no direction or sense of growth potential. To that end, you need to have a way to deal with this question without killing your chances of getting the job.

THE ANSWER: Demonstrate that you see yourself as both present at the organization and growing through your work at it. This can be something like, “I see myself doing both (THING YOU’RE BEING HIRED FOR) and (THING THAT IS SOMEWHAT ASPIRATIONAL, YET ATTAINABLE).” In the case of a reporter, it could be covering the daily grind of political stuff at the city council while doing more open-records reporting. In PR it could be cranking out press releases for clients while looking to develop a more involved strategy for clients across multiple platforms.

Another key here is to show value in areas that are beginning to develop. Five to eight years ago, that would be talking about social media and helping to draw eyeballs to your work by establishing a dominant presence on certain platforms. (Come to think of it, that’s still what we’re hearing people say, so maybe stick with that…) Look at the job description and look at what other jobs in the field are demanding and you’ll be able to paint a picture of someone who helps this organization stay on the “cutting edge” while retaining “bedrock tenets of the field.”

WHAT NOT TO DO: First, don’t give either of the answers I listed above. Second, don’t get too basic or aspirational in your answer.

If you go with the “I’m going to be here doing this job to the best of my ability” answer, they see you as a pedestrian hire who will literally do exactly what is asked of you and nothing more.

While that can kill your chances, the aspirational answer will kill them even faster: “I see myself working for (BIG NAME ORGANIZATION) in (BIG NAME CITY) where I’m doing (BIG DEAL STUFF).” Nothing says to a potential employer who is NOT a “big name” that they shouldn’t hire you more than the answer that essentially lets them know you see them as a stepping stone to something better.

Even if the organization knows it’s not a desirable career endpoint and even if you know you want to get in, get experience and get out, this is not the time to make those goals clear. It would be like during that slow dance at prom, when your date asks, “Do you think about us in the future?” and you answer with, “Sure. I figure I get laid tonight, probably date you throughout the next month until graduation. Then, I’m going off to college, where I promise we’ll keep up a long-distance thing until I find a better and hotter option in my res hall.”

“What do you see as your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?”

WHAT THEY WANT TO KNOW: They are trying to figure out if you are in any way self-aware and be honest about it. That said, there are red flags in the honesty that you don’t want to raise (see the prom example above). They want to know how well you know yourself to determine if you actually can do the things you say you can do. They also want a sense of “fit” when it comes to personality and social skill, most of which will be related to this answer.

The Answer: You need to be ready for this one, as I think it’s a keyboard macro that every HR rep has set up on their computer for job interviews. (Control-Alt-DUH, is probably the key combination.) Look for strengths that reflect their needs and your resume, while avoiding the generics. “Hard worker” and “team player” shouldn’t be the core of your argument here. That said, you can demonstrate your value here if you pair something they desperately want with something you excel at in a way in which they can see you in the position.

For example, if on the job ad, the company lists something like “Must be able to work under tight deadlines,” you could say something like, “I think my greatest strength is how well I work quickly under pressure. I spent three years on the night desk at the Smithton Daily Crier, and I had to turn around a lot of late-breaking news, without a lot of information, and make sure it was totally accurate. That experience is something I’ve carried over to my other jobs such as… ” and away you go.

As for the negative, look for negatives that can be trained out of you like, “I haven’t worked in a (large/medium/small) office like yours before, so I know I’d have to do some adjusting” work well, as do things that point to growth like, “I’m not as experienced as people who have been doing this for 10/20/50 years, so I know I have a lot to learn.”

WHAT NOT TO DO: You need to avoid things that overshadow everything else you have said, make you look like psychotic or can’t be fixed over time. In short, you don’t want people to remember you as “That candidate who said they bite their toenails in the break room” person or something. You also don’t want something where people can fear what you’ll be like at work, such as “I’m so competitive when it comes to stories, I’d stab a coworker in the neck to get a scoop.” Remember, your goal is to become an enticing option, not a cautionary tale.

“Do you have any questions for us?”

What they want to know: This always seems like a throw-away question because, in most cases, it comes at the end of the interview and it flips the interview on its head, giving you control of the dice. This question is only partially for you, in that you can get a few things clarified. However, it’s also for them, trying to determine what things matter to you above all else, as well as if you are still interested in this job going forward.

The Answer: You need a couple questions that demonstrate your interest in the position in a meaningful and productive way like, “I noticed you tend to work in teams when it comes to advertising strategies. Would I be integrated into one of your current teams or is there a process for new hires to become part of a newly built team?” That shows a) you know about their processes, b) you have an interest in working there, even after they asked you the previous three questions and more and c) you want them to see you becoming part of the organization.

You can also ask clarifying questions that allow them to expand on things, like, “You mentioned that this job would require me to do daily stories and in-depth pieces. What kind of balance would you want from me in this regard to help best serve the needs of the paper and the readers?” This shows the same kinds of things as above, while also showing that you were listening to them during the interview instead of just waiting to speak.

Other good questions include things like, “What is the time table for the rest of the search?” or “When might I hear from you again regarding the position?” These are simple, but show interest.

WHAT NOT TO DO:   This is always up for debate, given the situation, but here are a few things that I know tend to turn me off in a phone interview:

  1. Salary questions: It’s not that you SHOULDN’T ask this, but I’d argue that if you are on a phone/Zoom interview, it’s probably not the right place for this one. You will obviously want to know the answer to this, but that’s more of an in-person interview question. At this point, they’re still weeding people out, and anything that shatters the illusion that you are just a wonderful person whose sole purpose is to do fantastic things as part of their organization runs a risk here.
  2. “Serial Killer” questions: At this point, they are still trying to figure out if they like you or not, so questions that open a weird line of questioning can undo a lot of the good you’ve done. Things like, “The ad mentions a background check. Does that look into things that might have happened overseas?” suddenly have me thinking you buried a dead hooker in the sands of Cairo or something. When it comes to prepping out your questions, look at them the same way you read headlines to make sure you aren’t unduly worrying your potential employer. Have a friend or trusted adviser read them over as well for any “vibe” concerns.
  3. No questions: If you have no questions, come up with at least a few that will reinforce your awesomeness and how wonderful of a fit you would be in the job. Not asking questions can be somewhat of a turnoff for people.

That’s the best I’ve got. Hope it helps!


Student Press Law Center to see a change at the top

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Hadar Harris announced Wednesday that she planned to leave the organization after five years to begin a consulting firm that develops human rights-based organizational transformation. In a “personal note” posted to the SPLC website, she outlined the myriad changes the organization saw since she walked into the office in 2017:

We held the first national trainings and summer leadership programs for advocates to learn new skills and develop strategies. We placed students in the center of our work and now are supporting grassroots groups in nearly 20 states. And as a result of that work, we got New Voices laws across the finish line in Washington, New Jersey and Hawai’i, making 16 states with New Voices protections.

We also launched a new initiative to be sure that where New Voices laws are adopted, that SPLC would work with students and administrators, school boards and policymakers to be sure that the law was understood and applied correctly. We recognized the need for accountability efforts (with the help of the SPLC Attorney Referral Network) and Know Your Rights outreach and training which we have launched in three pilot states so far. Truly transformational work.

We took a crazy idea scribbled on the back of an envelope and turned it into Student Press Freedom Day, a national day of action to draw attention to the accomplishments and challenges faced by student journalists. It’s become so successful that people now complain about the tag line!

We developed new programs like the Global Press Freedom Institute with our partners at PEN America, the Student Media Law and Policy Institute with its cool Moot Court competition, and, under the leadership of Operations Manager Alexis Mason, created SPLC in the Classroom, which zooms SPLC experts into the classroom and newsroom, significantly expanding the reach of our training and resources.

These programs have a lot of value for students and have made huge strides toward the big picture of student press freedom, for sure. However, the most important thing SPLC does, at least in my way of thinking, is during the day-in, day-out work of being there for student journalists who feel threatened and attacked for simply doing their jobs.

The sound advice and calming reassurances these legal eagles provide to students is invaluable and crucial in a time in which the press is very much under attack and people with high-priced lawyers feel emboldened to bully kids because they can. I have often referred students to SPLC with the explanation that the folks there are like “having a big friend walking with you when the school bully decides to try to steal your lunch money.”

Merely the ability to say, “I’ve contacted the Student Press Law Center and it is providing me with legal representation,” gives students confidence in their rights and gets most chuckleheads backing down quite quickly.

I could fill the internet with personal stories about how SPLC provided my students with help when someone threatened to sue our newspaper or withheld records or generally just acted like a dipstick toward us. The one I will share popped up in my Facebook memories the other day, and it literally encapsulates the value the mere existence of SPLC provides.

Seven years ago, when the Advance-Titan was in rough financial straits, a bunch of little … um… student government people decided I was to blame and tried to force me out as adviser. The newsroom kids reached out to SPLC for help and advice. The folks there wrote in on my behalf, detailing the legal issues pertaining to their kangaroo court and noting that SPLC would be watching.

At the meeting where they voted on a resolution to fire me that had about 382 “whereas” statement, the leadership was panickedly discussing behind the scenes about how a “special-interest legal group from Virginia” had somehow gotten involved. Suddenly, those little… um… people weren’t so cocksure, a reporter who covered the event told me later. They passed a resolution, but it had no effect. I stayed in place and a copy of that thing is hanging on the “First Amendment Wall” in my office.

I know dozens of other student media operations that could related reams of similar stories, which is why SPLC matters so much to us. Harris noted in her letter that the SPLC board will be working to find the next executive director between now and when she leaves in early 2023. Each time the ED position passes from one person to another, many of us in the student press community kind of hold our breath a little bit, because we know how this organization can make or break our institutions.

Each time, it seems, the organization continues to develop and grow in a positive direction that continues to serve us well.

5 simple axioms Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relied on throughout Watergate that any student journalist can use, too

Journalism legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have a moment of levity Friday at the Media Fest 22 keynote event in Washington, D.C.

At this year’s Media Fest, media legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein provided a new generation of journalists with a glimpse of how they broke one of the biggest stories in news history and brought down the Nixon White House. The Friday keynote address helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break in and the subsequent reporting the Washington Post duo undertook to unravel the “Dirty Tricks” campaign the president and “all his men” engaged in prior to his reelection.

The most fascinating thing about these two men was not the lengths to which they went to find the truth or the volume of stories they wrote on this topic between the break-in and Nixon’s resignation two years later. Instead, it was the way in which they plied their trade in a fashion that any student journalist in that audience could mimic in at any student media outlet in the country.

To that point, here are five basic reporting axioms they followed that can make you successful as a beginning journalist:


GRAB THE OPPORTUNITIES WHEN THEY COME: The legendary story of Watergate began with a simple break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters. Five men were arrested on June 17, 1972 and going to be charged with burglary and wiretapping the next day, a Sunday.

The editors at the Post knew someone needed to cover that story and they chose Bob Woodward, but not for the reason you would think.

“(People in the newsroom asked) ‘Who would be dumb enough to come in today?’ and the editors thought of me,” Woodward said.

At the time, Woodward was 28 years old and had about two years of journalistic experience under his belt. Instead of complaining that he had to come in on a Sunday or that it was the kind of garbage story that would be lucky to yield a byline, Woodward went to court where he noticed something amazing: The men accused of the crime were all dressed in suits.

“I’ve never seen a well-dressed burglar,” Woodward said Friday.

His curiosity got the better of him and he began down a two-year road that would turn him into a household name. It all started with taking the opportunity he received from people who thought lesser of him.

When it comes to opportunities, don’t let them pass you by.


SHOW UP: Woodward and Bernstein repeated this mantra Friday throughout their keynote, which actually felt more like two old friends shooting the bull over a couple beers. As they recalled key moments throughout the evolution of their reporting, they kept noting how they got the stories by going places and meeting people.

Bernstein said the biggest break in the early days was finding a bookkeeper for the slush fund used to pay the Watergate conspirators and finance the dirty tricks. He went to her house and knocked on her door, only to be met by the woman’s sister, who wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible. Still, he persisted:

“I sort of kept my foot in the screen door,” he said. “(The bookkeeper) said ‘Don’t let him in,’ but she eventually let me in. The bookkeeper was intimidated but wanted to talk.”

From there, Bernstein hung with the bookkeeper and kept asking questions until he managed to get a big piece of the puzzle. Had he called her instead of showing up, it would have been much easier to get rid of him, but since he was literally face to face with her, the bookkeeper acquiesced.

That lesson stayed with the pair over time. Woodward said he realized he had “gotten lazy” during his later years as he was tracking down sources for one of his more recent books. After repeated attempts to reach a military official who had successfully evaded his requests, Woodward came to a simple realization:

“We’re not showing up enough,” he said.

Thus, he went to the general’s door at 8:17 p.m. on a Tuesday (“the perfect time” to get a source to talk, he noted) and knocked. The general answered the door and asked Woodward the first question of what would be an in-depth interview:

“Are you still doing this shit?”

Yes, he was, and apparently, it still works.

As much as it seems easier to shoot a text or an email to a source, it often isn’t as effective when you really need to get the bigger story. I know that I have leaned a little too much on the phone or email while I’m blogging, as opposed to going to someone’s place of business or knocking on an office door. However, I also realized that if I REALLY wanted to get something done, I had to physically go somewhere and be in someone’s presence. That still yields the best results, whether I’m trying to find out if someone got fired or if a person actually will be fulfilling my request to approve an HR document.

As uncomfortable as it might feel to go and “bother” someone, it feels much more uncomfortable for that person, which means they’ll usually give you what you want just to get rid of you.


WHEN IT COMES TO SOURCES, GO LOW: During their collaboration, the pair developed a solid working relationship, drawing from each other’s journalistic strengths and experiences. Woodward said the most important thing he learned from Bernstein was what kinds of people made for the best sources:

“Find people at the lower level,” Woodward said. “That’s what Carl taught me. We can’t go to the White House and ask people about this so we have to knock on doors and that’s the Bernstein method.”

In the early days, the sources who let the cat out of the bag were the desk workers, low-level employees and other people who weren’t in the positions of power. They were the people who knew what was going on because they were the ones who had to do the banal work of typing up documents, filing forms and moving information from one important person’s desk to the next.

It warmed my heart to hear this, because I’ve always found that my best contacts were the people who weren’t really high on the food chain. I knew the night-time deputy coroners, the secretary at the police department who kept trying to set me up with her grand-daughter, the janitor at the city-county building and other folks like that. At first, I figured it was because I wasn’t much of a reporter, so those “more important people” didn’t need to bother with me. I later realized what Woodward and Bernstein knew all along: These are the people who know everything and are more willing to tell you about it.

That’s the reason I tell my reporting students, “Never diss a desk jockey. They’re the folks who run the world.”


BE HONEST AND FAIR IN YOUR WORK: When the moderator introduced these two titans of journalism, she listed two resumes that would be the envy of anyone in the room: Multiple books, Pulitzer Prizes, important jobs at major publications and more. However, when they started working the Watergate story 50 years earlier, they were a couple unknown “kids” in the newsroom.

Each story they wrote contained unnamed sources, claiming the president and the people around him had done things no one in that office had ever been accused of doing before. The editors in the newsroom had faith in them, but many of their colleagues weren’t as sure.

“Who are these two kids?” Bernstein said, recalling the popular newsroom sentiment at the time. “This stuff can’t be true. Nixon is too smart. There was skepticism about us in this newsroom.”

As the White House continued to deny the allegations and assail the Post with criticism, the men kept at the story because they knew they were right.

“There comes a moment if you’ve done your reporting right, you understand the dimensions of the story you are working on,” Bernstein said.

However, they realized the most important thing about telling the story was that they had to make sure they weren’t trying to make reality fit what they thought was going to happen. At one point, even amid the nay-sayers around them, they figured out that this whole thing was leading on the path to Nixon likely being impeached. In explaining this to the crowd on Friday, they said it was crucial that they keep their reporting above board and not jump past where they facts had led them.

“People can’t think you have an agenda,” Bernstein said.

In today’s media, that statement might seem as quaint as if he said you needed to make sure your typewriter ribbon was fresh before starting a story, but it really shouldn’t. Journalistic fairness isn’t about finding fake balance, like publishing a story about how the moon isn’t made of green cheese but only after you find a “lunar cheeser” source to provide “the other side” of the argument. It’s about going into a situation well prepared and yet open minded.

The goal both of these guys had for their reporting wasn’t, “Let’s go get Nixon and stick it to The Man!” It was to draw the truth out of the people who knew it and present that information to their audience.  When they stuck to that, they were able to tell the stories more effectively.

When you decide to cover anything at all, try to start with that idea of being open minded about your topic and your source. That should be guided by your research that prepared you for the piece. If you think the whole goal of the parking department on your campus is to fleece college students out of their hard-earned money, OK, fine. However, when you go in to interview those folks, actually keep an open mind and listen to what they have to say. They might change your mind, or they might not, but if you go in there with an agenda, nothing good is going to happen.


STAY HUMBLE: These two guys basically ended a presidency, took home every conceivable accolade in journalism and became journalistic nomenclature for exceptional reporting. Every journalist in that room, and all the overflow rooms, would give any body part they had to be 1/10th of what these guys have become. However, both in their demeanor and their presentation, Woodward and Bernstein never seemed to smack of ego or self-importance.

Woodward said the most important thing he learned throughout the Watergate saga was being humble and remaining the person he was before all of this happened. He said that Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, helped him keep himself grounded after the Watergate scandal had ended:

“I got a note from Katharine Graham… It said, ‘Don’t start thinking too highly of yourself. Beware the demon pomposity. That demon wanders the halls of too many institutions,'” he said.

If Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein can keep their egos in check, it’s safe to say any of the rest of us should be able to manage it as well.