The Junk Drawer: Totally Positive Edition

There has GOT to be a spare COVID test in here…

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.

Let’s get going:

LET’S BE POSITIVE: For nearly two years, I managed to dodge, dive, dip, duck and dodge COVID, thanks to masking, my predilection toward isolation and getting every shot the doctor would put into me.

Last week, the streak ended, when I “started feeling weird” and Amy ran a test on me. It was supposed to take 15 minutes to post a result. Mine showed up in 3.

I spent the next seven days hunkered down in the milk house, trying to keep my family from getting it, which turned out to be a futile exercise, as Amy got it two days later. The initial cough was followed by full body aches, dry cough, fever dreams and more.

At one point, I woke up after 8 hours of sleep and my body literally wouldn’t move. I couldn’t command it to do anything, which naturally freaked me out. I fell back to sleep for another 8 hours and when I woke up I could move. It hurt like hell, but at least I was ambulatory.

I’m still half a mess, although the main symptoms have gone away. My mind doesn’t exactly work the way I’m used to yet and I’m exhausted by things like unloading the dishwasher or walking to the mailbox. I suppose this is a long way of saying, this is why the blog has been quiet these past couple weeks and please give me some latitude if I say something stupid on here.

HOT “SAID” SUMMER: I’ve wanted to share this for quite some time, as it captures the perfect feeling I get in reading intro media writing pieces when it comes to attributions. Shout out to Steve Chappell for his brilliance and meme skills:

 

MURDER-TRIAL JURY IS IN! FOR RESULTS SEE PARAGRAPH 128: I often quibble with professional journalists when it comes to lead-writing or the inverted pyramid. Pros tell me it can get boring to just tell people what happened or that there are more ways to tell a story than cramming everything into a 25-35 word lead.

I often push back with, well, you’re not writing to amuse yourselves, but rather to inform the people. Sometimes, we just want to know what the heck happened. And, yes, there are other ways to tell a story other than the 5W’s and 1H, so long as you are serving the audience.

I think we’re both right in some cases, but as the friend who sent me this article noted, “You have to actually know what you’re doing if you’re not going to use the inverted pyramid:”

I get that the story’s headline does tell the tale, but that’s not an excuse to basically pull a “Johnny from Airplaine!” in explaining what is going on.

 

PLEASE TELL ME WE DON’T HAVE A VIDEO OF THIS: I get that not every headline can be perfect, but you have GOT to be careful in structuring these things when they touch on delicate topics:

There are several ways to read this, and most of them are not good…

 

WHEN A BAD BREAK MEETS A BAD PAIRING: I get that some “junk drawer” type columns mix a lot of stuff from various parts of the news, but it’s probably always best to keep serious news in the serious bin and the more feature-y stuff in the feature bin.

At the very least make sure your headline break doesn’t send people who wish to end a pregnancy to Milwaukee’s Big Gig:

And Finally…

THAT’S THE SPIRIT! At the end of June, I finished up the main writing and editing on my latest textbook, “Exploring Mass Communication.” It’s an intro text that took about three years and 1,942 revisions to get to this point. With that in mind, I figured I’d take a little break until the semester started.

Two weeks later, we lost one faculty member to a gig in the dean’s office, another to a private sector job and I’m suddenly teaching mass com law. Of all the things I didn’t want to do, teaching law came in second (Chairing the department came first, so that’s how I got law, I s’pose… Well, that and I’m sure my department realized sending me out into the real world to talk to academics on our behalf made as much sense as peanut-buttering your car…)

With two weeks left before school starts, I need to build an entirely online version of a class I never taught, powering through on the reduced mental capacity of a COVID patient, all while making sure I’m getting ready for the rest of the term. Oh, and did I mention we’re up for our accreditation visit this fall?

I have been told it’s important to have the proper spirit throughout this, so here you go:

Needless to say, we’re going on break until after Labor Day unless something really dramatic happens. If you control dramatic things, please make sure they don’t happen until then.

Thanks.

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

 

 

 

Clarity, simplicity and positivity improve your writing

My wife is a mile smarter than I am, so when she found herself perplexed by this CNN alert, I knew I had no chance:

We flipped to the CNN app and found a much better explanation of what happened:

It’s not perfect, but it’s a keeper for three key reasons:

1) It’s simple: In most cases, when people are not feeling confident about their handle on a situation or their writing prowess, they tend to overwrite. It’s that idea of putting 95 condiments on a burger to cover up the fact you burned it on the grill. Instead, this second explanation just tells me what happened.

2) It’s direct: Noun-Verb-Object is the Holy Trinity of writing, whether it is the basis of a headline, the core of a lead or the guts of a tweet. In this case we know who (Kansas) did what (votes) to whom/to what or for whom/for what (to keep right to abortion). The news alert is also written in Noun-Verb-Object structure (voters reject measure) but it isn’t as direct with exactly what that measure is all about.

3) It’s positive: Before folks start flooding SAGE with angry emails about me, I’m not taking a position on the issue itself being positive. What I mean is that the declaration is positive, which makes it easier to understand. When you have a negative in a sentence, it not only reverses the entire concept of the sentence, but it forces the reader to rethink the concept at hand. That complexity can mess with your readers, particularly if you find that there are multiple negative elements in a sentence.

Amy and I noticed this happens a lot when it comes to bond measures or legal wrangling we are asked to vote on during election season and it drives us to distraction. When we see a sentence like, “Do you opposed the removal of the portion of state law that prohibits people who are not residents of Wisconsin to avoid paying taxes on in-state purchases during non-tourism seasons?” we basically give up.

In the alert, we note a rejection to remove, so you’ve essentially got two negative concepts: rejection and removal. That’s what initially caught Amy and that’s what had me checking the web for some sort of clarification. Grade-school grammar teaches us to avoid double negatives in general (“He didn’t not eat the pie.”) but we tend to forget it when we get beyond the easy examples. Making this positive like the headline did would have improved things substantially.

“I never wanted to make it about me:” Columnist Robert Feder’s reflections upon retirement and what his 40+ years in the field can teach you going forward

One of the best columnists I ever had the pleasure of working with, George Hesselberg, recently posted this item on social media about Chicago-area columnist Robert Feder’s retirement. Feder’s bio is extensive, but simply put, he covered radio and entertainment issues in the Windy City for more than 40 years, during a time of much upheaval in the area and in the profession.

Feder’s reflections on his work, approach, life and more have a ton of value for you as a beginning journalist, even if you never read one of his columns or don’t aspire to be a columnist. In his discussion, two key things hit me as being vital to being good at the job:

FOCUS ON THE NEEDS OF THE READERS: Feder talked at length about his duty to the beat, how he felt obligated to do the best job possible and how he wanted to earn the trust of the readers every time he wrote something. The one part that really drove that home was this chunk:

Readers and subscribers reached out constantly with questions, and they expected answers: “Why did WFMT go off the air for 10 minutes last night?” “When is that weekend weather person going to be back?” “Why did that radio station play the same song twice last night?” Believe me, I don’t carry all that information around in my head — and the answer was probably never going to be a news item for me — but trying to be helpful to individual readers was a big part of the responsibility that I felt.

Feder wanted to make sure he could answer those questions for the readers in a clear and immediate fashion. Despite having been the gray eminence of media columnists, he didn’t see these questions as beneath his attention. It’s not, “Look, dweeb, I’m trying to do a multi-source story here on the Federal regulations halting a multi-million dollar media merger. Who gives a crap that WBZR played “Hooked on A Feeling” by Blue Swede twice in a row?” He seemed to approach it more like, “Someone has a question in my area of expertise. I owe it to that person to answer it.”

This also attaches itself to another key point about audience-centricity: If the audience you serve is interested in something, it’s not a “nothing” story. I remember a lot of expose-style stories my students wrote at my various media adviser stops throughout my career, but the one story that really sticks out to me still was the time the student newspaper at Ball State wrote about something simple: Water cups.

Since the start of the newsroom’s collective memory, the food court below the office would allow anyone to come in and grab a plastic cup of ice water for free. Then, one day, when we dispatched a kid to get a tray’s worth of water for the room, the kid came back and said, “They charged me a dime a cup!” When a staffer called the food service people, the answer was, “Well, it’s always been that way,” which it hadn’t, and then another person up the food chain said, “Well, it’s just what we need to do,” without explaining how, when or why this decision was made.

A story in the paper got a lot of students to rail against this in person and online. Less than a week after we ran the story, water was once again free.

Did the story solve the conflict in the Middle East? No.

Did it cure cancer? No.

Did it matter to the readers? Yes, and that’s the goal of all good journalism.

Whether it’s quick blurb on how a squirrel’s decision to snack on a high-voltage line knocked a station off the air last night or when the weatherperson on channel 3 will return, if people want to know something, give it to them.

DECIDE WHO YOU WANT TO BE: Feder had a number of potential role models when he started, but it ended up kind of coming down to two columnists he discusses below:

Deeb was famous for his take-no-prisoners style. And it was enormously entertaining to read if he wasn’t writing about you. But every time you burn a bridge, you lose the opportunity for that person or that organization to trust you.

So you have to decide: Is it better to write something that makes you the center of attention? Or is it better to focus on the story? I never wanted to make it about me. I just wanted to get the goods and have the people trust me.

In that way, Kupcinet was much more my role model. It was never as important where Kup got his information as was the fact that it was coming from him. When Kup said something was happening, you believed it because you knew that he knew everybody. And I think taking that approach had a lot to do with the longevity of my career.

I would likely argue that in the end, he probably became his own version of Kup, blending those ideas of being an authority without being a jackass with his own personality and sense of how best to meet the needs of the audience. Many parts of a journalism career are formed over time, through experiences and based on reactions we receive from peers, colleagues and audience members. It’s less about being poured into a mold and coming out fully formed and more like being a statue chiseled out of marble.

In any case, it’s important to figure out how you want to approach your career and how you want to operate in it. A lot of people I know tell me that they find someone who was influential in a positive way and emulate that person. I tried to do that with Steve Lorenzo, my first journalism teacher, only to have him tell me not to do that. After that moment, I started working on the opposite side of the situation: I found experiences that were unnecessarily painful, editors who were completely terrible and other similar bad outcomes guided me to what I DIDN’T want to replicate. In many cases I’d think, “What would (NAME OF TERRIBLE EDITOR) do here?” and then I’d do the exact opposite.

In any case, the trick here is to make sure that you are being true to who you are and not trying to play a character to fit the parameters established by another individual. Be you and do it to the best of your ability. That’s what Feder did and it led to a hell of a career.

 

What counts as a “big story?” It really depends on your audience…

I spent the better part of the last week traversing the Minnesota/Wisconsin border to talk to student journalists as part of the Associated Collegiate Press Mega Workshop in Minneapolis, and the Kettle Moraine Press Association high school journalism workshop.

(Somewhere in there, Amy and I managed to sandwich in a Motley Crue/Def Leppard/Poison/Joan Jett concert we’d waited three years to see. I think I’m still partially deaf after that…)

The thing that came up repeatedly in the reporting and writing sessions was the ability to find stories. Many students mentioned that they covered student government meetings or official announcements because they didn’t have much else to do. Others noted that they found their outlets covered the same thing year in and year out without much variation.

As one student asked, “I want to find a big story! How do you do that as a student?”

When we started talking about what made for a big story, it became clear they didn’t really have the audience in mind. To them, covering a huge crime or a national political issue mattered far more than whatever was going on around school. It was almost as if the news that was closer was the news that was more worthless. Also, how big of a deal could it be if it was happening in their lives? I mean, we’re just kids, right? Who cares about what’s going on with us?

Well, that depends a great deal on your audience, a point I make at the front of every book and a point I make at the front of every class. If you are writing for a student newspaper, at your school or on your campus, and your audience is other “kids” with similar demographic and psychographic measurements, the things that matter to you likely matter to your audience and thus account for “big stories.”

Case in point: During the last day of our ACP convention in Minneapolis, a couple students from the University of Texas-Dallas got a tip through the paper’s email. A senior CS graduate adviser and lecturer posted on Twitter, “Can we at least try to find a cure for homosexuality, especially among men?”

Screen shot from the top of the UT-Dallas student newspaper The Mercury.

“Oh yeah,” one of the students said. “I had this guy in class. He’s said and posted worse.” She then went to recount all the times a computer science lecture wandered off into this guy’s theories on the LGBTQ+ community.

The students put up a short story about the tweet, while we talked about the other places they could go for sources. Obviously, they needed to send this guy an invite to interview on the topic, but we also started talking about administrators, the LGBTQ+ groups on campus, faculty/staff groups and more. They started sending emails to folks, even as more reactions hit Twitter and emails came to the paper. It seems this was not a one-off for this guy, and a lot of students were really uncomfortable about his class. (“All CS majors are required to take the class this guy teaches,” one of the students told me.)

We talked about the concept of a “tick tock” story, which involved posting the original story and then updating the top end of the story with short, time-stamped blurbs each time another source weighed in or a big event came through. That way,  they didn’t have to rewrite the whole story each time new info came in and they could keep people aware of the updates.

The story continued to build steam, with local TV and press getting tipped to the students’ story, and things continuing to get bigger and bigger. The instructor had the tweet banned from Twitter and he subsequently killed his account. It continues to evolve and I don’t think this is even close to over yet.

Why was this a big story? Sure, we could make the case that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable and should be a big story, no matter where it happens. However, the reason this thing gained traction is the point of this piece, so let’s look at a couple key aspects of what made this a “big” story:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: The students at The Mercury knew this mattered to their readership, not only because they had received emails about it, but also because the campus had several strong equity groups on campus. The Gender Center, the Rainbow Alliance, Pride at UTD and other organizations were prominent and active on their campus. A tweet like this is inexcusable regardless of audience, but knowing that these groups represented a swath of the audience meant that covering this topic was important to them.

The students also knew their audience included a lot of CS majors on the campus, so a lot of folks had contact with the department and probably this instructor. (The department’s website pitches itself as “one of the largest CS departments,” so on a campus of nearly 30,000 students, that’s a big chunk of folks.) These people are likely to have an interest in what is happening on their campus, in their major and in regard to issues that resonate with multiple groups within the student population.

Other stories about the war in Ukraine or the fires in London might seem like they are far more important than an ignorant tweet, but not to this audience at this point in time. Other media outlets can cover those things and inform people about them. The audience at UTD needed the Mercury to focus on what mattered to them, and this was it at that moment.

UNDERSTAND SHARED EXPERIENCES: Key in that initial story was the idea that “everybody” was dealing with this guy or this situation. While a universal like that is rarely true, it does tap into an important idea for student journalists: Look for things to which a lot of people can relate.

In the high school workshop, we were talking about a variety of things that could make for good stories when I broke out the topic of a dress code. The reason was, my own kid had gotten nailed for some sort of violation related to whatever the Omro School District thinks is “too much” for people to handle. Immediately, one student told a story about how she got dress coded for a pants suit that had full sleeves, but was topped with spaghetti straps. Another talked about how certain teachers always seemed to target certain people. Then, others chimed in with stories.

Suddenly, we had a pretty good riff going and stories started pouring in:

  • Why is it that the dress code has about 912,230 things that girls can get nailed for, but only one real rule for boys (wear pants)?
  • What is the most common dress code offense in the school?
  • Who hands out the most dress code violations?
  • When was this created and how can it get changed?

The one that got to me was one I’d heard before: “A teacher told me I had to  put on a sweatshirt because ‘boys will be boys,'” one young lady said in the high school session. OK, so I have to dress my kid like a Mennonite because you never taught your boy to keep his hands to himself? Is that where we’re going? Go to hell…

A professional journalist at a national newspaper probably doesn’t care about this topic, unless it gets a lot bigger and a lot more sinister. However, the shared experiences among these people said, “This is a  story for our audience and we’re all dealing with it.”

I’ve seen similar stories emerge at the college level about lousy jobs or poor working conditions. In one case, I had five or six people talking about being hosts or wait staff at “supper club” restaurants around the state and how terrible it was. In a couple  cases, the women had gotten groped or otherwise treated like they were sexual appetizers on the menu, just above the mozzarella sticks. Then, they started telling stories of bosses who told them things like, “It’s not that bad.” or “He’s a really big deal around here, so just hang in there.” or “You know you’ll get a big tip.” Eeesh…

What makes people pay attention to a story is when they feel connected to it in some way. That’s where shared experiences come into play with things like this. Look for the things like classes, jobs, groups, experiences and more that are shared among  your peers and you start seeing big stories.

LOOK FOR THE IMPACT OF SELF-INTEREST: Of the FOCII elements we discuss in the book (Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy and Impact) the one that gets overlooked a lot is impact. I don’t know why journalists tend to ignore it with the “You’ll figure it out for yourself” approach to the readership, but I’ve seen it a lot in the things I read.

When I worked at the Columbia Missourian, we had the phrase “This matters because…” at the top of every story a student wrote for the paper. They had to finish that phrase to the satisfaction of an editor before they could write their piece. This made them focus on the concept of impact, particularly as it related to the audience.  If they couldn’t do it,  they didn’t have a really great handle on the story.

This isn’t a student-journalism problem, but it’s an all-journalism problem. I remember reading a lot about a crisis at our UWO Foundation a few years back and how several improper fiscal moves put the whole place in peril. I walked into my reporting class and asked them how big of a deal it was to them and I was met with stunned silence.

“How many of you have scholarships? I asked.

Every hand went up.

“Where do you think that money lives?”

Suddenly, I had a room filled with terrified faces and anxiety-riddled students. When I gave them a break during the class, instead of looking through their Instagram feeds or playing games, they were frantically Googling “UWO Foundation Bankruptcy” and the names of their scholarships.

I didn’t blame the students for not initially making the connection, but rather I blamed the writers and reporters who put out the “big story” of millions of dollars and high-level administrators, without ever once saying, “OK, so this is what it means to YOU, the individual reader at X level of involvement.”

For a story to truly be “big” it has to have an impact on the people reading it. I’ll be honest, I read about floods and disasters halfway across the world every day and don’t think that much of them. I know as a citizen of the planet, I should care, but I really lack the ability to get into a story like that, and I don’t think I’m alone. However, if it’s happening to my hometown, or it’s happening to my kid, or it’s happening to me, I’m paying attention.

Self-interest is a natural human emotion, so take advantage of that when you’re working on your stories. Instead of talking about how many millions of dollars something will cost overall, look at how much it will cost an average reader. Instead of broad-stroking a story about a school policy, look at what it will do to an average student (or in the case of dress codes, what it will do the average male and average female student and then ask why that’s so damned different…).

The stories that matter to readers really are the big stories. You don’t have to cure cancer to make the readers care.

Media Writing 101: Accuracy and clarity are not the same thing

Don Drysdale

Don Drysdale had a “2-for-1” system when it came to pitching. If your team hit one of his batters, he would hit two of yours. Nice guy.

One of my favorite stories that distinguished accuracy and clarity involved legendary pitcher Don Drysdale, a mean and nasty SOB, who had no compunction about hitting batters as part of his game plan.

In the middle of a game, manager Walter Alston came out to the mound and told him, “I want you to put this guy on,” meaning Alston didn’t want Drysdale to pitch to the batter, but instead walk him and pitch to the next hitter.

Drysdale nodded and then subsequently drilled the batter in the side with the first pitch.

Alston ran back out to the mound and said, “What the hell are you doing? I told you to walk the guy!”

“No,” Drysdale replied. “You told me to put him on. He’s on first base. Get your ass back into the dugout.”

Media writing requires us to be accurate above all else, but being right doesn’t always mean we’ve clearly communicated with the readers. Something can be right while simultaneously being as clear as mud.

Let’s look at this short crime story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that ran over the weekend. Starting with the lead, we’ve got some issues:

Two men were shot and killed, and an innocent bystander was injured, about 10:25 a.m. Saturday outside one of the El Rey Hispanic grocery stores in Milwaukee, police said.

Solid information about key things (two dead, shooting occurred). It includes a time element and an attribution. However, what’s not there is probably more important than what is:

  • “One of the El Rey Hispanic grocery stores” implies that there are multiple stores with this name, which is true. However, as a reader, I’d like to know WHICH ONE of the three stores experienced this shooting. I don’t get that until the fourth paragraph of the story.
  • The passive voice in the lead (“were shot and killed”) leaves me hanging a bit, as I don’t know who did the shooting, how many people were shooting or if the person/people doing the shooting are still running around out there. That could be frightening if I knew where this thing actually happened, which I still don’t…
  • The term “innocent bystander” has a lot of trouble here. First, as opposed to what? A guilty bystander? Someone who probably deserved a little lead justice? Second, this implies that the people who were shot probably had it coming, as they are not designated in this way. Third, it’s an opinion, so get rid of it.

The second paragraph gets us some additional info that would have been helpful up top, but still has some clarity issues:

Following a disturbance in the store, two security guards and a man went into the parking lot, where the man and guards exchanged gunfire. The man, who has not been identified, and one of the guards — a 59-year-old man — were struck and died at the scene, according to Milwaukee Police District Two Sgt. John Ivy. Police did not specify which man fired first or how many shots were fired.

One of the hardest things to deal with in a story like this is trying to balance lack of information against potential libel. If we had names for these people, it would be easier to explain what happened. (“Smith entered the store and argued with Jones and Jackson before the three men left the store. Smith then shot and killed Jones before Jackson shot and killed Smith.”) It’s not poetry, but it prevents confusion.

Here we have “man” as the only real descriptor that we can use because we can’t call someone a shooter (there were at least two, probably three from this reading), an assailant (libel issues) or other similar terms. That said, we have to do something to make this clearer for the readers, and that probably starts with the lead. Try this:

A 59-year-old security guard at an El Rey Hispanic grocery store died Saturday after he exchanged gunfire with a patron who was also killed, police said.

This does a couple things:

  • It closes the loop on the shooting so we know who was involved and that there’s not an active shooter in the area.
  • It gets a better set of descriptors up top for the guard so we can call him “guard” as opposed to “man” later in the story. It also pulls the bystander out, who was injured but not killed, and focuses on the bigger issues.

I hate the term “exchanged gunfire” as it sounds like a rebate program or something, but since the cops can’t say who shot at whom first, it’s the best we’re gonna do here. I’m also not thrilled with “patron” as I suppose we could argue if the guy is a patron because he might or might not have bought something. Other news coverage of the event seems to say this was a robbery of some kind (not sure if it was shoplifting or whatever), so maybe that would help shape how we define this guy if we could independently prove it ourselves.

(Remember, never take stuff from other media outlets, as you have no idea if they’re right. In this case, we also appear to have a discrepancy over the exact time, so make sure you get it on your own.)

Now in that second paragraph we can do some good work to improve clarity:

The shooting took place around 10:25 a.m. outside the store at 916 S. Cesar E Chavez Drive following a disturbance inside. Police did not say if the man or one of the two security guards who confronted him in the parking lot fired first, but added that a 41-year-old woman suffered minor injuries from a stray bullet.

This cleans up the “where” issue a bit better, moves the minor injuries down a bit and helps avoid the overuse of “man” in the second paragraph.

The rest of the story covers most of the rest of what little we know about the situation in functional fashion, so it’s not worth parsing. The thing to remember is that most people aren’t going to read deeply into a story to find all the details, so you need to give them the most-important information up top and as clearly as you can.

Five years after “you’ll learn:” A look back and a look ahead for the Dynamics of Writing blog

12 I love Cake Wrecks! ideas | cake wrecks, cake, cakes gone wrong

Hey, nobody really needs an editor, right?

I can still remember the exact conversation I had with my publisher that launched this blog five years ago this week:

Her: For this reporting book, we are going to want you to have a complete digital presence, so that means Facebook posts, a new Twitter account and a blog you’ll be running.

Me: Wait, what the hell do I know about blogging?

Her: You’ll learn. Anyway…

I initially hated this idea, because I saw it as a kitschy marketing idea that would have me constantly yammering about why people needed to check out the book and how cool stuff in there really is. I am many things (and students have no compunction about writing those things on Rate My Professor), but a “rah-rah” guy for my own self-interest is not one of them. Still, SAGE had been really good to me, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Nearly 700 posts, 130,000 visitors, two more books, and one giant pandemic later, we’re still up and running. I’ve seen stats that say the average blog lasts about 100 days with the average website dying off in about 2.5 years or so, which means we’ve managed to beat the odds here. I’ll call that a win.

Over that time, I learned a lot about blogging formats, posting schedules and that I curse too much for quite a few people. I also learned that in reaching out to an interested and engaged audience in a relevant and meaningful way, we could do some really good stuff together.

The Corona Hot Line is the obvious example of that. Between stuff I’d stockpiled and things people sent me, we built a pretty good collection of stuff that helped people teach online in a pinch during a life-changing pandemic. Someone (not at SAGE) sent me a note asking if “giving away all that good stuff” was smart from a “marketing and brand approach.” That thought never occurred to me and if it had, I would have punched it in the throat. The goal of this has always been to help people and if anything gets in the way of that, it gets removed, ignored or otherwise dealt with.

However, that collection of stuff wasn’t the best of what we (and that means you all and me) do here together. That hit home when I reported on my own university and its control of student media access to sources. After the big stories hit, I emailed the university marketing people for a quick follow up, only to find my email went up the chain of command and all over the place. The chancellor himself emailed me back a polite no comment, but not before a couple people had emailed my chairwoman with some, “What the hell is going on?” inquiries.

Again, another conversation ensued that stuck in my brain:

Boss: They’re very concerned about what you’re writing because it’s having a significant impact. You called someone out BY NAME and now there are ramifications for her out there.

Me: Really? They’re upset about me? I’m a chimp with a blog. I dress like a homeless elf. They need thicker skin or something.

Boss: You’re a prestigious textbook author with a blog that apparently can mobilize people to a cause.

It dawned on me that, although I’ll never see myself in the way she outlined, you all have done some amazing things to help a lot of folks over the years after we talked about them on the blog. We bugged people at various universities who were shafting student media. We provided help to high school journalists who were getting their rights trampled on. We shared some truly great student journalism after riots, floods and more.

We also developed a few weird terms that now show up frequently in folks’ vocabulary like “chucklehead,” “junk drawer” and “non-denominational skeptic.”

Here’s the thing, and there’s no good way of getting around it: I still don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here. I kind of just do stuff and see what people think about it. My hope is that I’m doing something helpful every day, even though I know I have a few misses in there with the hits.

That’s where you all come in: I need to know what you want more of, less of, some of, or none of going forward. Hit me up through the contact link and tell me what you want going forward and I’ll do my level best to make that happen.

In the mean time, I’m going back to the once-a-week summer schedule until school kicks in. Then, it’s back to the grind.

Vince

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

GONE FISHIN’: Thanks a bunch edition

I came home from the UWO graduation ceremony Saturday afternoon, in which I saw way too many of our students graduate to feel comfortable about our enrollment numbers next year, to find a wonderful gift in the mail.

Earlier in the year, I was lucky enough to have Dr. Julie Wille Lewis invite me to Zoom with her students at the University of Central Missouri and her newsroom kids at The Muleskinner. It was the best part of that day for sure and probably one of the more fun things I’ve done during the mask era of education. She asked for an address to send a thank you, but what arrived was a giant box of amazing stuff:

Shirts, a bobblehead, a can cooler, copies of the paper, stickers and more. I felt like a kid getting a college package from home. The kids and Dr. Lewis wrote some wonderful notes as well that are now pinned to my corkboard at work.

As I take the annual summer blog break, I do so with a different feeling than I have the last couple summers. Exhaustion, anxiety, fear, anger and more have been the resting pulse so many of us have had over the past several years when we crash landed into that summer break we desperately needed. I know I’m not alone in the feeling that summer is often a time to just lick some wounds and try to reload for the next year.

This year, however, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude as to where my career has landed me. I really am just lucky as hell and I need to remember that.

  • Students sought me out at graduation because they thought I mattered to them.
  • Former students still look to me for life advice, even as they are long from the days of the disheveled teenager who couldn’t make an 8 a.m. under penalty of death.
  • The folks at SAGE keep my books active and out there instead of letting them just wither away and get lost in the bargain bin.
  • Many folks assign my books for their class, making a change that requires them to revamp a class, just to give me a shot. (Side note: It feels really weird when I hear people use my name and a number together as an assignment: “Hey, I read in Filak Chapter 5 that…” Weird.)
  • You all actually read this blog, something I never believed would happen when we launched it five years ago.

Above all else, I have folks out there like Julie Lewis who are doing wonderful things with themselves, and even though it’s been years (or decades) since I taught them, they still think of me kindly.

That’s a hell of a gift, and one for which I’ll always be grateful.

Have a wonderful summer. Weekly posting will resume in mid-June.

Vince

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

THROWBACK THURSDAY: 5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

I went back to this time last year to see what I had to say about the end of a two-year stretch that was among the most difficult most educators have ever faced.

We were still in masks or online. Our students were an absolute mess. We entered the summer knowing nothing about what the future would hold for us or this virus. All I could remember about that time was that I was dead tired, completely drained of everything and in need of a week or 10 off to go lick my wounds and see what the fall semester would bring.

Mom always told me there’s a difference between people who teach and people who ARE teachers. The humanity, the empathy, the engagement all comes from that desire to help people become something more than they are when they first enter our classrooms. We want to bring out the best in others, even if we ourselves feel like we’re nowhere near our best.

If nothing else, this pandemic has really helped identify the wheat and the chaff when it comes to that dichotomy.

So, here’s a toast to the true teachers out there, the ones who continue to embody the themes typified in these five questions.

Enjoy.


 

5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

A student showed up at my office around 7:30 this morning with a case of Diet Coke and a thank you card.

“I wanted to give you something to say thank you for being the best part of my semester,” she said. “You really gave all of us such a great experience.”

I was grateful she felt that way, but truth be told, it sure as hell didn’t feel like I was giving anyone a great experience. It was less like “Top Gun” excellence and more like, “Sully landing the plane on the Hudson RIver” survival. I found it a miracle that we made it this far and that nobody lost a limb in the process.

I know a lot of us in education feel like this year flat-out kicked our asses and that maybe our students aren’t getting the best out of us because of it. In an attempt to close off this year of weirdness, I found myself struggling for answers. After about a dozen attempts to write this piece, I decided that it’s less about what we know and demonstrate to our students that matters, but rather what we want to know and how we want to serve them that matters.

With that in mind, here are five questions I think good professors ask of their students, no matter the situation or how long it has been since we shared a classroom together:

ARE YOU OK?

I think most of us have asked this question at least 30 times a day over the past 18 months and really wanted to know the actual answer every single time.

Students often enter our offices with one specific need: A question about a test, a concern about a grade or a request for some sort of special dispensation on an upcoming deadline. However, great professors can see that there is usually something else going on underneath the surface as students mentally flail about like the feet of a duck that seemingly moves smoothly across a lake. There is a job that is overworking them, there is a family member who is leaning on them or there is a roommate who is sapping them of their will to live.

The regular people in their lives give them the “regular people” advice about what to do or how to cope or why they just need to suck it up. Professors tend to have a completely different angle on things because we’ve been around the block more times than a moron with a stuck turn signal.

In the game of life, Mom and Dad see their child as a piece on the board, moving toward a goal. Friends see fellow game-players who are trying to make it through unscathed. Professors not only see the whole board, but also every game that has ever been played in front of them over years or decades. We know not only what each move will do, but the six moves that can come after that initial choice that will allow us to better predict success or failure.

Still, tapping that resource can be tough for students who often thing we have more important things to do than help them with whatever is problematic in their lives. That’s why even just opening the door a little bit with “Are you OK?” can make a world of difference.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Professors who care put themselves out there for students because without those students, our lives would be pretty dull and relatively meaningless. Helping other people has been baked into who I am since I was a kid. If someone is working on a project, I have been taught to grab a hammer or paint brush and put myself to work. If someone is struggling, you offer assistance in whatever way you can. You don’t wait for someone to ask for help. You ask how you can make things better.

In classes, sometimes the help is easy stuff like, “Can you read my lead and see if I’m on the right track?” or “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take next semester. Can you look over my schedule?” Around this time of year, the help can be a little more taxing, but still pretty normal, like serving as a reference, writing a letter of recommendation or reassuring a parent that, yes, Johnny or Janie will get a job and, no, he or she won’t be living in your basement forever.

I have found some of the best moments in life come from helping my students, even when it had nothing to do with this semester’s class. I’ve taught students how to change their own oil and swap their car’s battery. I’ve fixed cars for kids who were about to get shafted by some greasy weasel at a 10-minute auto repair joint. Amy and I have brought freezer-ready dinners to students who just had babies and were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being new parents. We’ve shared tips and given some kid-equipment to these folks as well. (That vibrating baby chair is a lifesaver some days, quite literally, one student told me.)

I’ve answered questions like, “How do you refinish a piece of furniture?” and “Can you tell me how bail bonds work?” (That one was a little dicey…) I’ve moved furniture and edited cover letters. None of it was a chore and thinking back on it makes me happy because these folks trusted me with whatever it was that needed doing.

The funny thing about this question? I find that once I ask it of a kid, I tend not to need to ask it again. After the first time, they’re the ones asking, “Could you help me with something?”

 

DO YOU KNOW HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU?

In the early phases, I tend to ask it on the simple stuff: You asked for help. You figured out how to properly attribute a quote. You got your first story published in student media. You got an internship at a place that NEVER gives internships to people from your school.

Once you graduate, you never stop being one of “my kids” and I don’t think I’m the only professor who feels that way about our connections with “our kids.” I watch from afar as you take jobs, move up the ladder and become leaders in the field. I see you start your own businesses, fight for social justice and make a name for yourselves. I’m proud to tell people, “I taught that kid!” when you show up in the newspaper (most times… Stay out of the police blotter…) or you are broadcasting on radio or TV. I am thrilled to let people know about your accomplishments and your awards and your growth as a professional.

However, you don’t have to do any of that stuff and I am still ridiculously proud of you. I’m proud of my students who have the courage to work through their mental health issues. I’m proud of my students who courageously battle cancer or overcome sicknesses and persevere. I’m proud of you for making amazing life choices to get married or to have kids or to go a completely different way. I’m proud that you are who you are and that you can stand on your own two feet and say, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.”

When our paths first cross, so many of the students seem like newborn deer: gangly, gawky and awkward as they try to stand on wobbly legs in a world that seems far too fast for them. Somehow they learn to steady themselves and improve their overall presence. They get stronger and faster and better as they learn from doing things right and even more from doing things wrong. We’re there to guide them, but they have to do this on their own, otherwise, they’ll never be strong enough to make it when we’re not around.

When they actually put the pieces together, it’s something amazing to behold.

And it’s worth letting them know what a big deal that is.

 

WILL THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY?

The people who enter my class tend to have a lot of questions. If they stick with me for the rest of the degree, they tend to have even more. I’m not sure if this means I inspire them to think critically and question their surroundings, or if I’m just confusing the crap out of them.

However, most of the questions they ask are geared toward a tangible outcome: “What do I need to know for the test?”  “Is it worth it to double major?” “Will this help me get a job?” “Is the salary for this job enough to keep me alive?”

These are all the questions we’ve been trained to ask in the college setting and they all make sense: You want to pass the class, graduate, get hired and earn enough to survive. The one thing that we tend not to think about in a real concrete way is if what we are doing will make us happy. Going through school always seems to feel like this scene from “School Ties:”

It took a long time for me to figure this out, but most of what makes life worth living and jobs worth taking is the degree to which you actually like what you’re doing. Dad always told me that if you find a job you love, you’ll never really work a day in your life. It’s mostly true, in that I have found that not every day is an Academy Award-winning performance and there are some days that are a lot better than others. However, when something makes me happy, I look forward to doing it. When something doesn’t, I tend to avoid it or do a half-assed job at it.

Students often tell me that they want to go to law school or grad school or start their own business or change majors or a million other things. The thing I immediately want to know is, “Do you think this will make you happy? If the answer is yes, plan well, hedge against failure and work like hell at it. If the answer is no, think again about why you want to do this at all.”

A lot of things that might make you happy aren’t going to be the smartest of choices, (“I want to start my own company where I blow bong hits in the lungs of people’s pets and post the videos on YouTube…”) which is where those other caveats come in. Still, we tend to consider the importance of happiness in inverse proportion to all the other things that are far less important than if we will really like what we’re getting ourselves into.

 

YOU KNOW I’M ALWAYS HERE IF YOU NEED ME, RIGHT?

I have now spent more of my life teaching college than I have not being a college teacher, and it doesn’t matter where I taught you or how long ago it was, you’re never really going to get rid of me.

The best part of my life is hearing back from students who have long since stopped needing my help on a test, my advice about an internship or my signature on a course override card. They have written more stories, covered more events, taught more classes, run more organizations and probably make more money than I ever have. However, when they really do need something, I’m thrilled to death when they show up in a chat or an email

A former student who is in her 40s sent me an email a few weeks back, asking if I’d support her effort to take a job at a big-name university. She has a doctorate, advising credentials that are amazing, a record as an elected public official and a lot more, so she needs me in the same way a Kardashian needs more publicity. However, I told her I was more than happy to do whatever she needed: Serve as a reference, write a letter or drive somewhere and talk to those people about why they’d be stupid not to hire her.

Another student got in touch a few years back when a source was threatening to sue him. I found the threat ridiculous and that his employer wasn’t doing more to support this kid, so I dug around and found some legal help that not only got the source to back off, but pushed the media outlet to leave the story alone.

I’ve refinished furniture for them as wedding gifts. I’ve seen their kids grow up in pictures and videos they post on social media. I’ve offered them condolences and heartfelt messages when they lose a parent or a loved one.

I’ve bought T-shirts and doodads from students who have started their own businesses. I’ve bought Girl Scout cookies from the children of former students, only pausing to think, “How in the hell are you old enough to have a kid who’s a Girl Scout?” (No matter how old they get or how esteemed they are, my students are eternally trapped in my mind’s eye somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, showing up for an 8 a.m. bleary eyed and likely hungover.)

I’ve lit holy candles in my church for students recovering from cancer. I’ve prayed for all of them at one time or another, just because I figured they needed it.

Before we part company any time we connect, I always try to remember to let them know, “If you ever need me, you know I’m here for you, right?” I mean it every time and I know I’m not the only professor who feels this way.

If there’s one thing I hope they all know, it’s that the answer to this particular question should always be “Yes.”

Life 101 (Part II): Everything you wished you’d known before you graduated but nobody told you

What Am I Doing With My Life?

Monday’s post looked at the Life 101 issue of looking for and getting your first career job out of college. If you missed it, you can see it here.

Today’s post takes a look at things that go beyond the job hunt that recent grads told me they wished someone had told them before they graduated.

 

WELCOME TO WHEREVER YOU ARE:

I got a note from a former student who asked me about how to deal with “bad things.” She had recently graduated and was about nine months into her first career job. She was living in another state, in a small town in which she had never heard of prior to taking a job she loved.

After a few false starts of me guessing at what she meant, I picked up on a thread in her responses and asked, “Wait a minute. Are you feeling lonely?”

Bingo.

She had been actively involved in clubs, sports and other stuff while building an immaculate GPA at UWO. She was always on the go and always known wherever she went. Now, she was in a completely new place where she knew no one and she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel.

I had fewer friends, fewer interests and fewer people who knew/liked me when I made my first big move, but I felt similar pangs of anxiety. After my dad helped me move in, he spent the night before saying goodbye and leaving the next morning.

After he left, it dawned on me: Nobody here knows me at all.

(Side note thought: I could die in this apartment and nobody would notice until eventually I missed a rent payment or someone caught a whiff of decomp.)

I went from running constantly from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. every day to working a nine-hour-a-day job and going home to… what? I took a lot of walks, bought groceries at normal times of day and generally looked for a place to fit in. It wasn’t easy, and apparently that was something others faced as well, given some responses I got from my former students:

It takes AWHILE to transition from being a college student to a working adult. Give yourself time and grace when going through this transition and don’t doubt your worth. You’ve got this.

 

Envision your life outside of work when considering a job – If you’re outdoorsy, does it have great trails? If you dig X, does it have X? The city has to pass the vibe check, or you’ll depend too much on work to bring you all your happiness.

Others noted that life got a little weird for them, living somewhere new, knowing nobody around them and generally losing that entire support structure of friends and family they’d taken for granted.

Friends and family are still there for you, just in a different way. It’s also an opportunity to spread your wings. Think about when you landed on campus four (or five or six) years earlier and how you didn’t know a damned thing about anything. It’s like that again, which sucks. That said, you survived and thrived in that once before, so the precedent is there for you to succeed.

 

WELCOME TO ROOKIE BALL

One of the hardest transitions people often make is from being the big cheese to the lowest of Limburger.  It hit me hard when I took my first pro gig.

At the student newspaper, I didn’t get much editing. People generally said, “You’re great!” or at the very least, they had bigger problems to fix, so I kind of skated by with the assumption that whatever I was doing was fine.

When I got to the Major Leagues, I got a rude awakening. A lot of my copy was getting hacked and slashed. My source material was being questioned. My use of quotes was second-guessed. My overall ability to do a good job was under constant scrutiny.

At the time, I needed help, guidance and support, but I had a boss who had either no interest or no capability to provide those things:

(This editor can’t be bargained with. She can’t be reasoned with… And she won’t stop until you realize you suck!)

I eventually gained my sea legs, but I never forgot what it felt like to get my ears boxed in on a daily basis. Apparently, neither did some of the folks who responded to my post:

 

Imposter syndrome is real and it is awful.

 

Nobody knows what they’re doing… They’ve just been working through it longer than you have. Hang in there.

 

Being the newest person means everyone else has a leg up in some way… Be ready to work weekends and holidays.

 

You have to know what the rules are first before you break them.

 

It’s tempting when you’re new to think folks with more experience have everything figured out. The truth is everyone is making it up as they go along on most things.

 

In kind of pairing these previous two thoughts, something else a student mentioned resonated with me when it came to being the new kid: You’re often the youngest kid by a stretch.

The student who got me thinking about this issue told me she had this weird age gap thing. She was too old to connect with the people she covered (high school athletes) and yet too young to really connect with the people she spent time with (colleagues and the athletes’ parents). It felt like there was nobody her age to connect with.

For the majority of my career life, I was always the youngest person in the room. I was 21 when I got my first gig in a pro newsroom, 22 when I got my first teaching gig, 24 when I got my first professor/editor gig, 28 when I got my first tenure-track gig and so on…

Those early years were awkward, in that I often had nothing in common with my coworkers. The people at newsroom parties  were talking about kids and soccer games and 401K accounts. Conversely,  I was like, “Hey, uh… is that beer over there free for, like, anyone to take?” I was told rather bluntly that if I was caught “associating” with students, my boss would hide strap my ass to a pine rail and ship me out of town.

It wasn’t the easiest of situations in those early years, but it was even harder because I had nobody to talk to who was going through the same thing. Maybe that’s why still tell my students my door is always open, even after they graduate.

I know it sucks to be the rookie.

 

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

Of all the advice the hivemind chipped in with, this insight needs to be screamed from the top of every mountain:

Try not to compare yourself to your friends who have seemingly better jobs. Instead of resenting the job you have, see what you can do to make it better – to make yourself better at it so you can easily move onto the next position.

During my doctoral program, I researched in the area of Social Comparison Theory, which examines the way in which people try to figure out how they stack up in a particular area of life by looking at other similar people in their area. I also watched it  play out on a daily basis there as I taught kids at the journalism school.

It was a constant game of keeping up with the Joneses. If Bobby got a front-page article, Suzie needed to get the top article on the front page. If Jane wrote 40 stories in a semester, Carl needed to  write 45.

It got even worse when they went after internship and employment opportunities. If Marco got an internship at a 75,000 circulation daily, Maria had to get an internship at a 100,000 circulation paper. If Nellie got a gig at a top 50 market TV station, Willie had to get one in a top 20 market.

I watched this transpire long after I left, with former students chasing each other up the golden ladder for no real reason other than to prove some level of superiority. I saw students leave perfectly good jobs to take on jobs that didn’t fit them because one of their peers had moved up a rank or got a gig at a larger publication.

In one case, a great student left a job where he was perfectly suited and wonderfully gifted as an editor in a smaller publication to chase other jobs that made no sense. He eventually ended up doing night cops at a paper in Kentucky, working for a mentally unbalanced night editor and feeling miserable.  When I asked why he took the job,  he cited two reasons:

  1. The paper’s circulation was huge, comparatively speaking to his previous job.
  2. One of his former cohorts had gotten a gig at some place “better” than where he was.

This made no sense unless you understand the competitive nature of the school, the kids and the field. I eventually got him to see that “better” is in the eye of the beholder.

I have friends that make more money than I do, but I wouldn’t trade positions with them under threat of death. I have friends with classier titles and bigger offices, but they also have more problems, or at least the types of problems I hate dealing with. I have friends who do a lot of things that, on paper, sound like they’re living a much “better” life than I am. However, I get a lot of stuff that can’t be measured on a spreadsheet and I’m relatively happy with a great portion of my life.

Every day is not an Academy-Award-winning performance,  but it’s what I found works for me. I figured out that chasing someone else’s dream or trying to prove superiority by making myself miserable in my career made no sense.

A few other folks who chimed in on this topic made similar statements, saying they wished someone had told them to just worry about themselves and not chase the dreams of others. They finally figured out that comparing themselves to their former classmates made no sense and it made them miserable.

Once they settled in and just enjoyed being themselves, they found happiness.

 

THE FINAL ADVICE LIGHTNING ROUND:

Some of the best bits of advice didn’t really fall into a perfect category but it was so worth keeping, I figured this would be a good way to do it. So here comes the lightning round of advice:

 

Ask questions, ask for feedback, ask for what you need to succeed in a position and know that they hired you for a reason. And if that still isn’t working out, find something else that you love to do.

 

Know your worth and celebrate your accomplishments, achievements, and recognize the significance of your contributions. Don’t downplay them.

 

It’s very rare that in reality something is as high stakes as it can feel in the moment. After a fuck-up that felt career-ending for me but in retrospect did not matter in the slightest in the big picture, my boss told me “we’re not curing cancer.” And that’s stayed with me – very little is life or death, at the end of the day.

 

Your career is not your identity. It’s a reflection of you but it does not define you.

Well, that might not be everything, but I hope it’s a start.

If you have any other questions, comments or concerns, feel free to hit me up on the contact page.

Otherwise, have a great summer and best of luck in all you do.

Vince

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

Life 101 (Part I): Everything you wished you’d known before you graduated but nobody told you

life depressing funny college - 8102692096

(It’s not really that bad. You just need a few hacks here and there to soften the situation.)

A student showed up in my office a few weeks back with a big smile on her face and the peptic energy that only comes from wanting to tell someone else the best news in the world.

“Dr. Filak! I got a job!” she said, a mix of glee, elation and relief pouring out of her as she explained what she did and how this worked and where she was going to be employed.

I listened and congratulated her multiple times before I asked the inevitable question: “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but what was the offer?”

She proudly told me how much she was making, which was a decent amount. She wouldn’t have to steal Splenda packets from local diners or live on Ramen for every meal, that’s for sure.

When I asked how the negotiation for that amount went, she said, “Oh. They just gave me the salary they were going to pay me. I asked my parents if that was good money and they said it was, so I took it.”

She noticed the look on my face. “Oh no!” she said. “Did I do bad?”

“No,” I said. “But you could have done better…”

I then explained the whole process of salary negotiations to her and she realized something nobody at this institution had ever taught her: Salaries ARE negotiable. So are so many other things.

If universities are good at training students to develop skills that will help them get their first career jobs and put them on the path to a fully adult life, they absolutely suck at helping students make the transition from college to that life. I know this from my own experience, as well as that of colleagues and former students, so I thought a good wrap up for the semester would be one final lesson for the group: Life 101.

I asked the hivemind of folks I trust through various social media outlets and connections to tell me one thing they wished they’d known before they left school that they found out the hard way once they got into the “real world.”

Today’s post is the first of two that look at issues beyond graduation, focusing mainly on getting a job and the reality of that first job.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the life issues you face once you get out and become “a grown up” that you probably won’t see coming.

I hope this helps:

THE JOB SEARCH

There are few things more anxiety-provoking and terrifying than looking for a first career job out of college. You have put in the time and energy to pass the classes. You got the grades they said were going to propel you forward. You got involved in every activity someone said would “look great on a resume” and you worked at student media, internships and part-time gigs to fatten up your experience.

You put yourself out there and… crickets…

As a college student, I feared my parents’ basement. I constantly heard of students who did “all the right things” but ended up living back with their parents in a basement because they couldn’t get a job. I mentioned that to several students and several currently employed former students and the vibe was the same:

“I was scared to death that I’d done all this work and I’d be living back home in the basement. I never had a problem with my family, but I damned sure didn’t want to be back there as ‘that kid.'”

“I knew I could go home. I just didn’t want to. I wanted to be a grownup.”

I have said this before and the people who have experienced it have told me I am dead on with this analogy. Those who haven’t tell me I’m crazy. Then, they experience this and they convert to my way of thinking:

Your first job search is a lot like a bad dating experience: You are ready to go, so you put yourself out there. People are ignoring you and it feels awkward. You don’t know what’s wrong with you, so you get really worried.

Then, someone shows an interest and you have that kind of, “Cool. We should hang out. Let’s exchange info” moment and you get really excited. You start imagining how nice it’ll be and your mind takes you on flights of fancy regarding this relationship.

Then, you don’t hear from them for a while and you start wondering what you did wrong and why they aren’t calling. You start questioning everything you’ve done to this point. You wonder if you should reach out, but you don’t want to look needy.

Eventually, you’ll start to get angry with the, “OK, screw you. I don’t need you thing.” You give up, only to hear from that person shortly after that, with the person giving you a true and great reason why it took so long to reach out and that they really want to see you in a day or two, so let’s set this up…

And then you’re like, “OHMERGERD! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!” but you play it cool and the cycle begins again…

As I’ve told more than a few sobbing students over the years, “It’s not you. You are good. The right people just haven’t figured that out yet. It’ll happen. Trust me.”

(In completing the analogy, that’s what my mother used to try to tell me each time I got dumped in high school… She wasn’t wrong, but the situation still sucked.)

 

THE JOB OFFER:

The first career job offer is something most people never forget, and I certainly remember getting my job offer from Mizzou.

Well, I remember most of it.

At one point when I was being offered the job and told about what this involved, I think I passed out on the phone. Blood was pounding in my ears, my chest felt like it was going to explode with joy like a frickin’ Care Bear and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.

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When the first offer came, I took it. No questions asked. I was so happy to be getting that job.

About two years later, my boss called me into his office and told me, “I need to let you know something. I totally screwed you.”

He explained that when he hired me, he gave me the lowest lowball offer he could, figuring I’d negotiate my way up to something more reasonable. When I didn’t, he was over a barrel. He couldn’t just give me more money, but he also knew I didn’t know any better.

(To be fair, he then told me he was getting me connected with the grad program so I could go after a Ph.D. It was a fair trade in the long run.)

He was a good guy and it never occurred to me that he had lowballed me. He then gave me the best advice I share on a regular basis, “Never take the first offer. Always negotiate for your worth.”

Of all the things people mentioned in their responses to me, salary negotiations were the most important:

“Journalism is not a ‘calling.’ It’s a business. Negotiate your pay. Don’t work for less than you’re worth. Think 5-10 years down the road.”

 

“Don’t count on the editor who hires you to have your economic interests at heart. You should be prepared to negotiate for the pay you need to live, and expect them to expect you to negotiate because it may be a LONG TIME before you have as much leverage to get yourself more money than when you have the initial job offer.”

 

“Know your worth and don’t settle just to get hired and have a job. A LOT of companies are hiring, so test the waters and see where you feel valued.”

 

“Agreed with everybody who said negotiate your starting salary. Do some research of similar roles in the area and don’t just take the first offer that comes because you’re scared/excited just to get one, which is what I did.”

In addition to negotiating salaries, people noted that they wished they’d negotiated for extra vacation time, an earlier start for health insurance, improved hours/requirements and other bennies that they thought were just written in stone.

Another person noted this “look forward” in life as crucial:

Take whatever 401k match is offered, even if you can’t contribute anything else right away.

 

WELCOME TO THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (OR NOT)

When I went to my college orientation session about 30 years ago, the people there told us that we would likely change jobs about six or seven times in our lifetime. At that point, they meant that we would likely climb the corporate ladder, maybe switching companies within our field, but essentially staying put.

According to recent data, Millennials will change CAREERS almost six times in their lives. People now tend to stay with an employer for an average of three or four years, even with opportunities for advancement. This shifts the entire paradigm of how to look at your first job. Here are some thoughts from the hivemind:

“Paying your dues” is an outdated concept. Don’t let your parents, employers or friends convince you otherwise.

 

The quality of the job and the people you work with are far more important than the location.

 

Having a different approach to teaching and research is a GOOD thing!… Students need to know there’s many paths towards your goals in life. Do what works for you.

 

You don’t have to stay in the first job you get after college forever. It’s okay to change your mind or realize it’s not something you enjoy.

 

(I wish someone taught me how to deal with) not starting exactly in the position you want and how to be content with the growth process. Your degree does not always land you your dream job immediately.

This last point leads us to the unfortunate truth associated with taking that first job…

 

YOUR JOB MIGHT SUCK

As much as the dream job might be just a dream, it doesn’t mean suffering and pain should be your daily life at work. Everything from toxic workplace environments and weird bosses to feeling lost and becoming undervalued can make that first job you were so excited about feel like an abusive relationship.

I’ve worked for bosses that I would step in front of a bus for, because they were so helpful, supportive and just entirely amazing. I have also worked for bosses I wouldn’t feel bad about nudging into path of oncoming freeway traffic.

The folks who chimed in on this had similar experiences:

Your boss makes all the difference for how well you do in your first few jobs. Take your first job based on how well you vibe with the boss.

 

I once told my son that if he ever has a job where the manager/supervisor/head honcho etc, comes over and parks his butt on your desk, smiles and says, “we’re all like family here”…….Leave.

 

Also that just because things aren’t perfect, it isn’t necessarily your fault:

 

Your first job isn’t your only job. Sometimes it legitimately sucks and that’s OK. It’s not an indictment on you or your work.

 

Always work toward aligning what you want to do with what your job/career actually is, while still getting your current job’s work done of course. But always keep working toward doing what you want to do, even if your first job out of school isn’t your dream job (it won’t be).

The one caveat I’ll offer here is the one based on my own sense of paranoia: There’s nothing wrong with leaving a job because it’s not what you want or need. That said, have your next move already to go upon your decision to quit.

I equate it to the old “Tarzan” movies when he’s swinging from vine to vine across the jungle. Don’t let go of one vine until you have the other in hand.

TOMORROW: Life, or something like it, after college.