Throwback Thursday: Translating “The Dance” between professors and students over final grades

Thanks to the corona-pocalypse, many of us are ending our semesters around this time having done so many things differently than we ever have done before. What seemingly hasn’t changed in this time, at least based on my reading of Facebook threads operated by college professors, is the laundry list of excuses, requests and overall whining about final grades.

As is the case with most things this year, a lot of us have been a lot more liberal with our approach to grades, missed work or other such things. It’s like “OK, the manual says X, but we’ve just crash-landed and aliens are clawing at the door of the ship, so let’s just try to survive this instead of worrying about strict military protocol.” I also know that we’ve had a lot of burnout in faculty and students this year, so a lot of us have tried to be more humane.

That said, if you can’t find amusement in that sarcastic voice in your head when a student approaches you with one of these lines at the end of a semester, well… you have problems I can’t solve.

Thus, let’s look back at a simpler time where we were much more attuned to BS and much less worried about sanitizing every surface around us:

 

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Translating “The Dance” between professors and students over final grades

As the term winds to a close, students and professors engage in what I refer to as “The Dance” over grades. It’s a tactical, nuanced discussion that involves trying to beg without it looking like begging, trying to answer an email without promising anything and basically engaging in nuclear-treaty-level diplomacy. If we were all trapped in a “Liar, Liar” world, it would essentially look like this:

Student: Pass me and stop being a jerk, you asshat.

Professor: Oh, now you care about this class, you little twerp? Go to hell and take a left.

However, since we have to “Eddie Haskell” it on both ends, here are the legendary begging statements I’ve gotten from students over the years or variations on those themes provided by the hivemind. I’ve added a few “internal thoughts” your professors have had over the years when it comes to responding to these pleas. Enjoy:

“Could you just add XX small points to my final grade?”

First, all points are created equal. Second, that figure has ranged from 1 to about 100, depending on the level of desperation. Third, when you kept doing the same stupid thing over and over again because instead of reading my comments, you just looked at the grade and thought, “Screw you, dude” you might not need those “small points.”

 

“I’m graduating this term…”

Not if you need to pass this class, you’re not.

 

“Is there anything I can do?”

Can you invent a time machine, go back in history and tell the earlier version of yourself to turn stuff in on time, not skip every third class and generally give a better overall performance than a disinterested Jay Cutler on a trick play? If not, no.

OR

Prayer can help, although I’m not certain how strong God’s will is to help you out here.

OR

Sign up for the next semester I teach this class and give a crap a little sooner in the term.

 

“Is there extra credit?”

Sure, because when the syllabus said, “There will be NO EXTRA CREDIT in this class, so plan accordingly,” I clearly included a loophole for people who didn’t care about anything until the very moment they realized they were screwed.

 

“Could I rewrite (half of the assignments) for additional credit?”

Sure, because nothing says, “I’m ready to do a good job,” like not doing a good job on anything all term and then expecting to make all of that up in 72 hours before grades are due with no real interest in learning anything other than how many points you need to slide by.

 

“Could you bump me up just this little bit?”

Sure, because I’m sure that won’t tick off the six other people in your class who sweated bullets to get a passing grade through hard work on that assignment you blew off to go to Cabo and party on the beach.

 

“Could you possibly round me up?”

I could. Now ask me if I will. Welcome to the grammar lesson you skipped.

 

“I had some issues this semester…”

Yeah. No kidding.

 

“Your class is very important to me…”

Um… I believe a lot of things people tell me to make me feel better about myself. This isn’t one of them.

 

“I don’t understand why you downgraded me…”

You mean the page and a half of comments I included in the body of your paper didn’t clue you in that this random series of unattributed content, fragmented sentence, shifted verb tenses, incorrect word choices and cripplingly bad structure didn’t help? This wasn’t a news story. It was a disaster movie filmed out of sequence.

 

“This isn’t fair that I should have to take your course over again.”

It isn’t fair I had to grade this pile of sheep dung you referred to as “completed assignments,” but we all have our crosses to bear, I suppose…

 

“I need (A/B/C grade) to (pass/maintain my scholarship/keep my ego afloat)…”

This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way.

Thank you for making this necessary: The second edition of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” is now on the press

For the first time in quite some time, I was happy to open an email:

If I don’t say it enough, please let me say it here in the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “Thank you all for making this day necessary.” The fact that so many of you were willing to take a chance on a new book in a time in which books have the appeal of a mauve polyester leisure suit means a lot to me. It’s not easy to adopt a new text and rewrite stuff for a class, especially as we’re being all asked to do more with less, so I appreciate the help and the faith.

As a sneak peek, I wanted to let you all know some things that the new book will include:

  • Social media. The book includes a lot of best practices for blogging and simple-message posting. The book not only shifts more toward stronger “how to” content in the chapters on these topics, but it also addresses these issues as they relate to “fake news,” disinformation, the law and ethics.
  • More exercises. The goal was to provide you with enough stuff that your students would learn to hate me for putting a ton of work in front of them. (I think I’ll have Zoe open my mail for a while after this edition hits the shelves.) I added extra options for simple exercise as well as some more “mid-range” pieces for people who want to do lab exercises. If that’s not enough, there’s always the Corona Hotline page.
  • Best of the Blog: I get that not everyone is sitting on the website every day with bated breath hoping I’ll post something. (Except for my mom. Thanks, Mom.) I also understand that with more than 500 posts over the past three years (Wow… That went by in a blink), you might not always find the perfect post for each chapter to make a key point. To that end, I decided to build a “greatest hits” album of sorts, with each chapter having one blog post that attaches itself to the theme of that particular chapter. As always, all 500-some posts are available on this site and everything up here is freebie for anyone to use.
  • Appendices: As with the last version, we broke out stuff like extra lead exercises, freedom information requests and video editing into the back of the book in appendix format. We also updated the “Get a job” appendix with more advice and added a whole thing on how to do freelance work, relying on three professional freelancers. Why freelancing? Because a professor asked for it, so we did it. (Good tip for anyone else who wants something: I have a hard time letting anyone down, so the more I can do to help you, the better I feel about myself.

As always, the blog will keep things current and humming in the time between editions, so you’ll never be “out of date” in terms of content. And if you want something that I haven’t provided, just ask and I’ll blog it.

This should be available just in time for that hard-to-shop-for person on your holiday list and as a perfect stocking-stuffer for every human being you actively dislike. I’d even be willing to autograph any copy, with the idea that it will decrease the value in it and the bookstore won’t buy it back.

Seriously, though, I really want to let you all know how grateful I am for all your support, help and suggestions over the years. I hope this book is what you want and need to keep the next generation of students moving toward greatness.

Best,

Vince

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

3 ways to avoid letting Tucker Boner, Dick Hertz and Heywood Jablome turn your story into a prank

The world of news features is fraught with danger when you couple unsuspecting reporters with people who enjoy trolling them. A journalism colleague and friend alerted me to this potentially suspect source in a New York Times story about Zillow Surfing:

As my friend noted, “I couldn’t help but think the reporter got duped,” before referencing this classic “source” in a New York Post story:

If you need the joke spelled out, I’ll answer the question for you: “No, I would not like to blow you…”

The Post story is coming up on two decades old, but the folks there are apparently not giving up the ship when it comes to Heywood’s bona fides (sorry… couldn’t resist) as this story is STILL AVAILABLE.

Is it possible that these guys were both real people with just unfortunate names? Sure. I mean, one of the best pitching coaches in baseball history (at least in my mind) had probably the world’s worst name if he wanted people to take him seriously: Dick Pole.

Of all the greatest “add another layer” moments was the year in which Pole played for the Portland Beavers. Although you should know by now I’m not creative enough to make this stuff up, here’s proof:

We could spend hours going through a list of names people have used to punk reporters. The Seymour Buttz and Mike Rotch’s of the world are well known, thanks in large part to “The Simpsons” and Bart’s penchant for pranking the local bar.

There are plenty of cases where “regular” people have names that go beyond common spellings or those we have seen hundreds of times before. We once had a music guy who kept calling us to promote the promising bands he represented. His first name was Spackle. I have no idea how or why…

Even more, there are cases where people share famous names with people who have entered the public spotlight in an unfortunate fashion. (In my time at the State Journal, I worked with a “Susan Smith” right around the time another “Susan Smith” was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Our “Susan” actually wrote a column about these unfortunate pairings…) And, of course, it’s probably no great shakes for these regular folks, either, who have to deal with this on a daily basis:

However, as a journalist, you can’t cut people out of your stories or avoid them just because “that name sounds weird.” With that in mind, here are a few tips for keeping yourself out of trouble in these situations:

Trust but verify: In most cases, you’re getting people to tell you their names and spell them, so you’re in pretty good shape for making sure you got the name itself right.

If the name seems like it might be a “trolling moment,” you can’t automatically assume this person is messing with you. (“So that’s Dick P-O-L-E… wait a minute!”) It would be in poor form to demand ID from that person, but you can get around that concern in a few other ways.

Make use of the other publicly available databases, such as those for court records. Maybe “Yankton Weiner” was sued, filed suit, got a speeding ticket or got a divorce from the former Mrs. Weiner, which would help you figure this out.

Do a search through multiple other websites connected with the topic at hand to see if that person was cited as a source. A quick run through your own news site and a few others in the area would be helpful as well. If you keep coming up empty, telephone directory searches are also helpful.

Also, the internet has a burgeoning public records industry where various companies swear they can find out anything about anybody. If you search for a name, chances are, you’ll get at least something in the free version of the company’s site. Worst case, pay the $20 or whatever if you’re desperate to use the source but afraid of looking like an idiot.

Box the source in: One of the easiest ways to prevent a source from snowing  you is to pin that source down with specific questions about themselves. A person might quickly give you “I. P. Frehleigh” as a name, but would likely be less adept telling you what the I and P stand for. The more questions you ask, the more hemmed in that source will be.

If the source works in some professional field, ask for a business card with the idea that you might want to reach out to them later. If they balk, that’s a pretty good indication that something might not be above board. If they offer a phone number instead, use that number to reach out to them from another phone and see how they answer. Or use a reverse-directory app to get their name from that number.

Throw some basic chatter at the person to get some other information such as, “So how long have you lived around here?” or “Where did you say your office was?” If the answers are quick and easy, the person is likely on the level. If they feel forced, be wary. Either way, write the answers down so you can check them against other information. Also, don’t be afraid to go back and ask a basic question a second time to see if they have it the same way twice: “I’m sorry, but HOW did you spell ‘Frehleigh’ again?”

Ask that source to give you some contact information for their colleagues or other folks who might be just as helpful. This will help limit the number of lies that you can hear. At the end of the day, paranoia will be your best friend, so ask as many questions about the person as you need to

Cut it: There’s no rule that says you have to use a source just because you got the source to talk. Granted, some sources are crucial to a story, but if you review what Mr. Jablome and what Mr. Boner told the reporters here, you can see nothing vital or unique. This is a case of a reporter just deciding, “Well, I got the source, so I’m using him,” a concept in journalism known as notebook emptying.

At the end of the day, I’d rather be one source short than to add to the legend of “Elle Phunt,” “Dee Z. Knutz” or “Barry McCockiner.”

 

 

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

With this being the last post before a Thanksgiving unlike any other, I thought it was time to pull this favorite out of the bag one more time. People tend to reach for cliches when they have nothing else, which is why we have moments that are literally just people repeating the same stupid term without a sense of value. Comedian John Oliver always manages to find those moments, like this one for the election:

If there are any other cliche-like items I’d like to see ending this year, they would include:

  • Unprecedented: Look, we get that you can’t say, “Man, this stuff is even more f!$%ed up than that LAST f*&%ed up thing we told you!” However, break out the thesaurus for another term.
  • Inflection Point: I watched “The Inventor: Out for blood in Silicon Valley” where Theranos leader Elizabeth Holmes kept using this to describe disastrous moments in her fraudulent company. Suddenly, it was showing up on talk shows, news programs and even football broadcasts. If what you want to say is, “We were doing stuff until suddenly we had to rethink a lot of stuff because everything went to hell in a speedboat,” I’m all for that. Just find a new term.
  • Liberal media: Stop. Just stop. Unless the newspaper is wearing a pukka shell necklace or calling for stuff that only showed up in hippie-era songs, it’s probably not that liberal. Even if it is, that’s one outlet, not the industry.
  • Fake News: It’s not fake just because you don’t like it. Calling it fake won’t make it disappear, either. If this worked on everything, I’d be screaming “FAKE NEWS” into a bowl of broccoli every chance I got.
  • Quaran- words: I’ve seen quaran-baking, quaran-babies, quarantine 15 and more. Stop trying to make this a thing. It’s bordering on “fetch.”

With that, here is a look back at the holiday cliches we all know and hate:

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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)

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.

REPORT: Journalists see fake news as their problem to combat; PR officials seek ways to help

Although he has taken great pains to claim it as his own, President Donald Trump didn’t invent the term “fake news” or the concept itself. For generations, unscrupulous hucksters have used the tools of the media to spread misinformation for their own gains. In short, this stuff didn’t start with Trump and it won’t end when he leaves office and Twitter holds him accountable to the same standards it does for all other regular citizens.

As we outlined here on the blog, there are numerous reasons why fake news has emerged over the past decade,  why people believe it and what we can do to fight it.

Greentarget, a strategic public relations firm that focuses on business-to-business organizations, recently  released a report titled “Fake News 2020: Combating disinformation and misinformation in a polarized world,” that examines how journalists have come to view this phenomenon and what it has done to their field. The survey of 100 journalists, half of whom have worked in the field for 20 years or more, asked these individuals 16 questions pertaining to the prevalence and impact of fake news as well as how best to fight it.

(You can download the full report here. It’s free, but Greentarget will ask you to fill out a contact form.)

A few key findings in the report include:

  • 80% of the respondents surveyed strongly agreed that fake news has negatively impacted journalism
  • 64% stated it is the responsibility of journalists and journalistic institutions to vet fake news
  • 56% stated social media is the greatest threat as a form of fake news distribution.
  • Journalists are generally split between disinformation (34%), or the spread of purposefully false content, and misinformation (31%), the spread of content that’s wrong but people believe it to be true, as the most problematic part of the fake-news phenomenon
  • The majority of the journalists surveyed do not see governmental intervention as the way to fix this problem.

The report outlines numerous problems associated with fake news, much of which we see played out in daily life: It supports unfounded prejudices, creates fractures in social harmony and shifts users sense of reality in regard to current events.

It concluded with a section on how PR professionals can help combat fake news, because it impacts their field as well in ways that often get overlooked.

Reliable journalism is in fact a vital element of our business. Our clients trade on their authority; they turn to us to help establish and burnish it. We believe that in order to be seen as authorities – experts who are not just heard but heeded – our clients’ insights and perspectives must withstand the scrutiny of the journalistic process. But that only works if readers trust the journalism.

Paul Wilson, senior editor at Greentarget, has worked in both the news and public relations areas and has seen the impact fake news has on society at large. Wilson was nice enough to agree to an interview to discuss the report, its findings and what needs to happen next to keep portions of society from living in an alternate reality.

Here is a transcript of the interview, with minor edits for clarity and structure:

What made Greentarget decide to take a look at the issue of fake news from the journalists’ point of view? Where did the interest in their opinions come from and what did the organization hope to learn?

“Lisa Seidenberg, one of our VPs, attended a panel where journalists were discussing how much fake news was affecting their profession. She thought it would be a good idea for Greentarget – which works with top-tier reporters every day – to tap our network to gauge journalist sentiment.

“A big focus was to see if journalists thought a new presidential administration would improve things, but there were a lot of other goals, like determining whom journalists think should be the first line of defense against fake news.

In terms of the findings, what things came back that you all might have expected and what things surprised the organization, based on the prevailing thoughts going into this survey?

“There was actually an interesting point of disagreement within Greentarget when it came to expectations. Some of my colleagues thought the survey respondents might have hope for progress in the fight against fake news if Trump lost the election. As one of Greentarget’s former journalists, I figured that was unlikely.

“Cynicism is part of the deal for most journalists, and I guessed that most of the respondents would know that a lot of the underpinnings of fake news have nothing to do with who’s currently in the White House. Turned out, I was right – though I wish I had been wrong.

“On the other hand, one of our findings was encouraging. Journalists – after a decade-plus of newsroom cuts and more-with-less talk and near-constant criticism — aren’t turning away from the challenge of fighting fake news. Actually, it’s more than encouraging. It’s inspiring.”

Given what Greentarget does, and its audience, what is the benefit of this research in regard to those elements?

“What a lot of journalists don’t understand about PR – what I don’t think I fully understood when I was a reporter – is that a lot of what we do relies on a credible press corp.

“For those of us who work to help smart people get their message out, we need good reporters and editors who put out a product each day that people can rely on. Our clients’ ideas get more traction if they’re disseminated by journalists whose readers trust them to thoroughly vet those ideas.

“And beyond our own business concerns, we know that good and credible journalism is part of the foundation of a functioning society.”

Based on these findings, what do you think journalists should take away from this and what is the “actionable” element that you see coming out of this? In other words, what happens next?

“Journalists should keep fighting the good fight. That’s a little cliché, but they know their jobs and by doing them, they’re combating fake news.

“On the actionable front, we decided to go into more detail on what PR professionals can do. That’s partly about staying in our lane, but it’s also where we think our guidance can be most incisive and impactful.

“In a way, the passion of journalists we surveyed inspired us to be more strident in our own convictions. By that I mean, we end our report with a formal list of actions we pledge to take and that we encourage other PR professionals to follow. These actions in many ways have always been part of Greentarget – i.e., supporting reporters and editors, stressing ethics and transparency and putting the audience first. But we’ve added to that with a commitment to advocating against fake news and taking on a leadership role for future PR practitioners.”

If you could tell students reading this anything about what you’ve found here that you think they should know, what would it be?

“I’d tell students going on to be reporters and editors that despite all the challenges journalism faces, they’re entering a field where the commitment to journalistic ideals isn’t wavering. That’s pretty extraordinary. I can’t think of another field where the ideals would survive in the face of so much adversity.

“For students going into PR, the message is that they have a role to play. They can help legitimate journalism survive at a time when it’s really important. This point is sort of meta, but the fact that an organization like Greentarget is weighing in on this – when it doesn’t have to, and indeed, could anger some important people in the process – shows what’s at stake in this moment.”

“It gave me a purpose and quite literally saved my life a few times.” Why Student Media Matters

The Board of Trustees at Doane University approved of President Jacque Carter’s suggested cuts and mergers during its Monday meeting, meaning that Doane Student Media is on a downward spiral to financial insolvency. Editor in chief Meaghan Stout has been covering the situation since the cuts were first announced, which is a lot like being asked to serve as a pall bearer for your own funeral.

According to former Doane student media adviser David Swartzlander, the cuts don’t go into effect until July 1, which gives Stout and others about nine months to raise unholy hell about them, something we’ve asked you all to do throughout the week.

If you’re thinking, “None of this makes any sense. She’s graduating in a month, so she’s done with this place. And why are you dedicating so much time and energy blathering on about student media cuts at a university the size of your high school? You don’t have a horse in this race….,” well, I get it.

From the outside, this looks pathologically stupid.

If you’ve ever spent any time in student media, this makes all the sense in the world.

I asked people I know who have gone in myriad directions after their educational careers came to a close if they ever worked in student media and, if so, why it mattered to them. One of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with, a wordsmith and a storyteller unlike any other, didn’t disappoint:

My high school had no paper. I started one, called “The Cardinal Chirps.” There was news, sports and jokes on four mimeographed pages. (Smelled great!) It may have lasted three issues. The jokes were filler and I learned that not everyone has the same sense of humor. Don’t print jokes. Working at that paper was a revelation. I could find something that didn’t make sense – a section of the lockers were inexplicably located in a dark room with one narrow door – and write about it. It wasn’t safe for those who had their lockers in there. The principal and school board took note and changed it. No had ever brought it to their attention. The learning was true: You can’t fix something if you don’t know it is broken.

I expected a few responses from a few other people, but not much.

I was stunned when I got dozens, like this one from a journalism professor with a background in news:

I graduated from a small rural high school that didn’t even have a school paper. My interest in news grew from my mom’s obsessive consumption of newspapers (we subscribed to two and sometimes three), news magazines (I think we got four), news talk radio (on constantly), morning/noon/evening local and national TV news, public affairs shows on PBS and all the Sunday morning news talk shows, and my own growing awareness that there were other places in the world far from Tonganoxie, Kansas, that I dreamed of seeing someday. It seemed wise to understand what was going on in them before going. And before going, I had to have money. I understood from my good friend that one could be paid actual money for fixing errors in news writing by being something called a copy editor. The University Daily Kansan and my professors with newsroom experience showed me how to be that.

Another higher-ed friend who works as a student media adviser had a similar life experience:

Working in college media was the step for me that solidified how I could attain my dream to work as a professional journalist. Before my college media experience, the concept was very abstract. Moving from dreaming to doing via my student newspaper made it real for me. I am forever grateful to those who gave me the opportunity and helped me see I could do it.

Folks who took the path out of news and into corporate communications, consulting and other similar fields found that student media benefited them as well:

I wanted to write books before I signed up for journalism class in high school on kind of a whim. In that class, I found that I had a knack for journalistic writing, most likely from reading the local paper and my dad’s influence as a TV journalist. Taking that class and continuing that path led me to attend J-School at MU and altered my career path. It also gave me an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of LOCAL journalism.

These responses made sense: Student media was like an internship and a training center for going on to do great and mighty things in the field itself. However, I also saw how the people who went into fields that had nothing to do with news or PR still found amazing value in student media:

I draw from my experience at the DN almost every day. I’ve worked for two law firms and a dental office since college. I’m comfortable asking questions, I’ve learned how to build relationships and I have a better understanding of how government works. The most important thing I have learned is that no matter how much effort you put toward your day, something could change and you need to be ready to shift your priorities and maybe undo all you’ve just done.
My boss at SAGE, who puts up with an awful lot from me, apparently found her muse through student media as well:
Basically shaped my entire college experience. Learned the basic responsibilities, ethical implications, and work ethic of a journalist. Being on the paper motivated me to write about things I was interested in, when I already had to write so much for school…Also I got to interview some really interesting people!
The one common thread, I saw overall, however, was that student media was more than a thing people did. It was who they were. The newsroom wasn’t like a classroom where they HAD to go. It was a place that gave them something special and they WANTED to be there:
It was my happy place. The place where I always knew what I was doing, and why. The place where everything just made sense. Why else would someone finish a shift, go home, get their books and go back to the newsroom to study. Because that’s where I was always focused.
And…

It was my home away from home. And it allowed me to experiment with what I wanted to do.
And…

Genuinely don’t know where to start. The friends, the experiences, now I’m working in media. Joined junior year of high school and haven’t looked back since. It gave me a purpose and quite literally saved my life a few times. I could go on and on.
And so many other people did as well, sharing stories of life-long friendships that developed thanks to pressure-packed deadlines, no sleep and a sense of belonging they never found before or since. At the risk of becoming hyperbolic, student media provides people with something that borders on magical, a familial bond forged in a way that never truly seems to break.

I understand why Meaghan Stout is fighting like hell, against all common sense, for her student media family, because 25 years ago, I was her.

I remember sitting in my journalism adviser’s office six weeks after our student newspaper closed under the weight of $137,700 in debt. My adviser was also my teaching assistant for Media Law, a course I was essentially flunking because I had poured all of my time into fixing the Daily Cardinal.

“You need to quit the paper,” she told me. “You’re going to fail.”

In retrospect, I think she meant the law class, but that’s not how I heard it.

I then listened as she told me how when she was in college, her student newspaper was moving from a weekly to a daily and how she was pressured to put the paper first and everything else second. Instead, she stuck with her classwork and got her degree. Besides, she explained, even if I managed to fix the problems, the paper was likely to shrivel up and die after I left, so what was the point?

In the abstract, she was right. Take care of yourself. Get the grades. Besides, there was another student newspaper on campus I could work for, so what made this Quixotic journey so important? I couldn’t explain it, but even if I could, I doubt she would have understood.

So, I let her finish, told her I’d think about it and then I went back down to the newsroom and kept working on fixing the paper. By the next semester, we’d pulled it back from the brink of collapse and started printing again.

It’s still running to this day.

For me, my student media experience wasn’t about the articles I wrote or the editorial positions I held or the arguments we had. (We often joked that we were a family in the newsroom, in that we drank a lot and hurt each other…)

It wasn’t that, without that paper, there’s no way I would have gotten this far in life, and I’d probably have had a heck of a career as a fairly decent auto mechanic. It also wasn’t the life experiences it gave me either, although without the paper my kid would likely have different godparents and I would have been deprived of the opportunity to return the favor.

I still can’t adequately explain what it is that makes student media matter so much, whether it’s the paper I worked for, the papers I advised or the papers I never ever knew of before a crisis threatened them.

What I can say is that I love reading the articles the students write, as I wonder how much blood, sweat and tears went into just getting that inverted-pyramid piece to hold together. I love seeing those 20-somethings I knew through my media conference presentations or newsroom visits doing great and mighty things as reporters, editors, copy editors and more. I love it even more when I see them finding joy in life outside of the field, moving into politics, social work or psychology.

I treasure the photos I see of engagements and weddings that bloomed from seeds planted on a production night. The houses they buy, the babies they have, the lives they develop… Somehow, it all comes back to that moment they found someone else who had the weird sense of humor that grew from spending too much time in a windowless bunker that smelled of old newsprint and burnt coffee.

In all my time at all these institutions of higher learning, I’ve yet to come across another student organization or activity that even came close to what student media does, both for the campus and for its practitioners. This is something people like Jacque Carter don’t understand, because to them, it’s a pain in the ass that costs money and points out things they don’t want pointed out.

To us, it’s life.

P.S. – I passed law with a C that semester. Even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“Doane continues to threaten the organization that has become my home:” How budget cuts will kill student media at Doane University

As we outlined on Monday, the administration at Doane University plans to hit Doane Student Media (DSM) with a series of budget cuts that will likely kill student media on campus. University President Jacque Carter refuses to explain the cuts in any meaningful way, making only “refusals to comment,” according to the DSM’s coverage of the issue.

It’s easy to get lost in the daily grind of life, especially when all of us are being asked to do so much with so little in such an “unprecedented” time. However, if there’s one thing I want you to hear it’s this quote from Meaghan Stout, the EIC of the Owl and Doaneline. She’s graduating in a month, isn’t going into journalism and could probably say, “Hey, not my problem.” However, this is what she wants you to know about her and the student media at Doane University:

“Doane Student Media means more to me than I could ever put into words. I do not feel right leaving after this month when Doane continues to threaten the organization that has become my home for the past two years and I will not leave it be until I know it’s safe.”

We asked you to email Carter to express your displeasure over this, so if it sounds like you want to do that, here is his email: jacque.carter@doane.edu and below is the rest of his information.

Also, if you think he might be too busy to be bothered by emails, here is the email for Ryan Mueksch, the university’s PR person: ryan.mueksch@doane.edu

If anyone doesn’t like to see random strangers paying attention to something potentially nefarious at their institutions and making noise about it, it’s the person whose job it is to keep the image shiny and pretty.

Meanwhile,  Stout wanted to let people know that she’s both stunned and grateful for any help people are providing.

“You have no idea how much it means to know that people are listening and seeing what is happening right now,” she said in an email interview over the weekend. “When I wrote the initial article, my hope was that the Doane community would stand for us but I never imagined anyone outside of that community would reach out.”

Stout has covered multiple stories for the publications on this topic and other important issues, including a recent look at Doane’s erroneous claim of copyright against a faculty-led website. She is a senior who graduates in a month with majors in Philosophy, Religious Studies, and International Studies and minors in Asian Studies and English.

She’s also working with a shortened budget and a skeleton crew, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Usually we have revenue from advertising through our paper and website, but local businesses are struggling as well and have shown little interest in us this year,” she said. “We currently have a total of one business that has placed an ad with us so far this year, despite our reach going up, especially on our website. The pandemic has hit many local businesses in our area, affecting their ability to afford advertising which then affects our ability to stay afloat with our minuscule budget from Doane.

“We have had issues with students showing interest in working for student media because of the stress of the shortened semester and classes as well, leaving us consistently short staffed. Many of the staff I hired on before the summer decided not to come back to Doane at all. We have yet to have a complete staff this entire semester but we have gotten the paper done before deadline and out every single week.”

Retired faculty member and former media adviser David Swartzlander said the work of the students is admirable and he worries that the next generation of students at Doane won’t get the same opportunities if these cuts go through.

“It saddens me,” he said. “Look, I have a lot of good memories of students. So many of them have gone on to be successful in journalism or media. I will treasure knowing and working with those students and hoping that, in some small way, I helped them become successful. It saddens me that future students won’t get those opportunities. Journalism is all experiential learning.”

Stout said her staff is keeping the faith and pushing forward with their work in student media, all while hoping to fend off the cuts that are proposed to DSM.

“While our staff may be lacking in numbers, there is no lack of passion and commitment to getting news to the Doane community,” Stout said. “We have been working to keep traditions in tact, altering them to fit our new circumstances, which I believe has helped us stay motivated. It has definitely been a difficult time for everyone on the staff but we are doing our best to make the most of it. As soon as I told the staff about the proposed budget cuts, though, it seemed to light the fire of passion within us all again.”

In looking at Stout’s situation, the passion she and her staff have for student media almost seems antithetical. She’s graduating in a month, she’s not a journalism major, the pandemic is kicking the paper’s keester and everyone on Earth it seems is burnt to a crisp. Why is this publication at a university that’s smaller than a lot of high schools in Crete, Nebraska so important?

“First and foremost, college is about experience and education,” Stout said. “For students interested in communications, student media is a gold mine. They receive real, hands-on experience of giving interviews, communicating effectively, writing objectively and without bias, as well as how to work with deadlines. They learn how to push themselves out of their comfort zone, how to decipher fact from fiction. Even if a student isn’t going to go into journalism after college, they are only going to benefit from working in a real newsroom. Learning in a classroom is not a substitute for student media.”

In addition, Stout said student media publications have value to students and members of the university community who have no interest in ever stepping foot into a newsroom.

“Students pay a lot of money to earn a college degree, regardless of what school they go to,” she said. “They deserve to have unbiased information on the institution they are paying. For example, the Doane administration has a ‘news’ source that they send out to students, staff and faculty called The Doane Shield. The emails we receive don’t contain news. It’s a glorified puff piece on why Doane is ‘so great.’ The only news it contains is centered on successful alumni. This sad attempt at replacing student media has only made it more clear to me how much we need student media.”

Help save Doane University’s student media outlets from financial cuts that will kill them

Here’s the short version: The administration at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska waited until after a long-time faculty member and student media adviser retired before hitting Doane Student Media (DSM) with a series of budget cuts that will likely kill student media on campus. These publications have shone a light on the various problems on campus, including just recently when administrators used an erroneous copyright claim to try to silence faculty discontent.

If you are in favor of free speech and free press, and you don’t like it when administrators bully people who have the temerity to write accurate, yet unflattering, content, here’s how you can help:

This is university president Jacque Carter, who is at the center of all of this, and has not responded to student media’s request for comment (or mine for that matter).

His phone number is above in the screen capture, so you can call him, or you can email him at jacque.carter@doane.edu to make your thoughts on this matter known. Please reach out to him and tell him you don’t like the way these cuts are hurting student media.

 

If you want to learn more before you make that leap, here’s the “long version” of the story:

Student media outlets face a lot of unpleasant things, such as shriveling revenue sources and administrative overreach. When you combine the two, you get a near-fatal situation like the one the media outlets at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska currently face:

Doane Administration has proposed to cut the budget for Doane Student Media (DSM), cutting a specific amount, $5,000, each year. There has been no mention of how many years those cuts will continue, thus the budget cuts will continue indefinitely.

DSM includes student-run media outlets such as the newspaper, the website and the magazine. How the diminished budget will be split up between these has not yet been clarified.

When I first saw the $5,000 figure, I missed the “each year in perpetuity” element, so I was thinking “fundraiser.” However, plugging a exponentially growing hole in a budget isn’t happening with a bake sale or “GoFundMe” site.

This is especially true after the university already punched a giant hole in DSM’s financial boat:

The DSM budget was cut significantly before the beginning of this semester, almost in half. Nathaniel Wilson, assistant professor of Practice in Communication said the budget comes from student fees and advertising.

“Last year, 2019-2020, Doane Student Media (The budget line item for The Owl) spent $45,690.16. That was $42,471.41 from student fees, $2,822.75 from advertising, and $396.00 from “Other Income.” This year, $21,660.54 has been set aside from Student Fees,” Wilson said.

In addition to the cuts, the school is attempting to mandate that student journalists cannot be paid for their work, making the staffers’ lives even more difficult as they choose between important career experience and getting a “Joe job” so they can eat and pay rent.

In a follow-up story, DSM explained that the budget cut Wilson outlined wasn’t going to happen, based on some “clarifications” from the school’s PR department.  According to Meaghan Stout, the EIC of both The Owl and Doaneline, DSM is still getting whacked financially.

“The initial recommendation to cut the budget by $5,000 each year and completely cease to pay student-workers has not been changed,” she said in an email. “The only thing that has changed in the amount of money they said we were given for the entire year.”

This maneuver by Doane administrators isn’t a financial “belt-tightening approach” that could make sense in the time of cratering budgets during a pandemic.

It’s more like this:

Stout said she felt the reversal on this year’s cut was a case of  Doane administrators “working to cover their asses and (they) only gave us the full amount that we usually receive because of how people reacted to the news.”

“Now that they have given us the full budget, they can still feel justified in cutting our wages and our yearly budget,” Stout added. “They gave us our old budget back, only to slowly take it away again. The budget does not change the fact that student media will fail and fall apart if student workers are not paid.”

According to David Swartzlander, the recently retired former adviser of student media at Doane, the cuts reek of censorship through financial means. An ongoing battle between an inept president and the faculty there had led to multiple stories in the student paper, The Owl, and online at DoaneLine, he said.

“The administration previously had asked me when I was employed to read copy in advance, violating the university’s own policies as spelled out in the student handbook,” Swartzlander said in an email interview. “I knew the administration was unhappy with the way Doane Student Media reported the news about it.”

Swartzlander, who worked at Doane for 22 years, including 12 years as the chairman of the journalism and media department, said university President Jacque Carter had difficulty fundraising for the school, needed a “coach” to help him communicate with the faculty he oversees and played favorites in the hiring of a student dean. As the student media outlets covered all of this, it didn’t make them too popular with Carter, he noted.

“I figured that once I retired, Doane would try some way to limit or remove student media,” he said via email. “Using these budget cuts, though, seems pretty blatant. DSM’s budget is less than $50,000/year. About $3,000 comes from advertising. The rest from student fees passed directly into DSM’s account. But students were never asked if they wanted their student fees to be cut to muzzle student media. Oh, BTW, guess who makes the final recommendation about cuts to the board?”

The administration at Doane isn’t giving anyone an explanation as to why these cuts are necessary, who decided on these cuts, why these amounts were chosen or what it might take to reverse them, Stout said.

“When we reached out for comment and explanation, they replied with ‘decline to comment’ until further notice,” she said in an email. “They still have not made any official statement about the reasoning behind cutting student media. They already cut our budget after our past advisor David Swartzlander retired. To continue cutting every year seems baseless.”

Swartzlander also said he hadn’t heard anyone explain the cut.

“I haven’t heard a rationale. No one that I know has explained how they came upon that figure,” he said. “Or why it is indefinite. To me, it shows that it’s not a matter of cutting a budget, but it’s a punitive cut aimed at ridding the school of student media. Just a few years of a $5,000 cut basically would wipe out DSM.”

Although nobody seems to know what’s going on with the administration, the hope is that making them answer for their actions will lead to at least some kind of movement on the issue.

“I don’t know whether this is set in stone,” Swartzlander said. “Clearly, I hope not because I’m doing interviews with you and FIRE and I’m tweeting about it in an attempt to raise awareness of this issue. I’m hoping that alums will speak up and be heard. Perhaps they will be able to turn it around. I can’t do it alone. What can people do? Write to Doane University. Call. Email. Tell it of your displeasure with this decision.”

So, if you’re now ready to let Jacque Carter know what you think, here’s that screen shot again:

His phone number is above and his email is jacque.carter@doane.edu if you prefer to write to him. Please reach out to him and tell him you don’t like the way these cuts are hurting student media.

Student media matters too much for it to go away on the whims of an administrator and with the silence of a “no comment.”

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

I asked a colleague in PR what she would like to see in our editing class if I were to start it over from scratch and try to incorporate the needs of all our sequences into it. It took her no time to answer:

“Teach them how to self-edit,” she said. “They need to look at their copy and realize what’s wrong with it.”

Much of that would be covered with grammar and style, but here’s a key thing that often gets left twisting in the wind: Story holes.

Here’s a throwback post that explains holes, outlines why they happen and explains how to fill them. This can benefit your readers in a lot of ways.

Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

As the finishing touches take place on the next book in the “Dynamics” series (Dynamics of Media Editing), I thought it would be a good to give you a peek at a key area of writing and editing that often goes overlooked: Holes.

The idea of a hole is simple: It is the absence of something that should be there to make an item complete. A hole in a shirt, a hole in the yard or a hole in your story all fit that same basic premise. The goal of good writers is to fill in the holes that exist to keep your readers fully engaged and fully informed.

Or as we might say elsewhere, “Don’t leave me hanging, bro…”

Here’s a clip from the editing book so you can get a better sense of how this all works and how to fix it:

Filling holes

A hole in copy is when a writer raises an issue that interests a reader but doesn’t provide enough information to satisfy that interest. Editors develop an intuitive sense over time as to where holes exist and what is required to fill them. Here are some simple examples of holes and how to fill them:

 

A question with no answer: Writers often spend enough time working in a specific area of interest that they start to understand things that go beyond what readers will intuitively know. It can be jargon, historical references or “inside baseball” issues, and in most cases, the writer will assume that others know these items as well. A hole can develop in a story when a gap emerges between what the writer knows and what the readers do. Here’s an example:

Francisco Smart took over as San Antonio’s mayor six months ago, completing the end of his predecessor’s term.

This situation raises several questions including:

  • Who was the predecessor?
  • Why was he/she unable to complete the term?

You can easily fill in the hole with a simple edit:

Francisco Smart, who is completing Carol Jafkey’s term as San Antonio’s mayor, took on his current role six months ago when Jafkey moved to Arizona.

This might raise additional questions, such as “Why did Jafkey move to Arizona?” That said, you have plugged the bigger holes and you can address the additional questions later.

Any time you see a statement that has you asking a question that the writer hasn’t answered later in the story, you need to acknowledge the presence of a hole and find way to fill it.

 

An accusation with no response: News traditionally requires balance, but that’s not just an ideal associated with newspapers. Unless you want people to see you as a slanted source of information, you need to look for fairness when you are editing. In some cases, a source will fire a shot across the bow and accuse someone else of something nefarious. The first question you should ask is if that accusation needs to be in your piece in the first place or if it’s just a cheap shot that lacks value. If it merits inclusion, see what truth there is to that accusation or afford the accused an opportunity to respond so you don’t end up with a hole like this:

 

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement.

 

The accusation is pretty serious, so make sure you don’t just let it linger:

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. In each of those cases, the court has dismissed the case as being without merit.

OR

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. Wood testified in court each time that this was nothing more than a friendly poker game that Lazlo detested because he was not invited to participate.

The goal is to make sure that you don’t leave the door open on an accusation when you can easily close it and give your readers a more complete version of the truth.

 

An “oddity” with no context: Oddity is an interest element that writers often emphasize in their work to give readers a sense of how special an outcome or issue is. However, when a writer fails to provide context for that information, the readers often feel lost or don’t have a full appreciation of this rarity. Here’s an example:

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds pitched an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time in major league history that a pitcher accomplished this feat.

 

A couple questions are left unanswered here:

  • Who did it first?
  • When did he do it?

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds threw an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time since 1940 that a pitcher accomplished that feat.

Or

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis joined Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians as the only pitchers to throw opening-day no-hitters in major league history.

However, to plug both holes, you need to reconsider the approach a bit:

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis became the second player in the last 78 years to throw an opening-day no-hitter, joining Cleveland’s Bob Feller who first accomplished the feat in 1940.

That plugs both holes and helps the readers understand the rarity of the feat.

Any time you have an oddity, you run the risk of having a hole in the story. Make sure you edit to provide context and meaning to help your readers more fully understand the magnitude of what you want them to know.