Jim Bouton: A truth-teller who showcased the value of voice in writing

BallFour

My first copy (of many) of “Ball Four.” The best 50 cents I ever spent.

I found myself speechless last night when I learned of the death of the man who taught me to love voice in writing.

Jim Bouton, a major-league baseball pitcher in the 1960s and 1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 80, the victim of several strokes and a condition called vascular dementia.

I felt like I just got punched in the heart, a somewhat ridiculous notion given that I’d never met the man. However, I really felt like I KNEW him, a testament to his ability to write in a way that put his voice inside my head.

Bouton was somewhat unremarkable as a pitcher, compiling a record of 62-63, earning one all-star bid and one World Series title. He was, however, a remarkable storyteller and chronicler of a single season with the Seattle Pilots, a team that itself lasted for only one year. Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” told the stories of life inside the locker room, on the team bus and within the players’ lives in a way that had never been done to this degree before.

Others had written books that took people inside the locker room before Bouton came along and others wrote far more shocking locker room books after the publication of “Ball Four.” However, what made Bouton stand out, at least in my mind, was his voice and the way he spun his tales. The man had a way of making the reader feel like each story within the book was a shared experience from a close friend.

I came across my first copy of the book at a garage sale when I was about 20 years old. I had heard about “Ball Four” when I read a sports column a year or two earlier, so when I saw the rumpled paperback for sale, 50 cents seemed like a decent investment.

It was love at first read.

What struck me immediately was what struck Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam, who wrote in a review that “Ball Four” was “a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.” The opening line lets you into Bouton’s life in an unvarnished, honest and fearful way:

“I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams…”

His dreams were those of a pitcher: To find his way back to the big leagues. To win games and become an award-winner. To beat his old team, the one that tossed him aside when he hit rock bottom. He freely admits that he doesn’t expect any of those dreams to happen, but he still wants to chase them. He wants to see if he has a little bit left in the tank.

The book doesn’t just chart the dreams of one man, but the realities of many men of that time. Ballplayers had been venerated through “milk and cookies” reporting, as Bouton noted. Their exploits on the field had been catalogued and deified while their exploits off the field had escaped notice in the press, with a wink and a nod from fawning reporters. The men engaged in all sorts of activities from popping “greenies” (amphetamines) to improve their play to “beaver shooting,” which involved spotting good-looking women in the stands during a game.

(Ballplayers cheating on their wives was a big reveal in “Ball Four.” The line that sticks out in my mind was Mike Hegan’s response to the question, “What’s the hardest thing about being a professional ballplayer?” Hegan: Explaining to your wife why she needs a shot of penicillin for your kidney infection, a clear reference to picking up an STI while on the road.)

Bouton took on issues of race, gender and fame in his book in a way that rankled the old guard of the game. He wrote about the heroes of the game, including Mickey Mantle, in such a way that he was cast out as a baseball pariah. (My edition was his 1980 update, which included his life after the original book had been published. He noted that the San Diego Padres burned copies of his book and left them for him in the visitor’s locker room. Pete Rose, who would later be banned from baseball for far worse transgressions than Bouton purportedly committed, once stood on the top step of the dugout and screamed at Bouton: “FUCK YOU, SHAKESPEARE!” Reporter Dick Young called Bouton a “social leper.”)

The irony was that the more often the baseball establishment tried to discredit and shame Bouton, the more frequently people bought his book to see what the buzz was all about. As I dug into the book, 20 years after its first pressing and 10 years after my edition had been published, I found myself transported to this incredible island of misfit toys filled with humor and strangeness. Each time I came across a passage I liked, I ripped off a small piece of my reporter’s notebook and bookmarked it. Eventually, the bookmarks so overwhelmed the book that that they essentially lost value.

“Ball Four” became one of about four books I tried to reread at least once per year, as it provided joy and new insights in each reading. At 20, the 30-year-old Bouton seemed like an elder statesman, a wizened truth-teller and inside source to me. When I read it at age 30, I saw Bouton as an every man, someone who dealt with family troubles, work hassles and a day-to-day life that was both remarkable and ordinary. When I read it at 39, I found myself focusing on the update, “Ball Five,” where he attempted a baseball comeback at age 39. The sense of longing and the sense of a need to scratch an itch, to right a wrong and to write one last chapter made sense to me, even though I’d never once thrown a knuckle ball.

The rereadings I did between now and then have actually shaped a lot of what you read here on the blog and in the textbooks I wrote for SAGE. I found myself focusing on a few elements of Bouton’s writing that gave it the vibe and feel that keeps me coming back to it time and time again. Here are three things I got out of it that I hope will inspire your writing as well:

VOICE: In writing the book, Bouton had to make notes about various situations as they happened on anything he could find. In the retrospective shows about his efforts, he displayed a trove of cocktail napkins, hotel stationary and plane tickets with pencil-scrawled bits of information. Once he was safely back in the confines of his home or his hotel room, he would use those notes to flesh out his thoughts by speaking into a portable tape recorder.

The “write it like you would say it” motif is a large part of what makes the book readable and engaging and gives it a true sense of voice. Although I don’t use the recorder trick to do so, I try to write like I would speak when I’m putting together almost anything that doesn’t involve academic research. (Academics don’t like voice. They want everything to sound like it’s being chronicled in a British accent by a guy with a bow tie and a stick up his keester.)

One of my students told me, “It’s weird but when I am reading the chapters, I hear your voice in my head.” I wasn’t sure how to take that at the time, so I told her, “I hear voices in my head, too. My doctor says there’s medicine for that, but I’m afraid I’d get lonely.” I also figured that she could hear the voice because she HAD heard my voice in class. However, I ran into a student who was using the book for his class at another university and the first thing he told me was, “You sound exactly like I thought you would.”

Once you get good at the 5W’s and 1H and you can nail down a fire brief with the best of ’em, you get a little more license to write stories that require voice and feeling. The ability to use that voice, not for your own edification, but to tell stories that connect with your readers, can be a huge benefit for everyone involved. Start now by finding that voice and seeing how well it works as you tell stories.

HONESTY: Journalists are required to tell truth to power, regardless of the cost. Many of us, myself included, fall short in that area on a fairly regular basis. We don’t want to go into the corner and fight for the puck. We don’t want to ruffle feathers of sources that were decent to us or who might find a way to make our lives hellish. We don’t want to rock the boat. So, we don’t say what we see or dig into those darker corners for fear of what it might lead to.

In his life after baseball, Bouton worked as a television sports journalist for six years, where he found that telling truth to power or focusing on things the powers-that-be don’t want you to focus on led to just as many problems in media as they did in baseball. He was shunned by other journalists and players were all warned to “watch what you say” when they saw Bouton coming.

Bouton’s honesty cost him a lot in life. He lost his job in baseball, although Bouton critics would point out his pitching in 1970 had a good deal to do with that as well. He angered people in baseball so much that he wasn’t able to attend funerals for his former teammates and he never got invited to baseball events like “Oldtimers’ Day.” (As Bouton noted, “Understand, everybody gets invited back for Oldtimers’ Days, no matter what kind of rotten person he was when he was playing. Muggers, drug addicts, rapists, child molesters all are forgiven for Oldtimers’ Day. Except a certain author.”)

What struck me, however, wasn’t Bouton’s honesty about the world at large or about the escapades of his teammates, but his personal honesty. In the second edition of “Ball Four,” he talks about getting divorced and how scary it was for him. In his third update to the book, he discusses the death of his daughter, Laurie, who was killed in a car accident in 1997. In both cases, his vulnerability is as clear and prominent as it was in the original text.

He fears being cut and says as much. He worries about his teammates who are seen as nothing but bargaining chips to be shuttled around the league for other pieces of the team’s puzzle. He worries about money, security, family and more. He lets you in as a reader and that’s what makes his stories feel the way they do.

Most of what I write doesn’t have a lot of room for voice or this kind of honesty, but I push it where I can because as I’ve told anyone who will listen, I don’t just want to be a name on a book spine. It’s why I reach out to teachers who adopt the texts and respond to students who email me with questions. (It’s also why I actively try to thank the students who are given extra credit in their classes to find typos in the books and email me with their discoveries.)

Honesty breeds humanity and it makes for much better stories and connections between the reader and the author. Not every story will call for that, but it’s worth it to try when the opportunity presents itself.

HUMOR: The greatest compliment I can pay to anyone is to say, “You really made me laugh.” Bouton really made me laugh.

In some cases, it was with simple statements: “Did you know ethyl chloride can be fun?”

In other cases, it was with just crude stories, such as the time he explained how Ray Oyler caught a curveball right in the cup while warming up a pitcher in the bullpen. (Back then, the cup was a metal insert into the jock strap. Hitting someone in the cup was called “ringing the bell.”)

In most cases, it was just the way he told me about bits of life that helped me feel like I knew him. His adopted son from Korea was learning English and was doing well, although occasionally he would mix something up like burping and then saying, “Thank you.” His take on teammate Gary Bell closing the ninth inning of a game had a similar flair: “It was a minor miracle. He’s supposed to pitch tomorrow, he ran 15 wind sprints before the game and ate three sandwiches in the fourth inning. When he came into the clubhouse in the seventh to put on his supporter, he asked no one in particular if it was too late to take a greenie.”

(Bouton also wasn’t afraid to offer self-deprecating statements. He explained that he was such a poor hitter that his teammates nicknamed him, “Cancer Bat.”)

Back then and even today, people are far too serious. I can already hear people aghast at the idea of laughing at casual drug use or mocking a child who was learning a second language. Some people are perpetually offended and look at anything as a chance to pontificate on a point of extremely limited merit. What those people fail to understand is that some things can just be funny without leading to a higher discussion of larger issues.

I love funny things, even if not everyone can agree with what makes something humorous. It’s why I try to weave odd little Easter Eggs into the books. (You might notice that the phone number I use every time I need to reference one is 867-5309. If you don’t get it, look it up.) It’s why I try to use examples that are less stringent public policy and more “a guy in a onesie was arrested with his cat named Spaghetti.” Humor helps us remember things. It helps us learn. It also helps us enjoy life a little more.

If there’s one thing “Ball Four” taught me, that was it.

And that if you want to win, pretty much have to “smoke ’em inside.”

(If you want to understand that line, go read the book. It’s worth it.)

 

 

Unblock this: Modern advertising and why we hate it

According to the media-writing book:

Advertising is about more than telling people what to buy and where to buy it. It is a communication format that mixes information and persuasion elements in an attempt to convince audience members to act. The desired action can take many forms, including purchasing a product, supporting a candidate or forming an opinion. In addition, some advertising is geared toward preventing action, such as buying some other company’s product, supporting a different candidate or changing an opinion.

Much of what makes this happen is about knowing your audience, which we discussed at length elsewhere in this blog and in these books. Demographics, geographics, psychographics and more all play a role in making sure the message gets from a valued organization to an interested and engaged receiver. Given what most of us experience on a daily basis, particularly on the web, that might seem as idealistic as taking Cinderella as your spirit animal.

If you want to know why advertising and media operations are in such ugly spots today, consider a recent experience I had in trying to read an online column. See if it matches with what you tend to experience and then ask yourself if that initial paragraph meets with reality:

One of my favorite authors, Terry Pluto, writes about Cleveland sports for the Plain-Dealer’s website and a link to one of his columns popped up in my Facebook feed. I clicked on the link and hopped over to the PD’s site, only to get a lock screen in which it noted I was using an ad blocker and asked me to disable it.

Some sites give you an option to continue without shutting off the blocker. Some try to guilt you into shutting it off. Some are like a Joe Pesci character on a meth bender, demanding you turn off the frickin’ blocker, you frickin’ mook… In this case, the PD gave me the “shut it off” option and nothing else. (Previous times, I got an option.)

As I noted earlier, I’m OK with paying for content. I’m also fine with the model that has driven media for decades through its salad days: Ads pay the bills for the content. However, consider these crucial messages that I got as a result of shutting off the blocker:

AdBlock1

Um… OK, apparently “history” is now about ’70s fashion and boobs… And thanks for trying to entice me with the “not suitable for all eyes.” It’s like the Simpsons monorail trick, but with sexual intrigue.

AdBlock3

AdBlock4

What the internet apparently thinks it knows, is that I’m broke, looking to cheat on my wife/get murdered and I have attention deficit disorder since it gave me TWO of these ads. It also presupposes that “older women” means anyone who can buy booze without the clerk breaking out a black light on her ID and that I wasn’t thinking, “Isn’t that Elizabeth Shue?” Moving on…

AdBlock6

If you touch your lip, you’re dying of cancer. Got it. Thanks.

AdBlock2

I’m not really deaf. I’m just ignoring you…

And finally:

AdBlock5

(I spent three minutes trying to type a word that effectively captures that sound I make when I’m feeling like I’m throwing up in my mouth. Whatever that noise is, fill it in here…)

I’m guessing your experiences are somewhat similar to mine, with tweaks for age brackets and theoretical senses of what “kids your age” want to see: Hot chicks/dudes are waiting in your area… 10 simple ways to stop (Acne/HPV/Failing Calculus for a third time)… SHOCKING! You won’t believe what (Fill in your childhood Disney Show love interest) looks like now!…  Drivers in (fill in your area) can BEAT SPEED TRAPS…

This is what advertising has devolved into for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s cheaper: You can place millions of impressions for the cost of what it would take to get a full page ad in a major metro paper.
  2. You have wider reach: A newspaper or a broadcast signal can only reach so far. An internet ad can come from anywhere on earth (except our old newsroom, where apparently you can’t get a signal to save your life).
  3. Fewer risks/restrictions: There used to be a lot of vetting and careful checking of ads and products. Now, ad groups and sites and collectives just send out anything as long as the CC number works or the check clears.
  4. Money: Media outlets have always been accused of being cash whores when it comes to advertising. Back in the earlier days when money was free-flowing, they could rebut this by avoiding sketchy ads. In the “we’re still OK” days, they were more like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Today? Um…  My only analogies will get me redflagged by my editor, so just think of the lowest level of willingness to do stuff for money you can and you’re about there…

The unfortunate byproduct of this approach is a race to the bottom for advertising in the same way there appears to be a race to the bottom in news and other media fields. It can be easy to go along with the crowd in this regard, but if you want to make your advertising worth something, think about what it is you’re trying to do to create a message that reaches your readers and effectively evokes something from them. A great example of this just came out today (h/t Al Tompkins) with Nike showcasing the Women’s World Cup Team victory:

 

And here’s my favorite one from a few years back that still gives me the chills:

Nike gets it: Tap into something. Know your audience. Showcase the emotions associated with those people.

In the soccer one, it was one of announcing their presence with authority. With the Cavs one, it was that complete sense of quiet disbelief. The audience EXPECTED the women’s team to win and so it talked about the greatness of that team. Cleveland had gotten crushed so many times before, the audience EXPECTED the Cavs to lose (especially after going down 3-1 in the series). It got the emotions just right and it didn’t layer on the schmaltz.

If advertisers want to get beyond an eyeball grab, they have to fit more into this mold and touch on what we talked about at the beginning of the post. If the media companies that take their money want people to shut off the ad blockers, they’re going to have to ask questions that go beyond, “And what’s the 3-digit verification code on the back of the card?”

And if I ever want to eat lunch again, I’m not ever seeing another episode of Dr. Pimple Popper.

You get what you pay for: Three reasons why it’s stupid to complain about the cost of journalism

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl wrote a nice local column that took a look at how people consistently run red lights the corner of 60th and Capitol. The piece ran in the wake of a car wreck that killed an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, and was the kind of thing more papers would have done back in the days when staffs were robust and smoking was allowed in the newsroom.

I’ve linked to the article here, but most of you won’t be able to see it because it’s only accessible to the paper’s subscribers. When venerable journalist Crocker Stephenson, who used to work for the Journal-Sentinel, posted the piece to his Facebook wall, a number of people groused about their inability to access Stingl’s work.

Stephenson was not sympathetic:

Stephenson

In response, several people broke out the traditional diatribes against such larceny:

  • Print is dead!
  • You don’t cover the right stuff!
  • Paywalls are a tool of the man!
  • It’s stupid to pay for stuff like this because the internet is free!

 

Following the trail of breadcrumbs that led newspapers from being important local sources of information to disemboweled corporate shells would take far too long for a post like this. It would also take way too long to debate the merits of various profitability models that could return news organizations to prominence. However, in defense of the field itself, I’ll simply give you three reasons why complaining about having to spend your hard-earned couch-cushion cash on news is just plain dumb:

WORK COSTS MONEY: As dumb as that statement sounds, it seems necessary to make it up front. When your dishwasher decides to start flooding the house on a random Tuesday night, you call a plumber and beg someone to come over and stop the hydro-destructive force in your kitchen. When that guy or gal comes over and fixes the problem, you wouldn’t think to just say, “Thank you. I’m going on Facebook right now and putting a “like” on you today! Goodbye!”

The person did work, and you’re going to pay for it.

Truth be told, journalism ALWAYS cost money, but the readers didn’t notice because they weren’t footing the bill. It’s like picking up a prescription when you have insurance: You pay your $10 or $20 that is your part of the deal and the insurance company picks up the rest of the tab. It’s when your insurance is gone that you notice, “Holy crap! That’s some expensive stuff!”

For years, advertisers accounted for most of the costs of the work. Newspapers and magazines were chock full of large advertisements for everything from clothing stores to car dealerships. The money flowed freely, as newspapers could deliver eyeballs to the advertisers and thus demonstrate value to them. The ad money covered the big costs of doing journalism while your subscription or copy price was simply a token of good will.

The one benefit the audience had to the newspaper was in its sum total of eyeballs. The higher the circulation, the more newspapers could charge for ads. The system worked until it didn’t. (How and why it didn’t could take up a dozen books, but it’s not Craigslist’s fault, despite what publishers and hedge-fund managers who own newspaper stocks will tell you.)

Now you’re being asked to pay full price for the cost of journalism and it suddenly looks exorbitant.

In addition, the reason it’s easier to short journalists is because it never seems like we are saving you from a disaster like the tow-truck driver who gets your broken car off the freeway or the tree surgeon who pulls the giant oak that fell during a storm off your house. We don’t have a special set of tools that leave you in awe or a product that you can show other people to say, “Check out what I bought!”

However, journalism is work. It costs money to do the work. You need to pay for it if you want or need it.

YOU’RE NOT PAYING FOR WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE PAYING FOR: People often assume that becoming a journalist has been a life-long ambition for anyone who entered the field after seeing “All The President’s Men” or “The Paper.” Truth be told, I never wanted to be a journalist or a journalism professor growing up. My freshman year of college, my life-long goal of becoming a lawyer was crushed after one bad Poli Sci course, so I went hunting for another major.

I knew I could write, so I figured on a degree in English, a subject I had dominated throughout high school and even in college. When I went home for Christmas break that year, I told my father that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer and that I was looking around at my options. Dad spent his entire career in a factory, so he was always practical in his advice: “Just make sure you can get a job. Don’t do something stupid like majoring in English or something like that.”

OK, that shot that.

I found journalism shortly after that and realized that with a few tweaks and overhauls, the writing I did in English could translate to this new field. The reason I stuck with it was because there WAS a job at the end of the rainbow for this major and it was one my father could easily see. He read the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel cover to cover every day. He saw the newspaper as a tangible representation of careers in journalism.

When I got my first reporting gig, Mom bought a subscription to the State Journal and had the paper mailed to her. She would cut out and keep my articles. Again, it was that dead-tree-and-ink element that showcased my livelihood.

The problem now is that those rolled-up wads of tree pulp are landing on fewer and fewer doorsteps, thus giving people the idea that “Print is dead.” Furthermore, the users always assumed that what their money paid for was that physical publication. Thus, as those things became smaller and less frequent, and people found their information in ways that didn’t involve deforestation, they figured there was no point in paying money for journalism.

The truth is, we were actually paying for information, but we never saw it that way. It was far easier for us to understand that simple goods-for-cash exchange that took place on street corners, through subscriptions or via news stands. Because we never really saw it as a knowledge-for-cash exchange, when the “good” went away, we didn’t see why money should be involved. As newspapers revenues shrunk, we saw losses of people and pages. The people? We didn’t notice that so much from the outside, but the pages? Yeah, we saw those cutbacks in newspapers and magazines.

To complain about paying for newspaper content is to say the content itself lacks value. That can be a perfectly legitimate statement, depending on the quality of the content or the cost of the access. However, when you WANT something, it demonstrates that the “something” has some level of value to you. Paying for it showcases the way you value it.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR: When I was a grad student, I ended up at a conference in Washington, D.C. and a bunch of us decided to go out for a meal. What was supposed to be a run for cheap Chinese food somehow landed us at a restaurant where we were the worst-dressed people in there and most of us were clad in reasonably decent garb. We didn’t know how pricey the meal was going to be until one of the people in our party reached for a piece of bread and dropped some crumbs on the linen table cloth.

Out of nowhere, a guy in a white button-down jacket appeared with a little metal device. He scraped the crumbs into a white-gloved hand and then disappeared just as quickly.

Yeah, we were in for an expensive night.

Contrast that with what I usually see when I’m heading out for a meal: A disgruntled employee behind the counter at a local fast food joint takes someone’s order, screws it up twice and then can’t make change without an iPhone app. The customer gets the wrong meal, but usually just shakes his or her head and mutters something about “kids these days,” even if the employee is 35.

The point is, you get what you pay for. That’s true even in journalism.

When you’re getting stuff for free, it’s usually of a lower quality. What you’re paying for when you buy a subscription to the Times or the Post or the Journal-Sentinel is quality work. You’re paying to have someone who went to school to learn a trade present you with quality content that has value to you. You’re paying for expertise and experience. It’s the same way with the plumber scenario above: You could call your buddy to come over and “give it a shot” when it comes to getting the dishwasher under control, but you figure it’s worth the money to get someone in there who knows how to fix the thing properly.

The nice thing is that a lot of people who commented on Stephenson’s post saw things this way as well. Long-term subscribers saw the value in the content and noted they had willingly paid for it for years. My folks still get the paper delivered every day and on more than a few occasions, my mother has told me she worries that the paper might cease to be at some point. Thus, she pays for a subscription to help support the cause.

In looking at the costs associated with the paper, we aren’t talking about a critical spending decision, either. One offer let you pay something like a buck a month for three months of digital access. My print subscription to the Oshkosh Northwestern was something like $14 a month and that came with unlimited digital access. As Stephenson’s post points out, 33 cents gets you access to the whole paper.

(Conversely, it costs $2.99 to buy three lollipop hammers in Candy Crush and rarely do those things help as much as you think they will.)

Sure, I could argue that these publications aren’t what they once were, but I also know that candy bars used to be a nickel, but grousing about that doesn’t make them any cheaper now.

Besides, as my father and I like to say about buying random stuff at yard sales, I’ve wasted far more money on far dumber things.

 

“Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

As we have discussed here before, I spend a less time thinking about how a headline or a photo or anything else can be awesome and a lot more time thinking about how it can go horribly wrong. That level of mild-to-moderate paranoia keeps me out of more than the average amount of trouble when it comes to my writing here and elsewhere.

I’m teaching an editing class this summer, which has me on the lookout for gaffes, stumbles and other snafus that pop up on all manner of platforms. Although horrible spelling and awkward moments make up a great deal of my finds, I have noticed more than a few areas in which the way in which a word can be interpreted or misread can lead to problems within writing.

One of my favorites came from USA Today as the country was crawling out from under the mortgage meltdown:

Shot.jpg

The questions I had were a) do I get to pick where they shoot me? and b) where do I sign up?

Obviously, in this case, the writer meant “shot” to be a synonym for “chance.” However, “get shot” can also easily be interpreted to mean someone put a bullet in you. (I suppose if you want to get technical, it could also mean a needle full of something or a small glass of hard liquor. “Barkeep! I’ll take a Tequila Sunrise and a shot of “Loan Abatement.”)

A similar problem emerges in this headline:

GayStraight

(Glad they finally got those Gay-Straight Alliance ruffians to stop picking on people in the school…)

Stressing different words in different ways can help you avoid issues like this one as well:

WalkerPodcast

The title in the tweet showcases the problem: “You can’t recall courage with Scott Walker.” The title is a play on words, in that Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. However, on a first pass, the word “recall” more likely sounds like people are trying to remember something. (“I clearly recall putting my wallet in my pocket, but now it’s missing.”) So, it sounds like we can’t remember anything about courage when it somehow relates to Scott Walker. (“I can’t recall any acts of courage on the part of Scott Walker.”) I’m sure that sits well with the former governor…

In any case, the point is that had the writers read these items aloud, we wouldn’t be debating the issue. Other similar problems happen when you get a bad headline break. In print, when you “break” a headline between columns, you create a natural pause at the end of the first line, similar to a comma. On one line, the head makes sense:

Smith, Jones dead even in polls

However, when split at the wrong spot, you get a zombie movie of sorts:

Smith, Jones dead
even in polls

When this happens in print, it’s often due to layout issues and those issues can lead to some awkward headlines:

Blows

(Wow… the soccer team must be exhausted…)

Even in digital copy, this can happen (h/t Testy Copy Editors)

SplitsMatter

How does one get “robbed accidentally?” (To be fair, it could be worse, I’ve seen “robbed” end up getting spelled “robed,” which always makes me think of Hugh Hefner for some reason…)

Here are a couple points to help you avoid these problems:

  • Read your stuff aloud: I often tell students to read their copy out loud, as that will help them find grammar errors, run-on sentences and structural issues. One other benefit is that if you emphasize different words in different ways while reading the copy aloud, you can see how something might not read quite right.
  • Watch your swaps for size: In many cases, the headline errors come when people are trying to swap out a longer word for a shorter one or (occasionally) vice versa. This is how you get things like “shot” for “chance” and similar errors.
  • Keep an eye on your breaks: When you have a break in a headline, regardless of platform, realize it’s going to shift the way in which the content is read. Therefore, you need to put the breaks in the right spots to avoid people hearing that two candidates are “dead… even in polls”
  • Beware of potentially hazardous word choices: We talked about this before when it comes to reading like a 12-year-old boy, but it’s not just the double-entendre sex-ed stuff that can get you into trouble. A headline on suburban sprawl could have a politician hoping to “retard growth.” That word, although technically accurate, has the potential for danger, as the “R-word movement” can clearly explain. All sorts of words can create danger for you, so always think, “How can this go wrong?” and you’ll save yourself some explaining and agony for sure.

Learn to love data reporting the NY Times way

The New York Times has provided all journalists, journalism educators and journalism students with a golden opportunity to learn data journalism. The paper posted its entire data-journalism curriculum online for free, allowing anyone with an interest to go through the entire three-week course that its staffers use to become familiar with data.

Lindsey Rogers Cook, one of the people responsible for compiling this work, said the paper saw the importance of data literacy and knew it could help others who didn’t have the same resources as the times:

While we recognize most publications aren’t able to offer their reporters a three-week data training, we know that increasing data skills is hardly a Times-specific need. Even in smaller newsrooms, making time to teach someone data skills has benefits in the long run. But it can be difficult and time-consuming to build out proper materials, especially if developing training programs isn’t your sole job.

So, we’ve decided to share our materials in the hopes that students, professors or journalists at other publications might find them useful.

Over the last four rounds of data training, Digital Transition has amassed dozens of spreadsheets, worksheets, cheat sheets, slide decks, lesson plans and more, created by me, my fellow Digital Transition editor Elaine Chen and various speakers around The Times.

 

Aside from including those key elements, the paper included a great tip sheet that echoes my own love of paranoia: How Not To Be Wrong.

Even if you don’t want to go through the whole course, it’s worth seeing to what degree these items could weave into your reporting toolbox. Even more, it’s worth seeing what the Times does because far too often, journalists excuse themselves from doing hard-hitting data pieces by saying, “Look it’s not like we’re the New York Times or anything…”

Well, now you can be. Give it a shot.

Writing 101: Don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me something. Just say it.

Zoe got pretty excited this weekend because her “favorite TV show” (whatever it is this particular week) was coming out with a second season. The first season, as shows like this one are wont to do, ended with a cliffhanger. The main character overheard her aunt and the school’s vice principal talking about the girl’s dead mother. She then walked out and said to the VP, “How did you know my mother?”

Cut to black, thanks for watching, see you next season (maybe).

This kind of teaser approach can work well in ongoing serial dramas, but it’s a lousy technique for media writing. Your readers want to know what’s going on right away and they don’t want to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” to find key information. Additionally, this approach is a waste of time and space for busy journalists who want to get their job done and move on to the next important story.

We have talked about burying the lead before, so that’s not something worth rehashing. Instead, let’s look at the body of stories for print and broadcast and see how this problem can manifest itself and what we can do to fix it.

PRINT:

In most print stories, we like to operate in paraphrase-quote structure, with the paraphrase introducing the quote and the quote delivering on the promises established in the paraphrase. In the book, we refer to this as the “diamond ring” approach, with the paraphrase serving as the setting and the quote serving as the jewel.

The problem is when your setting doesn’t do its job and instead just tells your readers that you’re going to tell them something:

Mayor Bill Jackson talked about his thoughts on giving firefighters a raise.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The paraphrase talks about the content that is upcoming, but all it really does is tell me that you’re going to tell me something. When you run into a jam like this, you have several options:

Cut the first line of the quote and retool it to make it part of the paraphrase.

Mayor Bill Jackson said although he supports firefighters and their needs, no one in the city is getting a raise this year.

“I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites,” he said.

Find additional valuable information to include in the paraphrase that can still allow the quote to stand on its own.

Mayor Bill Jackson said he has supported raises for firefighters in the past three budgets but he can’t do it this year because the budget won’t allow it.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The main goal is to tell your readers something of value in each and every sentence you provide. If you just tell them that you’re going to tell them something, you’re not doing that.

BROADCAST:

In television and web-based video packages, reporters have to find ways to introduce their soundbites, the broadcast equivalent of quotes, in a way that adds value to the story. These introductory statements are known as lead-ins.

One of more common failings of new broadcasters is to just tell people the soundbite is coming. Here’s some examples from the media-writing book:

Horrible lead-in: In responding to the budget crisis, University System President Nate Craft had this to say:

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Bad lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says a 20 percent loss in revenue would force campuses to cut faculty and staff positions.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Better lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says the budget cuts the governor proposed would substantially weaken all of the campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

In each case you see improvement, although even these lead-in sentences would be a bit long for broadcast. If you feel they are overly long. You can always cut them in half:

Nate Craft is the university system president. He says the budget cuts would weaken campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

 

Can you learn to be nosy? (and four tips to help your journalism students, regardless of the answer)

I offered to help a class of high school journalism students learn anything they wanted to know about the field. The requests they made were fairly standard, so much so, that I already had lectures built on them: How to be a good leader. How to edit and coach writers. How to write tighter sentences.

The one request I had trouble with, however, came from the teacher of the class:

“Can you teach my students how to be nosy?”

Her plea came from a place of journalistic angst. To find stories, students needed to be more aware of their surroundings. They needed to become curious about what was going on, how things worked and why things were the way the were. Instead, her students had fallen into the rut of many young journalists, covering standard events, profiling the people they knew and generally telling the same stories over and over again.

If I could teach them to be nosy, she seemed to be saying, I could help them find better stories, poke their noses into deeper issues and generally serve as more dutiful watchdogs at the school.

My problem is that I always told students that I could teach them almost anything, but I couldn’t teach them to “wanna” when it came to doing the work and I couldn’t teach them to be nosy. Those intrinsic elements were theirs alone to control, I explained.

During the drive home from that class, I started really wondering if I was right or wrong about the nosy factor.

I know that, for better or worse, I have the nosiness trait in spades. It’s why I often get distracted during meetings with my various bosses and attempt to read the stuff on their desk. (Reading things upside down was a skill I garnered many years ago and one that has served me well.) It’s why I pick up broken lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners and other appliances I see on the side of the road and take them home to fix them. I have no need for the item, but I really want to know what broke and if it can be fixed.

It’s also why my first response to a lot of things is, “OK, fine. If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll just FOIA it.” I also find myself sucked into clickbait stories that tell me I’ll “never believe” what happened to Former Child Star X. (Spoiler alert: I could believe it.) Even with all of these ups and downs, I realized that “nosy” made me a really engaged reporter who saw stories in almost anything and it left me flabbergasted when other people didn’t.

I vividly remember a young woman in one of my writing classes as Missouri bitterly complaining about not knowing ANYONE who was interesting enough to be a personality profile subject. She ended up profiling a friend who went down to Florida with her for spring break. The profile was horrible, so I asked who else they met down there to see if I could show her some better ways to look at the assignment.

It turned out, they stayed with the friend’s boyfriend and his roommate, who was a “pubic stylist,” a term I wish I could forget.

This guy would do all sorts of “coifing” for people in that area. One such person was a woman who had just received a frog tattoo south of her hip and had asked for her pubic hair to be dyed green and shaped into a lily pad.

And this wasn’t even the weirdest styling this guy had done during that week of spring break.

“How the hell did you not see a story in that guy?” I asked with a level of incredulity I had never before reached.

She shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t really think about it…”

I often tell students that we are all born with some level of wonder, which is why a 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” Somewhere along the line, that sense of wonder gets lost or beaten out of us to the point that we stop asking “Why?” every six seconds. However, the curiosity within that inner child is only part of what makes for a nosy person (and thus a pretty tough reporter). If I had to define it, I would say “nosy” is made up of a mix of insatiable curiosity, a lack of patience, a thirst for knowledge and a healthy dash of weaseldom.

I asked the hivemind what they thought about the ability to teach “nosy” to journalism students and the degree to which I was right about it. Consider some of the answers:

If I look at this through behavior analytic lenses (because c’mon I can’t turn it off) I see being nosy as either automatically reinforcing to someone or not. It could be a conditioned behavior but I feel like you are either motivated/reinforced by being nosy or you aren’t.

 

I am not a journalism teacher, so take this with a grain of salt. I worked as a high school counselor for 16 years, as a user support rep for a data processing center in the 80s, and as a banker. I think there are some people who are just naturally curious, and want to know and understand things, and some people who just want to know enough to get them through whatever it is.

 

I chose not to go into reporting one day after a couple deaths at a fraternity on campus. You wanted me to simply walk over there and knock on the door and be a reporter and I couldn’t do it. I cried in your office. Someone went in my place, but I knew at that moment that being “nosy” was not in my DNA. I’ll challenge power structures and I’ll interview musicians, but I refuse to intrude on people’s personal lives. I admire those who can. It’s an important skill to have, and it’s the reason journalists are important. It can probably be taught, I’m sure my refusal was partly lack of experience, but I also believe some people are just born reporters.

Funny thing is that now that I’m a crisis worker I talk to people all night about their personal problems and ask totally invasive questions to get them to open up and calm down. So, maybe I had the skill but was using it in the wrong setting.

 

Some of us are curious by nature, others are not. The curious ones make the best journalists.

That said, perhaps the best perspective came from our departmental program assistant, a self-confessed fellow nosy individual. Her point was that inherent in all of us is curiosity, but the degree to which we use that for specific interests is what distinguishes us. Some people want to know things because they just want to know. Others see knowledge as an opportunity to gossip or pass along information. Still others want to know something but don’t care enough to ask about it. Curiosity is there, but perhaps the other elements don’t exist, or maybe they don’t exist in the optimum blend to create nosiness, especially the kind necessary for journalism.

With all of that in mind, here are a few observations that might help folks wondering about the nosy factor:

  • It’s all about cultivation: The discussion with our PA had me realize that nosiness is a lot like horticulture. You can buy a fully grown apple tree and transplant it into your yard to get apples. You can buy a sapling and nurture it along until it becomes a fruit-bearing tree. You can also buy a seed and grow the tree from scratch. The amount of cultivation it takes to bring that tree along starts with how developed that plant is when you get it. At the very least, however, you need a seed. You can’t grow an apple tree with an empty bucket, a handful of dirt and some wishful thinking.
  • Rebuild curiosity: Nosy requires curiosity, which many of us lose along the way. If you spend any amount of time with a 4-year-old, you understand that “Why?” seems to be the only word they know. At some point, frustrated adults push them away or it ceases to be “cool” to ask why something is the way it is. People don’t want to look dumb, so they fake it. They don’t want to look ignorant, so they ignore it. That seed is likely there, so if we can bring it back to life a bit, we can help them reengage their sense of wonder. The other elements of the recipe for nosy can get added later, but this one should be present and easy enough to tap.
  • Show them the benefits of nosy: As educators, we can reinvigorate that curiosity if we can help the students see why “Why?” still matters. This isn’t so much about pushing them to see things the way we do (assuming we’re nosy), but rather helping them to see how nosy can benefit them. One of the biggest things I think students miss in terms of being nosy is seeing how the things they could be nosy about impact them or others who matter to them. In short, they don’t capture the “this matters because” element in a personal way.
    If you told me that cutting out Diet Coke had all sorts of positive social and environmental benefits, I’d politely listen before buying another case. However, if you told me, “Here’s science that says no one who ever drank as much of this crap as you do has died by the age of 50,” I’d pay serious attention. Just like everything else in journalism, audience centricity matters in the realm of nosiness.
  • Nosy isn’t everything: As much as nosy could very well be a “nature” element, we can at the very least provide them with enough of the tools to make something good out of whatever they can nurture along. I think of it like what happened to my wife, Amy, when she was a little girl and wanted to learn how to ice skate. The instructor took one look at her and said, “You don’t know how to glide. I can’t teach you that. You’ll never be great at this.” Well, aside from being a dink who crushed the soul of an 8-year-old, this idiot essentially made my wife turn away from ice skating entirely. Could she have been the next Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamill? No, but that’s not the point.
    The point is that if he had nurtured what was there, she could have developed some acumen in this area and found an enjoyable pastime. The same is true here. Find things that can help the students become more functional journalists, work to pique curiosity and see what you can do to help them find areas of engagement that could lead to a good career. Even if they’re not nosy, they’ll do pretty well for themselves.

A Poynter Plea for Shorter Sentences and the Rosendale Theory of Speeding

A student in my reporting class turned in a story with a 64-word lead, leading me grumble about you damned kids and your hippity hoppity music again.

Ever since I taught my first writing class, I emphasized leads of 25-35 words. If you go past 35, it better be for a good reason. If you go past 40, you’d better be curing cancer with that thing.

Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one muttering about sentence length. Take a look at this piece from Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, a master of journalism who is about a dozen times smarter than I am on this stuff:

Within a text, white space is created by paragraphs. Short paragraphs create more white space. Long ones, especially in narrow columns, cast a gray shadow on the page. Without reading a word, readers see tombstones with the epitaph: “Heavy lifting.”

This dense packing of words presents itself not only in the body of stories, but even in the leads. An old nickname for this problem is “the suitcase lead.” The writer takes all the key elements, stuffs it into a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence, and slams it shut. If it doesn’t fit, the writer sits on it till it closes.

In the age of the text message, this trend seems odd.

The trend Clark outlines does seem odd, if you imagine that students are purposely writing gigantic sentences from the get-go. However, if you realize that this is more about language creep and failure to set meaningful limits, this makes sense.

Think about this like you would driving: How often to do you actively attenuate to the EXACT speed you are traveling for any extended period of time? If you’re like most of us, you’re cruising along at whatever speed everyone else is until you all spot the state highway patrol vehicle, at which point everyone starts driving 20 miles under the speed limit.

Only when you know you’re going to get crushed by a horrific ticket do you slow down, which is why a place like Rosendale, Wisconsin is so terrifying to most people.

The Village of Rosendale has about 1,000 people in it and it sits along Highway 23 just outside of the Fox Valley. Most towns of this size aren’t known for much. Rosendale is a legend for its speed-limit enforcement. If you find yourself going “just a few miles over,” you might get nailed. If you think I’m kidding, here’s a look at the T-shirts they sell in the village’s gas station:

RosendaleTshirt

The point is, they’re cracking down like hell and you knowing that puts a little sweat on your brow and removes a little lead from your foot as you drive through that little hamlet.

Think about the last time you were REALLY held to a word limit on a per sentence basis. Most professors force you to stretch for extra pages or longer essays, thus giving you a reason to infuse your writing with superfluous stuff. Even when you have word limits like on scholarship essays or eBay feedback, you’re not limited in each sentence. You can write a sentence that would put one of Bret Easton Ellis’ coked up protagonists to shame, so long as the total word count works.

When it comes to your writing, think about having that Rosendale cop sitting on your bumper, checking out your sentence length. That officer is just waiting to pounce, and all you have to do is ignore the simple rule of keeping things short and tight.

In writing longer sentences, we’re writing for ourselves, either feeling too lazy to go back and edit stuff or too proud of our winding prose to chop it back. However, the readers want to know two simple things:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why do I care?

In each sentence, you can tell the readers those ideas in a simple and easy way if you stick to the noun-verb-object structure and focus on what THEY need to know as opposed to what YOU want to tell them.

In essence, writing that way is just the ticket.

The Underwear Thief Theory of Lead Writing: When you either know too much or not enough about a Catholic school principal who was arrested at a strip club

I often joke that having spent my professional life on a crime desk meant that most of my leads essentially wrote themselves. Fire leads were basic: Fire damages house. Crime leads were basic: Guy robs store, Gal steals car and so forth.

When we got weird crimes, however, there was a difficult moment in trying to determine how much information to put into the lead while also trying to avoid putting too much information in there. It was also a game of, “What, exactly, do we care most about?”

The exercise that typifies this for my students is the one lovingly dubbed “The Underwear Thief Lead.” A story I pulled out of the Oshkosh Northwestern years ago told the tale of a guy who was arrested on suspicion of breaking into women’s homes with a ladder and stealing their underwear. Here is the original lead:

An Oshkosh man ac­cused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and ad­mitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — – including rape and murder but that his    religious  beliefs pre­vented  him   from following through.

The lead is nearly 50 words. It has a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he was sending threatening letters to people’s underpants (Dear Victoria Secret Size 8, I will find you and stretch out your waistband…). He considered himself a sexual predator? Well, I consider myself the starting center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, so let’s see how that goes… Also, what kind of religious beliefs can make you think it’s OK to break into homes, steal underwear, threaten women and so forth? (It also doesn’t help that the headline, “Thief thought of Rape, Murder,” essentially convicts him of multiple crimes before the courts get a shot at him.)

The story goes on for about a mile and a half before we ever get a “when” element, at which point in time we find out we’re hearing about this now because the guy was in court that day. If convicted, he’s facing more than 60 years in prison. There were all sorts of other “tidbits” in there, and if you’re interested, you can read the story here. 

The point of the exercise is about more than writing a lead better than what is listed above. The students need to be able to justify what they put in and what they left out. They can’t include everything, so they have to make choices. Here are some of the best discussions we’ve had over the years:

  • Age: Some students don’t see it as being important to note “A 43-year-old Oshkosh man” as it’s not a big deal. Others said it helped clarify this wasn’t a stupid frat prank, as at 43, this guy was like the creepy dude at the college bar who reeks of Polo and wants you to come to the parking lot and check out his Iroc-Z.
  • Penalty: Some want to list the EXACT number of years (62.5) while others say cutting it to a general area (more than 60) is fine. Also, should we include the fine ($125,000) or not? For some, it’s a lot of money so it matters. Others said if they had to choose between 62 years in the joint and paying $125K, they’d hock a kidney to pay the fine.
  • Lead type: Some people want to lead with the name (Christopher J. Sullivan) while others want to do an interesting action lead (delay the name). The question is how many people were likely to know him versus how many people were likely to read on after hearing about the underwear thing?
  • Level of creepy: The story goes into excruciating detail about decapitated Barbie dolls, threats to boil off people’s skin and more. How much of that can make the lead and what shouldn’t comes into play here.

This theory of trying to balance and choose came to mind today after a story about a Louisiana principal of a Catholic school resigned for a truly spectacular reason:

StripPrincipal

When it comes to the lead on this, you have an Associated Press approach that cuts to the chase:

A Louisiana Catholic school principal was arrested at a Washington, D.C. strip club after refusing to pay his bill.

It’s 19 words and right to the point. However, it’s really missing some of the nuances.

First, the guy hit the strip club while on a SCHOOL FIELD TRIP. I remember my mother freaking out when her school and my school ended up having a trip to the circus when I was in second or third grade and she saw our teacher smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer behind the big top. I can only imagine what parents at this school were thinking.

Second, the guy was drunk at 2:20 a.m., outside the club, refusing to move out of the roadway. And, again, remember this is a FIELD TRIP for a CATHOLIC SCHOOL.

Third, he had a history of problems, including the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina donations to a previous school. Still, he was a reserve officer in a local police department.

Still, the AP might not have wanted to use all the information that was in The Advocate, the local paper for this educational leader. Here’s the lead from that paper, where the writer clearly decided to go a different way:

Michael Comeau, the principal at Holy Family Catholic school in Port Allen and an educator who previously received the prestigious $25,000 Milken award, has resigned after his arrest early Friday at a Washington D.C. strip club while on a school field trip to the nation’s capital.

This is a case of throwing the kitchen sink into the lead, as it’s 46 words. The author names the person up front, relying on his presumed local fame to drive the interest. (I asked a friend who reads this paper and he said this guy isn’t a known entity, so there’s that…)

The part about him being an award-winning educator makes the lead (and about a half-dozen paragraphs throughout the story for some reason). It also updates the story to explain he resigned after the arrest, pushing up the newer stuff that AP didn’t use.

Neither of these leads hits the nail on the head, as I’m guessing more people would care about the action than the person, making the second lead a bit weaker in the approach. I’m also sure more people want to know about the field trip and the resignation than the arrest. However, WHY he was arrested (whatever the strip club/booze equivalent of “dine and dash” is) would be worth knowing up front. (There’s something in another story about his use of a service dog at the strip club, which just screams for a follow up…)

If you’re looking for a fun and yet somewhat disturbing exercise, use all the information in these two stories to determine what would make for a good 25-35 word lead for a broad audience.

Posting Schedule for Summer 2019

Given that fewer people are taking classes during summer, and yet there are several summer instructors who rely on the blog, I’m dropping back to a “summer schedule” for the next few months. What that basically means is that you’ll get two posts a week (probably Monday/Wednesday) for sure, with additional posts as needed, based on breaking news items or moments of mirth.

If you have a topic on which you would like me to write, feel free to contact me and I’ll do my best to hit on it. In the mean time, have a great summer and we’ll return to a full posting schedule (Monday-Thursday) starting in early September.

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