The Kids Are All Right: In defense of The Daily Northwestern staff and its apologetic editorial

Before we start this post, does anyone else want to take a shot at the staff of The Daily Northwestern?

In case you’re not sure about hopping on the bandwagon, but you really like piling on, here’s a brief recap of the controversy surrounding the students in Evanston: Jeff Sessions (for reasons past my understanding) spoke on the Northwestern campus about the “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda” last week and was met by protests. As one of the protests got rowdy, two journalists from the DN began doing journalism: Taking photos, interviewing people and so forth. The coverage ran across multiple platforms and showcased what happened.

Shortly thereafter, the student activists admonished the paper for running photos and calling sources (y’know, journalism stuff) because they feared the administration might punish them for their actions and the DN made it easier for the admin to find these folks. In response, the paper ran an editorial, signed by EIC Troy Closson and other members of the paper’s masthead, apologizing for covering the protest and creating “trauma” for the protestors:

One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down.


Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories.

With all of that in mind, anyone else want to kick Closson in the groin on this one? Anybody else want to pony up with a “death knell of journalism” beef? Somebody in the cheap seats want to shit-talk Northwestern because of its rep as one of the best J-schools in the country?

In case you need inspiration, here are a few things that have come through my media feeds in the past 24 hours in response to the eddy:

Did someone hack into the newspapers site and post this as a joke? I am amazed that journalists would post this for real. I will wait to see if something is up before I comment further.

In honor of full disclosure, I asked the same question when this was posted in a Badger journalism alumni chat room. One of the perils of the internet is you get to be kind of a dick really quickly instead of having to wait for the printing press to go through its machinations.

This is ghastly. Where are they getting these ideas from?

Astonishment is fun, but it’s so much more fun when you can blame everything on a generational divide:

This feels like a Gen Z thing to me, an apology characteristic of an
o’er-sensitive generation that doesn’t want to offend anyone. It’s a
neo-manifestation of the “safe space” discussion that we’ve had.

What is happening to collegiate journalism, with Gen Z at the helm, if we are now seeing student journalists backpedaling and apologizing, for reporting on events that transpire within our campus communities and for seeking out the people that they photographed or quoted —- to ensure they got it right?! I honestly cannot believe the times we are in, if this is the new norm… overly sensitive to a FAULT! This is absolutely incredible!

Damned Kids

Veteran journalist and Chicago blogger Robert Feder collected some of the national Twitter outrage, including a couple of my favorites:

Richard A. Harrison:These idiots are literally apologizing for committing journalism. God help us all. . . . It just reflects the sorry state of today’s “journalism.” In fairness to these student journalists, it’s not much of a leap from sanitizing language for political correctness (see, e.g., AP Style Manual) to apologizing for hurting people’s feelings for no apparent reason.

John Aravosis: Dear God. Northwestern University’s student paper just disciplined student journalists for covering a protest of Jeff Sessions on campus. This editorial is a disgusting un-American betrayal of the tenets of journalism. Their sin: Covering a protest and asking for interviews.

Derrick Blakley:The Daily has got it seriously twisted. You don’t ask permission for those involved in news stories whether they want to be covered or not. The protesters decided on their own to disrupt a public event. If they wanted to protect their identities, not be photographed or interviewed, they could and should have stayed home. For the Daily to cowtow to such “grievences” is to flush the basic principles of journalism down the toilet. As a embarassed Medill grad, I now know what slogan The Daily should run under their masthead: “None Dare Call This Journalism.”

Truth be told, I didn’t like the editorial any more than anyone else. I thought that the approach Harvard took to a similar concern was a much better move, and I said so at the time. However, before we go any further on this, let’s layout a few unpleasant truths:

YOUR GENERATION SUCKED, TOO: I despise generational politics because it’s essentially punching down from a position of self-delusion. I often apply the Johnny Sain Theory of Old-Timers Day here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.” So, no, you would not have run this editorial back in your day, but I bet you screwed up in some equally stupid fashion.

I remember hearing rumors of my student newspaper running the headline “VICTORY!” when Saigon fell, as the paper’s staff had been radically anti-Vietnam. I thought THAT was pathologically stupid, as did many of the adults who criticized the paper at the time. The staffers who are now in their mid 60s or older still vacillate between defending the action as “brave” or doing the “You’re too young to understand. You had to be there.” excuse.

OK, well, if that’s the case, try being here in the now as well. Your screw-ups didn’t go viral in 26 seconds, thanks to social media. Your mistakes won’t be found on Google for generations, so every time someone wonders about you, that’s the first thing that pops up. (If we want to find out what stupid crap you did “back in the day,” we’ll need access to bound volumes of crusty newsprint and a respirator to deal with the dust.)

Each of our generations has had its own crosses to bear, and the only one we all seem to have in common is having to deal with people from the previous generation telling us how much better they were at everything than we are.

MISTAKES HAPPEN. FEAR MAKES THEM MULTIPLY: You learn more by screwing things up than by ever doing them right. I believe that and if conversations with former students are any indication, they believe that, too. This is why they never come to me with stories about how they got an A on a paper and that helped them in life. Instead, the tell me about how an error cost them serious points and they never forgot the lesson.

Mistakes happen and seeing what the results of those mistakes are can help you get better at stuff in the future. What doesn’t help is when you’re afraid of making another mistake.

What essentially happened here was that the paper did what it instinctively felt was right: cover the event. People screamed at them that they were wrong and they probably freaked out and got scared. This is normal human behavior. (Things like running toward a fire, asking what caliber gun blew someone’s head off and bothering folks at the scene of a fatal accident takes some practice.) So in their panic, they went the other way and tried to make things OK for THOSE people, succeeding in pissing off OTHER PEOPLE, who now feel they need to apologize to their readers, the alumni of the Almighty Deity School of Journalism and Awesomeness, anyone ever impacted by apologies and the entire field of journalism itself.

So, with all that in mind, I can only imagine how little impetus these students are going to have in ever covering anything ever again, other than local corn roasts and places where people get awards for saving puppies from a fire.

Being afraid sucks and it cuts into productivity. When all you’re thinking is, “Don’t screw up,” you’re not thinking, “Let’s do a good job.” If you put pressure on yourself not to screw up THIS ONE THING, you’ll likely dodge that mistake but make six other worse ones.

It’s best to think of screw ups like this like we do any other wound:

  • It’s going to hurt for a while. How much depends on the severity.
  • You can’t un-hurt yourself. You can only heal.
  • It’s harder for a wound to heal when it is constantly being picked at and reopened.
  • Eventually a scar forms and it reminds you of what happened so you don’t do it again.

BEING A DICK DOESN’T SOLVE ANYTHING: When was the last time someone was a total a-hole to you and it led to a positive result? I’m picking through my memories and I’m having a hard time coming up with a single instance of that in my own life. Even if the person was right, it usually took a long time for me to figure out the lesson associated with that person’s diatribe. Even more, I still usually didn’t take the lesson to heart and all I could remember thinking was: “Yeah, but what a dick…”

One year, we took a group of student journalists to cover a Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. The students were from various small programs and had limited experience covering anything close to this kind of thing. Still, the Twins gave them one-day, full-access press credentials and let them have at it.

The game was a crazy one and even the most veteran journalists were running around like their hair was on fire trying to get stuff done. One of our students was in a pack of reporters around a player, asking questions. The student did what he thought he should have done: Waited until everyone was done and then ask a question when the other reporters left. It turned out to be a faux pas, confusing the player and angering some of the other journalists. Some people did the “damned kids” thing or just rolled their eyes.

Pat Borzi, a journalist who covered decades of sports stuff including pro baseball and the Olympics, took a different tactic. He waited until both of them were off deadline, and in a mostly empty press box. He took the student to the side and explained what the kid did that was wrong and what he should have done. He did it in a stern but fair voice, journalist to journalist. He also talked to me and my fellow adviser about this so we could share it with our group. I greatly admired his approach and I consider him to be a role model for how social learning should happen in journalism.

Had Borzi ripped into the kid in the press box or came up to me and yelled about these damned kids and how they have no business in here, no one would have learned anything and I never would have appreciated his expertise and wisdom.

I would have just left thinking, “What a dick.”

That’s what I thought when I was reading through the Twitter posts, even those whose core ideas (don’t apologize for doing journalism, worry less about what other people think about etc.) I agreed with. And I’m not even the one getting shredded out there.

If you want people to get better at something, treating them poorly for failing to do it right is the least effective way to pull that off.


So, anyone else want to take one last shot at the paper? Last chance… OK.

Now I’ll shut up so you can listen to Closson, as he took to Twitter to talk about this. His thread brings up multiple points, some of which I agree with and others I don’t. However, his closing set does do exactly what I’d want to see out of a leader:


In other words, we’re doing the best we can, we are glad to hear what people say, but if you feel the need to punch down on someone, leave my staff alone and take your best shot at me.

I’d work for someone like that any day.



“We lost. This sucks.” Why not making the cut for journalism awards shouldn’t bother you so much.

Fall convention and awards season for college media is officially in the books, after the annual conference closed up shop in D.C. last week. ACP’s Pacemaker winners, CMA’s Pinnacle winners and the media convention’s best of show provided the student publications with a chance to strut their stuff and get recognized for their hard work.

When I posted the Pacemaker list a month or so ago, I got a few messages here and there from folks about “awards season.” They can be boiled down to a few simple thoughts:

  • You seem to hate awards even as you worked for places that won boatloads of them. What gives?
  • It’s great for the people who won, sure, but we lost. This sucks.

I never liked awards much, even when we were winning them, because they don’t mean what people think they mean. Even worse, administrators placed far too high of a value on them, equating award-winning publications with valuable publications. I watched as my students fell under that assumption as well, with the concept of “must-win” casting millstones around their necks and dragging them down into fear and anxiety.

The most vivid convention memory I have is one in which we were up for a major national award. My editor, a young woman with a brilliant track record and an impeccable intellect, sat quietly in the ballroom with me and several staffers. As the announcer began to read off names of winners and “not-quite winners,” I saw her hunched over, almost in pain as she rocked back and forth mumbling something. A student later told me, he heard her saying, “Please… Please… Please…” over and over again.

When our school was announced as a winner, she managed to straighten up and walk up to the front like a newborn deer that was just gaining its legs. She produced a wan smile for the photographer who shot a grip-and-grin image, and she retreated to spot in the audience. She smiled for about three seconds and then said, “What happens if we don’t win NEXT year?” The moment was over. It was already about doing it again.

This isn’t a one-off thing either. A good friend of mine mentioned that he still occasionally feels the sting of being the “one who broke the streak” when it came to winning his state’s “College Paper of the Year” contest. He’s in his 30s, he has a wife and a kid and he lives a wonderful life. Still, it’s the one that got away.

When it comes to contests, I’ve been on all three sides of this: The person putting in for an award, the person judging who should get an award and the person running an organization that needs to provide the awards. With that background, I’ve been able to tell students something that they don’t want to hear, that never seems to make the loss any better and that still is accurate in every way possible:

“Awards are great things and you should be proud to win one. However, they aren’t the end-all and be-all of life. These contests border on being entirely random when it comes to what makes the cut and what doesn’t, so when you win something, you should be honored, but don’t let it get to your head. When you don’t win something, you should NOT let it make you feel inferior, as there’s often more at play than just who did the best work.”

Michael Koretzky, a longtime journalist, student-media adviser and contest judge, laid out his “Confessions of Journalism Contest Judge” about a year ago. I’m not 100% in agreement with him on everything here, but he covers a lot of the angles when it comes to looking behind the curtain and seeing the great and powerful Oz is actually just a regular guy.

Before you read on, this isn’t meant to denigrate places that win stuff or give you a bunch of excuses if you don’t win. Sometimes, other people are just better or we just don’t make the cut. I’d like to think that everything we sent was gold, but if I had to be fair about it, when we lost, we probably deserved to lose. (And if I wanted to be even fairer, we probably won a few times when we shouldn’t have.)

The reason I’m opening this can of worms is because I see the devastated look on students’ faces too often after they don’t win stuff like this. They can’t distinguish between “My entry wasn’t good enough to win this year” and “I personally suck and should go die in a fire somewhere.” No matter what advisers say or what professors say or even what Mom says about you being just as good and just as gifted, it’s hard to see things that way when someone else is hoisting the hardware.

Here’s a look at a few key things that should help you feel not so bad about not winning awards for your hard work:

Showcase Editions on Steroids: I read a book once in which the author referred to the Russian concept of pokazuka, a slang term that means “just for show.” The idea dated back to the Potemkin villages and the tours of them that Catherine the Great used to take. To puff up their status, restaurants would cram their menus with foods that they didn’t have, farms would be quickly put into the wasteland to showcase unreal agriculture and everyone wore their Sunday best like it was common. This impressed the great leader and she marveled at her kingdom. When she left, the place went back to the same craphole it always was.

A lot of publications rely on pokazuka when it comes to contests. For example, one convention’s “best of show” required that the schools enter their most recent copy of the paper. Naturally, everyone knew when the convention was, so some papers would save the big features, the photo essays, the double-truck spreads and more for that issue.

Then, if you were really lucky, an administrator would resign, someone would crash a car on campus or some other form of insane entropy would occur while you were working on the paper: Bam! Breaking news gets added to the mix. When my livelihood came down to winning these things, we’d run multi-section papers, full color and insane graphics projects. My feature class always had a feature or two that was insanely long or good (or hopefully both) and we’d dump that in there as well. It turned out OK in many cases and even better in others.

Thus, rest assured, it wasn’t that your regular Tuesday paper wasn’t good enough. You just didn’t feed it enough steroids.


Making it rain: It’s not always about the quality of your entry, but rather the quantity of your entries.

For one contest, (again, back when my livelihood depended on such things) I found that we could enter the main event for X dollars: Send your five best papers and see if you win the big prize. However, with that X dollars, you were able to enter a certain number of individual entries for free as well, such as best news story, best front-page design, best column and so forth. If you wanted to enter more than that, it was like two bucks per entry. I started doing the math and I realized that I could do a hell of a lot of entering at that nominal rate.

I would require the upper editors to come to the newsroom on one Saturday before the deadline and we would spend all day there finding entries, pasting them up (pre-digital stuff) and signing forms. I’d buy lunch and dinner because it usually took about 13 to 16 hours to do all of it, but in the end, we’d have hundreds of entries.

It wasn’t that I was entering crap, but I stopped debating the minor merits of Entry Candidate A as opposed to those of Entry Candidate B. I just sent them both, as well as Candidates C through Z. It was like the Lazlo Approach to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes in “Real Genius:”

In other words, just keep shooting and eventually you’ll hit. And we did. Bigly.

I can’t remember what the record overall was, but we swept through categories like Grant going through Richmond, often taking first through third and all three honorable mentions. In other cases, we might only grab one honorable mention, but it was still an award and it still meant something to a kid who earned it.

I couldn’t be certain that people weren’t just giving us an award because we had so damned many entries in each area and they felt a duty to give us SOMETHING. After all, it might have backfired on us if our massive presence meant people got annoyed. However, it didn’t seem to go that way, as we won more and more each year I did it.

So, you might be competing with a maniac out there like this, who essentially wipes out a forest of redwoods and overburdens the postal service with the idea of making it rain on a contest.


You hit into the shift: Baseball used to be relatively simple in terms of infield play: Two people on the left of second base, two on the right. Now, thanks to moneyball and advanced metrics, almost every pro game features more shifting than a fat guy trying to get comfortable in an airplane seat. You get three on the left or the right. You get right fielder playing like a deep roving second baseman. If they could let the peanut vendor stand to the left of the first baseman, I’d imagine we’d see that, too.

Thus, what used to be hits aren’t hits anymore. You essentially get unlucky in some truly unfair ways. That said, sometimes you get lucky and the shift benefits you, like when a left-handed power hitter accidentally check-swings a double down the left-field line while everyone on Earth (including the peanut vendor) is crowded on the right side of the diamond.

For example, one national convention tried to prevent people from steroiding up their editions for entry, so they set it up that you had to submit a certain number of issues from certain time periods. In one case, they kept those time periods so consistent that people could do the “steroids” thing and just pour resources into those papers during those time periods and then cycle off for another month or two. However, what tended to happen was that a few people got fortunate and other people got unfortunate. That giant scandal you covered for five weeks that brought down an administration? Yeah. Wrong weeks. The National Championship your school won, which you covered in glowing visual and graphic detail? Wrong weeks.

However, for some people, the ball bounced the other way: Their big stories synced up beautifully with the selected weeks and they get lucky as hell.

Luck plays a pretty big role in some of these things…


The Greg Maddux Theory of Being Great: Reputation matters an unfortunate amount when it comes to contests. That’s not to say that the reputations are unearned or that those are the only reasons why people from “Name Programs” win stuff, but reputations add a lot to the mix.

It’s a lot like when Greg Maddux used to pitch in the majors. He established himself as a guy who was always able to throw the ball EXACTLY where he wanted and that he was always able to hit the corners of the plate. He earned the reputation fair and square. However, Maddux didn’t ALWAYS hit the corner on every pitch. However, since he had the reputation of always throwing strikes, the umps gave him the benefit of the doubt and called a lot of balls strikes, thus making Maddux happy and pissing off the rest of the league.

The unfortunate comparative here is that when the “Name Programs” enter contests, they get the benefit of the doubt. They get the second look. They get the, “Oh, that’s OK” pass on a minor misstep here or there. They also get judges thinking they’re seeing something “groundbreaking” when it really might just be crap.

I worked at a couple of the “best” schools when it came to writers and designers and we had some great kids. However, the truth is that we had just as many kids who couldn’t find their asses with two hands and a flashlight as anywhere else. We had kids who designed pages that looked like a ransom note mated with a Rorschach test. We had kids who wrote narrative leads that sounded like they were conceived on acid. Still, having that “Name Program” rep got their work a second look.

In one case of judging, I was picking through publications to see who would make the cut for a collection of national awards. As Koretzky noted, a lot of the first pass is about skimming out stuff that’s not good, so my job was to eliminate stuff before a group of us would come together to and debate the merits of what was left. I kept tossing the ones that didn’t make the cut on the floor next to me and eventually the contest coordinators came by to scoop them up.

At one point, one of them picked up a paper and handed it to the other with a worried look. They both murmured something like, “Uh.. Uh-oh…” I asked what the problem was and they said, “Well, this paper ALWAYS wins an award so we’re just surprised…”

OK, but that year it sucked and I started laying out why I thought it wasn’t going to make it. They both backed off immediately, but as they walked away, I heard one of them say something to the effect of how upset the adviser at that publication was going to be.

Part of me wanted to give it another look because I started to doubt myself, even though I knew I was right. The other part of me got pissed that I was second-guessing myself because of the reputation other people had conferred upon this publication. It stayed out of the stack, but that bugged me. And it still does.


Judges are human… : The word “judge” seems to communicate fairness, clarity, wisdom and more. For most of the media contests, however, the word “judge” seems to translate to “person who answered the email plea for help.” Koretzky does more than an adequate job of going over this, so I won’t belabor it here. What I will talk about is the ways in which human failings can lead you to miss out on the prize you covet.

We get tired, so we might glaze over an error that should have bounced out a competitor or we might glaze over while reading your amazing prose. We can get grumpy about something in particular that leads us to be overly harsh in making the first cut. (Personal beef: I hate verb-noun attributions. When I see them I start to twitch. I try to push past it in judging contest entries, but it does take a toll. I know I’m not the only one with a personal gripe that can nudge something to the “pitch” pile.)

We also don’t all have the same experiences, which can lead to vastly different readings of pieces. Case in point: I was judging a pro contest with two other people and we individually needed to pull our personal finalists that we would then debate as a group. In the column-writing category, the best column out of the entire pack, in my opinion, was this one that reflected on how getting the one thing you always wanted sometimes was more about the memories it created than the item itself.

The guy who wrote it was in his mid-50s and he used the analogy of how he and his brothers begged for Electric Football for Christmas.

His parents kept saying no, but eventually they relented and that Christmas was a joyful one. However, it went beyond that to explain how that game and that joy and that experience became their sibling touchstone for years to come.

For me, it was the slam-dunk winner. For the other two people? It didn’t even make it out of the junk pile.

“I never heard of this stupid game,” one judge said. “Why would people watch little plastic guys vibrate on a table?”

The other judge added, “Did kids really play with that?”

Um… YES! It was the greatest game on Earth at the time and it was something we all desperately wanted. Even if it wasn’t, it was more of a metaphor for the connectivity of siblings. Hell, even I knew that and I was an only child. Still, the more I tried to explain this, the less they seemed to see the value in it.

Another point was why didn’t the kids just go out and buy it themselves? Well, because not all of us were rich, so we had to beg for stuff for Christmas.

It was clear that my experiences didn’t match theirs and it was an impediment in the judging process.

The column didn’t win first prize, but with a lot of argumentation, it made the top five.


…And occasionally biased as hell: In some cases, judges play favorites. This can be because they know a program, they worked some place or they are friends with an adviser. The converse can also be true, if a program, place or adviser really pissed off the judge. We do our best to ignore those things and if we’re really ethical, we spend a lot of time trying to make sure we don’t fall into that trap.

In college media, a lot of state contests get judged by people who used to be in student media, so they carry those battle scars with them. If you think I’m kidding, ask someone who worked for the Daily Cardinal what they think about the Badger Herald. These two papers competed as dailies at UW-Madison for decades and if you find someone in his or her 30s, 50s or 70s today who worked on one side of the newspaper war, they STILL hold grudges.

I also know that when I needed judges, I always went to former students who were currently in the field. At first, this made sense because they’re pros, they tend to owe me a favor and I can hold their feet to the fire in case they let the thing slide. However, in retrospect, I wondered if the judges held on to little biases based on how snotty bigger schools had been to them or been more open minded when it came to schools like the ones they attended.

That can make for some difficult judging decisions.

Then there are cases like this one that I experienced on a “shared judging” assignment:

We were looking at high school papers to determine which ones would be finalists for a set of national awards. Again, the goal was to cut down the stack to a predetermined number so that a bunch of us could debate the merits of the survivors. The rule was each person got say over a specific stack. If they had a concern, they could call in another judge for help, but it was basically one person’s say and that was that.

Another judge came by and looked at my stack of rejects. “What’s this one doing in here?” he demanded.

I told him it didn’t make the cut and that I had others that were better and that’s about it.

He stormed off in a huff and I heard him loudly talking to the contest coordinator about this. How he knew the adviser and she was a friend of his and how this was CLEARLY a judging error and on and on…

The contest coordinator asked a second judge to give this a second look. The judge concurred with my opinion that, no, it wasn’t horrible, but it didn’t make the cut and that it wasn’t as good as the others she had seen in her stacks (or assumed were in mine).

The guy then flew into a series of histrionics about how unfair this was and how neither of us understood the greatness of this school’s program and on and on. The next day, they had a THIRD judge read it, who was a friend of both the coordinator and the apoplectic judge. He said that it would just be better if we moved it into the “finalists” stack.

Which they did.

The kicker was that after all that, this judge STILL wasn’t satisfied because not only did it deserve finalist status, in his estimation, but it deserved one of the awards we were giving out. That’s when I put my foot down and basically said to the coordinator, “Look, there is no way this thing is a winner. We had TWO judges look at it and it wasn’t even supposed to get this far. Now that we jury-rigged the system to get it this far, you think we should go even a step further?”

After I threatened to name names on all this in public, it remained just a “finalist.”

I haven’t been asked to judge that contest since.


THROWBACK THURSDAY: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out…

Mom’s birthday is coming up soon, so in honor of the woman who brought me into this world (and managed to resist every urge to take me out of it when I screwed up), here’s the journalism post on our most revered verification rule: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.

Love you, Mom. (Just ask Dad for verification…)

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out…



The adage in journalism regarding verification is: “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.” The idea is that you need to make sure things are right before you publish them. You also want to verify the source of the information before you get yourself into trouble.

This issue popped up again this week after former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci had exchanged several emails with a person he thought to be former Chief of Staff Reince Prebus. It turns out, the messages came from a prankster, who baited Scaramucci into an “email battle:”

“At no stage have you acted in a way that’s even remotely classy, yet you believe that’s the standard by which everyone should behave towards you?” read the email to Scaramucci from a “” account.

Scaramucci, apparently unaware the email was a hoax, responded with indignation.

“You know what you did. We all do. Even today. But rest assured we were prepared. A Man would apologize,” Scaramucci wrote.

The prankster, now aware that he had deceived the beleaguered Scaramucci, went in for the kill.

“I can’t believe you are questioning my ethics! The so called ‘Mooch’, who can’t even manage his first week in the White House without leaving upset in his wake,” the fake Priebus wrote. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

Scaramucci shot back with a veiled threat to destroy Priebus Shakespearean-style.

“Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello. You are right there. My family is fine by the way and will thrive. I know what you did. No more replies from me,” the actual Scaramucci.

“Othello” is a tragedy in which the main character is tricked into killing his wife Desdemona after his confidante convinces him that she has been unfaithful.

As the article points out, Scaramucci isn’t the first person to be suckered by a prank. Other members of the government had been similarly duped via email. In terms of prank calls, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found himself once speaking with a person pretending to be billionaire David Koch, discussing ways to attack protesters and destroy liberals.   (The prankster told his side of the story on Politico.)

News journalists have also been caught short when it comes to making sure they’re sure about the sources and information they receive. In 2013, KTVU-TV in San Francisco had what it thought was a big scoop on the Asiana Flight 214 crash: The names of the captain and crew. However, the information turned out to be not only a hoax, but an intentionally racist set of names:

Three people were fired and a fourth resigned for health reasons in the wake of this error. In digging into this, it turned out that the NTSB found the source of the names to be a “summer intern” who thought this would be funny. In its own investigation, the station found that nobody asked the source at the NTSB for his name or title. The station issued an apology, as did the NTSB.

It’s easy to laugh at these incidents or to marvel at how dumb somebody was to buy into this stuff. However, we used to say around my house, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” In other words, you could be next.

So here are three simple tips to help you avoid these problems:

  1. Verify, verify, verify: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Look up information on various sites, ask a source for other people who can augment/confirm the information and make sure you feel confident in your content before you publish.
  2. If you aren’t sure, back away: It is always better to be late on something than it is to be wrong. It’s also better to let a random email or a text go without a response than to get sucked in and pay the price later. Some of these are easy, like when a Nigerian Prince promises you untold riches if you would just transfer your bank account number to him. Some are harder: When’s the last time you made sure it was your friend texting you about a “crazy night” and not his mom or dad doing some snooping? We just assume we know the actual source. That can be dangerous, so back off if you’re not sure.
  3. Kick it around the room: One of the best reasons why newsrooms, PR offices and ad agencies exist is to gather collective knowledge in one place. Sure, with technology now, it’s easy for everyone to work “off site” but keeping people in a single physical spot can make it easier to have someone look over your shoulder and see if something you just got “smells right.” Take advantage of other people around you and don’t go at it alone.

4 non-digital things the digital marketing experts at DealerSocket do that would benefit any media professional


Rachel Choy and Kat Pecora of DealerSocket answer questions from students at UW-Oshkosh during a panel session on digital marketing Friday.

Three members of the DealerSocket team visited their alma mater Friday to showcase various elements of the technology they use and the ways in which they apply digital marketing effort for car dealerships throughout the country.

Rachel Choy, Kat Pecora and Wes Lungwitz work at the Oshkosh portion of the company (which used to be known distinctly as DealerFire). The company helps build, oversee and market digital content for automotive dealers all across the country. Their panel presentation, “Digital Content Development and Analytics,” and the subsequent Q and A covered a wide variety of topics ranging from cutting edge SEO techniques to measuring key analytics via up-to-date digital tools.

Between the explanations relating to the impact voice search is having on the industry to the analysis of PPC and CPC, the students who watched were enthralled with the possibilities available to them in the digital marketing realm. As important as those things were, I noticed that underlying the tech talk were several non-digital rudiments that these folks said made their efforts successful.

Here are four takeaways I pulled from their panel that matter a great deal to journalists of all stripes, regardless of if they’re digital geniuses or working with old Commodore 64s:

WRITE FOR THE AUDIENCE: The key distinction between media writing today and media writing of the past comes down to who’s in charge. In the days in which media professionals ran the show and readers had limited outlets, it was about journalists telling an audience what they thought readers should know. Today, the model is exactly the opposite: Readers have more choices than ever before, so it’s more about writing for the readers, based on what they want to know.

The DealerSocket approach is a good one for all writers: Do research about your specific readership, find out what matters to those people and then write about those things. This is often difficult for news journalists, but it can be even more frustrating for clients who want to see direct results. In other words, the people paying the web folks just want to tell the audience, “Buy a car!”

Instead, the staff writes content to make the readers happy and entice Google.

“Content is a really great way for people to find you,” Pecora said. “Oftentimes, you don’t have a lot of content on your website, so you’re going to show up really low on search terms. It’s a very competitive area and a tough market so the best they can do is create content.”

Lungwitz mentioned that content isn’t just about cars, but things people care about, like a post a staffer wrote for a site about trick-or-treat times in a given area. The post wasn’t helpful in selling a car, but it was helpful in drawing people to the site where the dealer sold cars. The staff then monitors things like bounce rate, to see if people just came in for that one thing and left or if they transferred into the site.

As Pecora said, the goal is to develop an audience that wants to hear what you have to say.

“The more Google is seeing your search terms, and your content is meaningful and useful (to the audience), the more Google is going to send people to your website and that will boost your domain authority.”

BECOME DISTINCT: In most cases, the team at DealerSocket starts working with car dealerships at ground zero of their digital build. With that in mind, they have the opportunity to create both the content for a variety of digital platforms and the general persona the company wants to express publicly. The goal is to understand what the client has that no one else has and then communicate that effectively.

“We try to dig something out of them,” Lungwitz said. “‘How are you different?’ We take our cues from journalism. It’s like any of the interviews you’ve done.”

Like most sources in journalism, people tend to have problems talking about themselves or seeing things about themselves that are unique. It’s the goal of good journalists to find ways to access those things and then showcase them to the readers in a valuable way.

“We take a white-glove approach to customer service,” Pecora said. “What does the customer need and what is unique about this customer? We take the time to really find that out and dedicate energy and time to doing what’s right for them. It really pays off.”

Choy noted that she would research her clients to find the things that made them different from other dealers within a geographic area, as well as what made them different from others dealers within the market segment. When she would discuss these things with her clients, they were often impressed with how a person in Wisconsin could know so much about a dealership in California or Texas or North Carolina.

This not only helped her sharpen the focus of the site for her clients, but it also helped with the next main point…

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS: Advertising has moved far from the old “Eat at Joe’s” billboard days, but the underlying premise still remains the same: A client needs people to buy or rent or believe X and the marketing professional has to build content to make that happen. Unfortunately, the line between ad and sale isn’t as direct or as clear as it once was, so trust becomes a huge part of making this relationship work over time.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” one of the folks noted on the panel.

As much as DealerSocket is building custom landing pages for dealers, publishing press releases and managing reputations on social media, the folks who work with the dealers also understand it’s about building trust. To earn this trust, the staff members do their best to explain not only what they are doing with a dealer’s website, but also WHY they are doing it, in the context that makes sense to the clients.

“I explain that your website is like your car and your digital marketing is like the gas,” Choy said. “If you don’t continue to put gas in the car, it’s only going to go so far.”

“Some clients say, ‘I’m not getting enough contact on the website.’ We ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and they say, ‘Well, I have the website!'” Choy added. “Google likes sites that are continually updating… We explain that you need to be proactive to be sure you are the resource for the people… There has to be some kind of proactive action so that your car has gas.”

To some clients, this could sound a lot like a “trust me story,” where a company asks a client to keep throwing money into a hole with the idea that it will eventually lead to something good. Lungwitz said the relationships between the clients and the staff lead to actual trust and eventually the outcomes the dealers want to see. He mentioned this in discussing the trick-or-treat post noted earlier.

“This kind of thing isn’t directly tied to a sale, but we have to explain, ‘Let’s look at these other things,'” Lungwitz said. “It’s lifting all boats, it’s lifting your home page… Organic marketing is the long play. It’s not a direct response plan. It’s building over time.”

Just like most good relationships.

NEVER STOP LEARNING: The field of digital marketing, like most parts of journalism, is continually changing. What made sense six months ago might not make sense now. What works in one part of the country or with one brand might fail elsewhere.

As was the case with most panels involving professionals and students, the students asked for tips and hints on how to get a job and become proficient in this area of the field. Lungwitz had the answer that professors dream about when we hear that question:

“You try to further your knowledge every chance you get,” he said. “I read a lot of social media and SEO blogs. We get certification (on digital media tools) each year and we have to continue that.”

In other words, you should never stop learning.


The Junk Drawer: Leads that break the rules, Cocaine for Kids and more…

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need, so let’s enjoy a few of the more awkward moments sent in by the hivemind and other friends out there:


One of the rules I’ve emphasized to writers about leads is to not start them with a time element, like, “On Monday, the Board of Regents raised tuition 35 percent…” The point I try to make is that if the most important thing you want to tell me in the most important sentence of your story is WHEN something happened, you probably don’t have much of a story to tell.

Here’s a clear exception to that rule in a piece the NY Times ran about a mass exodus at Deadspin:

On Monday, the journalists at the freewheeling website Deadspin were instructed by its owners to stick to sports. On Tuesday, the site’s interim editor in chief, Barry Petchesky, was fired for refusing to obey that order. On Wednesday many longtime staff members quit in protest, hurling Deadspin into chaos.

It’s a multi-sentence lead in which every sentence starts with a time element. Here are a few reasons why it works:

  • The writer establishes a pattern of cadence, relying on the repetition of the time element to keep the attention of the readers.
  • The rapid-fire series of events that occurred in a 72-hour period lends itself to pressing the issue of time in the lead.
  • The writer doesn’t overdo it. The old “rule of threes” applies well here, in that things that occur in threes tend to keep our attention and are “mentally pleasant” for audience members. Had this gone on for a few more sentences, the technique would have failed.

As we have noted about all the rules of the game: Once you know them well enough, and you earn the fungus on your shower shoes, you can break them if you do so for the right reason. Go ahead and try something different, but if it doesn’t work, feel free to go back to an inverted pyramid style lead.



A friend sent me this headline, noting the word choice and the bad head break:

College Blow

For those of you tea-totalers out there, “blow” is an oft-used euphemism for cocaine. Even given the liberal reputation of the West Coasters, I don’t think this is what they meant.

You need to watch those word choices for headlines. In this case, it was a web head, so there was no good reason not to write out a deeper and clearer headline. In print, occasionally, the space allocated to the headline gets you into trouble:


I’ve worried about my mortgage from time to time, but I’m not sure I’d take a bullet in exchange for saving some cash. It sounds like how the rich people work in “The Purge” or something.


Rental Shirt

How long do I get to rent this shirt for $3? How many bedrooms does it have?


We already know that commas save lives…


And we know that they can keep you away from promiscuous buccaneers…



But a friend sent me a conundrum of hyphenation necessary to distinguish zombie-apocalypse gourds from vegan tree-rodents:


I’m really hoping it’s the former. I can see the movie posters already…

That’s all for now!


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


GAME TIME! Halloween-themed AP Style Quiz

It’s hard to think about it being Halloween, when you have this scene happening outside your house at 7 a.m.:


The plows had already gone through once and it took me 20 minutes to find my window scraper. That said, since the calendar says it’s Oct. 31, here’s an AP style quiz based on a Halloween theme.

You don’t have to establish an account to play. It’s 10 questions and you will be judged on speed and accuracy.

Take a screen shot of your score and post it everywhere! Challenge a professor (who likely wants this break more than you do) and earn bragging rights for the year.

To start the quiz, click here.

Playing with live ammo: Social media and the umpire who threatened a “CIVAL WAR”

When we discuss law in my intro writing class, I always ask a simple question, “How many of you are on social media?” Every hand goes up. I then ask how many are on specific platforms (Twitter, SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram etc.) and the students respond with similar levels of engagement. When I ask what they do on those platforms, the answers vary: talk to friends, pass along information, “talk shit” (as one student put it), complain about classes and more.

That’s when I hit them with this: “You are all publishers. All the things we’re going to talk about today apply to you, including some scary things like libel and copyright infringement.”

To further emphasize the point, I go back to a Filak-ism I used a lot in the newsroom: “Every time you post something, you’re playing with live ammo. You need to be careful out there.”

I thought about that message when I saw this story about a major league umpire who took to Twitter and expressed a few thoughts on impeachment:


In case you missed it, a public figure just threatened to buy a gun and start a violent, armed conflict if Congress continued with a legal proceeding against the president. He didn’t do it at a bar over a couple beers. He didn’t do it in the umpires room after the game while surrounded by five other folks bitching about life. He did it on a social media platform where the message was published, and reshared hundreds and thousands of times.

Rob Drake, the umpire who issued the tweet, deleted it shortly after the “fit hit the shan” and then deactivated his account. He also issued an apology that sounds like someone else wrote it for him (and not just because all the words were spelled right). Major League Baseball is investigating Drake’s social media presence, but regardless of what it decides, Drake learned that social media can be a lot more scary than the gun he was yammering about on it.


“I am a brother.” 3 tips on how to avoid a racially tone-deaf social media disaster like the one from the University of Missouri

Watching my alma maters compete for supremacy in an arena of national attention is usually fun for me, but not this month:

UW-Madison: We built a homecoming video where we cut out all the video involving people of color who agreed to be filmed for it. No way anyone could screw up a situation like this worse than we did.

University of Missouri: Hold my beer.

(CNN)The University of Missouri Athletic Department is apologizing for a tweet it says was meant to celebrate diversity but was instead criticized as insensitive.

The tweet posted Wednesday included graphics of three student athletes and a staff member. Two are black and two are white.

The graphics featuring the white athletes highlighted their career ambitions. Gymnast Chelsey Christensen’s said, “I am a future doctor.” Swimmer CJ Kovac’s said, “I am a future corporate financer.”
Staff member Chad Jones-Hicks’ post said, “I value equality.” Track and field athlete Arielle Mack’s said “I am an African American Woman.”
The post was criticized on social media for defining Mack and Jones-Hicks by their race instead of their goals and accomplishments.
The athletic department deleted the tweet Wednesday night and apologized.

Yes, it really was that bad…


In other words, “Look at all the cool stuff we get to do as white people!” and “Look! We’re black!” aren’t exactly interchangeable concepts.

And when you think it can’t get any worse…


I kept thinking, “This one has to be an internet spoof version, right? Nobody thinks, ‘Hey let’s call the black guy ‘a brother’ and see what we can get away with…'”

Nope, it’s real, leading me to ask the same question this person asked on Twitter:


(Hell, you could have run this past Breckin Meyer’s character in “Go” and HE would have caught it…)

The athletic department tweeted out an apology for its actions, which led more people to complain about how tone deaf THAT was as well.

This kind of “someone does something horrible they didn’t see coming, particularly in regard to race” has become kind of a repeating theme on the blog. Although we talked about ways to avoid this kind of thing when we discussed the “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sweatshirt issue, consider these key points again:

Paranoia is your BEST friend: A great line about one of the greatest hockey coaches guides my actions in journalism quite a bit. After his team had won a national championship, a friend found him emotionally drained sitting quietly away from the celebration. The writer remarked, “They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.” Maybe that seems sad, but that approach keeps your keester out of a lot of trouble.

As we noted the last time we covered this: Murphy’s Law includes the famous line about “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” so it’s always best to plan for the worst. When you find yourself putting together ANYTHING that will be disseminated to the general public, you want to engage in some active paranoia. Read every word as if it might have a double meaning or if a misspelling might lead to an awkward moment (e.g. “Bill Smith, a pubic librarian, reads…”).

Look at every image you have to see if anything could be misconstrued in a negative way or would cast aspersions on an individual or group. Go through every potential stereotype you can think of in your head and see if something looks like it might be playing into that stereotype (e.g., Is a blond woman shown to be less intelligent? Did you put a person of color into a “monkey” sweatshirt?). Approach your work in this way and you will not always succeed, but you can avoid a lot of failure.

Ask for help: As we noted during the sweatshirt debacle, diversity is not a buzzword. The goal of having a wide array of perspectives and a diverse collection of people with different experiences is to allow a fuller examination of bigger issues.

Even if your newsroom, your PR firm or your ad agency doesn’t have a cornucopia of diversity, you can still avoid dumb mistakes by asking for help. Call a friend who knows the topic better than you. Ask a source who is involved in the topic for a quick read. Talk to an expert on the issue with whom you worked on an earlier project. You probably know someone out there who has a connection to almost any topic if you think about it hard enough.

To be fair, I’m usually the person seeking help in this regard because I’m your garden-variety straight, white male, but what I have found is that most people are happy to help if you are honest, humble and forthright. The earnest gesture of, “I don’t understand X but I really don’t want to screw it up,” tends work when you approach people from varied backgrounds. I have asked all sorts of questions when it came to faith, race, gender, LGBTQ issues and more using that approach and I can’t ever remember being yelled at or shamed.

(I do remember once going to see the Kevin Smith movie “Dogma” with a group of friends, none of whom were Catholic. At about a dozen points in the movie, one of them would ask a question about something that just happened and I’d give a quick answer with a promise to explain more later. About halfway through the movie, my friend, Adam, leaned over to me and whispered, “Now you know what it’s like for me, being the only Jew in the newsroom, when we’re covering Passover.” Point taken.)

Know where the landmines are: This one is a direct pull from the sweatshirt post, but it bears repeating. I still ascribe to the Fred Vultee Theory of Drowning, which states you should treat EVERY piece of copy like it could come back to kill you. That said, the level of extreme care should jump up a few notches from the caution I employ in fixing the garbage disposal and the caution I would employ in disarming a nuclear warhead.

Some things just have much lower margins for error, have far higher consequences and are far more likely to kill you. In terms of the United States, gender, race and sexual orientation are the issues that lead to a lot of “Oh, crap, how did we write THAT?” apologies than many other topics. If you know that going in, you can game up a little bit more than normal when you start working on something in that area. It’s a lot like driving through Rosendale: I always try to adhere to the speed limit, give or take 5 mph. However, when I hit the Rosendale city limits, I’m ALWAYS driving 27 in a 30 because I know what I’m getting into.

In the end, you might not avoid every problem, but you’ll do a lot better in avoiding the really stupid ones.


Don’t Call ICE, We’ll Call You: A look at the controversy surrounding the Harvard Crimson’s protest coverage

The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at the famed Ivy League school, found itself getting screamed at this week, due to its reporting on a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The newspaper wrote in its Sept. 13 edition about an event on campus, in which people assembled to speak out against the actions of ICE and to call for the dissolution of the agency.

The Crimson reporters did what any good journalists would do: They covered the event that was relevant, useful and interesting in their geographic area. They quoted sources and observed actions for inclusion in the paper. They then decided to ask for comment from “the other side.” The result, as anyone who ever contacted a governmental agency would expect, was a simple line in the story: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”

This is where everything went to hell in a speedboat:

Act on a Dream, the campus group that had organized the rally covered in the article, started an online petition demanding that The Crimson vow to never contact ICE again and to apologize for the “harm it has inflicted.”

“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition read.

It continued: “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”

From a personal standpoint, I had a few quibbles with this:

  1. I’d like some evidence to support the “harm it has inflicted” statement, including a quantification of that harm. It’s easy to say that something will be harmful to people if it’s something we don’t like. (Look at every discussion involving books people want to ban, porn people want to suppress and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.) However, in journalism require facts to make statements.
  2. Political climates almost always suck for at least half of the people in the country. It was problematic for people in the 1950s during the HUAC trials, the 1960s (and more) during the Civil Rights movement, the 1970s during the Vietnam/Watergate mess and even into the 2000s when terrorism hit home and we were a mess of surveillance and jingoism. If you waited until things were “cool” to do journalism, you’re waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last month.
  3. Absolutism is awesome when you’re protesting things, not so much when you live on Planet Reality. Play this out: The Crimson agrees to NEVER contact ICE again. ICE does something pathologically insanely crappy to someone on Harvard’s campus. The campus community is desperate to know what happened. The Crimson responds: “Nope. Sorry. We did a pinky swear we’d never contact ICE.” Gimme a break.

For its part, the Crimson has stood by its reporting, issuing a note that explained why it contacted ICE, as well as what it did not do:

Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the petition continues to add signatures and media coverage continues to grow around this issue, so let’s unpack a few basic journalistic issues here:

Calling the KKK wasn’t fun, either: Journalists often get chided for trying to get “both sides” of stories in which two sides don’t really exist. If the entire scientific community declares there’s no life on Neptune, we immediately feel compelled to call the guy who lives in his parents’ basement, wears a tinfoil hat and blogs at “” to “balance” the story.

That’s not this.

Regardless of your personal feelings on an issue, when a group, an organization or a person is at the center of your coverage, you should reach out to that “side” and offer a chance to enter the conversation. I remember having to talk to a guy who swore he was the “Grand Dragon” of the KKK in Wisconsin because he announced the Klan would be holding a march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Groups that clearly did not want this to happen were all over this, talking to me about why this was a bad idea and what they planned to do if this occurred.

The march was to take place at the steps of the Capitol and for him to do that, he needed a permit. My goal was to find out if he got the permit and, if not, if he was ready to be removed and arrested. I had to spend something like 45 minutes on the phone with him as he kept rambling about his philosophy on race, issuing “scientific proclamations” about race and using language that just made my whole body cringe. In the end, he didn’t get the permit, the thing didn’t happen and the story ran with minimal contributions from him.

Some people were ticked off that I used the guy, but that’s the way journalism is supposed to work: If you have skin in the game, you get a chance to say something. If you don’t do this for everybody, you’re pretty much worthless as a reporter. The sheer volume of people we talk to on a daily basis that do things we dislike or don’t agree with could stun a team of oxen in its tracks.

The Taco Bell Shooting Theory is at work here: I’ve explained this one before: I got a call from a mother screaming up a blue streak about how our student newspaper’s coverage made her son “look bad.” The son, an adult, had engaged in a shoot-out at a Taco Bell drive-thru and was arrested for his part in swapping lead with other patrons.

The point I kept trying to make to her, when I could get a word in edgewise, was that it wasn’t the COVERAGE that made the kid look bad, but rather the SHOOTING he was involved in that made him look bad.

I kept thinking about this when I was reading the story about the protest and about the way in which the people upset with the Crimson reacted to the request for comment. The folks here gathered a couple hundred people in the middle of one of the most well-known colleges in the country and used megaphones to express their displeasure with a government agency they purport surveils them at all times, in front of people who at any moment could call the cops or post images to social media during the event with impunity but it was an UNANSWERED PHONE CALL after the fact from a student media operation that created risk?

How, exactly, does that logically track?

I understand that there are huge risks associated with immigration in today’s political climate, but getting all over the Crimson because it requested a comment from ICE makes as much sense as blaming school shootings on “all that music kids today listen to.”

Flip the coin and see how you like it: The phrase, “How would you like it if we did that to you?” seems rather childish, but it fits this situation quite well. Journalism, when practiced properly, is about keeping yourself out of the story, remaining as objectively neutral as reality will allow and giving your readers the sense that you are telling them something honest and valuable.

The minute we stop doing that is the minute we become no better than the demagogues of our society who use their pulpits to rain hatred upon others for personal gain.

OK, Act on a Dream folks, you don’t like that someone asked ICE for a comment? Fine. What happens when a reporter decides it’s not worth it to check in with you on an issue like this? Even more, what happens if you get a reporter who thinks, “Hey, these people are breaking the law by being here. Why should I talk to an organization that supports criminal actions? Let’s just rely on the ICE folks for our stories.” Something tells me this wouldn’t sit well with the Act on a Dream folks, or anyone else with at least half a brain.



Hell Lead: Why 66-word sentences don’t help your readers and 3 ways to avoid writing them

As mentioned pretty much everywhere in both books and this blog, the concept for writing a simple lead should be simple:

  • It should be 25-35 words long.
  • It should contain as many of the 5Ws and 1H as possible without overwhelming your readers.
  • It should focus on a single concept to provide focus and clarity to the readers.
  • It should tell your readers what happened and why they care.

Reading the original lead on this story gave me a feeling similar to trying to drink from a fire hose:

More than 1,000 students, teachers and community members marched on the Madison School District’s administrative building Friday in support of a black security guard fired for repeating the N-word when a student called him the racial slur, prompting district officials to vow better education on the history and impact on the N-word and a review of the policies that led to the staffer’s termination this week.

That’s 66 words, or almost DOUBLE the maximum of what you really want to see here. Even more, it’s not just that this is too long, but it’s also WAAAAAY too heavy. (As a brief refresher, length is how we measure leads in a word-by-word approach while weight is about how much content is in there and how all words aren’t created equal in adding to the heft of a sentence.)

When we unpack all of this info, what we learn in the lead includes:

  • About 1,000 people protested at the admin building.
  • They supported a security guard who was fired.
  • The guard, a black man, repeated a racial slur after the student used it against him.
  • The district didn’t say if it would rehire the guy.
  • The district reacted by promising to educate somebody or other on how the slur is problematic and where it came from and why it has the impact it has.
  • The district will review the policies that led to the guard being fired.

Of course, we only learn that if we can wade through all of the stuff in this lead and take the time to figure it out. That kind of “Where’s Waldo?” approach to reading this thing is antithetical to what we’re supposed to be doing with a lead and with journalism in general.

A competing publication did pretty much the same job as this lead with about half of the words:

Wisconsin’s capital city school district is facing national pressure to reinstate a black high school security guard who was fired this week for saying the N-word while telling an unruly student not to use the racial slur.

(SIDE NOTE: The district reversed itself and undid the firing, and Marlon Anderson gets to go back to work.)

The point isn’t to do a “Goofus and Gallant” comparative between the leads, as even the better of them could get some fine tuning. The larger point about this lead is that it wasn’t just one misstep of trying to overcrowd the lead to avoid missing anything. Here are a couple other sentences from the original writer that left me stunned:

This guy is 42…

The swell of support for Marlon Anderson — who worked at West High School before being terminated Wednesday — culminated in a meeting between representatives of the school’s Black Student Union and district officials to discuss the situation that led to Anderson being fired.


This one is 53 words…

Emerging after a nearly two hour meeting inside the district’s Doyle Administration Building, Anderson’s 17-year-old son Noah, who is the president of the Black Student Union, addressed a crowd on what he said was a constructive conversation but just the start on making sure African-Americans are involved in school policies that impact them.

And this one is 63 words, which is exceeds the “coked-up Jay McInnery ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ character” level of run-on…

Speaking to reporters after the sit-down, interim Superintendent Jane Belmore and School Board President Gloria Reyes said the district will take a more concerted effort in teaching students about the usage of the N-word and the harm it causes, will review policies that led to Anderson being fired, and will expedite the appeal process to his firing after Anderson filed a grievance Thursday.

The point of writing leads in the 25-35 word range and body sentences in the 20-24 word range is to prevent exactly the kinds of things that happen here:

  • The readers who want to learn something will get lost and give up.
  • The sentence construction gets so complicated that you run the risk of creating modifier problems and other grammatical issues.
  • The pace and flow of the story get all out of whack because you end up with giant sentences followed by a few stubby ones. Thus, it feels like you’re flying down the highway at 110 mph when suddenly you hit a traffic jam.

Here are some tips on how to fix these problems:

  • Know the point of your piece: Yes, stories can get overly complicated, but as investigative sports journalist Eric Adelson once told me, “If you can’t tell me what your story is in about 25 words or less, you really don’t understand what you’re writing about.” I remember at the time thinking it was a harsh assessment, especially given that he did mostly deep-dig pieces. However, when I asked him to do it for me on the steroid scandal story he was in the middle of digging into, he told me,”Players and owners both knew steroids were used in baseball, but nobody said anything because everyone was making too much money because of them.” In less than 25 words, he nailed it. If you know what you’re doing, things become easier and simpler.
  • Make one point at a time: Readers do have shorter attention spans these days, so it feels like if you don’t throw everything at them at once, you’re going to lose them. However, the “Fistful of Jell-O” rule applies here: The tighter you squeeze, the less you have. In pumping content at your readers like you’re unleashing a fire hose filled with information, you repel them instead of engaging them.
    Start each sentence with the promise to your readers that you are going to make one, simple, clear point for them. Then, deliver on that promise. If you do this, and you have a clear understanding of what your readers need, you will keep them engaged and tell them something that matters.
  • Start from the core out: The sentences in the original story we analyzed feel heavy because the writer probably built them from the front to the back. This is how you end up with major dependent clauses that try to do too much or how you end up tacking on “just one more thing” that will make the sentences you write feel unwieldy. It also comes from not really figuring out what the key point you want to make is (see Point 1).
    To minimize the risk of this, start with the core: Noun-Verb-Object. Tell me who did what to whom and focus on that. This will create a much stronger version of the sentence and also shift your attention to making the noun concrete and the verb vigorous. Consider some of these NVO constructions, depending on the story you want to tell:

    • District fires custodian
    • Protestors rebuke district
    • Citizens protest firing

When it comes to how best to tell a story, it often comes down to how simply can you write the content. Start with the simple elements that matter most and expand up on them with each layer of detail. If the sentence gets too long or too complex, you can cut back on the sentence, removing the outer layers and tightening it back toward the core. In most cases, the writing is in the editing.