Transitioning Careers from News To Public Relations, Part I

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

I got a text from a former student recently that helped launch this series:

Hey Vince,

I am currently applying for a communications and marketing manager position at the school district I currently cover. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?

This guy was probably the best reporter I’ve taught in the past 10 years, simply by the dint of being a persistent little cuss. He would dig into stuff that nobody else had the patience to go get. He wouldn’t stop poking people who had records, refused to comment or otherwise dodged him until he could get the story that needed to be told. He also tended to be the person who other people told stories that often began with, “You didn’t hear this from me, but…”

The idea that he was considering a move from news into the public relations and marketing portion of the field told me two things that I pretty much already knew: The skills we teach in our journalism-based writing courses need to transfer among the disciplines of the field and that reporters were actively looking to get out of the crumbling mess that is news.

Public relations is a booming field, as there are approximately six practitioners for every one news reporter, according to a recent study. That number is up from a 2-to-1 ratio just 20 years ago. As newspapers continue to “shed” jobs (a term that should be replaced with “axe murder jobs for the sake of corporate greed,” but I digress…) and public relations continues to grow, I have no doubt that more news journalists will be taking their talents to PR.

Thus, I wanted to know what people who had made that transition saw and thought as they decided to make it and how they think we are doing to prepare them for life beyond college in a rapidly changing field.

What follows is a series of thoughts, comments and suggestions from an array of people who were nice enough to share their experiences. They come from various universities, work in different states and serve a mix of roles in the field.

Let’s start by looking at what they’re doing and how/why they made the move.

The continued downward spiral of few good newsroom opportunities, organizations cutting jobs and the general degrading of news jobs was a common theme for a number of people who made a quick switch to the other side of the field.  A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said she made the switch from news to social media promotional work after years of job fatigue:

“To be blunt, I left journalism because I got exhausted with the low pay and yearly layoffs that often felt like the Hunger Games.

“In the year before I left, the company I was working for did an extensive reorganization where everyone in the newsroom had to reapply for ‘new’ jobs, complete with resumes and interviews with editors from other papers in the chain. Of course, there were fewer positions on the other side of the re-org. The process took 6 months and was so psychologically exhausting that it felt like a type of PTSD. And I was one one of the “lucky” ones to get a job that was basically the same as the one I had. I can think of at least one person at that paper who got a job they didn’t apply for (and probably didn’t really want).

“Marketing was the easiest field to transition to. I was the social media and engagement editor for my paper, so I was able to land a social media manager job without much hassle.”

For many people, the move wasn’t a hard break, but rather a series of small moves that had them using their skills in different ways.

A marketing manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin has worked as a marketing professional for the past 15 years at various institutions. Prior to that, she spent the 10 years after her college graduation as a news journalist:

“My move to the PR/Marketing side of things occurred somewhat naturally through my various places of employment. I went from writing hard news stories at newspapers to writing news stories in magazines and newsletters for non-profit organizations and then for corporate jobs.

“As the industry morphed into the digital thing it is today, the shift was made somewhat naturally as society and our culture became more interested in short stories than long stories. Ultimately, the storytelling part of my training has remained constant through my career, no matter what kind of story I was telling or for what kind of media.”

A VP at a major financial institution, who serves as a content strategist, also noted the gradual movement over time from news to marketing:

“It was sort of a gradual transition driven partially by necessity. I started out as a newspaper reporter (2003), and then over a 5-year period, I went from news to B2B magazine publishing (2005), then custom publishing (2007), which morphed into content marketing (2008ish).

“Over time, I became more of an agency person than a journalist. I got out of news initially because I was a magazine major and really wanted to break into magazine publishing. When I moved to the custom publisher in 2007, the company primarily created magazines for brands, so that was my entry into agency-land. That also happened to be when social media became ‘a thing,’ so the whole industry changed, and the company I was with adapted as needed along with it.

“By the time I left in 2014, it was a full-on marketing agency and I was a content strategist more so than an editor or writer.”

 

In some cases, the small moves were less linear, as was the case for a PR professional who works for a firm that represents professional organizations, like law firms and management consultants, in the realm of thought leadership:

“I got out of newspapering right before the economy crashed in 2008 — and when I wanted to get back in, there were fewer good opportunities (I faced some geographic constraints, too). I actually did sales/tech stuff for a few years and then some freelance writing and editing. I decided writing and editing was more for me, so I signed on with the PR firm to do that kind of work.”

Many people mentioned the issue of needing a job but being limited to a certain geographic area, such as this former broadcast journalist who also taught college courses and advised student media:

“So I was a broadcast news producer before grad school. Then taught for years and ended up making a move to DC due to my husband’s work, and PR jobs here are everywhere. I am a director at a large consulting firm serving government clients.”

The same thing rang true for a former copy editor and writer for major media outlets, who shifted to PR after more than a decade in news:

“I made the move to PR because my commute was untenable and neither my job nor my family was going to move. I looked at good employers within a reasonable distance of my house and started applying.

“Much to my own surprise, I haven’t missed journalism for a moment since I left nearly nine years ago. I don’t even miss election night pizza.”

Next time: The pros discuss the things their education did (or didn’t do) for them in terms of preparing them for life beyond the newsroom.

Save Student Newsrooms Day: Share your stories, support the next generation

If I had a dollar for every time I told a story about my days in student media, I probably could solve all the financial woes most student media outlets are experiencing.

I cut my teeth at the Badger Yearbook, got my sea legs at The Daily Cardinal and found got my first real job because of the things I did at both of those places. When the Cardinal closed down in the middle of my junior year, it felt like a death in the family. When it came back to life, it was bigger to me than the Miracle on Ice.

Of all the places I’ve worked, taught and volunteered, the ones that most strongly hold my heart are those connected with student media. As a writer, editor, adviser or board member, I found myself seeing lifelong friendships being built, quality careers being developed and generally funny moments that I still can’t shake.

The only thing more certain than the value of student media is how little value many administrators, donors and other “outside” folks place on it. The one time I reeeeaaallly contemplated punching a fellow faculty member in the face was the time he chastised a student who skipped his class because they were “playing reporter” for the paper.

Say what you want to about class-skipping or  whatever, but that kid was a real reporter, doing real work, for a real publication. If you don’t believe how “real” things can get, go back and look at what publications like the Cav Daily and the Pitt News did on big stories.

The money for almost everything else comes first, it seems, with student media having to scratch and claw for whatever is left over. Administrators tend to forget how these publications lead to important stories, valuable changes and students who get incredible careers.

For some who are in the field, it can be easy to forget what life is like using a 25-year-old microwave to reheat last week’s coffee and last night’s Ramen while pumping out copy on deadline from a windowless basement in the student center. As we move on, the paper stays, fueled by the dreams of others who want to get where we have gone and want to do what we love to do.

The folks at the Independent Florida Alligator began Save Student Newspapers day in 2018 as a way for people to share stories about their experiences and to explain the importance of these publications as well. (The day was technically April 25, but if there’s one thing student journalists will understand, it’s a blown deadline…)  You can find their roster of testimonials here, with some pretty great stories about life during and after the student newsroom.

Feel free to add your own thoughts via their site, or share them below. Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt to check out your old student newspaper and find out if they’ve got any needs you could fulfill. Even just knowing that you care enough to ask can really make a difference in the lives of these student journalists.

I know it always did for me.

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

I was purposefully silent this week, as the Derek Chauvin murder trial reached its conclusion. I thought it better to let people far smarter than me, with much more life experience in the social and legal areas of this situation, speak and write about it. However, to write about anything else during that news cycle felt disingenuous at best.

Today, we get back into something I actually have a lot of experience with: The end of the semester arguments students present, as they start to realize time is short and their grades are subpar.

This year, I was exceptionally flexible, almost to the point of worrying that some students had taken advantage of me a bit here and there. Still, I didn’t really care, because we were all dealing with way more things that were way more difficult than usual (a long way of saying “unprecedented,” I guess…) so I was always open to the requests for help.

An extension for an assignment? Sure.

A need to miss a class or two? I understand.

A concern about work piling up? Let’s figure it out together.

However, even with the best of intentions and more help available than at  your average Apple Genius Bar, I still had the kind of students showing up who sap my will to live. They wait until the end of the semester in which they’ve been more radio silent than a Russian sub parked in the waters off of Nantucket, pour out some tale of woe that isn’t really that woeful and then say, “So, what are we going to do to get me my A?”

A couple years back, we looked at a collection of comments and questions students asked during their “grade negotiations.” That’s today’s post, but here are a few that came in more recently and my mental responses to them. Enjoy.

 

“How can I make up all my missing work at this point?”

Can you invent a time machine? If not, the options are limited.

“What do you mean I’m not passing? Do you know who my father is?”

Did HE invent a time machine? If not, I’m not seeing how this is relevant…

“Do you have any idea how much money we donate to this school each year?”

No, but I’m guessing the receipt didn’t come with a coupon for one unearned free “A” in the class of your kid’s choice.

“Our family knows the chancellor!”

That must be so cool!

“Your class is very important to me…”

All evidence points to the contrary, in that you missed so much time in this course, I honestly thought about having a missing poster put up for you at Walmart.

“You may think my work isn’t good, but I disagree. Clearly, we can each have our opinion on this!”

Sure, but not all opinions are equal, much in the same way that I can have an opinion that I should be dating Emma Watson, while she thinks otherwise…

“You were in my shoes once as a student majoring in media writing/journalism. Because of that, I don’t understand why you don’t understand my feelings/expressing frustration. And I’m not going to waste my time discussing it.”
The 10 or so paragraphs above belie the argument that you’re not going to waste time… Also, given what I’ve seen of your ability to research, fact check and write, I’m not sure how you know anything about me as a student, including if I even had shoes…
And now, our greatest hits album…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“I’m graduating this term…”

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

 

“Is there anything I can do?”

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

OR

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

OR

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

 

“Is there extra credit?”

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

“Could you possibly round me up?”

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

 

“I had some issues this semester…”

Yeah. No kidding.

 

“Your class is very important to me…”

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The Junk Drawer: Raiders and Haters edition

“No, I don’t know where your mask went…”

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

Let’s take a spin:

I SUPPOSE ALL NUMBER 16s LOOK ALIKE TO SOME PEOPLE:

A friend forwarded this to me to point out the truly awful nature of Brett Favre’s accuracy issues:

Point taken. Brett made Vinny Testaverde look like a pin-point passer. However, that’s not the only thing I noticed here.

When Favre threw his 278th pick of his career, he passed longevity legend George Blanda, who did spend an appreciable part of his career with the Oakland Raiders. The problem here? That’s not a picture of Blanda. It’s fellow Raider and fellow Number 16, Jim Plunkett.

Jim Plunkett - All-Time Roster - History | Raiders.com

Plunkett, the guy in the first picture, only threw 198 picks while Blanda, the guy in the second picture, who started his career before Favre was born, threw 277.

I suppose there’s something to be said for being accurate when you’re trying to pick on someone else…

THE GREATEST HEADLINE EVER (AT LEAST I THINK SO):

When you get to my age, you start to wonder if you actually saw some of the things you saw, or if you are literally stuck in “legend mode.” (As in, “I swear to GOD that happened… It didn’t? Where the hell did I get that from?”)

Case in point, I’ve often talked about one of the most clever and off the cuff headlines I’ve ever seen, even though I never could find a copy of it. When  up-and-coming-performer Jason Mraz played a concert at Ball State in the early 2000s, it was a disaster witnessed by one of our newsroom design vets. He promised to not only write a review for it, but he had the headline picked out.

Given the student and given the performance, I spent a week fearing what he would come up with. When it ran, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d seen in years.

Somewhere along the way, I lost my copy of that paper and no one else seemed to have it. Eventually, I figured I just made it up. However, another former student let me know that Ball State just digitized all sorts of archives, including the student paper. I did a little digging and I”m so glad I did.

Behold the glory of Emmet Smith’s snark:

Speaking of great headlines…

YOU HAD ME AT “VASECTOMIES”…

To keep up with what’s going on the PR side of the business, I signed up for a press release service that literally sends me about a half dozen emails a day. Every one of them is some organization promoting something or other and I’d say that when I’m not working on PR stuff for a book or a class, 99.99% of them end up in the trash without a second thought.

Then there was this:

I have to admit it was a good release and campaign, in that, it did the following:

  • Drew my attention with a headline that had me thinking, “What the heck is this? I gotta find out.”
  • Fulfilled the promise set out in the headline.
  • Clearly and in descending order of importance told me what was going on, why it was going on and why it mattered.
  • Tied two things that could seemingly not be further apart together in a coherent and logical way, once I actually read into it.
  • Took a risk, but a calculated one that probably paid off better than if these folks soft-peddled it.

And, finally, speaking of things take some testicular fortitude…

HATERS GONNA HATE, TEXTBOOK AUTHORS GONNA TEXTBOOK, I GUESS…

I’m in a number of teaching groups online where we to our best to help each other out. I didn’t think I was overdrawn at the favor bank, so I asked for some help to find a textbook for a freelancing class I’m going to teach in the fall.

Here was the one response that kind of bugged me (I cut the name off to save the embarrassment):

Couple things:

  1. I was looking at trying to find a book, so you telling me not to bother isn’t really helpful. It would be like calling Triple A for a tow after my car broke down and the operator saying, “You really should just use public transportation. It’s safer and more ecologically friendly.” Maybe, but that’s not the point right now.
  2. Saying “In my humble opinion” doesn’t make it humble when you say it this way. In fact, it’s rarely humble. It’s like whenever someone says, “I’m not racist, but…” I’m bracing for some stuff that would make Archie Bunker blush.
  3. “Too expensive and useless…” Um… Dude? The very first chapter in all of my textbooks I’ve done for SAGE is about how to know you’re audience. Maybe if you read one of them, you’d know why this statement kind of rubs me the wrong way. Then again, maybe not.

HATERS GON HATE soul train haters gun hate haters gonna hate dance trending GIF

Time to go back to writing another chapter for an expensive and useless textbook I’m working on. I’m guessing I shouldn’t ask this guy for a back cover blurb…

Vince (A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: Revisiting some insights from a journalism hiring manager on how to succeed in applying for jobs and internships

Based on the success of the other day’s post on people freaking out, I’m guessing more than a few students are concerned about graduation coming up and getting a job.

With that in mind, I dug out a piece I did back in 2019, where I interviewed a friend who has hired journalism folks for a living. Tim Stephens was the first person to help me see better what life looks like for people on the other side of the looking glass in terms of hiring our students.

His thoughts here might be helpful to your students as well

 

“Your resume is not about you:” Insights from a journalism hiring manager on how to succeed in applying for internships and jobs

Tim Stephens has spent more than a quarter of a century at various media companies, including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and CBSSports.com, where he helped recruit, hire and develop talent.

“I placed a high premium on being connected in the industry and knowing what other outlets were developing track records in terms of producing quality journalists who could fit into our fast-paced, evolving newsroom culture,” he said. “Your organization will only be as good as the people working for it, and I didn’t want to miss on hires. I wanted a pipeline of talent.”

Stephens said that no matter who he hired or how long they worked for his organization, he was always looking to put the best people in the best positions when he hired someone.

“I was never afraid of losing talent…” he said. “I wanted ambitious, high-achieving performers to have opportunities to move up in their careers. Every time I lost an employee to a larger organization or an expanded role, I took it as an opportunity to find the next high achiever.”

A few years back, Stephens and I were at a convention where we talked about a massive disconnect between college-age applicants and places that hired them for internships and jobs. His insights shaped how I work with students as they build their application packages, resumes and cover letters

Last week,  I asked him some questions via email so that he could share some additional thoughts about how hiring works, what he looks for as a hiring manager and other things that might help you get where you want to go in this field.

 

What is/was life like as a person responsible for hiring interns and employees? What goes on behind the scenes that students or newly minted graduates don’t know about between the time they send in an application and the time a person gets hired?

I planned for openings months before I had them. Part of that was because I was accustomed to large organizations making occasional raids on our staff, and part of that was because of the shrinking nature of the newsroom made it extremely important to make strong hires when you had an opportunity to do so.

I had my eye on candidates who were often 2 or 3 moves away from a position on our staff. I talked to hiring managers at other companies all the time, picking their brains for potential candidates. I referred people who impressed me to hiring managers who had openings when I didn’t, with a special eye for matching those talents to newsrooms where their best attributes would be developed.

Bottom line is that it’s a small industry and you are rarely more than two or three people removed from knowing someone who knows someone.

 

One of the things you mentioned to me a long time ago was that students don’t really understand the point of their resume from a hiring-manager’s perspective. What are the problematic things students or new job seekers do in terms of creating documents or applying and how can they fix that to improve their odds of impressing an employer?

Your resume is not about you. It’s about ME, the hiring manager. If I move your resume through the stack, I am attaching my reputation to yours. I am being judged in large part by my hires. Don’t ever forget that. When I am looking at a resume, cover letter and portfolio, I am not looking at what you’ve done. Frankly, I don’t care.

What I care about is how what you have done translates into what you will DO if I hire you. Big difference. I have always tried to encourage job hopefuls to try to view the search from the perspective of the person doing the hiring.

First, you have to find out who that is. Be a reporter and do some digging. What is this person’s track record? What attributes do they value? Who previously held the job I am going for? Do your homework and help me project you into the job rather than simply to view you as an applicant.

 

If you had any key advice for students or one thing you would want to tell them about this whole process, what would it be?

Network. Always be professional — always. You never know who someone knows … or who they will become in this industry. And last, when you get an interview, try to flip that conversation toward how you’ll do the job you’re applying for, and you will take a big step toward landing it. You want me leaving that conversation feeling like you’re already part of the team.

 

Is there anything you think I missed or anything else you’d like to add?

Where you start in your career isn’t as important as who you are starting with. Do your homework on the hiring managers and the person or people who will supervise you.

Who has a track record of investing in and developing talent? Who has a track record of sending people on to bigger and better things? Who gives young journalists prime opportunities to shine when they earn them? Will you get feedback? Will you have a strong cast around you who will support your development? The most prestigious media company isn’t necessarily the best opportunity to advance.

Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

Kermit Freaking Out GIF - Kermit FreakingOut Crazy GIFs

(“Professor… I’m kind of freaking out just a little bit right now…”)

Around this time of year, I’m getting four distinct types of panicked contact from students, and it usually breaks down along the “year in school” divides:

  • SENIORS: “I’m sorry I’m bothering you…” followed by concerns about everything from graduation to a class assignment to how to find a job.
  • JUNIORS: “I don’t know what I’m doing with (ASSIGNMENT) and I don’t know why I have to do this… I’m going into (FILL IN FIELD WHERE THEY WILL TOTALLY NEED THIS BUT THEY DON’T KNOW IT YET).”
  • SOPHOMORES: “I’ve always been told I’m a great writer, but I’m not doing really well in your class and I’m worried I’m going into the wrong field.”
  • FRESHMEN: “I’m really worried about my grade in this class…”

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, these questions show up with predictable levels of certainty each year about now. It would be so much easier if we could just answer all of them, all at once, right up front and let the students get the message clearly.

With that in mind, here are the four things that could answer all of those questions, in advance, and make all of our lives easier:

YOU ARE NEVER A BOTHER WHEN YOU ARE ASKING FOR HELP: I wish I had a dollar for every email, phone call, D2L message or personal interaction I had with a student that began with them saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”

I’d buy the Cleveland baseball team and stock the thing with every decent player in the league.

I think that students worry about bothering us because they’re trained to think that we’re really important or that whatever we’re doing is more important than they are. The truth is, for most of us, anyway, we really enjoy working with them to make their work better. We also enjoy helping them get to that “light bulb comes on” moment where they figure out whatever had been a struggle for so long. We also enjoy getting to know them as more than a name on a grade sheet.

And, if they don’t believe all of that, here’s one that’s kind of self-serving: The more we help you up front, the better your piece will be in the end and the less time we will spend grading the thing.

In terms of helping you with “life stuff?” Heck, that’s what we LIVE for. It feels great to know that whatever we did in our interactions with you made you feel comfortable enough to ask us for help in some of those big life decisions. Plus, we probably have gone through this stuff before, or at least helped other students go through it, so we know how to succeed at it.

So, show up at office hours. Email us. Just randomly stick your head in the door when you see it’s open.

Trust me. You’re never a bother.

WE HAVE A GOOD REASON FOR WHATEVER WE’RE DOING, SO TRUST US AND PLAY ALONG: At the beginning of each semester, my students tend to think that I’m old, cranky and addled and to be fair, I actually deserve this.

When I was 19, I took a class with a guy who thought he was “hip” even though he was “middle-aged” and he kept referencing his glory days in college days. Finally, I’d kind of had it, so when he said, “Back in (YEAR) when I was a sophomore at Iowa State…” I cut him off with, “Yeah, Steve, back in (YEAR) when I was in third grade…”

That wasn’t very bright, and God’s been punishing me ever since.

How else can you explain my reference to One Direction being met with, “Oh, Dr. Filak! You like the oldies too?”

So, I get it. We’re old, cranky, addled and we probably think that newspapers are going to last forever. We have nothing to teach you and those stupid grammar exercises aren’t going to help, let alone that story about covering the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or whatever story it was we were telling the other day…

Guess what? Most of us still actually know stuff and can help you get where you want to go if you’ll just give it a shot. The key in this field is that there are several bedrock principles that really haven’t changed over time: Be accurate, get to the point, tell people what they need to know and be clear. There are ways to make that happen that you don’t know because you aren’t as old as dirt and haven’t done it so many times you could practically write an armed robbery brief in your sleep.

We have these tools and we know these things because we’ve been around a lot and we’ve done them an awful lot. We’re not trying to torture you with pointless activities because we receive 30 free steaks for every student we piss off. We’re not trying to fill your head with an ideology so we can create an army of drones who will do as we see fit in the world of media. (Hell, I can’t even make the DOG do what I want, and I have access to all the Pupperonis in the world…)

The next time you think we’re being unreasonable, take one of two approaches:

  1. Treat us like you treat your grandfather at Thanksgiving and play along like this is all new and you are totally interested. “No, Grandpa, you didn’t tell me about the time you struck out Babe Ruth in a minor-league game… What was that like?” Then, actually listen and see if there’s something there you might have dismissed the 148 other times you heard the story.
  2. Ask why you have to do this, but do it in a way where you actually want to know the answer, as opposed to the long drawn out “WHHHHHHYYYYYY?!?!” that is usually followed by that “ugghhh” noise you make to show displeasure. If your professor is worth their salt, they’ll have an answer that will help you make sense of this. If not, well… OK… Let’s hope that doesn’t happen…

In most cases, we’ve built the class with a purpose in mind: To make our students better at stuff. Everything builds toward that, whether you see it or not.

YOU WILL NOT BE PERFECT AT THIS, OR ANYTHING ELSE IN LIFE, RIGHT AWAY: The first writing assignment my media-writing class does is one sentence long: A lead rewrite. When I introduce it to them, I tell them, “This is going to take three class periods to complete and you’re probably still going to struggle with it.”

I then get the stares that say, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are? What kind of student takes three class periods to write one frickin’ sentence?”

The answer: All of them.

I watch as they try to wrangle nouns and verbs like they’re grabbing a fistful of Jell-O. I see them write a sentence only to delete the thing one character at a time, stabbing the “delete” button like they’re firing bullets into the screen. I smile when the “I’m a natural writer” kid tells me, “Nailed it” and then realizes when we read it over that it’s missing at least three W’s and the H.

When they finally do get the lead to vaguely function, they often tell me, “This is way harder than I thought. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a journalist.”

Every professor in this profession knows the response to that statement: “It gets easier the more you do it. You just need to practice. You also have to understand it’ll never be perfect.”

I don’t know why students expect to be perfect at things on the first pass. I’m sure I could devolve into some old-guy, get-off-my-lawn, damned-kids-and-their-hippity-hoppity-music tirade if I felt up to it, but it really wouldn’t be accurate. What I do know is that nothing I’ve ever written has been perfect, no matter how much time I poured into it or how long other people have looked at it.

I have the best editorial pit crew in the business at SAGE and we go over everything at least a dozen times and we STILL aren’t perfect. Every edition, I’m rewriting things with the “What the hell is this crap?” thought rolling through my head. Every proof that comes through, we find another “Good grief, that could have been really bad!” mistake.

And we do this for a living.

If there’s one thing I want my students to understand before they leave here, it’s that nothing they ever write will be perfect. Also, nothing they ever do in life will be perfect. It’s admirable to pursue perfection, with the goal of making something as good as it can be for the betterment of society. However, if you let perfection get in the way of the possible or relatively decent, you’re wasting your time and your talent frozen in fear.

Do the best you can each time. It’ll keep getting better.

NO ONE IN THIS FIELD CARES ABOUT YOUR GPA, SO STOP OBSESSING ABOUT IT: Journalism is a “What can you do for me?” field, not a “My college rank was X” field or a “Do you know who my father is?” field. The skills you build and hone, the talents you develop and apply and the general ability to get the job done is what people who hire you will care about.

In almost 25 years of teaching, I have heard of exactly two cases in which a student went to a job interview and someone asked about their GPA. (In one case, I knew the editor and when I called to ask about this, he said, “Yeah, that was stupid. I kind of blanked on what I wanted to ask, so I went there.” The other was from a reporter at a paper who must have been all of 22.5 years old and asked it in the tone of, “Yeah? So what do you bench, bro?”)

The best students I’ve taught and sent into the field were not always the “A” students. In fact, a lot of “C” kids did really well for themselves for a number of reasons:

  1. They got C’s because they were never in class because they were pouring their lives into student media.
  2. They got their butts kicked by an assignment or three and used that to motivate themselves to figure out what went wrong.
  3. They weren’t “test” people, but rather “make it work” people. If you needed a story done in five minutes, those folks could do it. If you wanted a ScanTron test completed, it was like Kryptonite to Superman.

I’m not saying grades aren’t important, nor am I saying that getting an A makes you some kind of Pointdexter. What I am saying is that if you’re sitting outside of my office every day, noting that you’ve calculated your grade in the class down to the .00001 place and if I were to just round it a little, it could get you that A- you need to keep close to a 3.8… Well… You’re obsessing about the bark that’s on a tree and ignoring the fact you’re in a forest.

Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” prequel gets her sued on allegations of invasion of privacy (and two things you can learn from this debacle)

Trying to find fresh and relevant cases involving “misappropriation” or “false light” claims of invasion of privacy can be difficult.

Thank God for Cardi B.

A suit that is headed to trial later this year will determine if the rapper engaged in both of these acts when she included a distinctive tattoo on one of her album covers:

A federal judge in Santa Ana, California, has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a man’s distinctive back tattoo was used without his permission in a sexual picture on an album cover by rapper Cardi B.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California refused to dismiss the suit by plaintiff Kevin Michael Brophy Jr., who sports a full back tattoo that shows a tiger battling a snake.

<SNIP>

Brophy said his likeness was misappropriated in the photoshopped image in “a misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual way.” He alleges misappropriation of likeness or identity, violation of the right to publicity under California law, and false light invasion of privacy.

Based on the decency standards my editors have for me here, I can’t include a copy of the album cover (I tried adding it to a Facebook post on this and I got flagged for violating community standards…). I also can’t mention the title of the album cover or even EXPLAIN what it is that is happening ON the album cover here.

Just Google “Cardi B,” “album cover” and “Gangsta” and you’ll like find it.

Essentially, let’s just say that Cardi B is drinking a beer while the male model upon whom Brophy’s back tattoo has been superimposed is doing something where the tattoo is fully visible and the man’s face is not.

The concept of misappropriation is the use of someone’s image without their approval. A simple example of this would be if one of my students was running for student body president and thought my endorsement would be valuable to him. Thus, he grabbed a photo of me teaching and included it on his posters without asking for my endorsement.

False light claims tend to put two true things close enough together that people will see them as related, even if they’re not. In cases like these, the court is looking at the “gist” of the material to see if a falsehood is implied. For example, in Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., actor Jose Solano won a false-light suit after the magazine published his photo along with headlines implying he posed nude in the magazine, which he did not.

Some states, like Colorado, don’t recognize these kinds of legal nuances, rolling them instead into either general defamation or copyright claims, depending on what is at the core of the case. In other cases, the claims are without merit and get tossed quickly, leaving few true battles over who has the right to control a personal image.

In this case, it’s a daily double, in that the “misappropriation” claim of Brophy’s image (it’s a heck of a tattoo…) and the “false light” claim (that isn’t Brophy on the cover, but anyone who knows him and that tattoo would be hard-pressed to determine that on first glance) seem to fit the definitions perfectly.

The rapper’s legal team asked a federal judge to toss the suit back in December, arguing the album art was covered under a fair-use claim, in that the reworking of the tattoo into the piece made the work transformative. The court disagreed and the case will move forward to trial in the near future.

To say Cardi B is displeased with these allegations would be a slight understatement, based on her deposition:

“I’m really upset because I really have to be with my kid. All because of some bulls**t trying to get money and then $5,000,000. Are you f***ing kidding me? That mixtape didn’t even make, not even a million dollars.” Cardi added, “I got real lawsuits with real sh**, and I got to deal with this bulls**t. This is four hours long taking away from my time, my job, my motherhood.”

Ah, yes… If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my own mother’s voice uttering those exact words…

In any case, regardless of how this turns out, here are two key things you can learn from just watching this train wreck take place:

Permission for use solves almost everything: In reading through the coverage of this case and the depositions, it turns out the guy who designed the cover just Googled “back tattoo” and grabbed this one at random. (It also turns out he was paid $50 to build the cover, which could be the cautionary tale of “You get what you pay for,” I suppose.)

I would bet every dollar in my pocket right now against a pile of nothing that when this guy built the cover, he NEVER thought anyone would complain about their image being used in this fashion. The… let’s call it “up close with Cardi B”… nature of this image would likely be bragging rights for almost every human male on the planet, I would imagine.

In this case, he appears to have found the one guy with the one tat who didn’t feel this way. That’s why it’s important to ask people for permission to use their stuff. I could assume that any journalism outlet would LOVE to have its stories or photos or illustrations included in a textbook to illustrate how the true greats of the field operate. However, my publisher believes in covering its keester, so we have permission forms that get signed and stored.

Maybe Brophy is making a power play and could care less how he would be portrayed on an album cover, so long as he got paid. Maybe Brophy is truly a man who views this representation of him as “misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual,” and is truly upset by this. Who knows? The key is that it’s his right to have his body portrayed as he sees fit, which is why this is going to court.

Permission would have made this much easier to figure out, so make sure you get it.

“But it’s JUST for X” is never an excuse: Somewhere in the sprawling field of asterisks that populate Cardi B’s quote above is the notion that the album only made $1 million, so to have to pay out $5 million is ridiculous. The problem here is that she’s not being sued for a portion of revenue. She’s being sued to penalize her for her actions.

The law can be more or less forgiving in certain situations, but it is the law. Therefore, deciding to steal something and then say, “but it was JUST…” isn’t necessarily going to keep you out of trouble. I can’t remember how many times I’ve critiqued a high school or college paper that basically stole an image and published it. (Writing “Photo courtesy of Google” didn’t make it any better.) When I pointed out how much trouble this could create, I got the “Well, it’s JUST for a HIGH SCHOOL newspaper. I’m sure people have better things to do that try to sue us.”

Maybe. But a) Is that a risk you want to take? and b) Is that the lesson you want to teach your students? (“Steal small, kids, and you’ll never have to take responsibility for it!”)

I’ve seen this happen both ways, with bigger news outlets stealing from student newspapers (One told my photographer, “You’re just a student publication. You should be happy we’re using your work…” Um… No…) and student papers stealing from the big dogs. Both cases are wrong and in both cases, you can get into trouble for doing it.

I’m sure this guy who got paid $50 to design this thing for one of the myriad women who would likely crash and burn on “Love and Hip Hop” was thinking, “I’m just doing this thing for beer money. No way anyone buys this stupid thing.” However, he hit big, so now everyone is paying the price.

It’s like speeding: Sure, you might get away with five over, but when the cop in Rosendale pulls you over for doing 31 in a 30, the “But I was just speeding a little!” excuse is not going to fly.

 

Throwback Thursday: A shout-out for gender-equity and making sure you’re sure after Baylor’s NCAA men’s basketball title

A lot of hoops-la (sorry, I had to) was made of the Baylor Bears winning the NCAA men’s basketball title this week. The men’s team had never won a title before and was at least seven decades removed from its last championship game.

However, when writers started talking about it, they did so in a way that wasn’t entirely accurate:

Baylor routs Gonzaga as Bears win first national title, end Zags’ perfect season

‘Make a movie out of it’: Go behind the scenes of Baylor’s first national championship celebration

They did it! Baylor Bears dominate Gonzaga to capture first NCAA basketball championship

The problem? Baylor actually had three previous national championships in basketball… all of them on the women’s side.

Some publications did make the distinction for the readers, but more than a few did not.

So with that in mind, we throw back back to another “first” that wasn’t from three years ago to give people a few helpful hints on reporting sports achievements of this type.

 

3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.

 

  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.

 

  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2

 

This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

Good Night, Pat Simms

Even when you know something is coming, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with:

The details are fuzzy after so many years, but as Cliff Behnke remembers, Wisconsin State Journal reporter Patricia Simms was sent one day to cover a supposedly “secret” meeting at the Capitol.

“She strode into the meeting, told them the whole thing was open to the public and sent her notebook around the room with instructions for all the participants to write down their names and phone numbers in case she wanted to contact them later for the story.”

“They complied,” said Behnke, Simms’ former colleague and boss. “Talk about kicking ass and taking names.”

Mention Simms’ name to just about any journalist or power broker active in Madison over the last half-century, and they’re likely to have a story about the veteran reporter who succumbed to cancer Monday at the age of 75 after 42 years covering nearly every beat in local and state government.

The doctors gave her six months, which ended up being about six weeks. She died peacefully, I’m told, with her children at her side. The humane side of me is grateful for her and her family. The selfish side of me wished for a miracle.

I tried to explain before what someone like Pat meant to me, to others in the field and to journalism in general. I don’t think I have it in me to try again.

What I will say is that if you were a young reporter, you could have wished for no better mentor than Pat.

If you were a feminist, there was no better example to follow than Pat’s.

If you were weasel, you had no greater fear than a call from Pat.

And if you were her friend, you could never find one better.

Of all the things people have mentioned about her and all of my personal remembrances, probably the best memory of Pat is going to be my last one. When I sent her daughter that fumbling attempt to tell her what her mother meant to me, Sara read it to Pat.

The response was classic Pat: “She said it was so nice but ‘I’m not dead yet.’ ”

A rock star with a heroin problem, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” guy and a foul-mouthed cheerleader: The Suicide Squad of free speech court cases

A frequent joke told among lawyers is that the best case is the one with a carload of nuns as your client and a busload of priests as your witnesses. In most cases, however, it seems more like this scene from “The Wire.”

 

When it comes to First Amendment law, it would be great if we had more cases in which polite, articulate young people like Mary Beth Tinker who quietly wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Her choice led to hate mail and threats, but also a ground-breaking Supreme Court case regarding student free-speech rights. And, looking back on it now, people can understand better her underlying concerns about the war as well as her relatively mild statement against it.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that students do not shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. It also provided protections for students who wish to express themselves against intrusion from school overreach.

Unfortunately, an upcoming case in which a high school student did her best “Scarface” dialogue on Snapchat could be the case that undoes a lot of those protections in a digital age:

In 2017, ninth-grader Brandi Levy said on Snapchat some version of what stressed-out students have been saying on the back of the school bus since the invention of buses: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”

The post was shared on a Saturday afternoon during a trip to the local convenience store, disappeared from Snapchat by Sunday afternoon, and caused no disturbance at school whatsoever—except to irritate the cheerleading coach, who banned Levy from the squad for a year.

She filed suit, and in June 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that school authorities violated the First Amendment by disciplining her for the off-campus speech. Now, the Mahanoy district is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

The case doesn’t matter in regard to that single incident anymore. Levy is now a college student, the cheer team has had a complete turnover in terms of membership and nothing the court could do would change what happened in regard to the punishment levied at the time.

However, if the court decides to overturn that appeals court’s ruling, it could mean that schools can now actively monitor social media and punish students for ANYTHING that appears to be “objectionable.” If that doesn’t scare you, you probably had one of the six “really cool” high school principals I was always told existed somewhere.

Me? I dealt with a lot of nuns and balding guys who wore short-sleeve shirts with brown ties. This is terrifying…

This leads to the point of the post: It seems like we NEVER get the perfect Supreme Court case that perfectly showcases speech that deserves to be protected for the betterment of society. It’s never the student newspaper that was censored for reporting that the principal had stolen money or the kid with the bullhorn outside the school telling people not to eat cafeteria food because the workers were being abused.

It’s always something with an F-bomb, a nude pick or a drug reference that we get to stand behind and say, “Hey, look… You CAN’T censor this because… well… geez…”

We don’t get Superman, Batman, Aquaman or Wonder Woman as our defenders of freedom.

We get The Suicide Squad:

In other words, we get a “mental defective dressed as a court jester,” a “guy who wears a toilet seat on his head” and a “shark with hands,” to quote the red-band trailer I’m not allowed to show you here…

If you think I’m kidding about this, consider the following court cases on important topics:

The landmark case for online speech and defamation? Rocker/Actress/Woman I’d be most scared of meeting in a dark alley Courtney Love won and survived an appeal of her “twibel” case (Twitter plus libel) in 2014. Love, whose outlandish behavior and heroin abuse have long been the subject of media coverage, stated that an attorney had been “bought off” instead of helping Love recoup parts of her late husband’s estate.

A crucial Supreme Court case regarding speech at school sponsored events? Morse v. Frederick, also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. A student held up a sign at an event proclaiming the cryptic message. When the sign was taken away by school administrators, the student later sued claiming his First-Amendment rights had been violated. The SCOTUS ruled that schools have the right to remove pro-drug messages, even though students have some free speech rights at school.

The case that dealt directly with a reporter’s right to maintain confidential sources? Branzburg v. Hayes, which dealt with reporters being forced to disclose the names of sources who were manufacturing hashish.

And, of course, the case involving satire and hyperbole in regard to public figures comes from the apparent patron saint of this blog, pornographer Larry Flynt.

Now, the question of whether students can get smacked around for writing things on their own time on their own social media that school officials dislike comes down to one foul-mouthed 14-year-old cheerleader.

The problem with all of these cases is that it becomes so much easier to suppress speech that is unpopular, vulgar or otherwise disagreeable.

If the reporters in Branzburg were protecting whistleblowers who had uncovered some sort of dark plot by a foreign government to go all “Red Dawn” on the U.S., it would likely feel better to the courts to support their interests in remaining anonymous.

If the school was trying to suppress speech about the superintendent stealing money from the district to buy weed, maybe a “No Bong Hits 4 Superintendent Smith” sign would have garnered a different outcome.

If Sally Fields had tweeted about potential legal malfeasance (while wearing her “Flying Nun” costume), it might not have felt like the entire future of online free speech hinged on whether the defendant was going to lose her mind on the stand and start throwing things at the jury.

If the cheerleader had done her rant without the f-bomb, maybe the courts would be more inclined to side with her at every level.

However, we don’t get to choose the cases that decide our fate, which is why it’s important to make sure that we stand up for all speech because what one person thinks is a felony charge, others might consider a misdemeanor at best. In the mean time, keep an eye on this one, as it’s got a lot more at stake than a lot of people think.