Why we need local news publications and enough reporters to cover things

A cop shot a kid at a high school about five minutes away from my office after the kid stabbed the cop. While rumors were flying everywhere, the local newspaper was relying on quotes a media outlet 100 miles away grabbed from Facebook posts.

Via the Oshkosh Northwestern:

Senior Dakota Meisel told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a Facebook message the lockdown was announced around 9:10 a.m. at the beginning of the school’s second period.

“I heard people yelling and running, and I heard a bang but not sure what the bang was,” he said.

Meisel said a teacher came into the classroom looking nervous and told the students to get away from the windows and get into lockdown mode just before the lockdown was announced. Meisel said the students were scared.

“We all got into the part of the room, closed all the doors, turned off the lights, and sat in the back of the class room quiet and we contacted parents and siblings, and waited until told what to do,” he said.

This should clearly illustrate why we are all in trouble if Gannett and Gatehouse and whatever other hedge fund chuckleheads continue to buy every newspaper they can get their little cloven hooves on and strip them out for parts.

Your right to know things is limited in large measure by the number of people who are paid a living wage to go out and find things out that you want to know. When you don’t have strong, active, engaged journalists with boots on the ground in your area, even if you still have a newspaper that supposedly serves you, this is what you get:

Josh, an Oshkosh West senior, told the Journal Sentinel he heard the gunshots.

“I was walking in the hall, and a teacher shoved me into a classroom, and we started barricading the doors, and we all huddled in the corner, and there were gunshots,” he said.

Chloe, an Oshkosh West sophomore, told the Journal Sentinel she first heard people yelling in a hallway.

“My teacher ran in the hallway to try and see what was going on. After she heard the people yelling and people were running through the hall, she shut all the doors and turned the lights off. After that an announcement came on that we were going into a lockdown.”

OK, how in the hell is the MILWAUKEE Journal Sentinel getting these quotes from people who aren’t even in the same AREA CODE as that newspaper while the OSHKOSH Northwestern isn’t? Even more, it dawned on me that I’m reading a newspaper that is quoting ANOTHER newspaper, that is quoting sources who only gave their first names to whatever journalist they somehow reached.

How is it that we’ve gone from “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” to this?


Also, I’m trying to imagine how my old managing editors, Cliff Behnke and George Kennedy, would react if I did this instead of hauling my ass down to the scene and digging out everything I could before I published a word.

I’m guessing it would be like this:

(NOTE: To be fair to the Northwestern staff, the story continued to grow and improve throughout the day. To also be fair, TV stations from GREEN BAY, about an hour away, were kicking the paper’s ass throughout the day on this story. To be even more fair, my kid had more information on this situation at the end of the day than the Northwestern did and she doesn’t even GO to that school… Good grief.)

The larger point isn’t that things were better in the olden days where we could smoke in the newsroom and people wore press passes in their hat bands. The point is that we have several serious problems that become clear when we have something exploding in an area that used to have strong local media and now are operating like the outpost in “Dances With Wolves.”

LIMITED RESOURCES: When you see these mergers and buyouts and other things taking place at various media outlets, they are often couched in terms of “shedding” jobs or “rightsizing” an organization. The idea is that with fewer people come fewer salaries, which means more profit for whoever owns the publication.

That sounds great, in theory, until you realize that this undermines the primary value of the newspaper: People who can get crucial information for a paying audience.

When you have a staff of five photographers and cut it down to one, you now lack the ability to photograph multiple things at multiple locations. When you “thin the herd” of reporters so that one journalist is covering multiple beats, you lose the opportunity to develop connections (more on that later) and to have the reporter fully immerse himself or herself in an important single area of information.

Even more, you find that by doing more with less, you burn the reporters to a crisp and thus limit their effectiveness in these kinds of situations. To do this job right, you need to pay for people to do it well and build a staff that is robust enough to cover an area effectively.

LIMITED EXPERIENCE: Various publications I know have recently undergone “buyouts” and “golden handshakes” for reporters who are older or nearing retirement. The idea is often, “Hey, I can buy three fresh-out-of-J-school kids for the cost of this old dude who has been taking up breathable air in this newsroom for the past 30 years!”

True, but you also get what you pay for.

Veteran reporters earn their keep because they have experience and knowledge. They know where to go to get the information that people most want to know first. They know what makes for a smart move and what makes for a dumb one, in most cases, because they’ve made both of them a dozen times and seen the results.

This is why certain reporters in various fields always seem to get the story before anyone else does: They are “the person” to whom everyone goes when they want to get something covered.

These experienced journalists know where the bodies are buried. They have a bank roll of favors built up from years of interactions that they can call in when they need to. They also have created trusting relationships with people who are more willing to tell them something than they are to tell anyone else about it.

This leads to the most important point…

LIMITED CONNECTIONS: It’s not who you are. It’s who you know.

The more time you spend some place and the more time you spend interacting with people who matter in some way to you, the more likely you are to develop important connections and relationships. This is true in every aspect of life.

My folks have lived in the same general area for their entire lives and that shows when it comes to getting things done. When I needed a truck to get moved out of my dorm one year and I forgot to get a U-Haul, my dad “had a guy” who helped out. When I wanted to buy a classic Mustang, but wasn’t sure if the car was up to par, Dad “had a guy” who ran a garage and put the car through the paces. Mom and Dad knew so many people in that area, that they always had a guy or a gal who knew something I needed to know. To say they are connected to the area would be a massive understatement.

Journalists who spend enough time on a beat or with an organization develop relationships with sources in key places, too. These connections can make or break a reporter and also make the difference between getting a story and not getting a story. In some cases, a source will call a reporter when something important like the incident at Oshkosh West happens and tip off the reporter about the situation. This only happens after years of trust-building interactions between the source and the reporter.

People I worked with had folks at schools, courts, police stations, government buildings and more who were able to give them the inside story when they needed something. (I wasn’t a veteran reporter in any stretch of the definition, but after covering enough late-night disasters, I got to know the deputy coroners and the secretary at the police station well enough to get a little help here and there.)

The point is, without these kinds of connections, reporters have about as much luck in finding crucial information quickly as a lost 4-year-old has of finding his mom at Wal-Mart during Black Friday. It’s a random lottery of luck at best and that doesn’t cut it for an audience that can find other sources for information.


Dear profile writers, Readers don’t give a damn about you, so get out of the story.

Personality profiles are among the best stories journalists will ever write. When reporters get the chance to enter the lives of the rich and famous, the eccentric and reclusive or even the “known but unknown” people around them, they can paint some amazing word pictures that will allow readers to gain incredible insight.

That said, journalists have ruined more than a few of these opportunities because they can’t manage to get out of their own way in telling the story.

Consider this opening of a profile on Woody Harrelson:

It’s a Saturday in June and I’m running on time to meet Woody Harrelson, but one subway delay, one wrong turn, one mother with a double stroller failing to keep pace and clogging the already clogged sidewalks of midtown and I’ll be running behind. Adding to my anxiety: the possibility that I have no voice, not so much as a croak (laryngitis, a bad case).

Brushing past a pair of doormen, I enter the lobby of a residential tower on the southwest tip of Central Park. I beeline for the elevator bank, press the up button, and glance at my phone. Two minutes after the hour. I’m now officially late. My pores open, sweat gushing out. At last, a muted ding as the doors slide apart. I board.

To calm myself, I pull from my bag a sheaf of clippings on Woody. The big takeaway of recent years: He spent his entire adult life cuckoo for cannabis and then, in 2016, gave it up.

In 164 words, the author references herself 12 times. Her subject? Twice.

Profiles recently have suffered from a lot of this kind of masturbatory self-importance, with the writers weaving themselves into the piece as being the one consequential element of the story.


The fact the writer is present should be considered both obvious and inconsequential: The readers came to this piece because they wanted to learn about the person being profiled, not about the writer.

In short, nobody cares about you. The more you find yourself verbally photo-bombing your way into the story for your own edification or out of sheer laziness, the more annoying you will be to your readers and the less valuable your piece will be.

This point became clear this weekend when several folks online were discussing a recent Adam Sandler profile that kept popping up in our news feeds. The opening wasn’t as self-absorbed as the one for the Harrelson profile, but it was similarly focused and similarly annoying:

We cruised down West Pico in Adam Sandler’s ride, a custom Chevy passenger van tricked out in the style of an orthopedic shoe. The cup holders jangled with suburban odds and ends — a pair of tiny glasses belonging to his daughter; a bottle of Dry-n-Clear ear drops. We were bound for Hillcrest Country Club, the oldest Jewish country club in Los Angeles. “You’re going to like this,” Sandler said. He whipped the van into the valet station. Alongside the row of town cars and coupes, it looked like an airport courtesy shuttle.

Compare this to the opening of Mary Jo Sales’ look at “Jon and Kate Plus 8” co-star Kate Gosselin:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu. She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

But Laurie Goldberg, senior vice president of communications at the Learning Channel, which airs Jon & Kate, doesn’t think Nobu’s such a great idea. Kate cried on the Today show this morning, answering questions about why she’s still wearing her wedding ring (“for them,” she said of her children, sniffling), and this afternoon she told People, “I am so emotionally spent” (from her husband’s behavior, which has included philandering with the daughter of the plastic surgeon who gave Kate her tummy tuck), and so it might not look good for her to be out enjoying herself at a hot spot.

“You’re like a prisoner,” Kate says of her newfound fame, annoyed.

Kate, who in the first season of Jon & Kate, two years ago, appeared on-screen as a dowdy, sweatpants-wearing mama hen, is now looking very much the celebrity—from her tanned, trained body to her curiously asymmetrical blond hairdo, now so iconic as to be the model for a popular Halloween wig.

Her phone rings. “Oh, it’s Kelly”—Ripa, of Live with Regis and Kelly—Kate says, holding up a French-manicured finger, signaling for us all to be silent. She’s going on the show tomorrow morning. She and Kelly gab. “Hiya!”

They both rely on description. They both open with a scene setter. However, while Sales puts the focus on the profile subject (Gosselin), Keiles seems to be writing a piece she wanted to call, “Adam and me.”

Keiles turns the focus on herself once again a few paragraphs after she and Sandler arrive at the club, explaining the story behind the story:

I started chasing Sandler in early 2017. His presence in my own childhood had been mythic — a Jewish cultural influence more imposing than anyone I’d ever learned about in Hebrew school. Thinking about the scope of his career, I was enchanted by the prospect of me, a person of modern and hardly coherent gender, grappling with America’s foremost man-child. I dispatched my editor to email his publicist. At night, from my apartment in Queens, I wondered if Sandman, from his mansion in the Pacific Palisades, was considering my offer.

We followed up. Time was marked by the arrival and deletion of my weekly “Adam Sandler” Google Alert, which detailed a still-persistent comedy career, achieved with infrequent engagement with the press. Soon he mocked me everywhere I went, his face staring down from the subway ads for his latest movie, “Sandy Wexler.” On Netflix, his new stand-up special debuted, and he did the late-night shows. I waited. Months turned to years. And just like that, the Google Alert started to spit out photos from a movie set: Sandler in a louche leather coat and diamond earrings, filming the indie thriller “Uncut Gems.”

Sandler had taken dramatic roles before, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film, “Punch-Drunk Love.” Then, as now, a question emerged: If he was such a good actor — and he was — then why did he keep making dumb comedies? This was a question I had long since learned that he resented, and in my pursuit, I had been careful to avoid it. Now it seemed the precaution had paid off. By some act of God — or, more likely, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting — we found ourselves together at last, standing in his country club, staring down the gallery of early Hillcrest members.

By this point in the piece, we are learning a lot more about the author than we are about Sandler. We learn about her pursuit of Sandler, Sandler’s influence in her life, how she got an editor to email Sandler, how she wondered if Sandler was considering her offer…

At this point, between the fawning and the overuse of first-person writing, I felt like I was reading a cross between my 14-year-old daughter’s diary and an autobiography Donald Trump wrote while on a coke bender.

Abiding by the theory of “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” I kept reading in hopes of learning something about Sandler that wasn’t tied to the writer.


To Sandler, everyone is “bro” or “buddy,” except for me; I was “kid.” Crossing the busy street that cut through the park, he rested a fatherly hand on my shoulder, then yanked it away, as if weighing the optics of touching a young stranger versus letting that same stranger be run over by a car.

Away from the street, we came across a guy absolutely shredding on the erhu. Sandler, who busked in the subway during college, stopped to throw some money in his hat, and I noticed the ease with which $20 seemed to float right out of his hand. I reckoned in that moment that a 20 to Sandler was probably something like $1 to me. Later, using dubious-but-still-plausible figures from CelebrityNetWorth.com, I calculated that his $20 was closer to my one one-thousandth of a cent.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Adam Sandler has a special nickname for the writer. (oooohhh…)
  • Adam Sandler makes more money than the writer. (So cool!)

I gave up at that point, only cursorily giving a glance at the close of the piece, where Keiles frets about being at a wrap party and wondering if Sandler will remember her. In other words, it ends as it began: All about the writer.

We could continue to beat the dead horse that is this profile, but Keiles is an exemplar, not the cause of this phenomenon. When I groused about a similar approach to a Megan Rapinoe profile, student journalists, professors, former reporters and more all chimed in:

THANK YOU. It’s been so hard teaching our new writers profile writing because they read stuff like this.

I remember this being a MUST DO when I took journalism classes in 1979!

Don’t even get me started with “I caught up with…” and “I sat down with…”

I 100% agree. I hate the inclusion of first person in these things They drive me nuts and ruin the story.

That first person writing drives me crazy!!! I don’t care how you first heard about the person…or how you had to travel to talk to them. You are not the focus of the article!!! It is (EXPLETIVE) lazy.

Based on all of this, consider the following helpful suggestions/concepts:

THE FRAME OF THE MONA LISA THEORY: The Mona Lisa is one of the best-known works of art on Earth. In writing about it for The Independent, John Litchfield called it “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world.” It serves as a metaphor for everything thought to be the best of anything and it is probably the most recognizable image ever created. I saw it in person about 20 years ago during our honeymoon trip to France. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still compelling in a way I can’t properly articulate.

Now, those of you who have seen it, tell me what the frame on the Mona Lisa looks like.

Chances are, like me, you have no damned idea what that frame looked like. Ask anyone you know who has seen it and they probably have no damned idea what it looked like. Nobody I know walked away from the Louvre saying, “Man, that chick was ugly but the FRAME! Now, THAT was something!” The reason? Nobody gives a damn what the frame looks like. It’s just there to display the artwork in a way that doesn’t detract from it or overshadow it.

Your job as a profile writer is to showcase the subject in a way that other people appreciate it. You display the individual in a fashion that helps the audience members connect to that person. You’re like the frame of the Mona Lisa: Hold up the painting for everyone to enjoy and get the hell out of the way.

SHOW, DON’T TELL: This is Journalism 101, but it bears repeating. If you want to let people know how great a game was, don’t tell them, “This was an awesome game!” Instead, show them what happened so that they independently come to the conclusion of, “Wow, this was an awesome game!” This is true in all kinds of journalistic writing, but it’s especially true in profile writing.

The descriptive nature of narrative storytelling should put your readers into a scene so they feel like they’re viscerally experiencing it for themselves. The distance provided by third-person writing often does this best, because it focuses the readers on the experience as opposed to the writer.

When you rely on first person, you basically are retelling an experience and that focuses the reader on you. Save that for Facebook posts, random blogging and roommates who ask, “So, how was your day?” For profiles, put me next to you at the scene and let me engage the situation as much as you did. That’s fun for both of us.

DON’T BE LAZY: Two of the comments above (one of them rather explicitly) mentioned the idea of how first person allows the writer to be lazy. Leads can be tough to write, so profile writers often resort to some version of, “I caught up with…”

Yeah, no kidding. Otherwise, how would you know whatever it is you are telling me? I’d give anything to hear instead, “I couldn’t catch up with (NAME OF CELEB) because I failed to do enough cardio. Thus, I’ll be making up this entire thing…”

First-person writing has its place: Columns, blogs, personal-participation pieces and several other spots in media. The question always should be, “Do I need to use it to make this piece work or not?” If you can get away without using it, you should aspire to do so for the reasons mentioned above. Consider this opening to a profile on former MLB pitcher John Rocker at the height of Rocker’s fame:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

The writer of this piece could have easily started with, “I’m in a car with pitcher John Rocker and I feel like I’m going to die.” Instead, the writing focuses on the subject and the situation. Even when Rocker is directly addressing the writer, first person never enters the mix. Still, we get the picture: John Rocker is a horse’s ass.

No profile is perfect in this regard. Even Gay Talese dropped in a few first-person moments during the legendary profile, “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” However, they are few and far between and limited to points where the writer NEEDS to do this instead of where it’s convenient or the writer can’t think of anything better to do.

Think of using first-person writing in a profile like being forced to take a Friday class that starts at 8 a.m.: It should be an unpleasant experience you only engage in when absolutely necessary. Even then, you should want to move on from it as quickly as possible.

Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving Break

With Thanksgiving coming quite late this year, most students and faculty members I know are grateful it finally arrived. Out here, between early snow and lousy temperatures, we weren’t sure if we should be grateful for a short fall or that maybe winter would come early and then leave early. (Yeah, right)

The blog is taking a break for the week, being thankful for the option to do so.

Enjoy whatever break you get, try to avoid any near-death experiences on Black Friday and get ready for the stretch run this semester when we all get back.



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

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

With students, faculty and staff desperately hanging on for a Thanksgiving break, I thought a small bit of humor might be the tonic we all need right now. Here’s a throwback post that looks at how cliches have found their way into our writing and why we need to kill them. Enjoy!


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


The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

South Dakota tells the world it’s on meth (or how to make a fool of your state for less than $500,000)


Sometimes, the jokes just write themselves…

South Dakota wanted to take on its burgeoning methamphetamine problem head on, so it invested heavily both in an attempt to treat addicts and a marketing campaign to let people know the state was serious about addressing the crisis.

Well, at least one of these things might work:

South Dakota is on meth — at least, that’s the message behind a new anti-drug ad campaign so widely mocked that one marketing expert could only laugh before calling it “a colossal blunder.”

The “Meth. We’re On It.” awareness initiative was unveiled Monday by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) to address the state’s methamphetamine crisis. In a news release, officials underscored the importance of combating drug use in a state where twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds reported using meth compared with the national average.

According to news reports, Broadhead Co. out of Minneapolis was responsible for the meth campaign, which cost about $449,000

 The state’s contract with Broadhead, effective until May 31, 2020, states that the contract shouldn’t exceed $1.4 million.

In its proposal, Broadhead says the tagline “I’m on Meth” will create “a movement for all South Dakotans to take an active role in keeping their state a great place to live.”

Right… Because when someone walks up to you and says “I’m on Meth,” the first thing you’re thinking is, “Wow! I want to live near that guy!”

Broadhead has several other campaigns on its website that have kind of that “edgy” feel to them, with many of them related to agriculture:


Given their motto of breaking through with non-status quo ideas, I was left wondering if “Cow Lives Matter” was taken… Then there was this:


I don’t even want to know what that thing is used for, but I now have much more sympathy for cows than I did before I saw this…


I kept imagining this conversation going on at Broadhead when it came to the “meth” campaign:

Rep 1: Hey, remember our #porkplease campaign? I bet we can’t look any dumber with an awkward approach than that!

Rep 2: Hold my beer…

In any case, here are two “teachable moments” to take away from this fiasco:

PARANOIA IS YOUR FRIEND: As we have said time and time again here, paranoia is your best friend when launching any kind of public endeavor. It’s the reason I reread the word “public” every time I write it, just to avoid something like this:


It’s why magazine names should really be considered when you start designing things:


Even if you think, “There’s no way this could be a problem…” just think again:


Or why you need you still need to “consider the fold” when you design pages:


You want to always ask yourself, “How could this thing go wrong?” The first person who said, “Meth? I’m on it!” should have had six people around him/her saying, “Uh… PHRASING!”


OBSERVE FILAK’S FIRST RULE OF HOLES: The rule is simple: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Instead, Gov. Kristi Noem “doubled down” on the meth slogan in media statements after Twitter basically had a good laugh at her state’s expense.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is defending the state’s launch of an anti-drug campaign with the slogan “Meth, we’re on it.”

The tagline drew a mix of criticism and ridicule across Twitter on Monday, but Noem cited the backlash as proof that efforts to raise awareness around South Dakota’s methamphetamine crisis was, in fact, working.

“Meth is IN SD. Twitter can make a joke of it, but when it comes down to it – Meth is a serious problem in SD. We are here to Get. It. OUT,” Noem tweeted Monday night.

She also decided that it was a good thing everyone was now asking if the entire state was on meth:


OK, look, I get that everyone is paying attention to you now, and there’s nothing you can do about it (and you just blew through about half-a-million dollars to turn your state into a laughing stock). And we can argue that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” until the end of time.

However, saying we told everyone “we’re on meth” was a good idea because it “drew attention” is like saying former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford helped people understand the severity of the city’s crack epidemic:


Or trying to combat child sex abuse with the slogan: “Kids, We Feel You.”

Once you realize you’re going to do more harm than good when you continue to insist this really isn’t as bad as people are making it out to be, stop digging.


SLAPPed around: How people with money who dislike your work can make your life miserable (legally)

About a year ago, we talked about the legal triangle that existed between coal magnate Bob Murray, comedian John Oliver and a 7-foot-tall squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter.

The short version of this was that Oliver did a big piece on the coal-mining industry, in which he called out Murray’s company and made fun of the 79-year-old for a variety of things he did and said. Murray filed suit in West Virginia, claiming Oliver defamed him and seeking not only damages (to be specified by the court), but also a permanent injunction barring Oliver from ever broadcasting the piece again. It also sought to eliminate all copies of the “Last Week Tonight” story from public viewing.

A year ago, the state threw out the case against Oliver and HBO, stating that this was satire in some cases and free speech in all cases. (I still think the greatest legal argument came from the amicus brief filed by the West Virginia ACLU that noted, “Anyone Can Legally Say, ‘Eat Shit, Bob.'”) When the court tossed the case, Oliver let his fans know about it in a truly “Last Week Tonight” fashion:

Contrary to the title of that clip, however, Murray hadn’t given up the ship quite yet. He appealed the decision to the state’s supreme court before eventually dropping the case recently. Oliver then finally made good on his 2-year-old promise to tell us “the whole story” about what happened with the suit.

(Normally, I would upload the link to the piece here, but I think my publisher would kill me in this case if I did so. I have been told repeatedly that “students at small religious institutions” read this blog as part of their homework. Let’s just say that the dancing and singing number at the end is “a lot.” Feel free to find it on your own on YouTube.)

Oliver, however, didn’t spend all 25 minutes of the main story on a self-congratulatory Broadway-style number that pushed satire into a completely incredible stratosphere. His main point was about the way in which people with money can engage in ridiculous lawsuits to crush dissent, which is something of serious concern to journalists these days.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, use the legal system as a sword as opposed to a shield. The goal of these, according to the Public Participation Project, is to crush free speech with lawsuits that have no merit:

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

In short, even if you win the point as the target of one of these SLAPP suits, you lose because you go broke. We covered this kind of situation when we talked about the small-town Iowa newspaper that went after a police officer who had been showing waaaaay too much interest in underage girls. The cop sued for libel and lost in a huge way. However, the paper ran up a six-figure debt defending itself and turned to a GoFundMe campaign to try to save itself.

In Oliver’s case, it cost about $200,000 to defend the coal piece and led to a tripling of his libel insurance premiums. And that was BEFORE he ran his giant Broadway number that went even further in talking crap about Bob Murray.

About 30 states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books now, which try to cut this kind of nonsense off at the pass. Although they vary from state to state, the gist of anti-SLAPP laws is that the person being sued can ask the court to view the story in question as being in the public interest (or at least free speech). It then is the plaintiff’s job to show that the suit has merit.

If those folks can’t meet that burden and it becomes clear it’s a SLAPP suit, the case gets tossed. In some cases, the law calls for the plaintiff to cover all legal bills derived from this stupid exercise.

However, not every state has these laws (Murray sued Oliver in West Virginia for precisely that reason) and not all laws are equally helpful to journalists. This makes life a little dicey for you if you want to take a shot at someone who has probably done something wrong but is likely to be extremely litigious.

Every time you ply your trade, you run the risk of being sued, regardless of if you did something wrong or if someone is just being a chucklehead. With that in mind, here are a few things to think about when it comes to SLAPPs:

IT’S NOT A SUIT UNTIL IT’S FILED: My good buddy Fred Vultee used to say this a lot on the copy desk when a story about someone threatening to sue would come across his desk. His point, and it’s a good one, was that anyone can threaten anything. Until paperwork is filed, all this huffing and puffing does is create a lot of wind.

As we pointed out in earlier posts, you shouldn’t panic and try to run away whenever someone threatens you with a suit. Instead, you should see what it is that is upsetting that person, if that concern has merit and if something needs to be done to resolve the concern before it gets too far down the road. If you’re wrong, an anti-SLAPP law isn’t going to help you.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press points out, anti-SLAPP laws aren’t meant to solve every legal problem for journalists. They are just one more tool in your toolbox that can be helpful when a specific situation comes up.

If you’re right, and it become clear this person is just trying to mess with you, then you can start thinking about lawyers, laws and SLAPP stuff.

DOES SOMEONE HAVE YOUR BACK?: When we talked to Alex Crowe of The Great 98 a year or so ago, he found himself in the middle of what could be considered a SLAPP case. He reported on a messy police situation, which included a reference to a drug bust and a cop’s kid. The officer involved threatened to sue unless the station scrubbed its website of all stories involving this.

Although point one really applies here, sometimes, just the threat of a suit is enough to make people up the chain nervous about sticking their necks out for you. In Crowe’s case, the first inclination of the people around him was to back off. He did, however, know that if he could protect himself and the station without draining every resource from the organization, he would still be in decent shape. That’s where the RCFP came into play. The folks there provided him with legal advice, some pro-bono counsel and a chance to push back at the threats. That was enough to put the kabosh on the whole thing.

Organizations vary as do bosses. I’ve worked for people who would step in front of a bus for me. I’ve also worked for people who would not only push me in front of a bus, but would be more than glad to drive it over me a couple times if it kept their keesters out of the fire. This was the determining factor for a lot of what it was that I was doing in terms of fighting with angry sources, disgruntled subjects and other folks who were potentially litigious.

If you know where you stand with the people who might or might not stand with you on a situation, you at least have a sense of how scared you should be going forward. For all of his zany antics, something tells me that Oliver had more than a few conversations with his bosses at HBO about what might happen as a result of going after Murray before he aired the piece.

IS THE JUICE WORTH THE SQUEEZE?: In employing this “Filak-ism,” I’m likely to earn the ire of many old-school news journalists. In the idealized world of news, the goal is to tell the truth, consequences be damned. You HAVE to tell the truth and you MUST push back against powerful forces. In the movies, it always looks like this:

There’s that sense of “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” that brings vigor to journalism and that is trumpeted as “this is why we do what we do.” I’ll never argue that in a perfect world, the bad guys get punished, the truth gets told and Gary Cooper always rides off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.

We don’t live in a perfect world and if you need any proof of that, go look at the approval ratings of journalists these days.

My friend Allison and I used to ask when we would deal with difficult situations or plan those Quixotic efforts, “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” In other words, if everything goes to hell in a speedboat and you don’t end up winning the day and Gary Cooper gets run over by a horse while Grace Kelly runs off with the blacksmith instead, are you OK with that? Was this worth it?

In the case of Crowe’s story, he felt it was worth it and he ran the risk of losing the fight, the ability to do good news and maybe even his job. In the case of the “Spotlight” story, the Boston Globe eventually got the pieces in front of the public and unveiled some of the darkest elements of the powerful force that was the Catholic church.

In the case of John Oliver, well, we got another awesome moment or 12 from Mr. Nutterbutter, so I guess that was good as well.

The point is, if you’re going to take on someone who will likely torture you with legal stuff and drain your piggy bank of every last cent, make sure you feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor. If you don’t, then let it go and be OK with the fact someone is getting away with lousy behavior because of your choices.

The Junk Drawer: An update on the Daily Northwestern apology, the tao of Vin Diesel and an honest look at journalism salaries

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 here are a few bits and bites of things that are helpful or at least somewhat amusing:

REASON 283,435,139 I’M NOT A DEAN: In covering the Daily Northwestern apology story earlier this week, we took some liberties in explaining the best and worst ways in which people reacted to the paper’s editorial choices. A good number of folks I knew who were Medill alumni emailed the dean of the school, Charles Whittaker, asking exactly what the heck was going on at Northwestern.

Whittaker was in a tough spot: He didn’t control the paper (as is the case with almost all colleges and universities, despite what many administrators like to think) and yet the students running the place were most likely kids in his program. The paper’s actions reflected poorly on the school, even though the school itself had nothing to do with the paper. People wanted him to say SOMETHING, although anyone who has ever worked in crisis communication knows that rarely do statements in times like this satisfy everyone. (And, in many cases, these statements end up doing the PR equivalent of trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline…)

Whittaker put out a statement that, in my view, covered the bases and nailed the key points. It also did so in a way that didn’t throw anyone under the bus and yet moved the school beyond the hand-wringing point most alumni seemed to be stuck on. In reading it, I found that his points tended to mirror some of the concerns we raised here, but he did it with an eloquence that I couldn’t pull off at the time. This paragraph covered the three unpleasant truths I outlined in the post in a much tighter and with better language:

And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.

Again, this is why I couldn’t be a dean. Well, that and I’d have to wear a tie…


YOU LEARN A LOT ON THE WAY TO 500: In listening to all the people talk about the Daily Northwestern’s position and how they were “much tougher back in the day,” I found myself going back to this Vin Diesel clip from “Knockaround Guys:”

Rarely do the words “Vin Diesel,” “stronger journalism” and “great philosophy” converge in a single sentence, but they all seem to work here. If those previous generations of journalists were tougher, it was because they got started earlier on their 500 fights. It’s the battles, the mistakes and the ability to live through everything that happens that gives you that toughness. That’s how you develop thicker skin, as so many people kept telling the staffers at the DN to do. It’s how you learn to tough out certain things and acquiesce in other situations.

You learn a lot of things on the way to 500, but none more important than this: You will survive and you will get better at fighting.

COME FOR THE ABUSE, STAY FOR THE LOW PAY!: Why journalists do what they do is often beyond explanation. In some cases, we find a calling, like a priest or a rabbi would. In other cases, we see how our skills match up with what news organizations need and we go for it. In many more cases, we realize we stink at math, so we figure this is the best field for us.

However, even if you’re bad at math, you can tell pretty quickly that the salaries of journalists aren’t among the highest in the world. Anecdotes often filled the ears of students who were working their way through college that, hey, you’d be better off working a fry machine at Hardee’s than doing this. Still, getting people to talk about money is really rough, so no true salary database existed in this area.

Some folks in the field wanted to change that with an open access Google spreadsheet and some publicity.

Journalists doing anonymous journalism about journalism, in the shape of Google docs, is a new development in form. And examples like the SMM list definitely bring up ethical implications that should be considered. But in the long run, we would probably all be better off if the salary list sparked a healthy conversation about who is paying whom how much, and for what.

If you want to dig around, feel free to depress yourself here. Also, if you’re living in Kearney, Nebraska or Butte, Montana and you see the six-figure salaries, remember those are mostly in New York where it can cost almost a quarter-million dollars for a parking space.

Still, you can’t beat the hours…

Until next week,


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


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 “mail.com” 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.