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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

In essence, writing that way is just the ticket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posting Schedule for Summer 2019

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

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

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

Auschwitz is not a marketing strategy and neither is blaming your users

Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, an event that is largely seen as a critical turning point in World War II. In the following 15 months, Allied Forces would bring an end to the Nazi regime and discover the death camps throughout Europe and the Holocaust that took place.

Some camps have been preserved as memorials of what happened, in hopes that nothing like this will ever happen again. However, there’s a reason why you have never seen a “My friend went to a concentration camp and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” kinds of products out there: Auschwitz is not a marketing strategy, something that apparently came as a shock to internet store, Redbubble:


Redbubble, which began in 2006, is an Australian company that promotes itself as a marketplace in which artists can sell their artistic efforts to people interested in unique products. The company states it connects more than 700,000 artists and designers all around the planet.

The company responded on Twitter, noting it would remove the offensive material and that it has community guidelines that are suppose to prevent this kind of thing:

Redbubble Help responded to the Auschwitz Memorial tweet on Tuesday, writing: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The nature of this content is not acceptable and is not in line with our Community Guidelines.”

“We are taking immediate action to remove these and similar works available on these product types,” it added.

It also said Redbubble “is the host of an online marketplace where independent users take responsibility for the images they upload.”

The “Community Guidelines” actually touch on two aspects of this, neither of which is really helpful in guiding people not to wear Auschwitz:

Redbubble is a respectful, supportive, and encouraging community who is deeply passionate about art and creativity. We welcome artists of all experience levels and walks of life. Redbubble asks that you do not seek or engage with content you don’t agree with (no need for troublemaking). And if you see behavior or content that goes against our guidelines, please flag it through one of the reporting functions on our site. Above all, we urge you to make the most of your time here by offering support to artists. Contribute positively to the community, and you’ll find that Redbubble can be a fun and rewarding place. (Yay.)


Works that deal with catastrophic events such as genocides or holocausts need to be sensitively handled. Works that have the potential to cause the victims serious distress may be removed.

Even more, this wasn’t the first dumb Holocaust-themed item for which it managed to provide a marketplace:


In terms of bad marketing, weak apology and generally not getting the full weight of one’s own responsibility, this will likely serve as a decent case study for media classes. If you decide to work in marketing, it’s wise to remember three simple rules:

  1. Even if you aren’t legally responsible for content, it doesn’t follow that the public won’t dislike you for that content.
  2. Blaming your users for something you should have caught (it says “Auschwitz” right on the sales page for these thing), is the grown-up equivalent of “BUT HE STARTED IT!” That boat won’t float.
  3. Genocidal acts aren’t a marketing strategy. I know this pretty much goes without saying, but clearly it needed to be said, because as recently as a month ago, a multi-national marketer of myriad products allowed you to buy a skirt/purse/pillow combo featuring a death camp. Just as stupid as it is when reporters refer to people as being like Hitler, a group of people being like the Nazis or a rigorous event as akin to the Bataan Death March, the Redbubble situation is equally stupid here.

Gone Fishin’: A break for some pinball at semester’s end


With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet…

In the mean time, Zoe has challenged me to pinball supremacy and has set a record for our old machine (I think she cheated, but…). Thus, I’ll be dedicating a lot of time to trying to reclaim my dignity by smacking a little metal ball around.

Thanks for a great semester! If you need anything, just hit me up on the contact page.

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

“I bleed for my media.” Why student media advisers do this insane job, right up until they get pushed out

It’s been one year since I stopped advising student media at UW-Oshkosh, a fact that was brought home by a couple events this week. The first was a call from the current editor of the Advance-Titan, who wanted to ask me a question about graduation. Every year, students who graduated after spending whatever appreciable amount of time at the paper deemed worthy of such an honor were able to purchase a stole to wear with their grad gear.

ATStoles“The A-T graduation stoles,” he asked. “Where did you buy those?”

“I made them,” I said.

“You MADE them?”


I then outlined the process in which I bought a pack of generic gold stoles online, went down to JoAnn’s fabric store, got some black material and fusible interfacing, ironed them together, traced out each letter, cut them out, placed them on the stole and ironed them on. I also noted I never forgot the hyphen on the back of the neck. (The paper was particularly proud of the hyphen in the name.) Each one took about two hours or so to make and I never even thought to charge more than what the materials cost.

I could almost hear him shaking his head on the other end of the phone. The next day, the current adviser stopped by and the first words out of her mouth were, “Did you do EVERYTHING there?” I don’t know, but there were days I felt like it.

ATBATMost of the time, however, I never thought twice about the time it took to do the stoles or hand-burn the managing editor baseball bats or traipse in a chili supper or fill out award sheets or a dozen other things. Sure, I got paid for being the adviser, a $5,000 annual stipend that the provost provided, but if you broke that down by the hour, I’d have been better off taking a part-time job at Hardee’s. The job was hard, the budgets were tight and 17-hour days on production nights weren’t rare.

Still, I loved the kids. You never think about stuff like time or work when it’s for something you love. However, when the board of oversight put me in an untenable position, I had to walk away.

Kenna Griffin found herself in a similar position this week. All she ever wanted to do was advise student media at Oklahoma City University, something she did splendidly for 16 years. However, her administration painted her into a corner, so she packed up her office and left.

I didn’t really start to cry until I thought about Dru. I was pulling books off of the shelf, separating what was personally mine and what belonged to the position, when I said Dru’s name and started sobbing. It’s not only the girl herself. It’s all of the students she represents. Students who I love. Students whose rights I think it’s my calling to protect. Students who love student media as much as I do. Students I was leaving behind.

Griffin is one of many advisers I know that colleges and universities are actively or passively crushing with increasing workloads, diminishing funds and punitive measures. The latest of these situations came to a head at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where Tom Martin advises The Rambler. The university unilaterally decided to “support new initiatives” and essentially reorganize Martin out of a job. Administrators cut off pay to the students (and Martin), all while painting this as a chance to get an “experienced staff adviser” instead of someone from the outside. Nobody involved in media believed that BS:

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a blistering statement in reaction to the proposed changes.

“Transylvania University’s decision to stop compensating the student staff and part-time professional adviser of its online student newspaper, The Rambler, looks like a blatant attempt to silence and control student voices,” said Tom Eblen, chapter president. “President Seamus Carey and his leadership team should be standing up for the liberal arts values of a free press, good journalism and media literacy, not undermining them, especially at this critical time in our nation’s history. If this decision is not reversed, it will send a powerful message about Transylvania to students, potential students and the nation.”

I asked Martin if he’d like to talk about this for the blog, but he declined, saying The Rambler folks and the administration were trying to work something out and he didn’t want to get in the way. Even as his job hung in the balance, he put the kids first.

So did Scott Morris, the soon-to-be-former adviser of the Flor-Ala at the University of North Alabama, who was also being reorganized out of a job. After this award-winning journalist taught his students to do actual journalism that would (gasp) criticize the institution, the administration decided enough was enough.

ALABAMA — The University of North Alabama is ousting the student media adviser after the student paper published a story critiquing the school’s administration. The move has sparked sharp condemnation from journalism and First Amendment groups and the campus publications board.

In September 2018, The Flor-Ala reported the administration improperly withheld public documents about the resignation of the vice president of student affairs. A week later, the journalists, members of the communications department and The Flor-Ala media adviser Scott Morris met with University Provost Ross Alexander.

It’s not always easy to fire someone without looking like that’s what you’re doing, so it’s much easier to rewrite the position in a way the current person isn’t qualified to fill, call it an “upgrade” and pretend that this is all in the best interest of the students at the publication. Of course, when you get called on your bullshit, it’s easier to pretend like you are the aggrieved party:

[E]fforts to link Dean Burkhalter’s notice of this personnel transition to one article in the paper, represent an ex post facto creation of a narrative designed to lead to a predetermined and misleading conclusion. More generally,there’s been an effort to conflate an academic decision and to relate it in routine personnel notification with an attack on the First Amendment at UNA. I find it objectionable that any group purports that own the First Amendment and interpret it for the rest of us.

Morris told me back in December he has no hope of keeping his job, but he was going to keep working with the students until the administration essentially pried him out of his chair and sent him packing.

Universities have tried to get rid of advisers like Morris, but none has failed as spectacularly as Florida Atlantic University, where Michael Koretzky continues to advise the students nearly a decade after the university fired him. In 2010, the administration there “reorganized” student media to get rid of Koretzky, who had been a thorn in the side of the school forever. The reason? His students loved him and they did real Fourth-Estate journalism, such as holding the student government to account for shady behavior.

Koretzky, as unrelenting as a toothache and as difficult to remove as gum from the bottom of a Nike, worked with the students on his own time, became a “permanent guest speaker” for the University Press staff and eventually settled into a volunteer adviser role. Seven years after the university fired him, the administrators there tried to fire him AGAIN, this time from his volunteer role.

As far as I know, he’s still there, teaching kids what they need to know and innovating like hell. He has developed things like the “First Amendment Free Food Festival,” where students learn about their rights by trading them in to eat for free, and the “Interview with a Zombie” promotion where students risk getting doused with fake blood for asking stupid questions. The participants get a T-shirt emblazoned with the motto I think every adviser would take as his or her own:

“I bleed for my media.”

Dozens of other advisers have met fates like the ones I described above. Ron Johnson at Indiana University was removed after “financial issues.” I know Johnson had even offered to rework his own pay to try to help. Instead, the university cut ties with him earlier than promised to save money. Morgan State fired Denise Brown in 2009, in a move that was seen as an attack on the students’ First Amendment rights. In fact, you can check out the College Media Association’s “censure” page to see what happened there and at other schools where advisers seem to be as safe as the guy in the red shirt on a Star Trek episode.

Anyone looking at the life of a college media adviser from the outside would have to think, “These people are insane!” And, well, yeah… We kind of are. If you want to see the weirdest collective of coexisting people outside of the Cantina scene in “Star Wars,” just go to an adviser reception at a CMA or Associated Collegiate Press convention. To call us an eclectic bunch would be to refer to Godzilla as a lizard; in other words, that’s a dramatic understatement.

However, we all share one crucial trait and that is our love for student media and “our kids” who produce it. Student media isn’t a job for most of us. It IS us. The people in charge of universities don’t understand that spending as much time in a foxhole as we do with these students forges a bond that wounds when it is torn. It’s woven so intrinsically into every fiber of our being that when chuckleheads in student government mess with it, administrators overreach to silence it or others demonize it, we experience personal and unrelenting pain.

That’s why we stand in front of “our kids” when the train is coming down the tracks, knowing that we probably can’t stop the train, but that we might be able to absorb the blow for them. It’s why we take the beatings we do, in hopes that it will allow the students the opportunity to wriggle away unscathed, to continue doing the important work they have come to the newsroom to do. It’s why we have no shame in any of it.

It’s why we cry when it’s gone, even if it is “our choice” to leave.

This is also why we are the ones who get the invitations to weddings, some for relationships forged right under our noses at the newsroom. (Apparently, hours spent in a windowless bunker poring over AP style books and shit-talking the administration can be romantic to some people.) It’s why we attend funerals for staffers’ parents and siblings, driving whatever distance just to be there as our staffers stand before us in a broken state. We tell them, “It’s going to be OK.”

We know about the internship offers and the pregnancy scares before family members do. We serve as the sounding board for everything from students who are worried about “coming out” to those who think they need an extra year of college. Sometimes, we end up worrying about a staffer who lands in the hospital after a school shooting.

We aren’t the only ones who do this, to be sure, as other faculty and advisers serve similar roles, but I have yet to have students call me up and say, “Hey, I was in your Fall 2015 reporting class! We’re getting a reunion together at The Bar tonight and we hoped you could come!”

I also don’t remember hearing about the student government passing a resolution for the firing of the Model UN adviser. I don’t recall seeing the adviser of the forensics team getting “reorganized” out of his or her job because the kids in “solo serious” were picking material deemed “too serious.” I have yet to see the chess team adviser getting publicly castigated for his team’s financial situation or for preaching the value of the Evans Gambit, because administrators felt a Benko Opening was really more responsible.

When Kenna posted about her situation, other advisers and former advisers came out of the woodwork to offer support. Many of them offered similar tales of heartbreak:

Walking away from advising after 22 years was one of the most difficult and at the same time, most sane decisions I ever made. You are in my thoughts.

I left before it got that bad, but it was headed that way. Advising student media had put a target on my back. There was even a standing committee that met with the university president weekly to ask him to fire me. Shouldn’t be that way. Sad to see it’s no better 12 years after I walked away.

I’ve been in similar shoes. And the terror of it will be something that, down the road, you will be glad you went through. We live by an ethical code and have a breaking point when the rubber meets the road. Those clowns will realize their mistake, but might not care. For that I’m sorry. It stings. It’s a gut punch. It’s a betrayal and can make you question being such a loyal person to an institution. It certainly was a real lesson in higher ed for me. I wish you all the best and admire your guts.

In the year since I left, there are times I don’t regret my choice, like when I could go to my kid’s volleyball game or actually get more than four-hours sleep before teaching my 8 a.m. class. Last night, I did laundry and watched a basketball game on TV, with only a passing thought that it was Wednesday and Wednesday used to always mean I was at the A-T.

I do have to admit that it stings when I have to refer to myself as a “former” adviser or when I have to direct students to the current adviser, a wonderful woman who is doing a fantastic job. I miss the moments in the newsroom that can’t be reproduced anywhere else, including the inside jokes and the “remember when” stories from “back in the day,” which for most students was about a semester and a half ago. I miss eating random pseudo-meals at my desk while students would yell out stuff like, “Is ‘felony conviction’ hyphenated?”

The one comfort I have in all this, and perhaps the only one I can offer to Kenna, is that I know I’m not alone and neither is she. We advisers are a weird bunch, but we all eat the same dirt, so we know what it tastes like and how to spit it out.

Hang in there, pal. It’ll get better.


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.


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


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.

“I don’t like it” isn’t the same as “You are factually inaccurate:” Four tips for when people say they’re going to sue you for something you wrote

I spent part of Wednesday afternoon on a conference call with students from Oshkosh North and the attorney for Hans Nelson, the school’s former vice principal. The story the North Star wrote about Nelson and his unceremonious transition from high school VP to a special-needs educator elsewhere in the district was at the crux of the whole censorship debacle last month.

In one of the articles on the Oshkosh North situation, Nelson’s lawyer, Charles Hertel, stated that the article was inaccurate and intimated a lawsuit might be forthcoming:

On Friday, Charles Hertel, a partner with the Dempsey Law Firm in Oshkosh, provided a statement to the Journal Sentinel on Nelson’s behalf. He called the article “factually false and defamatory.” He said Nelson is considering legal action against Doemel and possibly others.

“What he is doing is not privileged,” Hertel said.

The students, still pursuing a story to try to find out what happened to Nelson, were told via emailed letter that Hertel would speak for Nelson and that a call should be arranged. One of the students asked me to join, so I sat quietly for most of the call until at least the second time Hertel stated with certainty that the story was somehow false or inaccurate.

I asked Hertel to outline the factual inaccuracies, so the students could either correct the record or investigate this more clearly.

Hertel first stated that Nelson hadn’t been terminated. I asked the students if the story stated that. They said no. He then said Nelson hadn’t resigned. We quibbled over language a bit, noting that if he doesn’t have his previous position and he now has a different one, how could that be characterized as not resigning something?

After one more question, in which an inaccuracy did not emerge, Hertel noted he didn’t have the article right in front of him. He also said he didn’t think the students had a source (which, again, would not be an issue of factual inaccuracy). At that point, I suggested we move on.

This isn’t the first conversation I’ve had like this in my career as a reporter, editor and adviser, in which there seems to be a basic misunderstanding between the concepts of “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “What you are saying is factually inaccurate and libelous.” Since I spent much of my pro life on the crime beat, I had a number of people who were arrested or family members of the accused calling me to threaten lawsuits.

I vividly remember once having said the sentence, “Ma’am, it’s not our fault your son was involved in a shoot out at a Taco Bell Drive Thru.” This did not placate the woman, who continued to scream that our publication of the incident made her son (an adult) look bad. (I would argue it was the shooting he engaged in at the drive thru that made him look bad, but I figured she didn’t want to hear that.)

I took a call from a bounty hunter in Missouri, who was outraged that we wrote about his arrest. Police told us that he had spotted a person who was wanted for some outstanding traffic tickets, so the bounty hunter engaged in a high-speed chase that eventually flipped the suspect’s truck onto its roof. The truck came to rest on some active railroad tracks. If memory serves, the bond amount was no more than a couple hundred bucks. He, of course, threatened to sue us. It’s been about 20 years and I’ve yet to be served.

One guy who ran for the school board argued that we had factually misrepresented numerous things, including his military records. I remember being in a conference room with this guy, our head editor and the reporter who wrote the story. The guy had this giant binder of information that he said clearly outlined everything that was wrong. When the editor asked to see it, the man declined and said we’d see it in court and he didn’t want to talk to us (that despite the fact he was the one who requested the meeting). Again, I’m still waiting on that one to make the court dockets.

If you’re worried when someone says “I’m going to sue you,” you are completely normal. Legal stuff can get freakish and panic is easy when the word “lawyer” is bandied about. That said, here are four tips from the book that might help you when you are dealing with this:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: a threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources.
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to him or her as needed.