Sports Event Coverage and Speech Coverage Exercises for journalism instructors who can’t send people to sports events and speeches, thanks to the Coronavirus

SocialDistancingShirt

My favorite shirt… Again, I was born for this…

Hope the Corona Hotline page is helping out for you folks out there trying to build stuff for your students when they can’t go anywhere. I meant what I said yesterday: If you need anything in media writing, news reporting or news writing, let me know and I’ll try to build it for you.

Case in point: I got this message from someone who teaches sports journalism:

One idea: sports coverage during this time? My plan is to still assign a feature/profile assignment and possible photos/social media assignment, but with all sports canceled that could be a cluster…
It’s a fair question someone else echoed in regard to event coverage: How can we have students write speech or news conference stories when there are no more speeches and news conferences happening near us?
To help out, I built a football game story exercise yesterday. I did a previous one when I taught online and it worked out, so I figured I could do a pretty decent replication for you. What I did was grab a box score and set of stats from a pretty old and yet memorable football game, strip off all the identifying features and change the names of the players and teams. I then did some “post-game interview” quotes from the coaches and from a couple players.
This prevents students from looking up the old game and just copying the info from previous reports. I also tweaked some of the key information to help shine a light on some angles that could make for good focal points in the stories they write.
As for speeches and news conferences, I found several transcripts of things going on now that could make for some solid speech or event coverage.
Please let me know if this works for you and if you need anything else. I can build stuff as you need it.
Best,
Vince (a.k.a. the Doctor of Paper)

 

 

Resources for Journalism Professors Teaching Writing and Reporting Classes Online, Thanks to The Coronavirus

SelfIsolate

I’ve been preparing for this moment my whole life. I just didn’t know it…

As promised, today the blog is launching some help for those of you running media-writing, reporting, news-writing and other similar classes. I’ve created a “Corona Hotline” page that you can go to for a clearing house of all sorts of stuff that you can use for distance learning.

One of the benefits of teaching media-writing classes is that I am limited in how much “reporting” I can force on the students, so a number of these exercises are canned writing pieces that lack a need for additional work. I also did some cleaning on them so that they’re more universal and less “UWO-centric.”

As I get deeper into my own class build, I’ll toss more stuff up here. If you have anything you want me to share, hit me up with it through the contact page. I’ll also be posting some teaching stuff here and there, along with links to student media outlets that are still grinding away during the crisis.

As always, we’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

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

So, you have to teach your journalism class online now, thanks to the coronavirus? We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

Schools throughout the country have reacted to the spread of the coronavirus by pushing for “alternative delivery methods of instruction.” The goal is basically to get people away from one another while not having to cancel class. For most of us that means online instruction, a concept that some folks know well, others have had a little experience and still others react to with a level of freaking out that would impress Beaker from the Muppets.

I’ve taught online for more than a decade now, providing content through various delivery systems for multiple classes. I also am currently teaching courses I’ve taught for upwards of 20 years. Still, I’m probably at the freakout stage, primarily because nobody around here has been willing to pull the trigger on this yet and say, “Look, we’re making the call now. You get an extra week off after spring break to get your stuff together for online delivery. Plan for a month’s worth, but be ready for the whole term.”

I’m also one of those stupid people who likes to help other people, even as I’m drowning. Either I’m as dumb as a bucket full of hammers when it comes to deciding how to prioritize my time, or I’m way too old-school Polish-Catholic, in that we feed everyone else around us, even if we’re starving.

Either way, as my friend Allison would always say when taking on some sort of Quixotic do-good adventure on behalf of her blog: We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

With that in mind, starting on Monday, I’m turning the blog into a pile of stuff that anyone who wants it can use for free. I’ll link to previous exercises I’ve built, stuff I’m building to teach my students, previous posts on the site and other stuff. Take whatever you want, use as much of it as you want and bastardize it for your own purposes however you want.

In the mean time, either post comments below or contact me through this form to tell me what you need and I’ll see what I have.

For those of you who have never taught online before, or who have limited experience, below is a list of things I’ve figured out over time that might be helpful:

 

YOUR BEST BET IS ASYNCHRONOUS CHUNKS: The argument of how best to reach students and make sure they’re keeping up with things often emerges when we’re dealing with online classes. If we do live-streaming stuff, we can force people to stay on track with certain parts of the class. If we do a full class dump online, we can let students work at their own pace.

Both of these approaches have benefits and drawbacks, and I’ve found that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits in both cases. This is why I’ve come up with a system meant to allow freedom of access while still creating firewalls against students who wait until the day before the class ends to try to do the work: Asynchronous chunks.

Here’s what I do: On day one of week one of the class, I open up everything the students will need for that week’s “chunk” of the course. Any lectures I do, any powerpoints they need, any quizzes they need to take, any readings they will need and any assignments or tests they need to accomplish. The due date for this material is usually Friday by noon of that week.

The students can do whatever they need, however they want, just as long as they meet the deadline of Friday at noon for dropping their work into the drop box for that week or finishing the online quiz portions. I then spend my weekend grading like crazy to try to get this stuff back to them as quickly as I can without making a mess of it. Once they get their graded stuff back, usually Sunday or Monday, I unlock week two and the system starts all over again.

What this does is it allows students to work however they want within a set of parameters. It prevents people from blowing off the work to the last minute, but it also prevents those “go-getter” students from drinking 27 Red Bulls and trying to do the whole class in 72 hours. The lazy ones are what we’re used to, so we might have a plan to deal with them. However, the quick-moving students will likely cause you a problem by screwing up something in week one and then repeatedly screwing it up in the work for weeks two, three, four and five because you didn’t have the opportunity to correct them on it. This “chunk” approach helps with that problem.

 

KNOW WHAT TOOLS THEY HAVE: “Go online” sounds like a great idea, but then again, I’m sure “Let them eat cake” sounded like a plausible solution at the time as well. We have students out here from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Depending on where your students will be sent, home might have the technological wizardry of the U.S.S. Enterprise or of two cans and a string.

A number of folks on various teaching message boards I frequented were talking about how their students were trying to get a month trial of the Adobe Creative Suite for a reduced price. Others talked about how certain video sharing services were allowing campuses free access to some of their higher-end tools to do virtual meetings.

My bigger question was, “Can students even run any of this stuff on what they own?” I’ve seen a number of my students carrying some of the jankiest laptops on Earth. In addition, I have students who live in rural areas where DSL is barely available, let alone anything with a true high-speed to it. If you are fortunate enough to work in a place where everyone is required to buy the same tech or where everyone is rich enough to have their own survival bunker, that’s great. For the rest of us, it comes down to a MacGyver approach of making do with what we have:

If you are still in your regular class periods, ask around to figure out what people have and what they don’t. If you’re not, it’s worth emailing your students before you launch and asking them what they have the capability to accomplish with the tools at hand.

One of the bigger reasons I went to the “chunk” approach was that I had students who were taking my class in areas where they would have to go somewhere to get internet access. (Last summer, two students who took my editing class online were living together in a converted SUV while selling fireworks at a roadside stand. At the start of each week, they would trudge to town and use the wifi from the laundromat to download all the stuff. Then, at the end of the week, they’d repeat the trek and upload their finished work.)

Knowing what kind of tools the students have is vital in limiting frustration on both of your ends.

 

GO BACK TO THE NOUN-VERB-OBJECT FOR YOUR GOALS: When I take students online, the goal is to give them an experience that is as valuable as the one they would get in the classroom. That said, I know full well it won’t be the same experience as they will have in the classroom. It can’t be.

What helped me in building my online courses was the same thing that helped me write books when I had trouble with communicating a concept: I went back to the basics of noun-verb-object. In short, I tried to figure out how to finish the sentence “Students need X” or “I must give students Y.” Doing this allowed me to re-calibrate my thought process on what I was actually accomplishing within the classroom and what needed to come out of that for the online kids. Once I nailed that down, I was able to build things specifically for that class to accomplish that goal online.

Case in point: When I taught media writing online, what I wanted students to get out of a news writing assignment was the issue of balance among sources. To do this in the classroom, I had the students individually interview people (one interview per student) and then I would collect those interviews into a giant pile that everyone in the group could use to write from (think the old “bring a dish to pass” approach).

Online, I couldn’t do that as easily, nor could I employ my “pitch a topic” approach I used in class. For a while I was stuck because I kept trying to replicate the entire assignment online and found I couldn’t do it. Eventually, I realized that I wanted them to a) write a story and b) use multiple sources to c) create balance between viewpoints. When I figured that out, I rebuilt the assignment. I gave them the transcript of a speech I made up, along with two press releases that “reacted” to that speech from various perspectives. (Pro and con) They then had all of that material to use for the assignment. It ended up working just fine.

Did they get the interviewing experience? No, but I realized that wasn’t the point of the assignment, so I didn’t go nutty trying to force that in here. Instead, I found a different way to get them that experience when I had the chance.

Figure out what you want them to do in that simplest way and you’ll be in much better shape as you reconfigure this for a different environment.

 

RE-EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS: People who see this point might be thinking, “He wants us to lower our standards of grading and work quality!” Not really. It is about trying to determine how best we want to assess our students in this new environment.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re catching a flight overseas for a two-week vacation. As the plane is taking off, you’re thinking, “I hope they get us there on time for me to make the opera I have tickets to,” or “I hope they have a good meal for us for dinner” or “I hope that the movie on this flight is good.”

Then, 20 minutes into the flight, all four engines quit and you’re in a total stall over the Atlantic Ocean. You probably are now thinking, “I hope I don’t die.”

That re-examination of expectations doesn’t mean you’re lowering your standards. It means you’re dealing with the reality of your circumstances. If your last thought as the plane crashes was, “Oh, God, not another damned ‘Avengers’ movie…” you have some serious issues.

This point can dovetail nicely with the previous one. A photo colleague and I were talking about this before classes began today. He noted that his students were supposed to be doing studio work at the exact time the university would likely be moving everything online. He thought about re-configuring his class to move the studio assignment later in the semester in hopes things would come back to campus. However, he said if that didn’t happen, he didn’t know what he’d do.

I said I’d dig around and figure out what I MOST wanted out of that studio experience and see how it could be replicated somewhere else. If the goal was to shoot photos against a neutral background, could they use something other than the studio backgrounds to do it? If the goal was to shoot still life images with certain lighting situations, would they have stuff around the house they could use to replicate that? In other words, how could we improvise and adapt the expectations of the work to get them the key aspect of the experience?

Not everything can be done this way, clearly, but in terms of looking at it less as “The assignment demands X, Y and Z” and more in terms of “Here is what I want you to get and that’s what I’m going to grade you on,” the better off you both will likely be.

Clearly, there is a lot more to this than these tips, but I hope they’ll get you started or at the very least, confirm what you already know about this. In between now and Monday, please send me any needs or concerns or pleas for help and I’ll do my best to make this work.

We’re all in this together, so let’s see what we can do.

Best,

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

 

 

Catching up with the coronavirus: A look at some things student journalists might want to know

Confession time: My first reaction when I heard about the “Wuhan coronavirus” was, “This sounds like something one of my students would make up after getting way too drunk at a Wu-Tang-Clan-themed party.”

In the subsequent weeks, it became clear that the coronavirus was going to be at the center of our attention for the foreseeable future. To help you in dealing with the coverage, whether you’re trying to localize it or just understand it, here are a few tools for your toolbox:

AP RULES: As per usual, the Associated Press has come out with some solid guidance on how to approach the topic, including explaining what this thing is, how it works and what we should and shouldn’t write:

coronaviruses

A family of viruses, some of which can infect people and animals, named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces.

The viruses can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and COVID-19, the latter of which first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

As of early 2020, phrasing like the new coronavirus or the new virus is acceptable on first reference for COVID-19, though stories should contain a mention of the disease’s official name, accompanied by an explanation. COVID-19 is also acceptable on first reference.

In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.

Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.

COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19.

SARS is acceptable on first reference for the disease first identified in Asia in 2003. Spell out severe acute respiratory syndrome later in the story.

MERS is acceptable on first reference. Spell out Middle East respiratory syndrome later in the story.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Do not exaggerate the risks presented by any of the three diseases by routinely referring to them as deadly, fatal or the like.

In terms of keeping up with the coverage associated with the virus, AP has continuing coverage here about the outbreak and some info hereto help understand the basics of the virus.

SCHOOL’S OUT? A number of universities have already looked at canceling classes or moving classes to online-only endeavors. NPR does a great reviewof the places that are keeping people away from people at more than 40 colleges and universities.

Specific publications have localized the outbreak, such as the Boston Globe, which took a look at Harvard’s decision to go online and how campus life has been upended thanks to the virus.

Some conventions, such as the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s spring conference, have decided the risk isn’t worth it while others are pressing forward with their efforts. With Spring Break around the corner for many universities, the question of if cheap tickets are worth the risk has come up frequently in media reports.  Additionally, some universities are using Spring Break as the demarcation period for deciding to move entire classes online, thus giving professors the chance to figure out how best to do this.

Some questions that probably are worth asking, if you want to dig into the situation on your campus, could include:

  • What is our plan for this, particularly in terms of kids who live in dorms, where one person coughing on Monday leads to a total zombie farm of illness by Tuesday?
  • If we’re all leaving the campus, what happens to all that meal money that we’re being charged to eat at this fine institution? Even more, is it safe to gather in these large areas where open food is available and people tend to push through illness when it comes to avoiding calling in sick?
  • Is it actually feasible to move ALL classes online? It would be kind of ridiculous to move journalism stuff online, especially in terms of reporting on meetings and speeches. English classes are likely easier transitions than chemistry or biology labs. (Imagine mom and dad’s surprise when they find you dissecting a frog on the kitchen table…) How much thought has gone into this?
  • What’s the trigger point to bring everything back to the campus itself? Is there a break point that says, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free!” for the students and staff? Or is this pretty much a done deal for the semester once the U pulls the trigger?
  • If we’re keeping classes open, what kind of pressure has this put on the student health center on campus? If every fever or ache is supposed to be checked out, that seems like it would be an awful lot to do with whatever staff is available for the health center folks.

 

MOMENT OF ZEN: Of all the things I’ve heard about this so far, sadly, the only thing that sticks in my head was something my wife told me this weekend: “Did you know that you can sing ‘COVID-19’ to the tune of ‘Come on, Eileen?'”  I don’t know where she got this from, but now it’s all I can think of.

You’re welcome:

Guest Blogging: This headline is too short

koretzkyAs often as possible, we  strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. Today, we are fortunate to have veteran journalist and student media adviser Michael Koretzky, who is explaining his experiences dealing with headline hell. He is the editor of Debt.com, regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists and a volunteer adviser for the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

As a professional editor and volunteer adviser, I’ve never said this before: Brevity is not a virtue.

Then I was asked to review nearly 50 college headlines.

February and March is judging season for college journalism awards, and I’m currently saddled with “Best Headlines” for two state contests. You’d think this category would be easier to handle than, say, investigative reporting or best overall publication. But you’d be wrong.

The problem with judging headlines is the same as writing them: There’s not a lot of room to get the job done right. That’s why college journalists hate writing headlines. Here’s something I’ve never heard in 22 years as a college newspaper adviser: “Hey, back off! I’M writing that headline! Not you!”

But college journalists make headline writing harder than it has to be. For starters, they seem allergic to decks, scared of space, and obsessed with puns. Here’s an entry I just torpedoed…

Hurdling towards nationals

It’s atop an uplifting story about a first-year track team sending two athletes to a national competition – and one is a freshman. Except you know none of that from the four-word headline, which had no deck. Even worse, only one student runs the hurdles, and it’s one of seven races in which she’ll compete at nationals.

Then there’s this entry…

New ‘Path’ emerges into Butler

…and that’s all you know before the lede begins, “For the 2018-2019 school year, changes were made regarding courses and how students are set to succeed in receiving associate degrees. All Butler freshmen are required to enroll in and pass a first year seminar course in order to graduate.” You later find out this course is called Pathways. So why is “Path” in quotes? Who knows.

Something better (although still not great) would include a deck to give readers a clue…

Pathway to progress

Seeking a two-year degree? New course helps you stick to your timetable

For some reason, more than half of the entries in these two state contests are six words or less, with no decks…

  • Harvest was a party

  • Too Early For Christmas?

  • Inkling for Inkings

…and if you have no idea what’s going on with any of these, then neither did the readers. But here’s the really depressing part: The newspaper staff probably doesn’t have a clue, either.

Whenever I visit student newsrooms, I play a little game. I put up on a screen some old stories and ask staffers what the story was about. They can only see the headlines, so they usually squint at the vague words and answer, “I think it’s about…”

When I point out the irony of a newspaper publishing content its staff doesn’t understand, that’s when it usually sinks in: “Damn, no wonder we don’t have better readership.’

Then I recommend the editors hug their newest, greenest staffers.

These individuals are usually considered a burden, since they don’t yet possess the experience necessary to write, shoot, or design well. But they can certainly read. I urge editors to ask these newbies to bluntly review all headlines and even leads. If they can’t grasp what’s happening with their fresh set of eyes, it’s a fair bet readers won’t, either.

OK, enough chatter. I need to get back to judging. Here’s the headline on my screen right now…

‘Walking dynamite’ lights up community

…and I don’t know what the hell is going on. But I know this entry won’t win.

Shakespeare famously said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But the bard never judged a college headline contest.

A few helpful suggestions and random observations from the college media judging season

This time of year, the calendar fills up with requests from all corners of the country to help select the best of the best in student media. Numerous states have active college media organizations that offer statewide contests for everything from best overall newspaper to best blog. To determine which students and universities take home the prizes, media advisers look to folks like me (read: the kind of people who can’t say no) to grab a category or 12 and make some choices for them.

I’ve been on all sides of this situation. I have entered items in media competitions for myself and for my students over the years. I ran the contest portion of the Indiana Collegiate Press Association for a couple years. I have also judged more of these than I can remember. There are days when I get a “Can you judge the XXXX State College Contest?” email and I think, “Wait, didn’t I already do that one this year?”

With all of that in mind, here are a few observations I’ve come up with as well as some helpful hints and ideas for next time, if things didn’t pan out as well as you would have liked:

THE “RHESUS MONKEY” SUGGESTIONS: Over the years, there have been a number of ways in which people explained how simple something was. For example, Geico famously did its “So easy a caveman could do it” commercials, milking this concept to the point that some network executive thought an entire sitcom based on the premise would be awesome. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)

The one I tend to use comes from “Argo,” where John Goodman’s character explains the subtle nuances of becoming a film director:

Based on that simple premise, here are a few “Rhesus-Monkey-level” suggestions that can drastically improve your chances of doing well in these things:

  • Make the damned deadline: We work in a field in which deadlines are the difference between information life and death, so it always amazes me when people in this field can’t make deadlines for contests. A colleague of mine is putting together a high school contest and got an earful from an adviser who somehow managed to miss the deadline by at least a day. When my colleague declined to process the entries, the adviser groused non-stop about the fairness of the process. Look, you know every year when this is going to happen and it never really changes, so how is this unfair? Even more, if it’s something that matters to you, you always manage to make the time to make it happen.
  • Follow the damned directions: Some judges love to disqualify pieces to cut down on the number of entries they have to review. If a category says a piece should have no more than 1,000 words, they gleefully scan the longer pieces to kill anything 1,001 words long or longer. The rest of us, however, tend to have a little bit of empathy and some common sense when it comes to these directions on the categories. Still, we can’t look the other way when violations are completely ridiculous.
    Case in point: I was judging a broadcast contest that required the videos to be no more than 5 minutes in length. At least 25% of them violated that rule by more than a minute with two of them more than doubling the time allotment. I asked the contest coordinator about this and she told me they all knew the rules and that violating them would lead to disqualification. Thus, some of the better pieces got bounced.
    Directions are simple in most cases, so read them and abide by them. It will at least keep you in play.
  • Read the damned descriptions: If I have to look back at a category’s description more than twice while reading your piece to see what it was you were supposed to submit, chances are, you read the category’s description less than once. News features aren’t the same thing as columns, a fact that would likely shock dozens of people who submitted them to a contest I recently judged. When the description on a feature photo contest says “Should not be posed or include mugging for the camera,” that shot of some dude-bro doing the double-thumbs-up for your yearbook’s candids page isn’t going to cut it.
    In some cases, again, we can squint a little bit and give you the benefit of the doubt. However, when you have Shaggy-level denial of reality happening because you just threw entries into categories willy-nilly, you’re not going very far.
  • Make sure the damned thing works: I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten dead links to stories (or for some reason, a website that my university and my cable company both would not allow me to enter for fear of dangerous computer viruses) or uploads that didn’t fully upload. I also have gotten PDFs of pages where I’m told “see XXXX continued on page 4” but there was no PDF of page 4. If it doesn’t work, I can’t judge it and that’s really going to limit your chances of winning.

 

MOMENTS OF AMAZEMENT:

The entries people turn in never cease to amaze me in the best and the strangest of ways. It’s always easiest to remember the ones that make you shake your head as a judge. I still remember the opening of a column that read, “I know you don’t care about this topic or what I have to say on it, but that’s too bad because I’m doing it anyway.” So much for audience-centric content…

However, the good ones also stick with me over the years. The people on campus that students find to profile range from those daily workers with amazing back stories to professors reflecting on incredible moments over extensive careers. The columns about cultural strife on campus can create change and inspire readers. (More than a few of them made me want to just run and hug the writer and say, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this…”)

One of the main reasons why I love doing the blog is when student journalists do amazing things and they get to talk about how they did whatever it was that they did. Whether it was catching an administrator in an act of economic malfeasance or analyzing years of food-service records, those stories “moved the needle” on campuses and made me smile about how much better journalism will continue to be as these folks continue to grow.

 

WHY DIDN’T I WIN? WELL, MAYBE FOR A COUPLE REASONS… :

If you grew up in the 1980s like I did, you spent a lot of time watching “Indiana Jones” movies and bugging your parents to buy you a bullwhip. Of all the swashbuckling and heroic acts Indy pulled off over those three movies (Don’t you dare talk to me about that “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” thing. Indy had three movies. That’s all.), it was this moment of failure that speaks the most to me.

After surviving untold risks to save a precious artifact, Indy thought he could rely on the local law enforcement to do what was right. He was wrong, but he got a valuable one-liner and a very cool hat for his troubles:

Nobody really likes to lose (except maybe the Washington Generals), so it can feel horrible when you submit your favorite story or photo, wait several months, get all dressed up and go to the ceremony, only to hear someone else’s name get called. In areas in which school rivalries run deep, it can feel even worse if your rival school gets something you didn’t. (I’m still amazed at some of the deep-seated levels of hatred that fully grown adults harbor when discussing rivalry schools… Then again, I still have trouble accepting that anything good can come out of “that other paper” at UW-Madison, more than three decades after I last wrote for The Daily Cardinal.)

Here are a few possibly discouraging answers to why you didn’t win that aren’t meant to discourage you, but rather offer some solace when things don’t go your way.

  • It isn’t that you weren’t good. You might not have been good enough: Losing is a tough pill to swallow and it provides you with kind of an unfair dichotomy. Someone else was a “winner” while you are a “loser.” That’s not what contests like these actually determine.
    You might have written an amazing piece that did a lot of incredible things. However, someone else might just have been better that year. Once you find out you didn’t take home the prize, it can be awfully difficult to go find the winning entry and see what that piece provided that yours maybe didn’t. However, this can be instructive for the next time or to help you improve in general.
    Even if you don’t want to go through that exercise of exploration, you should try to find solace in the fact that not earning a first, second or third place doesn’t mean you did a lousy job. It is entirely possible that someone that year was just better.
  • Yeah, it’s challenging:” A whole heck of a lot of things can happen on the way to the victory stand, many of them are not going to work in your favor. You might have a choice on which category to enter with a news feature/profile and you happen to pick the one with an abundance of entries. You might end up with a great piece but there’s a ringer in there, written by the one kid who is going to walk right out of college and into a staff job at the NY Times. You might have spelled one word wrong, and that’s enough to bug a judge to the point of distraction.
    Perhaps the best way to view your entry into contests of this type is to look at the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament: Certain entries have better or worse chances of making it through. Only one team can win, but it’s not always the highest ranked or the most talented. Upsets can occur and great teams can be undone by an inherent flaw that emerges at the worst possible time. Luck can also play a big part in what makes it through each round of culling.
  • Contests are always random: As we have pointed out here before, contest judging is not an exact science. This is why you should be happy when you win, but not happy to the point of self-aggrandizing arrogance. If you don’t win, you have the right to be unhappy about it, but not so much that you start questioning your work, your effort or your talent. There are always ways that you can improve for next time, but don’t let winning an award become an obsession.

Hope that helps. Now, back to judging…

Blogging 101: 3 basic rules you need to understand before you think about starting a blog

A student with the school’s PRSSA chapter came to me a few weeks back with a somewhat dangerous request:

“Can you come to one of our meetings and do a session on blogging? Our members really need to know how to do this.”

The danger in the request comes in two parts:

  1. Asking someone who runs a blog to lecture on blogging is like asking a new grandparent if they have pictures of their grandchild. You’re not getting out of there for a long while and you probably will regret asking somewhere around Day 4 of the experience.
  2. The decision to start a blog requires more than feeling like you need to do it. Blogs are like the critters from “Gremlins:” At first they feel cute and cuddly and fun, but in a short amount of time, stuff goes south and you find yourself in the middle of an overwhelming mass of insanity.

The student persisted, arguing that the folks who are graduating these days tend to find that blogging is a required part of many jobs, even though the people doing the hiring can’t properly articulate what should be blogged or why. It’s become like “having a website” was back in the mid-1990s: Media companies just kind of decided that they needed them and that they’d figure out the rest later.

To help the students figure out what works and what doesn’t in terms of blogging, I built a few basic rules for each step of the process. Today, we’re going to look at those rules that should help you figure out if you really should be blogging at all:

 

RULE 1: It’s not about you.

Starting a blog because you want to write about something is like becoming a restaurant chef because you like to eat. The point of the job isn’t to give you a cheaper version of group therapy or to help you share your feelings with people. The point of a blog is to find an audience that has an interest in something you know about and a need for information that you possess.

What you know about your audience will largely determine how successful you are at drawing traffic to your blog. You need to know who is out there, what interests they have and how you can engage them, either digitally or inter-personally. This is particularly important if you are working for an organization that requires you to blog for it. Your personal stories won’t go far and the readers won’t give a damn about you.

To make this work, you need to learn who is out there that is reading the blog, what they need and how you can get it to them.

There are three things you need to examine to understand your audience: Demographics, psychographics and geographics. The type of blog you have will determine to what degree each of these elements is more or less crucial to your success. However, unless you have a sense of who is out there, you’ll never know if you can be of help to them.

In marketing, we talk about the idea of a “buyer persona” while in news we talk about a “typical reader.” All we’re really trying to get across is that a certain type of person is going to be using your stuff, so you have to know who they are, what they want and how best to reach them.

For example, if you are doing a blog on fashion, you need to know who will be reading it. Are they younger people who wear a lot of leggings and ripped jeans or are they senior citizens who want to get out of the 1970s and its polyester phase? Are they New York jet setters or small-town kids who don’t want to wear  overalls every day? Do they have gobs of money or are they shopping on a budget? Even more, things like how label-conscious they are, the degree to which they have a solid self-image and how often they like to shop will all play into this.

Regardless of what you choose to do, you need to make it about them. Not you.

 

Rule #2: Get narrow and get focused

Blogs can’t be about everything. They have to be about something. If you decide that you’re going to “blog about things that I notice,” you have managed to violate both rule 1 and rule 2 in one fell swoop. Writing a “personality” blog would only work if you are someone like Kendall Jenner, and even then it wouldn’t work because if you were Kendall Jenner, you’d need to learn how to write first.

We don’t live in a “mass media” world any more, so you have to find something specific that will draw readers and give them something they can’t get elsewhere. (Or, at the very least, they can only get a few other places, but you give it to them in a better way) That means you need to locate a niche that badly needs something you have to offer and then fill it.

Let’s look at how best to narrow this down:

  • Stage 1: I want to write a sports blog. (WAAAY TOO BROAD)
  • Stage 2: I want to write a blog that looks at college athletes. (STILL TOO BROAD)
  • Stage 3: I want to write a blog that looks at college athletes and issues of mental health. (Probably workable)

Each cut, you see us getting closer to a niche. In this case, you have something that not a lot of people are talking about (mental health and athletics) so you have a lot of potential blogging options. You could look at star athletes and the mental pressures of success. You could look at athletes who graduate  but won’t go on to a pro game and how they deal with that. You could look at athletes coming back from injuries and their fears and concerns about this. Sources can include sports psychologists, former athletes, coaches, mental health experts and more. No matter what’s going on, you have the ability to sharpen the focus by going more narrow.

 

Rule #3: You need to be able to answer this question: “Why you?”

For my money, the greatest line ever delivered in the history of professional sports came from Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Tobin after the first round of the 1994 NFL Draft. A draft analyst had criticized his picks on ESPN, which was covering the event. After hearing this over and over, Tobin went on live TV and asked:

“Who in the hell is Mel Kiper anyway? Here’s a guy that criticizes everybody, whoever they take. He’s got the answers to who you should take and who you shouldn’t take. And my knowledge of him: he’s never ever put on a jock strap, he’s never been a coach, he’s never been a scout, he’s been an administrator and all of a sudden he’s an expert.”

 

His point is one you need to consider when you decide on your blogging topic: Who the hell are you and why should anyone listen to you about this topic?

If you are going to be successful at blogging, whether it’s as a news blog, a promotional blog, an opinion blog or anything else, you have to be able to explain to your readers (or better yet just show them) what it is that makes you a credible and valuable resource on the topic at hand. This is where research REALLY comes in, especially if you are working for an organization or corporation.

For example, let’s say you are blogging for a travel agency that specializes in European travel. There might be a big gap in the area of food blogging for people with gluten allergies who travel in Europe. The questions of “Where is the best quality of gluten-free pasta?” or “Which restaurants use separate prep stations for gluten-free meals?” and others need to be answered. You have an audience that really wants to know this stuff, as for some folks, it’s a matter of life and death. You can draw traffic from other similar gluten-free blogs that exist like Chronically Gluten Free and A Celiac’s Dream, as people often post a need for these answers on those sites.

However, if you don’t travel through Europe, or you have no background in these allergies or if you never eat, who the hell are you to talk about this stuff? If you can’t be an expert based on your experiences, you better be an expert based on research, interviewing experts and doing more than just spitballing about the topic based on what you once heard at a PF Chang’s.

You have to be able to demonstrate to the readers that you have an expertise in this topic and showcase that expertise in pretty much everything you do. Imagine your doctor starting off your surgery by saying, “I’ve never done this before, but let’s give it a shot…” Not exactly awe inspiring.

If you can’t demonstrate good solid reasons why you should do the blog, don’t do the blog. If you don’t have a choice, you need to gear up and game up through research and checking in with experts. You need to make yourself into the expert.

GAME TIME: Spring Training AP Style Quiz

It’s the most glorious time of the year around here, as the snow is melting, or at least melting to the point where we can see over the snowbanks while backing out of the driveway. Classes are in a groove and students are figuring out that they actually CAN write if they put their minds to it.

Best of all? We are so much closer to getting baseball back into our daily lives.

To celebrate this wonderful part of the year, here’s an AP style quiz that uses baseball stuff to get you in game shape for the upcoming season.

You don’t need to start an account to play, but if you do, it’ll allow you to be ranked overall. Accuracy counts most, but speed matters, so go get ’em.

Click here to start the quiz.

Throwback Thursday: Theft as censorship: Why stealing “free” newspapers makes no sense

A friend who advises the student newspaper notified a few of us that a large chunk of the paper’s press run had been stolen from around the campus. In digging into it a bit, the staff of the Commonwealth Times at VCU discovered student government folks had likely done the deed in retaliation for some less-than-favorable coverage:

Members of the Student Government Association cleared out copies of The Commonwealth Times from kiosks on Monroe Park Campus, according to multiple confirmations from students and employees, following an article published Wednesday that detailed conflict and allegations of harassment within the organization.

Witnesses said they saw SGA leaders taking the newspapers from a kiosk within the University Student Commons, another outside of Cabell Library, one next to the Trani Life Sciences Building and another outside Hibbs Hall. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation from their employers.

In honor of yet another fundamental misunderstanding of reality, today’s Throwback Thursday post reexplains why stealing student newspapers as a form of censorship is a really stupid idea.

Theft as censorship: Why stealing “free” newspapers makes no sense

The University Press at Florida Atlantic University led this week’s issue with a blockbuster of a story: The quarterback of the football team had been accused of sexual battery and the university appeared to have botched the investigation. The piece is a detailed and winding narrative that includes an interview with the person accusing Chris Robison, a deep dive into federal law and some incredible storytelling from top to bottom.

Apparently, someone (or multiple someones) didn’t think people should see this, as the staff soon noticed its newspaper bins were empty and piles of the paper had been dumped in the trash. The paper, in kind of tongue-in-cheek move, wrote a thank-you note to the thief or thieves, noting that the move had drawn more attention to the situation than anything the paper itself could have done.

The UP’s editorial noted that this wasn’t the first case of censorship via theft of the paper. It lists about a half-dozen instances in which someone thought the UP wasn’t being positive enough in its coverage and decided to dump the print edition in the trash. This also isn’t the only case of censorship by theft of college or high school newspapers out there. The Student Press Law Center keeps track of these kinds of things and lists dozens of them on its website.

(As an adviser back at Ball State, I saw this kind of thing up close, when we ran a story about the women’s soccer player getting arrested, only to find out that about one-third of our print run had gone missing. Although no one was ever caught, people who saw the folks taking the papers told us they were women, dressed in black Ball State athletic department gear.)

Frank LoMonte, a legal eagle and long-time Student Press Law Center leader, explains in the UP’s editorial that this kind of thing is illegal. LoMonte gave an example of how something can be entirely free (soup at a homeless shelter’s soup kitchen) but its inappropriate use (you pouring it down the sewer) can lead to legal concerns.

Most publications list something in the masthead of the paper, noting that the first copy is free, but additional copies are a quarter or 50 cents. This establishes a value for them in case of just such an incident. In most cases, if you grab a half dozen of them because you wrote an article and want to send one home so grandma can put it up on the fridge, the paper isn’t coming after you. However, when you take them all to deprive others of their right to see the content (including advertising, which financially drives most papers), that’s where the publication gets edgy about this.

In other words, it is possible to steal something that’s free.

Even if it weren’t, censorship by theft is a patently stupid idea for three key reasons:

  • The internet still exists: Taking all the print copies of a paper and destroying them to prevent people from seeing the content makes as much sense as covering your eyes so that other people can’t see you. It doesn’t work.
    The print product, as those of us in student media have been told repeatedly, isn’t where most of our readers live. They live online, so they will see the story much in the same way you did: Someone posts/shares it on a site you read or via social media. You click the link and there it is.
    Unless these censors have a way of hacking your website and taking down the story there, all they have done is overload the trash bins at the university.
  • Censorship draws attention: When someone destroys content is to prevent people from seeing it, all they have really done is make people want to see it more. Truth be told, I never would have seen this story had someone not tried to censor it. Once the person or people destroyed the papers, the UP called them out, the message went viral (at least in my circles) and I suddenly became more interested in what was going on.
    Like anything else we try to keep people from seeing, the harder we try to prevent access, the more people want it. Think about every argument pertaining to limiting access to pornography and you get the right idea here: If someone doesn’t want me to see it, it must be AMAZING!!!
    Now, instead of only a few people on campus finding out about this, and maybe a few folks in disparate patches of readership across the country, TONS of people are finding out who Chris Robison is, what he was accused of and what FAU did in response. The result was akin to trying to extinguish a fire with a bucket of gasoline.
  • Never pick a fight with people who buy data by the terabyte: It’s a bit of poetic license on the old line about challenging the press: Never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. Still, the point holds water. Journalists are much better at putting out content than most people are at censoring it.
    When we had the situation at Ball State, rather than cower in a corner and worry that we had offended people, we actually reran the entire edition of the paper as an insert to the next day’s edition. In the main paper, we wrote an editorial to the people who tried to censor us: “Nice Try. We’re Still Here.” We then promised that if THIS edition went missing, we’d run BOTH papers as inserts the next day and continue until either they stopped or we went bankrupt. The thefts did not reoccur.
    The point is, journalists are essentially stubborn, principled and generally unrelenting. We’re like a dog with Frisbee: We don’t let go. When you decide to come after us, we tend to decide that this is the hill we’re going to die on. Even more, we have connections to other journalists who have chewed the same dirt we have at student media. These people might be “grown ups” now, but they remember what it was like to be picked on and abused back in the day. They, too, have the pitbull personality and are going to stand with these folks. In a game of, “You bring your friends and I’ll bring mine and we’ll see who wins,” journalists are always going to win in this situation.

 

 

‘Your work is important for the community.’ Simpsonian editor discusses the paper’s coverage of a faculty member accused of murder and kidnapping

Student newspapers often find themselves having to cover difficult topics on campus, ranging from athletes breaking rules to administrators misbehaving. The Simpsonian staff at Simpson College in Iowa, however, found itself chasing a story unlike any other I’ve seen in decades of student media work:  A faculty member, assistant professor of economics Gowun Park, was arrested on suspicion of murder and kidnapping:

According to court documents, Park admitted to binding her husband to a chair with a rope, and his hands and feet with zip ties earlier that day.

Police say she duct taped a towel over his eyes and stuffed clothing in Nam’s mouth to prevent him from yelling.

Park did not release Nam from his chair, even though he requested to be untied, according to police.

“Nam was confined to a room and bound to a chair, unable to freely move about and free himself, ultimately leading to his death,” court documents said.

Editor in chief Gunnar Davis, a senior at Simpson College, majoring in multimedia  communications with a minor in sports communication, was responsible for writing the story. He played football all four years and was a starting offensive lineman for the Storm while also engaging in his passion for sports writing. After a term as a sports editor during his junior year, he received an offer to run the paper as the editor in chief this year.

Davis said in an email interview that advisers Brian Steffen and Mark Siebert tipped him off that something strange was happening on campus.

“Professor Steffen actually keyed me in about cops being in the basement of McNeill Hall, the same place as Gowun Park’s office,” Davis said. “He told me to keep an eye on the West Des Moines police department’s Facebook page early in the afternoon. Not long after, the page posted the mugshot of our professor with her criminal accusations. From there, he kind of let me do my own thing until more news updates broke.”

Although multiple state outlets were on the story, Davis said he was able to add more depth and value to The Simpsonian’s coverage because he was on the ground in Indianola.

“Because I knew who she was, we were the one who broke the news that she was a professor at Simpson College,” he said. “Because I was on the campus and they weren’t, I had the advantage of finding out things about her work at Simpson, the administration’s response and what type of things related to her arrest were going on here.

“We broke the news about her employment here. We broke the news that cops were on the campus, searching through her office. We broke the news of our interim president’s blanket statement. We broke the news of her staff profile page being taken down on Simpson’s website. These are all things that took time and sources.”

During his reporting, Davis said he found that the campus community of about 1,300 people was in shock over the arrest and that multiple found it too difficult to discuss.

“I never met Ms. Park, so it was still a bit distant to me,” he said. “When I went and talked to faculty members and students that knew her, they were so stunned. Many of them did not want to talk to me. They would tell me things off record, and then tell me not to use it. I had a friend who was her advisee who had to leave campus for a couple days because he was so upset about it.”

“I used to be really nervous and worry a lot about what others thought of me and my work,” he added. “It’s your job to do outstanding reporting, regardless of what others think. News is news, and sometimes it can be upsetting to others. The only time I am hurt about comments about me and my work is if I don’t get the facts straight.”

Davis said the paper plans to cover Park’s first court appearance on Friday and to also keep up with the story as it continues to develop. Although the situation forced him to do things he had never done before, Davis said he and his staff were motivated by the larger needs of the community.

“When I went home and finally sat down and took the whole situation in, I kind of realized how crazy everything I did was in that day,” he said. “Talking with multiple people who didn’t want to talk to me about an incident so extreme is something that most people wouldn’t want to do — myself included. But, being confident in knowing who you are and what your work is for is important. Your work is important for the community. It matters. Be confident.”