Throwback Thursday: Two Key Questions Every Story Should Answer Clearly For Your Readers

I’ve spent a lot more time watching nightly news during the pandemic than I usually did. What I have found is that a lot of local broadcasters do a good job of making the stories about legal wrangling over mask mandates, vaccine supplies and other COVID-related items amazingly clear and relevant to the audience.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for their text-based colleagues, who seem to want to get more into the minutia and less into the audience value than they should. With that in mind, I pulled up a Throwback Thursday post that might put us back on track in terms of keeping a story’s attention where it should be.

Two Key Questions Every Story Should Answer Clearly For Your Readers

One of the most important things to remember about media writing (or good writing in general) is that you aren’t writing for yourself. You are writing for your audience.

What makes for a good understanding of your audience, how best to reach your audience, how audience characteristics change your approach to writing and many other things have been covered thoroughly here before. Rather than rehash them, let’s boil everything down to two simple questions you need to answer for your readers:

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

This might seem overly simplistic, but then again so is the noun-verb-object structure and it works pretty well for most of us. To that end, think of these questions as the “core” of what you’re trying to do for your story, much in the same way that NVO provides the core for a good sentence.


To answer this question, you actually will want to start with some noun-verb-object construction to focus on the crucial aspects of the story you want to tell:

Brewers beat Cubs
Mayor blasts city council
University passes budget

The simplicity of each of these starter sentences provides you with the “who did what to whom/what?”  content you need to best inform your readers as to the core theme of the story they need to read. Beyond that, you start filling in the additional elements of the 5W’s and 1H to help them see more of what happened (How badly did the Brewers beat the Cubs? Why is the mayor ripping the city council? What is in the university’s budget?) and then you can move them along to the next point in the piece.

When it comes to what you add to this, it’s a lot easier to point out what NOT to do than it is to tell you what you SHOULD do. A few avoid-at-all-cost elements include:

  • Soft language: Simplicity is to be rewarded, so value concrete nouns and vigorous verbs. Don’t tell me someone “is no longer alive.” Tell me the person died. Don’t tell me a person “could potentially be found to be the robber.” Tell me “Police said Smith is a robbery suspect.” Direct and clear doesn’t mean cruel. (comedian George Carlin once noted that people should not be deemed “those with severe appearance deficits.” They’re just ugly.) It means being as clear as possible. Think about it this way, do you want your doctor telling you, “Well, it appears that you might have engaged in behavior that led to some significant health issues of the sexual nature which could potentially lead to some negative outcomes if not dealt with accordingly” when you go for an office visit? Or would you prefer: “You got an STI. Take this pill and you’ll be fine. Be more careful next time.”
  • Jargon: What makes for jargon is a lot like beauty: It’s often in the eye of the beholder. This is why understanding your audience matters a great deal. Getting “a pair of Hookers” in car speak means a significant upgrade to your exhaust system. Getting “a pair of hookers” in cop speak can mean 30 days in jail to five years in prison. Think about how likely it is your audience will understand a concept before you use it. In many cases, you can find simpler and clearer words that will avoid your need to use the jargon. If you can’t, you probably want to include at least some form of explanation to your readers. If you find yourself doing this more than once or twice per story, reconsider what you’re doing.
  • Self importance: Yes, marketing and branding are important elements of everything now, including news coverage. However, the more time you spend patting yourself on the back that you wrote something by including breathless statements like, “In an exclusive interview with the Star-Times” or “told the Herald-Press,” the less time you are spending telling people what they need to know. In many cases, you aren’t as exclusive as you think you are. In other cases, telling people that you guessed right first can really appear tasteless.



This is the bigger one of the two, given that it’s easy to tell people what happened in most simple media-writing exercises. Why they should care? That involves understanding the audience well, understanding the impact of the topic at hand well and finding a way to pair the two successfully.

The first thing you have to understand is that something “being important” isn’t self-evident. The second thing you have to understand is that not everyone sees things the way you do. These issues came perfectly into focus for me once when a student wanted to write a story the UWO student newspaper about how the U.S. should annex Puerto Rico. Given the audience the paper serves, the lack of a newspeg and the general “WTH” reaction most of the staff had to the topic, I asked why our readers should care about this. The student’s response: “EVERYONE should care!”

Um… That’s not how this works.

While I was an editor at the Columbia Missourian at Mizzou, a colleague used to make students finish the sentence, “This matters because…” before the student could start the lead of the story. The point she wanted to make was: If you don’t know why it matters, you can’t tell me anything useful.

One of my more interesting moments involving the “this matters because” philosophy came here at UW-Oshkosh when our fundraising arm (the UWO Foundation) found itself in some hot water. At the time, the organization was considering bankruptcy and other unpleasant actions to deal with some serious financial problems. I remember asking my reporting students what they thought about the situation and they all stared at me blankly.

A subsequent conversation went something like this:

Student: Why should I care about this?
Me: How many of you get scholarships to attend UWO?
(All hands go up.)
Me: So where do you think most of that money is located?
Student: The foundation? So…
Me: Wait for it…
(Students all furiously start Googling UWO Foundation and Scandal)

As far as they knew, nothing going on over there mattered to them, which was the exact opposite of reality. In the end, things got resolved, but at the time it was worth at least a passing look for those students.

Look at every possible way you can think of to convey specific value to your readers when you are writing a story. Why should they care that the city council is raising property taxes? Maybe that means rents will go up. Why should they care about street construction? Maybe it means parking in their area will change. Why should they care about cuts to the health inspector’s budget? Maybe it means a little less inspection and some awful conditions at their local eateries.

The point is to find ways to relate what you are doing to your readers so they can see that your work has merit. It doesn’t have to come down to the level of a “See Dick and Jane” book, but don’t assume everyone knows what matters and why. Help them understand and care. This will improve their connection to the topic as well as to your media outlet in general.

Exercise time: Kin ewe spell batter then Donald Trump’s legal teem?

In the “Dynamics of Media Writing” book, one of the best pieces of advice comes from Kate Morgan, the director of communications in the division of student affairs at the University of Notre Dame:

“There isn’t a job I can think of that doesn’t involve writing in some capacity. Take emails. If a vendor emails me a quote with spelling and grammatical errors, my level of faith in his ability to adequately meet my needs diminishes significantly. Perhaps this makes me a snob, but that’s not my problem. I’m not going to lower my expectations just because someone else is too lazy to write a complete sentence. Given my level of experience in this industry thus far, I’m almost positive I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Although I haven’t checked in with Kate since former President Donald Trump’s legal team filed its response to the article of impeachment levied against him, I’m guessing she probably would have fired this group of knuckleheads after Tuesday’s disaster:

The defense team for former President Donald Trump’s impending impeachment trial was widely mocked Tuesday for issuing a response to the House of Representatives’ article of impeachment that contained both spelling and—according to critics—legal mistakes.

One spelling error that sparked a flurry of comments on Twitter came in the very beginning of Trump’s response, which is addressed to the “The Honorable, the Members of the Unites States Senate.”

Trump’s legal teams (plural) over the years have often had trouble with spelling. In one case, former attorney Sidney Powell misspelled the word “district” twice as well as the word “superior” in an Arizona filing with the state’s highest court.

It’s not only Trump’s team that seems to be having word trouble these days, as I’m looking forward to many more misstatements like this:

Still, I guess if I were paying these folks, I’d want someone to go beyond firing up a spell check and hitting “ignore” 50 times like a sophomore business major whose friends are waiting on him to file a paper so they can go hit a house party.

With that in mind, here’s a good exercise for your copy-editing folk:

Here’s a link to a PDF of the filing. Have your students download it and copy edit the heck out of it. What might also be instructive is to determine how many things are misspelled (as in “Suprior” instead of “Superior”) and how many things are wrong words (as in “erection” instead of “insurrection” or “Unites” instead of “United”). This might drive home the lesson of why it is we should run a spell check on anything before we submit it but also that spell check alone won’t save you from looking stupid.

Do us all a favor: Laugh at your professor

Monday was the first day in almost two months that I’d been in physical proximity of the students I was teaching, and I got something valuable that I didn’t know I had been missing.


We were about 10 minutes into an 8 a.m. session that had five students in it, due in large part to social distancing protocols and online-only opt-out kids, when I started to explain something or other and I totally flubbed it.

One of the kids chuckled. I smiled and tried to work through it again before I paused and told them this:

“Look,” I said. “It’s going to be weird for you and weird for me this year. You all haven’t been in a classroom for somewhere between two and six months and I haven’t been in front of this many people in a while. The only thing I got going for me is that my wife made sure I shaved, wore a nice shirt and cut my hair so I didn’t come here looking like an unemployed Muppet.”

Suddenly, they all started cracking up, apparently imagining me with an unintentional mullet, begging them for spare change in Elmo’s voice.

The old saying that laughter is the best medicine might not be true for everyone, but it was for all of us in that moment. The pall lifted and the awkwardness and fear seemed to dissipate for that hour. When the class ended, the students wiped down their areas with anti-bacterial towelettes and sprayed down their chairs, but they kept chatting and laughing about various things.

For a fleeting moment, it felt OK to be there.

The rest of the day flew by, with each new set of students going through the same process of trying to figure out what “normal” was going to look like. I made efforts to crack a joke or two at my own expense. (“I’ve now said the same thing four class periods in a row,” I told my last class. “If I’m saying something to you multiple times, just treat me like you treat great-grandpa at Thanksgiving when he asks, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I was stationed in Berlin after World War II?’ Just let me roll on and pretend this is all new to you.”)

There is a hope in a lot of us right now that this will be the last semester of social distancing, masks and a yearlong pandemic. We see some numbers going down, even as others go up. We see videos on the news of people getting needles stuck in their arms and we eagerly await our turn. We try to remember what it was like to be in a roomful of people and not feel palpable anxiety.

Throughout this, I’ve told my students that I know they’re dealing with way more than anyone should expect of them: Double shifts at grocery stores because other people called in sick, weekly medical tests and online classes in subjects that really shouldn’t be online. I can’t make a lot of these things better, I explained, so my goal is to try my best not to make their lives worse.

Not exactly something inspirational to write on a vision board or needlepoint onto a couch pillow, but it’s the best I have, I told them.

In the mean time, I’m going to do my best to keep things light. I want to hear them laugh at the lame “Dad Jokes” they have heard a dozen times. I want them to snicker as they think about the misplaced modifier in a lead that makes it sound like a burglar has threatened a pair of underpants. I want that sound of muffled snorts when they think of what a homeless elf would dress like and that I’ve compared some of my better clothing choices to that caricature.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think I’m alone in that desire for human amusement. Sure, there are professors out there who view everything as dark and important and would admonish people for finding humor in ANYTHING in the time of a pandemic.

(A student came to me last term, telling me about one such person. I asked, “Wow. Was this guy born an (EXPLETIVE) or did he take lessons to get this way?” I quickly looked up the guy on our faculty database. “Oh,” I told the kid. “He got a Ph.D. in sociology from (NAME INSTITUTION). I guess the answer to that question is ‘both.'”)

For a lot of us, we just want to know we’re connecting on a human level, so if  you feel that vibe in the room, do us all a favor.

Laugh at us. We sure could use it.

The “king of the mountain” lead and brief writing exercise

Lead writing is one of the more difficult tasks for beginning journalists to master. I would guess that it’s because it involves two things we’ve not really trained students to do in recent years: Think critically and make choices.

In most of their education, they are told to look for right answers, understand X because it’s going to be on the test and read content that is cast in chronological format. Now, we’re telling them there are no right answers, just better and worse ones. We’re saying, “There is no test. Just write the content well.” We tell them, “Put things together in descending order of importance, not the order in which things happened.”

With that in mind, I built an exercise that forces them to look for things that matter most, make smart choices and then justify those choices. The idea is to reinforce that something being important at one point might cease to be as important later. It’s to give them content that has them weighing its overall value in relation to other pieces of content.

I called this the “King of the Mountain” exercise, based on a game we played during the winter back when I was in grade school. The school would plow the parking lot of all the snow, creating a giant mountain of icy, slippery goodness. One kid would climb to the top of the pile and declare himself (usually it was guys, as the girls were smart enough to avoid this stupid ritual) “King of the Mountain.”

Who wouldn’t want to scramble up this thing to get knocked butt over tea kettle down the other side? These are the kinds of games you play in a state that has winter eight months out of the year.

Immediately, a half dozen or more other kids would start scrambling up the sides of the snow pile, trying to knock that kid off the top and claim the “throne.” Wrestling moves were common, punches were often thrown and more than a few drops of blood were shed, as each challenger tried to hold the top as long as possible.

The remainder of the day was spent arguing over who held the peak the longest or why they were the best.

This exercise essentially follows that pattern: There are four sets of factual statements that you can release to the students regarding a car accident near campus. You release the first set of facts to the students and have them write either a lead or a four-paragraph brief. They can then discuss what they selected for the top of the piece and why it was the best or most important thing for that lead or for the top couple paragraphs of the brief.

After that, you release the second set off facts and tell them, to rework anything they want in their lead/brief based on this new information. They can use both sets of facts in their rewrite.

And thus the process continues through upwards of four sets of facts, each getting more detailed and more enlightening.

If this works the way it should, the students should see how certain things become more important than other things and how looking for value in content can improve their approach to writing and reporting. Additionally, it can provide them with the understanding of why we keep bothering people for more information after we have gotten our initial set of basic facts.

I’ve linked it here, so feel free to grab it and use it as you see fit. I also dumped a link on the Corona Hotline page. I left a few spots open for you to fill in days or campus names etc. I also encourage you to change names, times, addresses and more to fit the “vibe” or “feel” of your audience. It’s in Word, so go for it.

Hope this helps!


Throwback Thursday: You’ll Never Shame TMZ and 3 Other Impolite Observations on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Breaking News

It’s hard to believe that it was one year ago this week that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. At the time, it was hard to imagine a bigger story. Now, it’s like, “Man, that was only a YEAR ago?”

In tribute to the Black Mamba, here’s a look back at what we were talking about when TMZ broke the news of his death:


You’ll Never Shame TMZ and 3 Other Impolite Observations on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Breaking News


The death of Kobe Bryant led to a massive outpouring of media coverage, social media mourning and public grief over the past 24 hours. For my money, the place that did the best job of this was the L.A. Times, which dedicated multiple pages to the former Lakers star. It covered the accident, mourned the loss, didn’t sidestep the ugly (even a photo from his “rape allegations press conference” made the inside page) and generally did a good job on a breaking news piece. The layout and headline treatments also reminded me why when it comes to a huge story, newspapers still can do it the best, regardless of circumstances.

(If the LAT is like any other newsroom I’ve ever worked or visited, I’m betting it was a pretty sparse crew on staff when all this took place on Sunday morning. Getting this kind of “flood the zone” coverage on a weekend in today’s gutted newspaper world says a lot.)

One thing that emerged in this breaking news cycle was to what degree the gossip news site TMZ was derelict in its duty as journalists when it published the news about Bryant about an hour after the incident. Officials chastised TMZ for its “very cold” approach to this, noting that families and friends of those who died had yet to be notified personally before the news broke. TMZ, for its part, has yet to respond to that aspect of its reporting, but it continues to publish on Bryant after breaking the story.

While it seems that professionals and the public alike are having a go at TMZ for its role in this situation, here are four thoughts that, while probably impolite, are both accurate and worth considering:

You’re never going to shame TMZ: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami took their shots at TMZ, noting that the publication was “extremely disrespectful” and “very cold” for reporting Bryant’s death this early. Others in the media also took to Twitter to add their condemnation of the decision to publish the information about an hour after the sheriff’s department received notification of the crash. Talking heads all over the place continue to cluck about how “this kind of publication makes us all look bad” and how TMZ “isn’t real journalism.”

Here’s an unfortunate reality: TMZ couldn’t care less.

This publication has made its bones (pardon the pun) on reporting the deaths of celebrities. It was first on the spot for the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince. It ran the Ray Rice “punch in an elevator” video, showing the former NFL player laying out his fiancee with a single swing and then dragging her limp body down the hallway.

Even more, here are a couple screen shots of things they ran just before the Bryant story broke:


And those were just two of the better and yet SFW ones available. Sleaze, mayhem, celebrities and death is what they do. A bit of side shade on Twitter from an undersheriff isn’t going to bring those folks around to the world of buttoned-down journalism.

Trying to make TMZ feel guilty is like trying to humble Kanye: It might make you feel superior to try, but it’s not going to work.

Most media folk won’t admit it, but they would have done it too: It’s easy for people who DIDN’T publish this first to say what they WOULD HAVE DONE if they HAD gotten the information first. It’s hard to say for sure what they ACTUALLY would do if put in that spot.

The old-guard media folks, who had three broadcasts or two newspaper editions a day, had more of a luxury to wait than current journalists, for whom a minute might be 58 seconds too late. Even more, I’ve seen what people get like when they get an exclusive story or find themselves at the front end of a scoop-able story. There’s not a lot of sober reflection and deep thinking involved, and far too often, people let the desire to get it first beat down their sense of human decency.

I’m not saying we SHOULDN’T aspire to being more humane in what we do. It’s just that the gap between the hypothetical and the actual is often a lot wider than we would like to believe it to be, especially when the actual makes us look bad.

(If you don’t believe me, watch about six minutes of a show like “Temptation Island” where “committed” couples explain how they’d never, ever, ever, EVER break up. In three minutes,  Blake has left Ashlynn in the room to go make out with Trevor’s fiancee, JayCee, in the hot tub.)

The first story I saw was on another media site (not TMZ) that posted about 20 minutes after the TMZ news broke. Additional news outlets were also cranking out stories shortly after, each falling back on that original “as first reported on TMZ” notice.

(It’s amazing how quickly they all swept those stories away and those early notices once they could get their own sources and after everyone decided to pile on TMZ. If you look on various “mainstream” media outlets now, you’ll find no reference to how TMZ got there first, unless it’s to chastise TMZ.)

What I didn’t see, and might never see, is a timeline that tells me when the officials notified the families of the people involved alongside the information of when each media outlet published its breaking news story.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that TMZ wasn’t the only media outlet to push out a piece before everyone’s family got the word of the crash. That’s not to say this was appropriate, but it is worth noting that a lot of the “holier-than-thou” outlets clucking about the disgraceful state of TMZ probably ran as fast as possible to grab second place in the race to report the story.

The police couldn’t care less about the media 98.9% of the time: Both Villanueva and Murakami have a point: It’s better if the safety officials can do their jobs and notify people before the media does. However, and I can say this based on personal experience, if you are a media professional waiting for police, sheriffs, state highway patrol folk or other officials acting in an official capacity to tell you everything you need to know, it’ll be like waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last week.

If you look at the stream of stories on CNN, for example, you’ll notice that it identifies pretty much everyone on board. Even after those stories ran, the sheriff declined to confirm the identities of those people. If you check out the sheriff’s department social media even today, the IDs aren’t posted. You have people responding to the tweets and posts with more information than the sheriff is willing to divulge.

Journalists know that the police will release information in whatever time frame they feel to be appropriate and that in most cases, you’ll get more info seeking other sources. As much as the police have often said to journalists, “I know you have a job to do…” they also don’t make the journalists’ job a priority. At best, they see the media as something to deal with like paperwork and jock itch: annoying, problematic and part of the curse of being them. At worst, well… I’ve heard the phrase “the F—ing Media” so often from cops I know that I honestly wondered if we’d created a new branch of journalism. (Y’know, like the Space Force…)

This isn’t to say that journalism is more important than the work of police or firefighters or first responders or anyone else who runs toward danger to help people in trouble. It’s not. However, pretending that if the TMZ people had just waited five more minutes until the police called them and said, “We’ve notified the family, so go ahead” everything would have been fine is disingenuous and borders on laughable.

Did this actually happen? I have come to the conclusion that being a “non-denominational skeptic” places me in the awkward role of asking questions people don’t like to hear. However, in journalism, we’re taught that if your mother says she loves you, you should go check it out. Therefore, here’s the question:

Did Bryant’s family (or anyone else on the chopper’s family) get the news of the death from TMZ?

Murakami’s tweet seems to say so:

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported … Kobe had passed. I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”

I can’t find any reference in a post, a note, a tweet or a story that says this actually happened. I saw press releases from various organizations, tweets from tons of people and at least two dozen stories on various “respectable” media sites, but I could not find a single statement that would corroborate this. TMZ isn’t saying anything, either, on this topic. (If I missed it, feel free to email it to me via the contact page. I’ll give you the credit for showing the world I’m a dipstick.)

You can easily respond to this with a “That’s not the %@#^%ing point, Vince!” statement, and I get that. However, consider these two equally valid concerns:

  1. If we’re not into the accuracy of facts when they fit the point we want to make, what the hell are we doing in this job? Sure, I get the idea that it would be horrible if I died and my wife got a call like this:
    “Hello, is Mrs. Filak home?”
    “This is Mrs. Filak..”
    “Yeah, not any more… This is TMZ asking for a quote about the death of your husband five minutes ago.”
    However, if we’re going to let the sheriff’s folks use “couldabeen” BS about TMZ’s actions to make a point, why not let them go all the way? Why not have them invent the tears in the eyes of the other Bryant children, as they heard the news on TMZ? Why not let them slather on the details of how Vanessa Bryant got the alert from TMZ mere seconds before her phone rang with the news from the sheriff? The point is, if something is accurate, use it. If not, don’t let people use you to perpetuate something that is not.
  2. As much as this was an easy slam for the sheriff’s folks to make, kicking a publication like TMZ, it wasn’t meant for TMZ alone. This is the media version of a brush-back pitch, in which the sheriff threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate. The goal of a pitch like this is to let the media think long and hard about digging back in the batter’s box.
    TMZ is gonna TMZ. We’ve established that. However, when the L.A. Times or the Orange County Register or the Pomona Tidbit or whatever else is out there gets a tip like this, the sheriff and his colleagues in law enforcement hope this kind of incident will get them to slow up or pull a punch. In most cases, the media outlets will react with a higher level of discretion than TMZ, I would imagine, but simply putting the thought of “we might be the bad guys” in the media’s head is enough to cause some concern. It’s like how people tend to drive slower once they see someone else getting pulled over by a cop.
    In a speeding case, it’s probably a good idea. Here? It might be a toss up.

The Junk Drawer: Doritos Conspiracy Edition

If you stare into this mess long enough, you’ll see the message to the followers of QAnon… Unless, of course, you’re in on the conspiracy…

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

Without further ado, here’s a mix of the good, the bad and the truly weird…

Update on the Indiana Daily Student

Last week, we talked about the financial problems associated with the Indiana Daily Student, the student publication at Indiana University. The staff published a letter-from-the-editor, explaining how the paper was likely to run out of money at the end of the semester and its future was tenuous at best.

As the editors gear up for another semester, there appears to be some potential good news, as IU has made it clear it knows the paper is hurting and that this media outlet has too much value to let it die on the vine.  According to the joint statement from the IDS, the School of Media and the provost’s office, the paper can operate at a deficit for three years, starting in the 2021 fiscal year. During that time, the three groups will work together to find a viable long-term solution to make the paper financially stable.

This shows some great forethought on the part of the school and it provides the student journalists the opportunity to breathe a bit while this gets sorted out. It’s truly one of the best possible outcomes anyone had the right to expect, so congratulations to all parties involved.

Speaking of dealing with tough times as a journalist…


Reporting: Come for the insurrection, stay for the threats

The riot on Jan. 6 demonstrated a number of things, not the least of which was a general disdain for journalists and journalism. Consider what happened to several reporters during the scrum when they had to abandon their gear:

Just in case you weren’t entirely clear of how these people felt about journalists, here’s another tidbit from that scene…


The one that got me the most, however, was a shot of the door inside the Capitol. Someone had found the time (and the spelling acumen) to express their dissatisfaction with how journalists operate in this country through graffiti:

(Side note: He might have pretended to be a writer, but he sure as hell couldn’t have passed as a photog, given that no photojournalist I know would EVER do a posed shot let alone one with the “thumbs up” approach.)

I find it interesting that the people who want to “murder the media” probably couldn’t adequately define the media, outline what areas of it are most dissatisfying to them or explain what it is they dislike about it. Because to do that, hey, they’d need to be educated or at least aware of things going on around them… and that might require MEDIA!

Speaking of life-and-death issues…


One professor is releasing more posthumous material than Tupac

Students often wonder to what degree professors pay attention to their emails, questions, discussion board posts and other forms of interaction. In at least one case, the professor has a pretty good reason for being less-than-responsive to their inquiries this semester.

He’s been dead for almost two years.

During one of those recent lectures, a question occurred to Ansuini that he wanted to follow-up on with the professor. He was eager to learn more about a particular example the professor had used.

So he paused the video on his laptop and Googled the professor’s name in order to find his email — that seemed quicker than hunting around for the syllabus on his desktop. What he found instead was an obituary. At first he assumed it must be for someone else with the same name.

In fact, no: François-Marc Gagnon, an art-history professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, had passed away in 2019 at age 83. Turns out Ansuini’s favorite new professor was dead.

Turns out, there had been another professor “ghost teaching” the course at the direction of the university. While people debate property rights of his lectures, I’d have a real hard time sticking with this class. It was weird for me watching the final episodes of “Jeopardy!” with Alex Trebek, knowing he was dead already. I also haven’t been able to listen to my Bill Cosby records for years, now that I know he was a sexual predator.

Speaking of other awkward collections…


That’s a pretty nice ass. you’re trying to sell

In editing, we joke about how headline abbreviations need to avoid causing more problems than they solve. (The best one was about an interstate murder investigation which states, “Ill. man accused of Mass. murder”) In working through some Marketplace listings, I came across an offer I almost couldn’t refuse:


And, finally, speaking of things that you can’t make up, no matter how hard you try…


Doritos: Illuminati and Sea Salt Flavor

I always appreciate honesty and thoroughness in all of the corrections I read, but I have to admit, I wondered how in the world the content in this one ever saw the light of day:

I’m only imagining the conversation that led up to this:

Editor: “You sure on this QAnon pin thing?”

Writer: “Well, it was orange and triangle shaped… I mean what else could it be?”

Editor: “All right, let’s run it!”

As always, this comes with a valuable lesson, which is, “If you don’t want to be accused of being part of a conspiracy-theory group with ties to all sorts of unsavory people and actions, don’t eat Doritos.”

UPDATE: Turns out, I got smoked. This was apparently debunked, as a friend told me after this ran:

The content in that one never did see the light of day.

Dammit. I hate when this happens. Goes to show that I’m going to need to work on being a bit more careful.


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

Well, allow me to retort: The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel counters Sen. Ron Johnson’s “unhinged” tirade with a series of well-timed footnotes

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel took aim at several of Wisconsin’s political figures after they supported former President Donald Trump’s allegations of wide-spread voter fraud, even after the Jan. 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol. The paper’s editorial called for the removal or resignation of Sen. Ron Johnson, Rep. Tom Tiffany and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald for giving “aid and comfort to an insurrection.”

The editorial clearly peeved Johnson, who requested space within the paper to respond to this call for his ouster. This painted the paper into a potentially untenable corner. The options appeared to be:

A) Give Johnson space in the paper to write about his views, knowing full well that Johnson will roll out an insane series of conspiracy theories, misstatements and other content unburdened with the need to be accurate. In doing so, the Journal-Sentinel basically elevates his lies via their platform and undermines its initial editorial.

B) Refuse him the space, thus allowing him to go on every right-wing TV show, radio show, podcast, blog and puppet show to complain about the bias of the media and how the paper has violated his First Amendment rights in the most egregious way possible. (In case you were asleep when they taught press freedom, that’s clearly not true, but hey, neither is about 93% of what Johnson says…) In other words, the Journal-Sentinel would give him more attention and a bigger stage by denying him.

So what do you do? Apparently, the people at the paper were watching the movie “Speed” when they made this decision:

(Side note: I would really have rather used a clip from “Pulp Fiction,” where Samuel L. Jackson confronts Brett over his poor decision-making in regard to Marcellus Wallace. Alas, I think I used up all the cussing I’m allowed for the year in yesterday’s post, so Keanu it is. Still, I worked the main line into the headline, so I guess it’s almost like a win…)

Here’s the preamble to Johnson’s diatribe:

Editor’s note: After the Editorial Board called on Sen. Ron Johnson to either resign or be expelled from office for his role in spreading disinformation about the presidential election, the senator asked for space to respond. We are providing him that courtesy today. We also are taking the rare step of footnoting Johnson’s commentary to provide additional context so that readers have a fuller understanding of the senator’s actions.

In other words, “You can say whatever you want, but we’re not going to let you get away with lying to people on our pages without putting up a fight.”

Fact checking a politician isn’t a new thing, as PolitiFact has done this thousands of times over the years. It’s also not a new thing for a publication or website to call out misstatements or general fiction, something Snopes does on everything from whether Trump had a “Diet Coke button” in the Oval Office to whether a drunken man lost his genitals after attempting to have sex with a snowman.

However, in most of these cases, the reality check was presented in a post-hoc approach, giving people the right to say what they wanted and then cleaning up the mess with a later piece. The approach here is like lawyers getting the right to object repeatedly during a deposition, casting doubt on claims immediately upon their statement.

Journalists and academics have debated the approach taken here because it is so extraordinary, something the paper acknowledged right up front. So here are a couple questions that might make for good class conversation (or for the non-school folk who read the blog, a great argument over a beer, provided that takes place in a socially distanced environment while wearing masks):

  1. What do you think of the approach the paper took with Johnson’s editorial?
  2. Should the paper have gone with a traditional “Option A” or “Option B” noted above?
  3. Did the paper have an obligation to tell Johnson about its “extraordinary” approach before running it? (Perhaps thinking of this another way, should the paper have given Johnson a chance to spike his piece rather than let it run as it did?)
  4. What are some other options you’d like to see the paper take, rather than this one, if you disagree with the approach?

3 teachable moments in the “Antifa dressed as Trump supporters” photo caption failure

On Jan. 8, conspiracy theorists reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Texas probably thought they had their deepest Deep-State suspicions confirmed about the melee at the U.S. Capitol that week.

According to a photo caption that accompanied an AP picture of rioters scaling walls outside the building, “Members of antifa dressed as supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the case and it wasn’t what the paper would have printed if it had a “do over.” As the readers of the Telegraph deluged the paper with questions, concerns and outrage, the journalists there scrambled to figure out what had happened. The paper’s regional editor finally tried to stanch the bleeding with a declarative tweet:

“It was not done by editorial staff. That is not the correct cutline and we are addressing it.”

In other words, “Look, we have no damned idea what this is, either, but we’re not thrilled about it, so back off until we figure out how the hell this happened and if we need to fire someone.”

On Inauguration Day, the paper published an editorial that outlined what happened, how it happened and what happens next. Of all the revelations the paper put forth, here was the least shocking one to me:

How did this happen? To the best of our belief, it was a joke taken literally. We found that no staff member acted in a malicious manner to deliberately put misinformation in your paper. Instead, what we found was a misguided and misunderstood joke put on the page when it should not have been.

The moment this caption started making the rounds in journalism circles, I gladly would have bet my HOUSE on the fact that this would all trace back to one chucklehead thinking they were funny and nobody in the newsroom noticing until everyone else on Earth started to notice it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. I have a manila file folder or three just THICK with screw ups like this, where someone punched down something in a hurry or with a taint of dark humor or both, and it found its way to the general public. The one that still makes the rounds in many journalism classes is the “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” debacle that we detailed on the blog a while back.

However, to help you learn how best to avoid being the next in the never-ending parade of cautionary journalism tales, consider these three pieces of advice:

IF YOU DON’T WANT IT TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY, DON’T TYPE IT: The rule in broadcast is that you treat every mic like it’s a hot (or live) mic, so you don’t accidentally start cussing on air. In most print/web media outlets the rule is to never type anything you wouldn’t want the world to see. It’s a basic rule that we tell ourselves and each other multiple times over the course of our newsroom lives and yet, for some reason, we STILL don’t listen.

Part of this is that journalists tend to think they’re funny, and to other journalists, they really tend to be. However, our audience rarely shared the “mortician’s humor” that we espouse. This is why writing a caption that includes a phrase like “Beth Jones, whose probably going to screw us over and die before this photo runs, celebrates her record-setting 103rd birthday Thursday during a party for her at the Shady Pines Assisted Living Center in Weyauwega.” isn’t going to be in our best interest, even if we’re just joking for newsroom eyes only.

Perhaps the greatest, and maybe entirely apocryphal, story of a joke gone wrong that either did or didn’t see print was one I’ve been looking for my whole life. The story I’ve heard was that an Ohio-based paper either nearly ran or short-printed a paper with a brief at the bottom of a local-section rail that had the headline: “Easter Services Cancelled.”

The body copy was one line: “They found the body.”

Another part of it is that we use humor as a coping mechanism. Between the low pay, long hours and general insanity we cover every day, it’s a miracle we’re not more damaged than we are. Somewhere between deciding if we should use active voice in describing a massive interstate pile up and answering the 194th phone call of the night where we have to explain that, no, it’s not a conspiracy that the “TV section” wasn’t in your paper this week, people crack.

They also crack when they’re trying to make a headline fit in an impossible hole or cram 20 inches of copy in a 5-inch hole. Thus, a quick note of “Cut the shit out of this dumbass councilman’s quote” sent back to the reporter or a filler headline of “Woman’s vagina outperforms clown car” on news feature about a family of 20 kids  seems like a good idea a the time until it shows up in black and white the next day.

The lesson here is a simple and yet seemingly impossible one: If you don’t want to get in trouble for doing something purposefully stupid, don’t do that purposefully stupid thing.

BEWARE OF TWO INCHES OF WATER: Wayne State University professor and copy desk legend Fred Vultee was fond of the saying, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was that errors, libel and general stupidity could just as easily occur in the smallest piece of copy as it can in the largest one.

What I have found in collecting stupid mistakes over the years is that this mantra holds water. (Sorry… I had to…)

Rarely was it the sprawling investigative story that accused powerful people of unspeakable acts that led to the worst problems. It was usually the relatively innocuous brief, the simple caption or the run-of-the-mill meeting story that created massive uproar.

The “Green Wave” story is just one of the many where someone inserted a fake lead or a side-glance comment. I have photo captions that note “this lady might be dead so we might want to crop her out” as well as a photo of a basketball team that refers to an unknown player as “Some Fucker.”

This is why it’s important to avoid screwing around with small copy and to also read ALL copy with the same level of concern. The first part is easy to manage while the second part can feel almost impossible much of the time.

I know that when it came to a story we ran accusing a student of trying to make ricin, everyone in the newsroom went through that story like our lives depended on it. That photo caption about the Environmental Club’s recruitment drive? Not so much.

Still, knowing the most damage can occur in the smallest places with the least amount of obvious concern should motivate all of us to dig in a little harder on these things.

TRUST IS HARD TO BUILD, BUT EASY TO DESTROY: The only real currency we have as journalists is our credibility. We use it to buy trust from our readers. It takes years to build up that accumulation of credibility and it must be used judiciously because it’s precious and once it’s spent, we might not get any more.

I don’t know how trusted the Telegraph was before this incident, but it essentially blew through whatever stash it had and went into debt on this one. And, for what?

The paper’s editorial outlines a series of safety valves that it either put into place or reinforced in the wake of this disaster-bacle. It also provided a great amount of transparency in explaining EXACTLY what happened in awkwardly painstaking detail for its readers. This was an attempt to start rebuilding its credit at the bank of trust.

It also implored its readership to hang in there and not judge the whole product and its entire history on the basis of one really dumb thing. Unfortunately, that might not be very easy, given that we tend to remember people, places and things based on the best or worst thing they’ve done.

It’s why if you ask any football fan what they know about David Tyree, they’re going to say “Helmet Catch,” while the name Jackie Smith will have them saying, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.” That said, Jackie Smith is a Hall-of-Fame tight end, while Tyree played 83 total games in an undistinguished six-year career. The best or the worst thing usually sticks.

It’s unclear to what degree the paper will be able to recover, but the fact that it HAS TO do so and because of something THIS DUMB is what really makes this situation sad. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that we need to treat the public’s trust in our work with true appreciation each time we ply our trade.

Throwback Thursday: Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

With the start of another semester, it’s a good time to remember the adage of, “Just because I’ve said it 1,000 times, it doesn’t mean the student has heard it at all.” With each new crop of students, it can be tempting to skip past the basics we pound constantly into our classes or look for ways to “jazz up” what are the seemingly tired tenets of writing.

Instead, it’s worth remembering the value of those tried-and-true “rules” that help keep the students safe and stable initially and to which they can return when they face dangerous conditions, even after they have moved beyond the basics.

Here’s a look back at our need for some “driver’s ed journalism” in the classroom:

Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.

“We need a more comprehensive solution.” The Indiana Daily Student is going broke, thanks to a broken media model.

The Indiana Daily Student is one of the top college media outlets in the country. Founded in 1867, it has maintained a standard of excellence that has been reflected through its string of ACP Pacemaker awards, CSPA Gold Crowns and statewide accomplishments.

And by the end of the semester, it might be dead.

Emily Isaacman (left) and Caroline Anders are the co-editors-in-chief at the Indiana Daily Student. (Courtesy of Emily Isaacman)

Co-editors-in-chief Caroline Anders and Emily Isaacman published a piece on Jan. 7 with a pretty succinct headline: “The IDS is about to run out of money. We don’t know what happens next.” The open letter explains that this semester might be the last for the paper because the coffers are about to be empty and the paper lacks the ability to come up with enough money to keep up with the publication’s needs in these changing times.

The IDS isn’t unique in current predicament. We’ve written extensively here about publications at Doane University, the University of North Texas, TCU, Drexel and more that faced either cuts, financial hardship or the risk of death. For me, the IDS situation seems much scarier because of the gravitas this publication has in student media.

For five years, I worked at Ball State as the adviser to the Daily News, and the IDS was the measuring stick. We’d never say it out loud, but our goal in every national and statewide competition was to beat IU. It didn’t happen a lot, but when it did, that was REALLY saying something.

The folks at IU student media were the 1950s Yankees, the 2000s Patriots and Microsoft all rolled into one. They won EVERYTHING and they were just BETTER than everyone else. They operated in Bloomington, where they WERE the media, covering the city better than the city paper and serving as the “must read” source of information for all people.

Watching them hit hard times is like watching your faith in the whole concept of student media get shaken to the core. It’s like, “If these folks are in trouble, what chance do any of the rest of us have?”

Over the past several years, the staff of the IDS has actively engaged in various methods to stave off this endgame and to try to keep the paper afloat:

In 2017, we cut our print paper from five days a week to two. Last semester, we reduced our printing schedule to just once a week. We post about 20 stories to our website daily, but the loss of our print product has reduced opportunities for ad revenue and chances for students to learn about page design….

[W}e rely on a professional staff to help us with jobs that are simply too large for students to take on, such as managing payroll and sellings ads. Pro staff are IU employees, but the IDS pays their salaries.

They’re our largest expense, or about 35% of our budget. We’ve already lost two in the past two years, and the six remaining have been forced to take on larger roles for no additional compensation.

As is the case with many other student news outlets that have been forced to make these types of cuts, the more the IDS eliminates its print publication, the more difficult it has been to remain relevant to readers and staffers, Anders said in an email interview last week.

“The cuts to the print paper have affected our ability to take on new students interested in learning page design and give them the experience they want and need,” she said. “Having the paper function as a weekly has also changed it to be much less focused on breaking news and much more geared toward longer pieces and things that can sit on stands for a whole week without getting stale. That means you won’t learn about any breaking news by picking up an Indiana Daily Student anymore.”

The paper has also engaged in fundraising to try to stem the tide of lost advertising revenue. Anders said that within two days of the letter going public, the IDS Legacy Fund raised more than $85,000 from 480 donors, including a $50,000 donation from IU alum Mark Cuban.

That said, the letter from Anders and Isaacman states up front that “donations will extend the life of the IDS as it exists today, but they will not save it. We need a more comprehensive solution.”

That solution, or at least a possible one, has been languishing in the world of academic bureaucracy for almost three years now, it seems.

“Our biggest priority now is getting the dean of the Media School to approve the new plan for a business model that’s been sitting on his desk for two-and-a-half years,” Anders said. “Discussions about the plan were halted at the beginning of the pandemic, and the committee that was formed to discuss the plan and how to move forward hasn’t had a meeting since March 2020. We need Dean Shanahan to approve this plan or reject it so we can move forward. Without his sign-off, the IDS is just treading water until our financial reserves run dry.”

The folks at the media school have provided some assistance to the IDS over that time, providing reporting assistance and some specified funding to touch on crucial areas of interest.

“The Media School has contributed grant money for the three semesters now (including this one) to fund city beat reporters, a diversity beat reporter and two editors to our new Black Voices section,” Isaacman said in an email interview. “But the IDS is independent and has traditionally not sought financial help from the university. As our losses become too big to salvage by ourselves, however, we’re looking to the university for assistance.”

In the meantime, the EICs are starting a new semester by training an incoming staff, preparing for upcoming news events and trying to stay positive.

“While we work with our advisers and alumni toward getting the IDS on stable financial footing, we’ll continue to produce the best content we can,” Isaacman said. “We publish online daily and once a week in print. We have more than 150 students on our staff, including almost 30 editors who work nearly every day to cover the IU and Bloomington community.”



This is James Shanahan, the dean of the media school at IU. The students clearly aren’t looking for a hand out, but rather someone to help them get a plan toward solvency moving forward. If want to let the dean know that people are actively interested in seeing that move forward, you can email him here: or call him at 812-855-1963. It never hurts to let folks know that people care (and that we’re all watching), so let him know you would like to hear more about why it’s taking longer for this plan to get approved than it took for Kanye to drop a new album.



The students are doing fundraising, even as they work through the bigger issue of getting an improved model in place. If you are interested in donating to the legacy fund to help keep the publications rolling, you can go here and contribute.



Emily and Caroline were nice enough to provide both the letter to the public and this interview  for the blog. I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy or fun to step up and let people know that the student media outlet you love is in real trouble. If you just want to let them know you’re thinking about them or to offer them a bit of encouragement, you can email them here: