Giving thanks well before Thanksgiving at #MediaFest22

Amy and Zoe were nice enough to come out to DC to see the folks at the Associated Collegiate Press say some nice things about me on Friday.

Despite getting this press release from the Associated Collegiate Press last month, I wanted to wait until I was sure it was legit. The organization was acknowledging a group of educators, advisers and other student media folks as being extremely important people and for some reason, my name was on the list.

In honor of its 100th birthday, Associated Collegiate Press will celebrate 101 journalism educators and advocates with its inaugural ACP Pioneer Awards at the Fall National College Media Convention.

Pioneers are distinguished journalism educators and advocates who have provided exceptional leadership for collegiate media programs and made exceptional contributions to collegiate journalism and to the association in its service.

The Pioneer is the only award ACP presents to journalism educators.

Turns out, it wasn’t a typo, and on Friday morning, I got a chance to see the inside of the National Press Club while people I deeply admire said nice things about so many important people in this strange little second family of mine known as student media. I still am amazed that someone thought I belonged in that group, and it’s not a humble-brag on my part.

I was literally the youngest person in the room, other than the kids of some of the other award winners and my own family that accompanied me there. The people I knew on that list were titans who dedicated their lives to student media, many of them until their dying days. Those I didn’t know, I sat in awe of as the event coordinators listed their achievements, which included Pulitzer Prizes, Hall of Fame honors and lifetimes of achievements I will never reach. To be there was something to behold.

I didn’t want to write about this pretty much for the same reason it took me three years to use my own textbook in a class for which I had specifically written it: This just felt weaselly. However, I acquiesced on that occasion for the same reason I am here: It’s not really about me.

The people who made this possible are the people who put faith in me when they really had no reason to do so. The folks who hired me for newspaper jobs I wasn’t qualified for. The board members of student media who trusted me to bail out newspapers, even though I lacked business acumen. The publishers who hired me to write books, having never done so on my own before, and the educators who figured they’d give the book a chance, even if it meant rewriting years of curriculum. I got really, really lucky in each of those cases that I got a chance, something I know not everyone gets.

The best part for me was that Amy and Zoe got to be a part of this. Despite having to be awake and in nice clothing at 7 a.m., Zoe was excited to see an actual student media convention and get a really nice breakfast.

On the walk back to the hotel, she told me, “I get it now. This is your thing. You look so happy when you’re around your student media friends. You really should spend more time with these people.”

Tired of political ads on TV? Three reasons they’re not going away

(“I just want to warn you that when I wrote this song, I was watching TV during the 2022 midterm campaigns so…”)

Avoiding political advertising this time of year is like trying to stay dry in a hurricane: Despite your best efforts, it isn’t going to happen. Candidates, political action committees, outside organizations, issue-oriented groups and anyone else who has a bone to pick will flood your mailboxes, newspapers, inbox, digital devices, fax machines, billboards and more with a torrent of advertising geared toward shifting the vote total just a smidge more in favor of their candidate.

If you think this year is worse than most, you’re probably right. This piece from NPR outlines the way in which both major parties are pounding the heck out of us with paid speech at a cost and speed unlike any previous midterm election. It has gotten so bad that I’m practically begging my TV to show me Tom Selleck hawking a reverse mortgage or out-of-control Xentrex ads.

Anything but another frickin’ ad about the radical, unhinged, wrong-for-us, out-of-touch, elitist, self-serving, corrupt candidate that will ruin my life, destroy our country and probably get me hooked on Xentrex…

Despite a seemingly universal disdain for deluge of political ads (especially negative ones), they’re not going away for three simple reasons:

In some cases, the law says the ads must run

We might not want to see U.S. senate candidates and individuals seeking office in the U.S. House of Representatives on our TV every 16 seconds, but federal law sure does. Section 312(a)(7)  of the Federal Communications Act states that a broadcast license can be revoked if a station does not provide legally qualified candidates for federal office with access to the airwaves. The stations are required to “permit the purchase of reasonable amounts of time for use of a broadcasting  station” to reach the public.

This only covers the federal offices, which means that this only applies to people running for the positions of president, vice president, U.S. senator and U.S. representative. It also doesn’t state what accounts for a “reasonable amount” of advertising time, thereby allowing candidates to stretch the bounds of reasonability like it’s a Stretch Armstrong doll on speed…

Beyond that, Section 315 of the communications act provides what are known as equal time rules or equal time doctrine. This simply means that if a station allows one legally qualified candidate for an office access to its facilities, it must provide an equal opportunity for the other candidates for that office. So, if I’m running for Waushara County Dog Catcher and I am allowed to buy a 30-second spot on the local ABC affiliate for $500, any other legally qualified candidate for that office must be able to get the same amount of time for the same price on that station.

Now, the station can decide it doesn’t want to get involved in this nonsense, and thus make the statement that it won’t allow me, or any other candidate for that office to run ads. That’s fine. Also, the station that allowed me to run that ad doesn’t have to go looking for all the other candidates and tell them they have this opportunity. However, if one of my many fine opponents comes to ABC and wants to run a 30-second ad for $500, that station is duty-bound to do it.

Here in Wisconsin, and I’m sure we’re not alone, the broadcast outlets have been stepping forward to make the case as to why they HAVE TO run these ads. They are also explaining why they can’t censor the political ads to eliminate all the nastiness that goes into them:

Can television stations not air an ad because it is violent or has harsh language in it?

Matt Rothschild: “The Federal Communications Act of 1934 was so worried that stations were going to be censoring political candidates that they said essentially, you can’t do anything about the content except run it.”

Technically, the stations could sit out everything except for the federal races, although they often pitch the advertising for those non-federal offices as being tied to the “general public interest standards” that govern their license. Still, that’s not the main reason why broadcast stations run these things…

 

Political ads make serious money for the stations:

As much as the public tends to hate election season, it’s practically a lottery win for broadcasters. The law dictates that stations must charge candidates equal amounts for equal time, so they can’t charge me $500 for my Dog Catcher campaign ad and then charge my opponent $20,000 for the same type of ad. The law also dictates that political candidates must be charged the lowest rate available for advertising.

That said, they more than make up for it in total volume. Experts expect total election ad spending to hit almost $10 billion this cycle, with advertising experts foresee serious financial windfalls for broadcasters this election cycle:

Kantar Media Intelligences Inc. expects TV stations to realize some $4.2 billion in political ad revenue, though cable, digital and connected TV will also benefit from increased political outlays, according to Steve Passwaiter, Kantar’s vice president and general manager for North America.

It’s actually tough to figure out how much money actually will go into this election until everything is said and done. If you have ever bid on something through eBay, you know why: The pace can be stable and normal for the majority of the auction time, but when the last few seconds come around, everyone who is desperate to win will jump in with insane final bids and jack the total expenditure through the roof. The estimated amount spent on ads of all kinds, or even just in broadcasting ads, for this campaign season might vary widely based on who is counting, what they’re counting and when they did their projections, but they all say the same thing: People are pouring money into this like they’re trying to drown democracy with buckets full of cash.

And TV folks are bemoaning the loss of accuracy and integrity among advertisers all the way to the bank.

Still, people wouldn’t be offloading cargo ships full of Benjamins if it weren’t for the final reason the ads aren’t going away…

 

Political advertising works in many distinct ways:

So many people say they hate political advertising that it’s a wonder it actually exists. Then again, to be fair, so many people say that pornography is abhorrent, terrible and should never be viewed, but PornHub is in the top 10 most visited websites, with an average of almost 3 billion views a month…

In short, what we say and what we experience are usually two different things.

Researchers have found that political advertising has the ability to shape turnout, with positive ads driving higher rates of it and negative ads suppressing it. Negative advertising tends to “stick” more with potential voters, other scholars have noted, with additional researchers finding that negative framing of issues tends to motivate people.

Some analyses across multiple election cycles have found mixed overall results in terms of how much ALL ads impact voting and to what degree positive or negative ads creates specific outcomes. However, a vast swath of research shows that the more politicians beat on us with their ads, the more likely we are to do SOMETHING in relation to that race, whether we like it or not.

The one saving grace? Election Day is just two weeks away…

 

4 questions to ask yourself before you interview someone else

Of all the topics that students request help with throughout their journalism journey, the most common one is learning how to interview sources well. Whether it’s in my intro class or my senior capstone-style courses, whenever I ask, “What do you want to get out of this class?” the answer is usually, “I really suck at interviewing… How can I get better at this?”

Repeatedly doing the task is always one good way of improving yourself whenever you feel deficient in  an area. However, interviewing can cause problems for other people while you learn. It’s  like expecting people to stand against a wall while you learn the art of knife-throwing: Until you get good at it, this is really going to hurt.

I often experience a few painful interviews throughout the term, because first-year students in one of our intro classes are required to comb the building for a professor to interview and I usually make the mistake of keeping my door open. They become enamored with the bobbleheads and then, BAM, I’m explaining what life as a professor is like to some kid who looks as scared as a fawn trapped in a semi’s headlights.

A lot of what goes wrong in those interviews is covered  in the textbook, in that the students don’t actively listen or really plan things out very well. To them, I’m just a slab of meat with a mouth that can satisfy their need to accomplish a task. However, a more senior student requested a specific interview with me for a departmental blog post, only to make the same kinds of mistakes these newbies made.

With that in mind, here are four questions a newer journalist can ask themselves prior to requesting an interview that might make their lives (and the lives of their subjects) a little better:

Have you done enough preparation before requesting the interview?

The worst experiences I’ve had as a journalist were the ones where I didn’t feel prepared. In some cases, I was able to get a bit of a pass, given that I covered a lot of breaking news. Thus, there’s no real way to prepare for a random shooting or a house fire that got way out of hand. However, there have been plenty of times where I would need to profile someone or do a news feature on a topic and I kind of half-assed the prep work, only to come face-to-face with a source who wasn’t all that thrilled with me.

The results felt like an awkward blind date, only there was no waitress to bring enough alcohol to improve the situation.

Before you decide, “I’m gonna interview this person,” consider how much you actually KNOW about that person and what it is that will improve the overall vibe and informative nature of the interview. Read up on the person, the topic and the newsworthiness of both before you send an email or make a call to get that person. The better handle you have on the source, the better you can approach them effectively and get everything off on the right foot.

 

How important is this person to the story you want to tell?

I have found a strange inverse relationship between how important a person actually is to a story and how important they think they are to it. In many cases, I’ve gotten the, “Oh, no… You don’t really need to talk to me about this…” response from people who are vital to a piece and brilliant beyond reproach. I have also had people get into a huff that their bland comment, which added nothing to the sum of human knowledge, didn’t get published because, “Do you know who I AM?”

The value of the source can vary greatly depending on the story you intend to write. In the case of a “Everyone had a great day at the fair” story, if you’ve seen one person eating a funnel cake, you’ve seen them all. Thus, when a source rebuffs your request for an interview, it’s not the end of the world. Feel free to hunt elsewhere.

Conversely, if that person is supposed to be the star of a major profile piece or news story, you need to come loaded for bear. You need to be able to explain to that person why they matter, what makes the story worth telling and how important their participation is in this piece.

It also matters in your overall approach. I’m not saying you should treat sources poorly if they are a dime a dozen for the story, but you do need to be exceedingly careful with wary sources who can make or break a story or reticent individuals who are playing it a bit close to the vest. This is the perfect time to practice those persuasive skills you learned in your public speaking or public relations courses.

 

Have you practiced?

It sounds almost childlike to practice your interview, either with someone else or by yourself, but you can save yourself a lot of aggravation if you put in a few practice rounds before the big event.

Reading the questions aloud can help you figure out if they actually make sense when you verbalize them. Some things sound great in your head, but lose traction when they hit the paper. Even more, this is where you can figure out if you accidentally slipped in a loaded question or you failed to ask the question you intended to ask.

It never hurts to ask someone to work with you, especially if you’re new at this kind of process. When you ask a question and it strikes an unfortunate nerve with your practice partner, you realize you might need to rewrite that question or rethink the concept.

For example, there are 1,001 ways to ask how a person is coping with the loss of a loved one, and just as many ways of screwing up the ask. Asking “Now that your husband is dead, where do you see yourself going from here,” is probably not going to get the response you had hoped for, unless you really wanted a widow to punch you in the head.

Practice also helps you improve the interview’s flow, prevents you from having to look at your notes as often and makes it feel more like a conversation than an interrogation.

 

Have you considered what this will be like from the source’s perspective?

We talk a lot about audience-centricity in the “Dynamics” textbooks because the goal of journalism is to work for the audience. With that in mind, think about the “audience” of this interview: the person on the other end of the questions.

When you request an interview, what you are essentially saying is that you want someone to do you a favor. You want that person to stop whatever else it is they’re doing, set aside a block of time for you, allow you to poke at them with a series of inquiries that will likely benefit you more than it will benefit them and then leave them in a mild to moderate panic over what it is you’ll do with what you’ve learned. It’s also an even-money bet they’ll worry you’ll screw stuff up and they’ll have to spend the next several days/weeks/months undoing the damage your stupidity has done to them.

Sounds like a big bag of fun for your interview subject, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, you should probably spend some time putting yourself into the shoes of your interview subject. What can you do to make the process easier on them? What can you do to help them feel like you’re not wasting their time? How can  you structure the interview to make the process work more smoothly?

This also plays into the earlier elements as well. How would you feel if someone asked you for a favor and you graciously granted it, only to have that person show up late? Or look unprepared? Or just sit there like, “Well? Just gimme something quick so I can get out of here!”

As difficult as all of this can be on you as a newer journalist, it can be exponentially harder and uglier for the people who have to deal with the back end of your growing pains.  Do whatever you can to take that person’s perspective into account before you decide to make the interview request.

 

 

 

Help me prove to a 14-year-old girl whose dog was almost killed that good people exist

Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode. Also, the folks at SAGE have consistently asked me to avoid “unnecessary cursing” on the blog. Today, there will be some “necessary cursing” I would imagine. — VFF

This is Merle, a dog I’ve never met, who is owned by a 14-year-old girl I’ve never met, who is the daughter of a fellow journalism instructor I’ve never met. Such is life in the era of internet exchanges and pandemic lock downs. The only reason I know about him is because on Wednesday, some gutless asshole almost killed him.

Kelli Bloomquist shared the news about her daughter, Emilia, and Merle with folks via Facebook:

This morning, someone hit Emilia’s dog, Merle, and left him for dead. Somehow even with broken limbs he managed to make it to the barn where she found him on her way to the school bus. He is the sweetest most devoted dog and I’m sure he just kept thinking that he needed to find his way to her. I canceled all of my meetings for today and am at the vet with a very broken dog and a devastated girl.
Everything I want to say right now involves red hot anger and cuss words, but instead I’m bawling right alongside Emilia as we have to decide between putting her best friend down or surgery. So I’ll say this instead. Get off your *#%^ phone, slow *%# down, and watch where you’re going!

The vet gave Merle a decent chance to live, if he underwent some rather expensive surgery. As anyone with a pet knows, decisions like this are gut-wrenching. Anyone with a child knows that sense that you are desperate to do something, ANYTHING to ease that child’s pain. Anyone who lives in this country knows medical care is expensive and many folks don’t have the cash to cover.

Emilia decided she wasn’t ready to let go of Merle. She turned to the kindness of strangers to help her raise a ridiculous amount of money (for a kid) in way too short of a time:

Hi. My name is Emilia. I’m 14 years old and my dog, Merle, is my best friend. He is a blue heeler and we do everything together. This morning, someone hit Merle and left him for dead. They didn’t stop or come find us. I found him by the barn.

The vet said that he has broken bones and a lot of road rash from where he was hit. I don’t know how he made it back from the road to the barn except that he knew to come and find me.

The vet said that we could either put him down or give him a surgery that would fix his leg. He’s my best friend and I have to try to save him. I begged for the surgery for him, but $2,500 is a lot of money, especially in a big family with money being tight from everything in the world.

If you would be willing to help with the cost of Merle’s surgery even if it’s just $5 I will bake you cupcakes or rake your leaves or shovel stalls. I just have to give Merle a chance. Dr. Town said that he thinks that Merle could make it through the surgery because he’s young and they’re pretty clear breaks and not shattered.

I have to try. If you do want to help Merle and me, I would really appreciate it. Thank you from Merle.

When I read this, I just broke down.

Maybe it’s because I have a teenage daughter and I know how complicated and awful life can be at this age, even without major tragedies adding to the mix.

Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to hold a wounded animal while the vet presses a needle full of something blue into them and the life fades from their eyes.

Maybe it’s because every ad on TV these days is filled with political bile and vitriol to the point where an ad for cancer screening seems like a welcome respite.

Maybe it’s because, despite my protestations to the contrary, my wife is right: I’m actually a decent and caring person.

I don’t know… but here’s what I do know.

As much as I would like to find the worthless shitbag that hit Merle, tie him to the bumper of his vehicle by his gonads and drag him naked across a field of broken glass, I so much more want to give Emilia a sense of hope that really good people do exist.

If you want to donate to help with Merle’s surgery and care, here’s the link to the GoFundMe site. I know she would appreciate it, but that’s not my ask here. Everyone has different financial situations and I’m the last person on Earth who should tell anyone how to spend their money.

But, if you go to that page, you can actually send Emilia a message through the button that says “Contact.” My ask is that you reach out to her and give her something to believe in.

Share a story about your favorite pet. Tell her you’ll be following along to find out how Merle is doing. If you’re the praying type, tell her you’re praying for her best friend.

Prove to this one kid, this one time, in this one situation that people, regardless of their differences and disagreements, are basically good.

Three tips that will keep your blog operating at full steam in good times and in bad

blogging

The conversation with the PRSSA kids yesterday went really well, considering that we’ve got the accreditation team on campus, it was hour 13 of my day and I was still wearing a tie at that point in time. We talked about a number of things that would lead to a good blog and I honestly think a couple folks there might want to take a shot at developing one of their own.

One of the questions that came up during the discussion was that of “best practices” when it came to running a blog. In other words, if they got past the three basic rules I laid out for blogging, well, then what?

We picked through a couple examples that were based on their interests and kind of came up with three basic areas of importance that separated the good blogs from the ones that died on the vine. They aren’t anything particularly shocking, but understanding why they matter can make a huge difference:

Educational Acumen

Having expertise is a great thing, but you have to be able to use that expertise in a way that effectively communicates it to the people who are reading your blog. Otherwise, it’s a waste and the readers will become frustrated and leave.

This is where knowing your audience becomes crucial, as you can meter your use of jargon, your level of explanation and your overall approach to the content based on who is reading.

For example, let’s say you want to run a blog about how to fix old pinball machines. You have spent half your life working on these things and you have repaired more than 100 games that ranged from mild tune ups to massive rebuilds.

If your audience is comprised of first-time pinball owners, you will need to use a lot of visuals to show them what things like coils and targets are. You will need to explain how to do simple things like remove the glass or disconnect a coin mechanism. You will need to offer more caution regarding dangerous things to touch or things that can break.

If your audience is comprised of more veteran repair folks, you can skip some of the basics, rely more on shared terminology and even go into deeper rebuild topics. As one of the students asked, “If people in your audience are really into your topic, can you use jargon?” I explained that it’s not jargon if the people understand it; It’s shared language. Jargon is stuff that you use that other people in your audience DON’T understand.

Additionally, you’ll need consider word choices to help people complete tasks in an effective way. So if you want them to use a hammer on something, there’s a world of difference between “hit” “pound” and “gently tap.” Experts will likely know these differences instinctively, while newbies will need more hand holding.

Passion

Being good at something and liking something are not the same thing. This is the argument I have with my mother to this day: She thought I should have been a political speech writer. Her point was that I was good at speaking, speech writing and that I could really make a difference in how people saw the world. My point was that I hated politics and I hated politicians, so no matter how good I was at this, I was never going to go anywhere in this field.

Or to quote a professor who spoke to my dissertation prep class, “Pick a topic that you really love because you’re going to be with it in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death or doctorate will you part.”

To be good at something and to do well at it constantly, you need to have a passion for the thing you are doing. Never is this more true than in blogging, because without the passion, you’re never going to make it. Here’s why:

  • You have no deadlines. It’s easy enough to blow off an assignment when you have a deadline. When you don’t, you can always push something down the road a bit further. If you don’t believe me, consider the ugly yellow plastic windows we had on one of our kitchen cabinets back at our previous house. When we moved in, Amy asked me, “When you get a chance, could you get rid of those and put new doors on that cabinet?” When we sold the house two years ago, the plastic remained. We got to know the most-recent owners of the home and got a tour of the place a few weeks ago. Ugly plastic is still there. In short, when I WANT to get something done, I’ll get it done in a New York Minute. When I don’t have a deadline, I’ll blow it off.
  • The quality of the work suffers: Mom used to read the State Journal every day when I was working there. She’d often call me up and talk to me about the articles I had written. In one case, she told me, “I read X. You didn’t really want to write that one, did you?” The truth was, I hated the story she was talking about, but I wanted to know what led her to figure that out. I asked if there were flaws or mistakes or whatever and she said, “No. It read fine and there wasn’t anything wrong. I could just tell that you didn’t want to do this.”
    If you don’t have a passion for the topic, as in you love this thing and you want to spend a lot of time with this topic, writing to other people about it, you’ll end up with a really lousy blog. You can’t just have a passing interest. You have to love it. If you don’t it will show up in the writing and people will tell.
  • You will run out of stuff to talk about: People who love a topic will talk about nothing other than that. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Forrest Gump again and listen to how Bubba talks about shrimp. You want your blog to be like a diesel engine: It might take you a little longer to get started, but once it gets going, it can run long and hard without stopping. If you don’t have a passion for the topic, it’ll be like a bottle rocket: It’ll take off in a hurry, explode quickly and then dissipate.

Dedication

This puts together the above two with the idea of understanding what it takes to make this thing work and forcing yourself to do it every day or every week or whatever. You must make sure you are constantly looking for things to add to the blog. You must make sure you post when you are required to post things. You can’t just blow it off when you don’t feel like writing. You can’t push it down the line because you can’t think about something or because other things become more important. If you are going to develop an audience that has an interest in you, you must continue to find things to give them.

Dedication leads to consistency and leads to success.

Nolan Ryan pitched in the major leagues until he was 46 years old and he credited his workout regimen after games for a lot of his longevity. When he won his 300th game, his family wanted to take him out and celebrate right after the game. Instead, they had to wait for him to finish his post-game workout before they could go out. Even though they pleaded with him to skip it “just this once,” he said, no and went to work.

Think about all the things that you might have succeeded at or failed at. It could be the New Year’s resolution to work out. You get going all gangbusters and then it’s really, really, REALLY cold outside and you don’t want to get out of bed and suddenly, goodbye exercise.

It could be a diet where you have meals planned and things are going along fine, but then you get caught short of your health nut mix and Hello, Taco Bell!

A blog can’t be like that if you want to be successful at it because it takes a long, long time to get an interested and engaged audience and it will take no time for them to leave you like a cheating fiancée on Temptation Island.

Honestly, not every day will be an academy award, but you have to ply your trade every day no matter what.

3 Basic Rules for Building a Successful Blog

The Public Relations Student Society of America chapter out here requested a guest lecture on blogging, as they know blogs will be part of what they need to do to be successful in their fields. Students have often told me that when they show up for an internship or a job, the first thing they are told is, “We need a blog. Go do it.”

What should be on that blog? “We need a blog!”

What’s our audience for the blog? “We NEED a BLOG!”

Do you have any advice on how to go about blogging for this organization? “Look, kid. You know the interwebs and stuff. Just go build the damned blog…”

Unless you want to be roadkill on the information superhighway (or worse), it pays to understand the concept of blogging and why it is certain blogs work and certain ones don’t. As a sneak preview of tonight’s talk, here are a few basic things to keep in mind when you want to build an effective blog:

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 interpersonally. 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: Before you blog, answer the question, “Why you?”

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 Gluten-Free Fun, 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 celiac 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.

Once you nail those things down, you can start figuring out where a blog should go or what you should include, but that should get you a running start at a successful blog.

You’re not a woke liberal commie pinko for understanding how the First Amendment actually works

A fellow instructor and friend posted this note in the wake of the latest Alex Jones judicial smack down:

I already have people telling me that Jones needs to appeal as his free speech rights are being violated. I try to explain the 1st Amendment to them but they come back at me as a liberal, socialist. left wing, college professor indoctrinating my students in WOKE, CRT and Cancel Culture.

In case you missed it, Jones lost a suit in Connecticut the other day, the result of which was a nearly $1 billion judgment against him. The root of the suit was his claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation and that the parents of the kids were all liars. Strangely enough, the parents of murdered children didn’t take too kindly to his bullpucky and thus sued.

My colleague’s understanding of the First Amendment is right on the money: You can say whatever you want without governmental intrusion, but that doesn’t mean you will escape all repercussions when it turns out you’re wrong (or a no-talent ass-hat who causes significant damage to other people).

I doubt the people on the other end of his calm, rational explanation of the First Amendment will take this response any better, even though I think I’m maybe one of those things they listed above (college professor, on a good day). Still, here’s a throwback to another point in time where the misunderstanding of how the First Amendment works led people to freak out.


Another brief reminder of how “freedom of speech” actually works: Joe Rogan edition

In trying to boil down the “Joe Rogan Experience” over the past week or so, this is the best I’ve got:

2022 Joe Rogan: Nobody can piss off the world more than I can with my weird take on COVID.
Pre-2022 Joe Rogan: Yeah… Hold my beer…

Podcaster Joe Rogan and his $100 million sugar daddy, Spotify, spent the last couple weeks understanding that free speech isn’t always consequence-free speech. Rogan most recently got into hot water when it turned out he needed to apologize for dropping more than a few “n-words” into his podcasts over the past 12 years:

New York, NY (CNN)Joe Rogan issued an apology on Instagram Saturday after a compilation of the podcaster frequently using the n-word on his podcast spread widely on social media.

Rogan used the word more than 20 times in the clips from different podcast episodes, which he said were compiled over a span of 12 years. In his apology, Rogan said it’s the “most regretful and shameful thing” he has ever had to address publicly.

“I know that to most people, there’s no context where a White person is ever allowed to say that, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that,” he said. “Now, I haven’t said it in years,” Rogan added.

Rogan also addressed a video of him comparing a Black neighborhood to a Planet of the Apes movie. “I certainly would never want to offend someone for entertainment with something as stupid as racism,” he said.

If Rogan’s goal in this situation was to distract from his unfounded medical claims regarding COVID, he succeeded in the best-worst possible way. Prior to this mix-tape of racism, Rogan was spouting unscientific nonsense about the coronavirus, and medical professionals called for Spotify to do something about this:

A coalition of hundreds of doctors and public health experts have called out Spotify for allowing Joe Rogan to spread “false and societally harmful assertions” about the coronavirus and vaccination on the streaming platform that hosts his wildly popular podcast.

In an open letter published Monday, more than 270 medical professionals urge Spotify to stop “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance.” Rogan, whose show reaches an estimated audience of 11 million people an episode, has repeatedly downplayed the need for coronavirus vaccines and used his platform to flirt with misinformation about covid-19.

(Side note: How does one “flirt with misinformation?” I’m imagining a stock broker in a bad hairpiece telling some lady at a bar that he’s really Donald Trump…)

Multiple musicians including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young also put pressure on Spotify with requests to have their music removed from the streaming service, due to Rogan’s coronavirus commentary. As a result, Spotify issued a statement so broad and generic, it could easily have just said “We favor… Um… Stuff…”:

“We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” the C.E.O., Daniel Ek, who is also one of Spotify’s founders, wrote in a public letter. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

In the wake of this rolling cluster-mess, a good number of people are complaining that anyone coming after Rogan or Spotify is engaged in censorship/killing free speech. As per usual, this tends to take the form of the mic-drop argument-ender: the meme…

Truth be told, censorship and freedom of speech are often misunderstood because people think they have the right to say or write anything they want with impunity. Here’s a quick recap of how the First Amendment actually works:

It does:

Prohibit the government from suppressing unpopular speech or unpopular press. City, county, state or federal officials cannot stop a person from expressing an opinion or punishing that person for doing so. Those same officials cannot prevent a newspaper, magazine or other “press” from putting out content that might be unpopular.

It does NOT:

Cover everything ever said or printed. The law has deemed some forms of speech (fighting words, words that create a clear and present danger etc.) to be unprotected. The traditional example is that you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. The law has also deemed some content (child pornography, for example) to be irredeemable in any way and thus not be afforded protection under the law.

Prevent the speaker (or writer) from ramifications from free expression.The law says the government, or any of its agents, can’t prevent you from publishing a story that your university president is running a pedophile ring out of the basement of the student union. However, when that story is proven to be false, you better believe the president can sue your pants off for libel. The law protects speech, but it also protects people FROM speech in many cases, which is why we have to be careful every time we publish (or say) something.

Stop private businesses from suppressing or punishing speech.Private institutions are perfectly capable of hiring or firing people for a wide array of reasons. Joe Rogan got $100 million from Spotify for his podcasting services. If they are unsatisfied with those services, they can examine the contract and find a way to sever ties. They can tell him what they will or won’t allow under his contract in terms of speech or information.

Censorship is when a person is prevented from speaking, publishing or otherwise expressing themselves. Joe Rogan is not in that situation, even if Spotify decides to smack him around or fire him. If Joe doesn’t like whatever Spotify chooses to do, he can go somewhere else. He can complain that his speech is being suppressed (he’s technically right), but he can’t say his First-Amendment rights are being violated. Trust me, if I had a First-Amendment right to earn $100 million to talk about stuff where “I don’t always get it right,” I’d have done it by now.

Force other people to listen to you or be happy about what you say.  If there were laws against ugly speech that bothered people, Fred Phelps would have never been let out of his own house. Constitutionally speaking, Joe Rogan can stand on a street corner and drop “n-words” until he drops dead. That doesn’t mean other people have to sit by, totally entranced by this and not express their displeasure. These other citizens can try to shout him down, ignore him entirely or go to the opposite street corner and scream something else.

In the case of the COVID controversy, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and other musicians have asked that their music be removed from Spotify if the streaming service decides to keep Joe Rogan. They have that right to ask for that change, given their displeasure over Rogan’s speech. People who think it’s unfair that the musicians are doing this can choose to speak out against this or stop listening to “Heart of Gold” or whatever. In short, you have the right to say stuff, but so does everyone else. You have a right to ignore them, as does everyone else.

Promote “cancel culture.”  The thing about the First Amendment is that it’s essentially content neutral. You want to tell people you hate dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you love dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you want to eat dogs, that’s fine. It’s gross and you’ll likely be home alone a lot on weekends, but it’s not against the law.  With the legal exceptions outlined above (and a few others), the type of speech doesn’t really play into whether that speech should be “free” or not.

It’s important to understand that free speech was always supposed to work this way, in which bad or dumb speech got knocked on its keester by good or smart speech. The whole concept of a “marketplace of ideas” is to give everyone a chance to speak so we could pick out the best ideas and use them as we saw fit. The ones that were dumb got discarded and the people who proclaimed those dumb ideas could either stick with their dumbness and be alone or come around to better ways of doing things and be part of those better ideas.

Joe Rogan is not being “cancelled” because people are telling Spotify that its service shouldn’t promote Rogan’s thoughts on COVID or support a guy who used the “n-word” at least 20 times on his podcast. That’s free speech. Spotify can say, “OK, we hear you, but screw you anyway.” That’s free speech as well. Joe Rogan can say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m going to tell people they can cure COVID by drinking a mixture of fuel oil and children’s tears, all while I read aloud from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ live on my podcast.”  That’s free speech, too.

The reason why Spotify ISN’T doing that and the reason why Rogan IS repenting like a Catholic priest getting caught in a strip club comes down to money. Spotify doesn’t want to lose its listeners and thus lose revenue. Rogan realizes that it’s going to be reeeeeeaaaallly hard to find another $100 million job out there, especially since he can’t shoot twice as well as Steph Curry.

They’re not being cancelled. They’re choosing to be pragmatic.

A brief reminder that parody is protected speech and should stay that way

People sometimes need to be reminded that parody is protected speech. The thin-skinned police department in Parma, Ohio, arrested Anthony Novak for building a fake Facebook page meant to mock the agency’s efforts to combat crime. Novak spent four days in jail because of the page he created in 2016.

His criminal trial ended in a non-guilty verdict, as the jury found he did not use his computer to disrupt police functions. However, Novak planned a civil suit, arguing that his civil rights were violated, but lower courts dismissed his claims.

Now he’s going before the Supreme Court with some support from “America’s Finest News Source:”

One of Mr. Novak’s lawyers, Patrick Jaicomo, said in an interview Monday that last month he contacted Jordan LaFlure, the managing editor of The Onion, which is based in Chicago, to make him aware of the case and see if he would be interested in helping raise attention.

“They heard the story, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is something that could really put all of our people in the crosshairs if we rub someone the wrong way with one of our stories,’” Mr. Jaicomo said.

In a filing that read in places like one of its articles, The Onion laid out why it believes the authorities in Ohio had acted unconstitutionally, sprinkling in sincere arguments in defense of parody while riddling the rest of the text with moments of jest and hubris — claiming, for example, a readership of 4.3 trillion, and also boasting that it “owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes.”

I’m having a hard time imagining the 5-4 stick-up-the-keester majority being persuaded by this brief, although I guess I could envision Justice Brett Kavanaugh paging through this while drinking a beer and taking a dump. (Sorry to my more “visual” readers…)

I’ve been surprised by court rulings before, including the Mahanoy v. B.L. 8-1 decision, however, the Court recently seems generally grumpy toward free expression these days. In ruling against the MyPillow Guy,  Gorsuch and Thomas grumbled again that the court should reconsider Times v. Sullivan, a case that makes it really hard for public figures to win libel suits. Also, I’m more than a little concerned that we’ve got about seven self-professed Christians on the bench, given that the key lawsuit protecting parody involves a porno mag and a joke about the Rev. Jerry Falwell banging his mother behind an outhouse.

(Of course, there’s also the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision. I’m not getting into the weeds on that, but let’s just say the Court seems to be relying on this precedent in dealing with the whole concept of “stare decisis.”)

I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys being mocked, but most folks know to take it in stride and get over it. I have met plenty of people who enjoy mockery as a form of humor, which is why insult comics get some of the biggest laughs and any man over the age of 40 can probably tell you which copy of Mad Magazine was the first one they ever purchased. (June 1987, Star Trek IV cover for me…)

At the college level, as much as I broke out in hives every time a student said, “Hey, let’s do an April Fool’s Edition!” I would prefer them to operate under the blanket of protection afforded them by the decision in the Flynt case. (One year, the student newspaper here Photoshopped the chancellor’s head onto the famous Demi Moore Vanity Fair image. Something tells me that didn’t go over too well…) Of all the thin-skinned, hair-trigger-offended, self-important people I’ve met in my life, far too many of them reside in academia, so having no protection for parody would put the kids directly in the soup far too often.

One of the best explanations of why speech that people don’t like came through in yet another clip that focuses on the apparent patron saint of this blog:

If George Washington can handle the donkey cartoon, Reagan didn’t jail Trudeau and the highest court in the land could see value in mocking Jerry Falwell, the police in Parma, Ohio could have just let Anthony Novak be. The fact they didn’t should earn them some form of punishment.

And maybe a little more protected mockery…

 

John Oliver takes on crime reporting

Since it’s not always easy to broach a topic like “What if the police are lying to you as a journalist?” and because trying to keep students’ attention at around the six-week mark of class can be quite difficult, here’s a potential conversation starter for your reporting class. Comedian John Oliver took on the way in which crime reporting works on Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight.” It has a lot of interesting jumping-off points as well as some important looks at how reporting shapes our worldview in terms of safety, race and the law, among other topics.

Before you consider showing this in class, a couple brief caveats:

  1. He swears an appreciable amount, something that might be problematic if you work somewhere that requires penance if you use the word “damn” in the classroom.
  2. He will often take a bit a little too far. He’s done far worse before, but there is at least one reference to Miss Piggy’s sex life, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  3. The piece picks at broadcast news A LOT, which seems a bit unfair, given that a lot of media outlets follow the same basic pattern of taking police press releases and running with them.
  4. He has a point of view. If you’ve never watched “Last Week Tonight” before, it’s worth mentioning, in that he fact checks the heck out of stuff but like most things with a point of view, he points to things that support his POV. Some people call that cherry-picking, but there appear to be a lot of cherries around this story.

From my own experience in working with the police and covering crime, let me add these thoughts:

  1. The reliance on press releases as a sole source is a bad practice across the board. Oliver points out that a lot of the problems in how narratives are cast comes from press releases from public-information officers. Journalists should essentially know that all press releases come with a point of view, not just those that come from the police. Relying on a press release from Dyson will probably lead to the story, “Study finds U.S. needs more, better vacuum cleaners.”
  2. A lot of the problems here are germane to all of journalism these days, in which the importance of filling the grist mill leads to grab-and-go journalism. A lot of our problems come from not being able to be at the scene or develop trustful relationships with sources or waiting to tell a story until it’s fully fleshed out. This is as true in political coverage, education coverage and other forms of coverage as it is in crime coverage.
  3. In some cases “police said” carries with it a special layer of protection, based on certain interpretations of qualified privilege, in which journalists can rely on official sources acting in an official capacity without fear. That’s why it’s there. Also, he mentions some places are using “police claim” as a substitute for being deferential to police.  Please don’t follow this path. “Said” is supposed to be neutral. The problem is that we lack other people on the other side of the issue to do some “saying” for us. Also, if you stick allegedly in there as another potential fix, please know that every time you use allegedly, God kills a kitten.
  4. He always ends giant segments like this with the “not all (fill in the group) are bad people who act this way” after spending 28 minutes telling you how crappy that group can be. I’ve had my share of crappy PIOs in various departments, but I’ve also worked with some really good police, deputies and other law-enforcement officials over the years. I follow the simple idea of extending them the level of trust I would like them to extend to me. When one of us violates that trust, now it’s game on.

With all of that in mind, here’s John…

 

“Playing Journalist”

“Hi, I’m a reporter for the Daily News! Could my bug and I ask you some questions about the firing of Paul Chryst?”

Late last night, I got this email from a student:

I hate to be emailing you almost last minute. However, I got asked to go to Madison tomorrow morning for my internship, and I present my blog pitch in class tomorrow. Is it possible at all for me to do it first thing Thursday morning instead? Again, I hate asking last minute, but I literally just got the email 15 minutes ago.

The internship she got was with the ABC affiliate in the largest market in our state, where she works with the sports department on everything from high school football promos to social media. She has been putting herself through school by working for the team shop at the Milwaukee Brewers stadium and punching a clock at an area grocery store. This year is her senior year and she’s driving between Oshkosh and Milwaukee multiple times a week to finish her classes and maintain her pro gig at the station.

Some professors might argue with me on this one, but for me, the answer was easy: Go. We’ll figure out the class thing later.

Numerous academic folk have called me out or poked at me about what they consider my lax attendance policy for things like this or my disregard for the value of classroom education. I’d argue I’m putting more emphasis on education by giving the kids the chance to really learn something important through some field work.

For me, it goes back to a situation at Ball State, involving a student reporter and a grumpy broadcast professor. A major breaking news story hit right at the time they were supposed to have class and so the kid asked the professor if she could skip class and chase the story.

“Well, maybe when you’re done playing journalist, you’ll get back to class and actually learn something,” he told her.

When I heard about it, I asked him about the situation and he defended his position. My argument was that of all the people who should see the value of field work, a fellow media professional should understand what this kid was doing. He disagreed and basically said that in the game of rock, paper, scissors, he was Spock. I made a few pointed remarks and left it at that, but the phrase “playing journalist” stuck with me long after that.

The students we teach are learning a craft, just as they would in any discipline worthy of apprenticeship: They get the theory and the explanations in the classroom, but they learn the rules of the road in the field. That happens at student media outlets, internships, part-time gigs and other opportunities where they ply the trade we teach them. If the goal is to help them find work and be successful after college, we should be encouraging these efforts, not belittling them.

These folks are not “playing journalist.” They ARE journalists.

A kid in class can blow off a C grade they earned for failing to fact-check a story or for misspelling a source’s name. However, if they make those mistakes at a student media outlet or an internship, they’ve got to deal with some serious ramifications. When students go out to cover significant news events like the folks at the Cav Daily did during the “Unite the Right” protest, they are putting themselves in harm’s way to tell important stories. I didn’t recall seeing white supremacists saying, “Oh, don’t punch those people. They’re just playing journalists…” I’m quite certain the teargas was real for everyone there, as well, not just the “official” journalists.

The media outlets that provide students with hands-on experience have a ton of value for both the kids and the outlets. The same day I got the email request, I was helping a colleague with a research project she was doing about student journalists during the pandemic. One of the key findings was that the kids found a ton more value in what they were doing in student media than in the classroom. Any journalism person worth their salt, and any j-prof who is honest with themselves, could see that truism a mile away.

I know I did.

When I had a choice between breaking news and attending a journalism history lecture about the professor’s revelations on Ronald Reagan (a topic he just so happened to have published a book on that was mandatory reading for the class), I went with the news and figured I’d catch up on the Gipper later. When the student newspaper closed down amid a sea of six-figure debt, I skipped six weeks of class my junior year to bill past advertisers, negotiate debts and fend off impending doom. I have no idea what my grades were in those classes to this day, nor has anyone cared enough to ask me in the intervening 27 years. However, I do know what I learned from the newspaper as a reporter, editor and business manager, and I still use that stuff to this day.

I want to make it clear that I’m not actively encouraging truancy or special treatment for kids in the college media ranks. I once had the argument about poor grades with a student who had two internships, the EIC position at the paper and a part time job. He told me, “You know that I’m better than a C student!” I told him, “Yes, but you’re turning in C work, so that’s where we are.” The peace-with-honor solution we agreed upon was that I wouldn’t bug him about his need to do better in my class because I knew WHY he wasn’t making me a priority. In turn, he’d not complain about his grades because he knew WHY they sucked.

My point is, if we professors are honest with ourselves, we know that we are likely to play second fiddle to something students are doing at some point in their college careers. Yes, it is annoying to lecture to a half-empty room or get the “Did I miss anything important?” emails after the fact. However, of all the reasons the students could be skipping class, we should at least actively encourage the really good reasons like this.