THROWBACK THURSDAY: Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

I asked a colleague in PR what she would like to see in our editing class if I were to start it over from scratch and try to incorporate the needs of all our sequences into it. It took her no time to answer:

“Teach them how to self-edit,” she said. “They need to look at their copy and realize what’s wrong with it.”

Much of that would be covered with grammar and style, but here’s a key thing that often gets left twisting in the wind: Story holes.

Here’s a throwback post that explains holes, outlines why they happen and explains how to fill them. This can benefit your readers in a lot of ways.

Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

As the finishing touches take place on the next book in the “Dynamics” series (Dynamics of Media Editing), I thought it would be a good to give you a peek at a key area of writing and editing that often goes overlooked: Holes.

The idea of a hole is simple: It is the absence of something that should be there to make an item complete. A hole in a shirt, a hole in the yard or a hole in your story all fit that same basic premise. The goal of good writers is to fill in the holes that exist to keep your readers fully engaged and fully informed.

Or as we might say elsewhere, “Don’t leave me hanging, bro…”

Here’s a clip from the editing book so you can get a better sense of how this all works and how to fix it:

Filling holes

A hole in copy is when a writer raises an issue that interests a reader but doesn’t provide enough information to satisfy that interest. Editors develop an intuitive sense over time as to where holes exist and what is required to fill them. Here are some simple examples of holes and how to fill them:


A question with no answer: Writers often spend enough time working in a specific area of interest that they start to understand things that go beyond what readers will intuitively know. It can be jargon, historical references or “inside baseball” issues, and in most cases, the writer will assume that others know these items as well. A hole can develop in a story when a gap emerges between what the writer knows and what the readers do. Here’s an example:

Francisco Smart took over as San Antonio’s mayor six months ago, completing the end of his predecessor’s term.

This situation raises several questions including:

  • Who was the predecessor?
  • Why was he/she unable to complete the term?

You can easily fill in the hole with a simple edit:

Francisco Smart, who is completing Carol Jafkey’s term as San Antonio’s mayor, took on his current role six months ago when Jafkey moved to Arizona.

This might raise additional questions, such as “Why did Jafkey move to Arizona?” That said, you have plugged the bigger holes and you can address the additional questions later.

Any time you see a statement that has you asking a question that the writer hasn’t answered later in the story, you need to acknowledge the presence of a hole and find way to fill it.


An accusation with no response: News traditionally requires balance, but that’s not just an ideal associated with newspapers. Unless you want people to see you as a slanted source of information, you need to look for fairness when you are editing. In some cases, a source will fire a shot across the bow and accuse someone else of something nefarious. The first question you should ask is if that accusation needs to be in your piece in the first place or if it’s just a cheap shot that lacks value. If it merits inclusion, see what truth there is to that accusation or afford the accused an opportunity to respond so you don’t end up with a hole like this:


Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement.


The accusation is pretty serious, so make sure you don’t just let it linger:

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. In each of those cases, the court has dismissed the case as being without merit.


Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. Wood testified in court each time that this was nothing more than a friendly poker game that Lazlo detested because he was not invited to participate.

The goal is to make sure that you don’t leave the door open on an accusation when you can easily close it and give your readers a more complete version of the truth.


An “oddity” with no context: Oddity is an interest element that writers often emphasize in their work to give readers a sense of how special an outcome or issue is. However, when a writer fails to provide context for that information, the readers often feel lost or don’t have a full appreciation of this rarity. Here’s an example:

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds pitched an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time in major league history that a pitcher accomplished this feat.


A couple questions are left unanswered here:

  • Who did it first?
  • When did he do it?

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds threw an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time since 1940 that a pitcher accomplished that feat.


Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis joined Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians as the only pitchers to throw opening-day no-hitters in major league history.

However, to plug both holes, you need to reconsider the approach a bit:

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis became the second player in the last 78 years to throw an opening-day no-hitter, joining Cleveland’s Bob Feller who first accomplished the feat in 1940.

That plugs both holes and helps the readers understand the rarity of the feat.

Any time you have an oddity, you run the risk of having a hole in the story. Make sure you edit to provide context and meaning to help your readers more fully understand the magnitude of what you want them to know.

Four common threads associated with journalism malfeasance: A look at Ruth Shalit Barrett’s fraudulent story for The Atlantic

There’s a pretty good reason why people constantly scream that the media is full of “fake news” get traction on their arguments:

Two weeks after publishing a long, juicy and instantly viral story about the world of competitive niche sports, and the wealthy parents who push their children to play them, the Atlantic on late Friday appended a nearly 800-word editor’s note informing readers that it was “deceived” by the story’s author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

By Sunday evening, the magazine had gone further, announcing that it had retracted the story altogether. “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author,” an expanded editor’s note said, “and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

This wasn’t the author’s first scrape with journalistic malpractice. In the 1990s, she worked at The New Republic where she was fired for plagiarism and taking liberties with her copy. As she noted for this story, written shortly after her dismissal, she was there alongside fellow journalism pariah Stephen Glass, who fabricated multiple stories and faked large portions of others:

“Steve Glass was boring, a boring fabulist, the Milli Vanilli of journalism. There were all these sorts of pieces written about how he was this brilliant, misunderstood genius who was hemmed in by the literature of fact. I think that’s wrong, that the appeal of his pieces was that they were supposedly full of all this great reporting. If you go back and read these pieces knowing that it was all made up, they don’t seem fun anymore,” she says.

“When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got thinned out….It was ‘Steve Glass, fabulist’ and ‘Ruth Shalit, plagiarist.’ The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped. And that was a drag, because if you stand back, there are good pieces with solid reporting, and that are true, by the way. To equate that body of work to the work of another writer whose entire oeuvre turned out to be this tissue of lies, that seems to be a large leap,” she says.

Leaping forward to her current situation, The Atlantic went to cringe-inducingly painful lengths to lay out the sins of the author and the magazine’s role in letting it see the light of day. In an editor’s note that retracted the piece, The Atlantic noted the following problems with the story:

  • The main character was given the name of “Sloane,” Barrett said, to protect the anonymity of this stay-at-home mother with three daughters and a son. It turned out to be the source’s middle name, which made it easy for people to identify her. In addition, the woman didn’t actually have a son.
  • In the deeper dig, “Sloane” explained that Barrett suggested the invention of the fictional son, and then told her to lie about his existence when contacted by The Atlantic’s fact checkers. At first, Barrett denied knowing about this before fessing up later.
  • The wounds that “Sloane’s” daughter sustained during a fencing competition were false or extremely exaggerated. In one case, Barrett described a piercing throat wound that struck the jugular vein and nearly hit the carotid artery as “a Fourth of July massacre.” The wound didn’t even draw blood, as noted by witnesses who posted on social media. A second wound was described as a deep thigh gash, which it was not, the correction notes.
  • A family involved in lacrosse was identified as living in the wrong city in Connecticut.
  • A statement that some families had built Olympic-sized ice rinks in their backyards had to be corrected to merely state that private ice rinks were constructed. (Olympic rinks measure 200 feet by 100 feet, which approaches nearly a half acre of space.)

As these falsehoods and errors began to crop up, the folks at The Atlantic acted like trauma surgeons in a disaster: They kept tying off bleeders and trying to keep the patient alive. The editor’s note lists two dates in which the magazine added corrective information to the story, before making the decision to finally pull it. (A PDF of the article is still available on the magazine’s website.)

Simply put, they didn’t know how deep the rot really was, but they knew the author had purposefully lied to them:

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

We have talked at length about a number of these situations, such as journalist Mike Ward’s use of fabricated “real people” across multiple stories,

Historically, there is always the “Jimmy” story that Janet Cooke wrote, in which she told the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out to be a fabrication. There is Jayson Blair, who fabricated sources, lied about information he supposedly got from sources and plagiarized the work of other journalists. The New York Times ran a correction of around 7,000 words, in an attempt to fix all of the problems Blair caused and restore some of the paper’s credibility.

Heck, Barrett’s former colleague at The New Republic, Stephen Glass, fabricated content to the point he was portrayed by Darth Vader in a movie.

If you’re looking for a lesson here, the “no duh” one would be not to do this kind of stupid crap, as it is likely to lead to your demise as a journalist while cratering the credibility of every media outlet you ever touched.

If you’re looking for a more oblique lesson, it’s that journalists (and journalism educators, for that matter) are trained to be skeptical pit bulls. We dig into stuff and if we find out you lied, we will burn you so badly you will wish you had died as a child. The Barrett piece started to lose air once outside publications, like Erik Wemple’s blog, began picking at it.

Beyond those two things, consider a few basic observations I’ve come up with about the Barrett situation and some of the previous cheating scandals:

It’s rarely a one-time thing: In the movie version of “Shattered Glass,” New Republic editor Chuck Lane is faced with one piece of copy that he knows is false. The whole story of Ian Restil, a teenage computer hacker, is on the radar of Forbes Digital Tool and reporter Adam Pennenberg. Pennenberg has poked enough holes into this thing to make Lane suspicious and his interactions with Glass confirm it.

The scene that sticks out to me is when Lane finally suspends Glass and is walking past the wall of past issues of TNR. He pauses and you can almost hear the gerbil in his brain hopping onto the treadmill.

He pulls down each issue, flips to the Glass piece in it and starts to read. One by one, he hits something that just doesn’t jibe with reality. He suddenly figures out that this guy has been doing this forever. In the end, 27 of the 41 stories Glass wrote were either partially or entirely fabricated, the movie notes in its epilogue.

This tracks with what you see in the Blair story, where he had been making stuff up and stealing from people for years. His college newspaper, The Diamondback, had issues with him and a retrospective on his tenure at the paper noted people at the time were concerned with his content.

In Barrett’s case, the problems existed decades apart, but they fit this mold.

It’s usually for unimportant crap: My buddy Fred Vultee, a long-time copy editor and now professor at Wayne State University, used to say that you can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean. His point was that the big stories aren’t the only places where disasters occur, but we can screw up just as badly in some of the tiny bits of copy we write as a matter of course.

I find this analogy is pretty applicable here as well, because in most of the cases involving plagiarism or fabrication didn’t do great and mighty things in a journalism sense. In most cases, these fabrications involved some really stupid and tiny things, especially compared to the risk of damage associated with them.

Mike Ward’s actions fit this to a T. He used official sources and their real quotes for the meat and potatoes of his pieces. However, he made up “regular people” and their thoughts out of whole cloth to provide that “spice” in the story. As I mentioned at the time, I get that it’s not a lot of fun to go find those “salt-of-the-earth, real people” at the Waffle House and ask them what they think of a pandemic or something. However, it’s part of the job and if you can’t do it, the very least you should do is avoid faking it.

Glass did “color” pieces, something that’s pretty clear if you review his list of articles. He said he claimed to be a biting expert after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield and he got a radio station to put him on a talk show where he took calls for almost an hour. He said he spent time hanging out with drunk and stoned young Republican turks at the CPAC convention, who sought a “real heifer” of a girl to sexually assault. (“Bad acne would be a plus,” his source was quoted as saying.) He claimed to spend time with bond traders who had to pee in specially made urinals to keep them trading instead of heading to the bathroom. On and on these tales went, each more fantastical than the previous one.

None of it was true, but even more, none of it was necessary. It wasn’t like he was Gary Webb, tracking allegations of a CIA-fueled crack epidemic. He wasn’t trying to get information on the Son of Sam by posing as a bereavement counselor and interviewing a victim’s family. If there had been a kid named Ian Restil who hacked a company named Jukt Micronics, would it have been crucial for everyone to know it? Not really.

A rare exception to this was Blair’s work on the D.C. Sniper case, where he wrote various false claims, including an allegation that authorities found a grape stem at the scene of one of the attacks with shooter Lee Boyd Malvo’s DNA on it.

Overall, however cost-benefit analysis these people took seemed to be all out of whack when it came to what they were doing and what would be added to the sum of human knowledge. What it seemed to do, based on what they’ve said over the years, is fed their egos in some prurient way, which they put above their responsibility to their readers.

Fellow journalists generally have a “Spidey sense” about these folks before the situation blows up:  There are moments in which people around the fraudulent journalists get a “feeling” that something isn’t right. In Blair’s case, there were warning signals all over hell and creation. A group of alumni from The Diamondback sent a letter to the J-school at Maryland after things blew up, outlining all the red flags they saw years earlier. Journalist Seth Mnookin’s book, “Hard News,” outlines the various editors at the New York Times who had huge concerns with Blair before he started “breaking” sniper stories.

The New Republic got complaints about Glass and his stories, noting errors or flat-out falsehoods. As he continued to deepen his fraud, he told a “60 Minutes” interviewer that he got fewer complaints because he was telling entirely fictional stories and that fake people don’t phone the boss.

In Barrett’s case, The Atlantic knew full well that she had a shady past, but the folks who hired her for this piece kind of squinted their way past this, noting her indiscretions were decades earlier and that people can change. Instead, they saw her kick up her malfeasance a notch from plagiarism to flat-out fraud.

Listening to that internal voice that says, “Something’s not right here…” isn’t easy for a number of reasons. First, it’s tough for a lot of journalists to imagine that one of our own would do something like this. It’s antithetical to who we are and what our profession espouses, so thinking this could happen is really hard to swallow.

Second, we are used to hearing crap like this from all sorts of people. Sources who said something might end up getting in trouble once the comment is published, so they call up and claim they never said it. When other reporters complain about the “star” reporter, it can come across like sour grapes. Thus, grousing that this guy or that gal is cutting corners or not fact checking or being a dink can be easily dismissed.

Finally, we can talk ourselves out of this “feeling” pretty easily for a number of reasons. In some cases, it’s because everyone is moving at warp speed covering the news, so we just figure it was a glitch or a “one-off” moment. In other cases, we realize that we’re about to accuse someone of something pretty egregious, so we better be damned sure. In most of these cases, these journalists exploited those weaknesses and continue to do their worst.

The dirt never washes off: Not every faker becomes a household name, but those who have done it and gotten caught tend to find their actions essentially ruin their lives. Outside of a couple interviews on a TV talk show and Mike Sager’s piece in CJR, Cooke has been actively out of communication for decades. Pieces often talk ABOUT her, but rarely, if ever, does anyone manage to talk with her. What could have been an incredible journalism career turned to dust.

Glass spent years going through law school, graduating in 2000 from Georgetown, but is unable to practice law, due to his problems as a journalist. He was able to get work with multiple law firms, but he is not an attorney.

Blair’s career was like a bottle rocket, streaking up through the sky quickly and exploding just as suddenly. In speaking with students at Maryland in 2016, he essentially admitted he harmed himself and the profession to the degree he knows he’d never be able to work in the field again.

Barrett got what all three of those folks, and many others, I would imagine, desperately want: A second chance. She took it and blew it. The “how” is easy to understand.

The “why?” Not so much.


The Junk Drawer: A laugh before dying, Election 2020 edition

Honey? I can’t find our Western-style democracy… Yes, I’m looking in the junk drawer…

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.

It’s election day, I’m practically brain dead this morning and I think we all could use a laugh, so here’s my best effort:


Don’t tell Baker Mayfield’s wife!

Nothing like a typo to turn a rhetorical question that sounds like something the late sports announcer Mel Allen would say into something that sounds like the QB for the Browns is looking for some side action:

Speaking of “That’s not what we meant…”


Are we not doing “phrasing” anymore? Well, Obama is:

Maybe the greatest line I have seen in any election story in the 1,253,312 years of this election cycle came from this story, which covered an exchange between an excited Democrat and Barack Obama:

In Miami Springs, Fla., where Barack Obama visited last week, an eager volunteer cried out “you were my first!” and the former president thanked her, before gently suggesting a rephrasing.


Speaking of things that might need a tweak or two…


I’m “confused” and “concerned” about what this use of quotes means:

Partial quotes are often used to showcase important vernacular that needs to be captured in an exact way for something to have value:

President Donald Trump said a “herd mentality” would lead to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Leonard Franklin refused to abide by a prosecutor’s suggestion to go easy on convicted molester Carl Joseph, saying a life sentence was fair for a “kid-diddling pedo-freak.”

After his star running back took police on a four-state high-speed chase that ended in a shoot out, Cowpokes head coach James McFeely said the incident was “unfortunate” and “ill-timed.”

They can also be used when something is suspect:

The “fair-trade clause” in the contract actually allowed for additional exploitation of workers in developing countries, the ambassador stated.

After leaving the mechanic, James found that his “fixed” car still had no brakes.

So, explain this usage to me, fans of Hobby Lobby:

I’m uncertain as to why “one” would need to be in quotes here. Is it an allegation of only “one” item or is this some sort of requirement that they purchase the cassette single for this tune from “A Chorus Line?”

It’s not as creepy as if I saw a menu that noted something like Breaded “Chicken” Nuggets or “Beef” Stew, but it’s still kind of creepy.

Speaking of disturbing promotions…


Do we get it in place of, or along with, the snack bags?

It’s likely you’d get COVID-19 anyway on those cigar tubes of recycled air and beer farts, but it’s nice when they promise it to you right up front.


But, if you do get the free COVID, don’t expect Sunshine Bear to come bail you out…

Headline breaks are among the most frequent complaints of journalists, as that one tweak between lines can make a huge difference in what something means. Here’s a simple headline that compares the treatment President Trump got after contracting COVID-19 and that of regular folks:

Most Patients’ COVID -19 Care Bears Little Resemblance to Trump’s

Makes sense until the headline breaks ruin your day:

In case you aren’t a child of the 1980s, these are the “Care Bears,” apparently using their special powers to cure our president:

care bears | Trending Gifs


And finally, here’s a good way to undercut your own argument:

If the world hasn’t ended by then, see you Wednesday.

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

The Avocado Pig and the value of oddity in journalism

In both books, we talk about the FOCII elements of interest: Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Impact and Immediacy. As far as the elements go, we tend to pay a lot of attention to certain ones, and less to others. Conflict, fame and immediacy tend to be at the front of the list, with impact almost being a requirement, based on audience-centricity.

Oddity, is well… the odd element out.

In the past two months, however, I’ve come to appreciate and value the importance of things that are out of the ordinary, thanks in large part to what we have come to call the Avocado Pig.

To make a long story longer than it needs to be, when we moved to the farm, we found out that we didn’t have trash service and that we’d have to haul our own mess to the dump. Amy didn’t want her car to be a filth magnet and I wasn’t about to put rotting crud in the back of our Highlander, so we set about looking for a beater pickup truck to do the deed.

After months of searching in advance of the move, I found one truck that tickled my fancy: A 1975 Ford F-150 super cab. It had everything I wanted: It had a large bed, so I could move a lot of stuff if I needed to. It had a cap on it so the bed wouldn’t fill with snow. It had a “back seat” (and yes, that deserves to be in quotes, given what that actually entails) so I could fit extra stuff or extra kids in there if I got called at the last minute to do after-school pick up. And, it was an older Ford, so I knew how to fix most problems on it, based on my Mustang adventures.

The thing came out of North Dakota, a state that apparently doesn’t use salt on its roads during the winter, so it had almost no rot or rust on it. The guy selling it was doing it as a favor for a friend, so it was reasonably priced and he was happy to tune it up at his automotive business before I bought it. It also didn’t hurt that it was the least amount of money I had spent on vehicle ever.

With all of this going for it, why did it sit on this guy’s car lot for multiple months, you might ask. Well, it screams “1970s” louder than a polyester plaid leisure suit with a John Holmes porn mustache, wearing stack boots:

It’s not only painted 1970s avocado green on the outside, but on the inside panels as well. The dash, the seats and the glove box are all avocado green. The flooring is the same color, done in beautiful shag carpeting to boot. It’s got an AM only radio, making it almost impossible to find anything other than talk radio or polka for in-cab entertainment. It also has a CB radio.

(If you don’t know what that is, ask your parents. Chances are, they will spend the next 20 minutes telling you about some sort of trucker story and explaining why they used something like “Foxy LaRue” as their CB handle.)

This thing is the vehicular equivalent of the uncle who shows up at your wedding in the same ruffled tux he wore to his wedding 30 years ago and proceeds to hit on every bridesmaid in the wedding party.

I didn’t care. It started, ran and hauled stuff. I was able to fix several problems on it for about 10% of what it would cost to hire someone. Also, and it becomes clear if you’ve ever seen how I dress, I could give a crap less about being fashionable or trendy.

As is the tradition in our house, we sought a name for this vehicle, eventually settling on “The Avocado Pig.” Why?  First, it’s avocado green, so that was a given. Second, it’s a fuel pig, in that it has a 390 engine and two gas tanks that need constant refilling, due to its gas-guzzling nature.

It was the kind of vehicle only I could love, or at least that’s what I thought. Turns out, people have some sort of weird fixation with this truck.

It started about a day after I bought it and drove it to my parents’ house in Milwaukee. I was putting stuff into it while it was sitting on the street when I noticed a police cruiser pass. It pulled a U turn and sidled up next to the truck and I thought, “Oh crap…”

“Is that your truck?” one officer asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“What year?”


“That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I told my partner we had to swing around to take another look.”

“Thank you…?”

He left and I was just happy I hadn’t violated Milwaukee’s arcane parking laws somehow.

About a week later, we moved into the farm house and I had it parked out back. A truck pulled into our driveway and someone was banging on the back door. I was elsewhere in the house, so Amy answered the door and was faced with someone who had known the previous owner. We figured this would happen, as the guy lived here for 54 years, but the reason these people stopped had nothing to do with the guy.

“They wanted to know if you were selling the truck,” Amy said with a tone that mixed exasperation and bewilderment. “What the hell is wrong with these people?”

Apparently, if they suffered from some sort of avocado fetish, they weren’t alone. Over the next two weeks, I couldn’t go to the grocery store, the dump or a hardware store without at least one person asking about the truck, including at least one offer to buy it on the spot.

On the way home from work one day, I was at a stoplight, when someone coming through the intersection on my left pulled over on the median. He got out of his vehicle and pointed at me before doing the “Wayne’s World” thing of “We’re not worthy.” He then got back in his brand new truck and drove off.

Later that week, another guy in a truck that Amy said looked like a pimped out UFO showed up while I was at work and asked if he could buy the truck.

At a certain point, this feels like either I’m making this up or that we’re in the theater of the absurd, but I can assure you I’m not good enough at fiction to pull this off as some sort of metaphor. Even more, I had the truck at work a week or two ago and came out to find this note, written on the back of a “WalPhed” box, stuck under my windshield wiper:

I completely understand why people ogle other people’s vehicles. I’ve practically gotten whiplash looking at vintage vehicles and screaming sports cars on the road. But of all the vehicles I’ve owned or driven… the Avocado Pig? Really? The Firebird, the classic Mustang, the Buick Grand National… sure. I also had a 1966 F250 camper edition for truck fans, but nobody seemed to have this level of fascination with it. I’ve been behind the wheel of a vintage Corvette, a Cadillac sedan and even an Escalade or two. Never even got half of a conversation or a cash offer.

What was it about this 45-year-old eyesore that got people into such a lather?

Amy nailed it. “When was the last time you saw something like this on the road? People love weird shit.”

And if we’re measuring weird, the Avocado Pig has it in spades.

So, after that extensive build up that was, as promised, longer than it needed to be, what does this mean to you?

If you want to draw attention to your work, you need to find things that make it unique in a truly distinctive way.

ADVERTISING: Bad advertising tries to get people to pay attention to it through hype, calling things the “fastest” or the “cleanest” or the “richest” or the “cheapest” or whatever “-est” you can manage to stick in there. The intent is to highlight oddity, but all it does is bore people.

Instead of “-est”ing me to death, look for exactly WHAT makes some something faster or better or stronger or whatever in regard to that product. The oddity of this product or good or service is likely right in front of you. Find the characteristic in the product that is special and then tie it directly to the benefit the users can get out of it.

NO: “Filak’s wet wipes are the strongest protection you can get against the coronavirus!”

YES: “Filak’s wet wipes are the only wipes on the market with Plutoxin-7, which means they kill the coronavirus as soon as it lands on any surface that was cleaned within the past 24 hours.”


PUBLIC RELATIONS: When you are planning an event or attempting to garner media coverage of something, focus on what makes this situation different from the other 912 things you’ve sent me a press release about in the past month. At a certain point, much like we do with “-est” advertising, we’re going to tune you out the minute we see your letterhead or email address.

The key thing in public relations that tends to get missed in this regard is that PR professionals know what their clients are doing and have a sense of why those actions matter. Because they tend to internalize this, it’s like reporters who become too attuned to “inside baseball” on their beats. In short, the practitioners KNOW the value, so they can’t believe that the reporters can’t see it, too.

What helps is taking that extra step and outlining the “this matters because” step for the reporters. Don’t assume they see the unique element of what you’re doing or the key value in what it is that you’re pitching. Instead, take them by the hand and show it to them by saying, “Look how neat this is!”

NO: Comedian and world traveler Bill Jones will speak at Central College on Friday as part of the school’s “Never Give Up” motivational program.

YES: “Bill Jones, the only man to ever eat an entire elephant in 24 hours, will deliver his “One Bite At A Time” comedy routine at Central College on Friday as part of the school’s motivational program.


NEWS: News folks have no problem looking for weird things. It’s why we’ve had “News of the Weird” as a syndicated column for years and why local radio shows play their “Small Town Crime Wave” stuff to the delight of morning-show listeners. That is usually where we find oddity to start and stop.

In short, if it involves a man from Florida, requires a firefighter to note “please don’t use a blowtorch to kill spiders,” or includes the phrase “priest’s three-way with dominatrices,” we’re pretty much clear it’s going to go viral. (If all three of those topics converged, I’m pretty sure we’d break the internet for good…)

However, oddity isn’t just about those items. It’s about focusing on firsts, lasts and onlies, so don’t be afraid to start asking questions like, “When was the last time X occurred?” This sense of wonder can turn an interesting story about a sports triumph into a bigger piece involving certain rarities. It can push you to look for things like what was the longest we had to wait to figure out who was president? Or when was the last time a bishop had to burn an altar that had been desecrated?  Or what was the fastest amount of time it took for someone to drive the cross-country “Cannonball Run?” (That last one is a heck of a story.)

Or even, “How many 1975 Ford F-150 Supercab trucks came in avocado green?”



Throwback Thursday: Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose

This post came to mind this weekend after a few last-second wins in the NFL, including my beloved Browns pulling out the win on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left.

The stories that emerged after that game and several other comebacks included tons of opinion disguised as fact, with terms like “glorious,” “impossible” and “miraculous” dotting the prose of writers.

Unless you see a guy at the 50 yard line multiplying loaves and bratwursts to feed the entire stadium, feel free to skip the mentions of “miracles.” As for the rest of the hyperbole, I hope this refresher will explain why you can cut that out of stories as well.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose

A group of my sports writing students were asked to write a story about a football game between two fictional college rivals, in which one comes back from a huge deficit to win on the last play of the fourth quarter. A good number of them attempted to hype the story rather than tell it, especially in the lead:

Thanks to an unbelievable fourth quarter capped by a 28-0 run, (WINNERS) came back to defeat (LOSERS), 31-28.

It seemed like (LOSERS)had the game wrapped up going into the fourth quarter, but in football, you must play all four quarters to the best of your ability if you want to win the game, no matter what level you’re playing at. 

In Wild and Wonderful  fashion, (WINNER) roars back to score 31 unanswered as they knock off (LOSER) in the closing seconds of regulation.

The (GAME) ended in extraordinary fashion with a last second touchdown.

Others wrote about it being “incredible,” “super,” “amazing” and so forth. And, yes, according to the information they received it was the largest comeback in conference history, so it might well have been all of those things.

However, your job is to show the readers what is going on by presenting factual information, not trying to sell them something by hyping it up. If you do the former, you’ll notice that your readers will come to the conclusion you want them to all by themselves. If you do the latter, you’ll find that the readers will resist your efforts to get them to see the situation in the way you want them to.

Don’t believe me? Consider the Joke Theory.

My wife and I laugh about how we’re always so competitive. But I know I always laugh more.

OK, that’s a lame joke, but I was hamstrung a bit by trying not to insult men, women, college students, professors, animals, trees and some frat kid named Chad’s little brother. That said, a few of you might have laughed at that. I at least had a chance.

Now consider if I started it this way instead:

I’m going to tell you a really funny joke. It’s probably one of the best jokes you’re ever going to hear. You’re going to be laughing so hard, you’ll cry. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you retell it to everyone you know. OK, here we go…

The hype kills the hope that I’m getting a laugh, just like the hype undercuts your position with your readers. Don’t tell them something is funny, amazing or whatever else. Show them the thing as it is and let them come to that conclusion.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Read this version of a story about a man caught breaking into a couple’s home, eating their food, wearing the wife’s Christmas “onesie” and dressing his cat, named Spaghetti, in a cashmere sweater he stole. What drives this story is the straight-up fact-based reporting that has you wondering, “What the heck is wrong with this guy?” (Well that and quotes like this: “No one leaves a dressed cat in a crawl space unless they’re coming back or they’re still here,” Smith told the paper. “So I got out and shut the door.”)

Now, if the writer, instead of doing this, had started commenting on this throughout the story, here’s what you might get:

“In the most bizarre case of burglary and home invasion ever known, a 38-year-old man was arrested Sunday night.

The odd fellow, who named his cat Spaghetti, which makes no sense, was caught in a crawl space in the home. A creepy crawler, indeed!

The weirdo put on the wife’s “onesie” night dress, which the woman obviously said she didn’t want the police to bring back for her. He also dressed Spaghetti in a cashmere outlet the couple had for one of its Chihuahuas, just adding to the weirdness of the night.”

Which version does the job better? Clearly the first one.

The point is that you need to have faith in your readers that they’ll see what you see when you write, without having to poke or prod them via commentary or hype. You also need to have faith in your own writing that you’ll get your point across well enough without having to use hype as a crutch to do the job.

Why should a reader care? A question you need to answer in all media writing

As part of a book I’m putting together for introduction to mass communication courses, I decided to break out key events and important people in an expanded timeline. In doing this, I added a chunk of text under each one of the points that I titled, “Why You Should Care.”

The folks at SAGE, and at least one reviewer, thought this was kind of jarring, almost a snarky affront to educational standards. Me? I thought it was common sense, given that if I can’t tell you why you should care about something, well… Why would you?

In today’s media climate, more and more sources are disseminating more and more messages  more and more frequently and in louder and louder ways. The idea, at least based on what I’m seeing out there, is that if we scream something loudly enough and do it often enough, people will eventually start to think, “Well, I guess that’s important.” In truth, we have often found that this repetition becomes more of an annoyance than anything else, plus once we stop bludgeoning people with those messages, they eventually stop caring about them.

When it comes to all forms of media writing, you need to be able to tell people not just WHAT happened, but also the “So What?” aspect of it, as one of my old bosses would say. If you can’t do that, you’re not coming at the content from an audience-centric perspective. You’re just cranking content out of a grist mill.

Here are two conversations I had with people this week who work in the field that really drove that home for me:

The first was a conversation with a student who is graduating and currently works as the main reporter at a small-market local news operation. He was grousing about how hard it is to get people to see value in his paper and his stories.

He told me that people care about certain things in the region he covers and he writes about those things, so why is it more people aren’t reading what he’s writing?

“How do you know that?” I asked him. “How do you know that they care about X, Y or Z?”

“Well, they SHOULD care…” he replied, leading me to understand what the problem was.

Journalists have long adopted the philosophy that we know best when it comes to what matters to our readers. For quite some time, we were right about that, almost entirely by accident.

Reporters lived in the areas they covered, earned wages similar to the people for whom they wrote and dealt with the same problems as their readers. In addition, they were integral members of the community, so people TOLD them things that mattered to them and thus the reporters used that insight to cover things of interest.

That’s not the case anymore today, so we have to work a lot harder to figure out what matters to the readers and we have to compete with a lot more voices that are drowning us out.

It’s no longer enough to write about a city council meeting and figure that our readers are going to figure out why it matters or what happened of value. We can’t assume that readers are going to look at the paper or our website and think, “Hey, I bet these folks have all the answers. Let me carefully and deliberately examine their content and assess it through a high level of critical thinking.”

As fast as things move these days, you have to tell people, “Hey, look over here! This matters because….” It’s like trying to feed your dog a pill some days, but once you get good at it, it becomes easier the next time, as people will continue to use media that shows them value.

The second conversation was with a colleague who teaches PR in our department. We were commiserating over the way in which students were writing stories and press releases.

What we both realized was that our students were going in one of two directions with their opening paragraphs:

  1. “An event is occurring. You now know this.”
  2. Welcome to hyperbole central, in which we make the intro to “The Muppet Show” look subdued by comparison.

When she told the students to dial down the hyperbole, they essentially went back and wrote the “An event is occurring” paragraph. They then groused that the opening was boring.

“Well, you better find something that makes it interesting,” she said she tells the kids. “If you don’t care about something, why should a reporter?”

It’s a good point and one that can go even a step further: If the reporter actually goes to the event and only can report that the event occurred, why will the readers care? There has to be SOMETHING that made the reporter think the event was worth covering or SOMETHING that came out of it that can be of value to the readers.

If you can’t find that as a writer of any form of media, you’re in trouble. Advertisers can’t just write, “Buy my stuff. It’s available.” News writers can’t put out a story that says, “Something happened and I went there to look at it.” PR professionals can’t send out press releases that note, “Our client is doing a thing that you can look at. C’mon over.”

This is why audience centricity and the interest elements of Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy and Impact need to be at the forefront of your mind as a writer. What do you know about your audience’s needs and what interest element or elements might grab their attention so you can fulfill those needs?

In other words, tell people why they should care in a simple and direct way. After that, they’ll keep coming back for more.

Need writing exercises for your media-writing class and sick of talking about COVID? Welcome to the Corona Hotline

“Corona Hotline… Yes, professor, we still have a land line…”

Each year in my writing for the media classes, I have students write a couple stories based on things that interest them. The problem I always faced was how to do this, because this course was an “everyone” course, not a reporting course and this was the first time a lot of these students were having to converse with other human beings for the purpose of garnering content that had to be spot-on, word-for-word accurate. Thus, having them each go out and do a handful of interviews was likely to end poorly for all of us involved…

What I did was have them pitch topics and I’d put them up on the white board. Once we had exhausted their interests, we would have a kind of an Athenian-democracy-meets-The-Hunger-Games kind of session in which we’d cut down the list to about eight topics. Of those eight, each student could vote for three, which would get us to the topics that we’d write on.

The students self-selected into groups based on interests. As I had 15 kids per class, the minimum per group was four and the max was six. They then had to discuss how they viewed the topic and who might make for a good interview subject. Each of them only had to interview ONE person, but they needed to make sure they all weren’t interviewing the SAME person (lotta calls from the police chief asking what the hell I was doing, after I forgot to mention that caveat one year after a particularly rough Pub Crawl Season…)

So, let’s say the topic was Pub Crawl, our twice-per-year event involving way too much day drinking that drives cops nuts and makes the kids do crazy stuff (one year, a young woman dove off her second-floor porch toward a kiddie pool in a back yard. She missed, but survived.)

Here’s how this would go:

Bobby: “OK, I know the police chief so I’ll interview him about what they’re doing different this year and what they want students to do.”

Susie: “Cool… I know a bouncer at The Drunken Clam who has to work on pub crawl and he’s worked the last five, so I’ll talk to him.”

Janie: “I know a girl coming down here for her first pub crawl from way out near Crivitz, so I’ll ask her about how she found it and why she’s coming.”

Nate: “Nice! I know two people who go every year, so I’ll get both of them!”

Clare: “My landlord has buildings all along Main Street and they always get trashed during Pub Crawl. I’ll talk to her about that.”

Troy: “I know a bartender at St. Elmo’s so I’ll interview her about her experiences at Pub Crawl.”

Each of these students then goes off and interviews their person and they send me the transcript of those interviews, along with any other information they found that they want to share. This could include links to previous stories on Pub Crawl, background on the sources and other such things.

I then put all of that material together into one big file for that group and call it something like “Pub Crawl RAW” so they all know it’s the raw material. Then, when they come to lab, they have to write a draft of a story based on whatever is in there that they want to use. They only need to do a two-page, typed, double-spaced piece on that topic. They can pick any angle they want. They only need to include TWO sources, but they can include as many as they see to be helpful in telling the story.

It’s like the old “pot luck suppers” we used to have at church or family gatherings: Everyone brings something and you can eat whatever you want.

That means that Bobby might decide not to use his interview from the police chief, but instead take the info from the bouncer and the bartender and do a “What it’s like to work on Pub Crawl” story. Clare might use her landlord and the police chief interview to talk about the negative aspects of Pub Crawl. Others might do the “why we love Pub Crawl” stories from the perspectives of the student interview.

After they file their stories, we go through the typical drafting processes with edits and suggestions and so forth.

This year, it was a bit tougher because a) half of my students were missing and b) it was hard to get interviews with people because students couldn’t go anywhere. What we came up with was kind of a compromise:

They went through the pitch process and got it down to three topics per class. I then agreed to either pull old interviews from previous classes and “freshen” them with updated information about life these days, or I agreed to make up content out of whole cloth after interviewing them a bit on the topic and digging around for other information. I then made up the names of the people, so there was no confusion, and they went about writing the stories.

I freely admit, I wish I could give them more experience in interviewing. However, in talking to them, I got the sense that they were afraid of going places (we’re a hot, hot, hot spot for the virus) and if they did this, the interviews would likely be weak as hell, which would impact the writing.

Still, this seems to be working, so I thought I’d share the stuff with anyone who needs it. The four topics (Spring Break, General Education Courses, TikTok and Movies/Theaters) are at the top of the Corona Hotline for Journalism Instructors Page, so feel free to grab whatever you want and use it however you want. I did some work to eliminate names and local references, but you might want to give this a look before you ship it out to the kids and they ask, “What the hell is a Kwik Trip?”

Hope this helps. Feedback is always welcome.


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

Accuracy vs. Honesty: A look at the New York Times correction on “Women for Trump”

The difference between  honesty (or truthfulness, if you’d rather) and accuracy can come down to the answers to this question:

“Do you know what time it is?”

Answer A: “It’s 7:30 a.m.”

Answer B: “Yes.”

The first answer is more honest and helpful while the second is simply accurate. This scenario is one that lawyers in TV shows use to explain how defendants should testify to keep themselves out of trouble: Answer the question, but volunteer nothing more. This kind of demarcation in the answers led to a correction on a New York Times story about “Women who still back Trump” late last week:

(h/t Diego Aparicio for the correction and the info.)

You can skip past the bottom two points, as they’re clearly just dumb mistakes that should not have gotten past a rookie reporter for the Beaverton Shopper-Ledger, let alone a political reporter for the country’s “paper of record.” The first two concerns have led to questions regarding the way in which the Times approached its story.

Dan Froomkin of Salon noted that this wasn’t the first time the Times had quoted Republican movers and shakers as just regular folks in one of its stories. Froomkin’s position is that this approach wasn’t accidental:

The New York Times has been caught, once again, passing off Republican operatives as “regular” Republican voters in an article intended to show how effectively Donald Trump is maintaining his support.

It raises serious questions about whether Times editors and reporters, rather than actually trying to determine how voters feel, are setting out to find people to mouth the words they need for predetermined story lines that, not coincidentally, echo the Trump campaign’s propaganda.

In the latest case, an article posted on Wednesday headlined “Around Atlanta, Many White Suburbanites Are Sticking With Trump” by Times national reporter Elaina Plott initially misidentified two of the four allegedly run-of-the-mill voters who supported the article’s thesis: That Trump’s unfounded fear-mongering along the lines that “ANTIFA THUGS WILL RUIN THE SUBURBS!” is working.

The problem with that thesis is that there ARE actually women who support Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. And to be fair to Elaina Plott, she DID actually find a few that apparently weren’t running the Republican Party of Greater Atlanta or whatever, like this woman:

Mr. Biden has said that he has no desire to defund the police, and Amanda Newman acknowledges that. But Ms. Newman, 51, who lives in the suburbs and works at a law firm in midtown Atlanta, also thinks Mr. Biden’s personal views are irrelevant — that a vote for Mr. Biden is in fact a vote for his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, as well as for progressives in the Democratic Party like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have pushed for policies like the Green New Deal. “I don’t think Joe Biden has an opinion until somebody tells him what it is,” she said.

Ms. Newman said she’s been put off by Mr. Trump at multiple moments in the past four years, calling him at times “unpresidential” and comparing him to “a 2-year-old pitching a fit in a candy store.” But she said she feared how “radical” and “crazy” the Democrats had become.

And this one…

“It’s been very unnerving,” said Lori Mullee, 54, referring not to police brutality or Mr. Arbery’s death but the “riots in my backyard.” Ms. Mullee, a University of Georgia graduate, works in marketing and lives in Stone Mountain, a small city in the Atlanta suburbs that in August was essentially put on lockdown as white supremacist groups and far-left counterprotesters clashed at the city’s Confederate monument.

Ms. Mullee said she used to exercise in the state park surrounding the monument, but no longer feels comfortable doing so. (As for the monument itself, she said she did not support efforts to “take down history.”) She is voting for Mr. Trump in part, she said, because she feels the left has stoked division in cities like hers and beyond.

Also, if you take a look at any Trump rally, you do see women, as well as a spectrum of people from other groups that you wouldn’t necessarily consider the hard-core, stereotypical angry, straight, white male Trump supporter. A story that looked into why these folks are supporting this guy would seem to be in the wheelhouse of a political reporter for a major media outlet.

In short, if I had to put money on what happened here, I’d be more on the “We screwed up” end of this as opposed to the “nefarious plot to parrot deeply entrenched Republicans to further their agenda” end of it.

In acknowledging biases, I suppose it would be important to acknowledge my own: I’ve had to cover random weird-ass events that required me to go find “regular people” who were willing to talk to me. That part of the job absolutely sucked, as people who were at Fourth of July parades or county fairs seemed to view me as a KGB operative or worse. As we mentioned in previous posts, some reporters have even faked the “real people” to get out of the drudgery of this part of the job.

Me? I would try to find the people who looked like the most obvious candidates to talk and get what I could get out of them. For example, I once covered the final day of operation for the Lake Delton dog-racing track. I needed to find people who worked there and bet on dogs for this “color” piece. The workers were easy, as I knew a couple people in advance from a previous story, who helped me find others as well.

In terms of “regular people,” I started looking around and found the journalistic equivalent of fast food. This guy was a mountain of a man, probably at least 6-foot-5 with a barrel-shaped body. He had on a really loud shirt and a hat that said something about dog racing. He also wore a license plate on a string around his neck. The plate read: “I BET K9S.”

He was talking to people making bets, roaring with laughter and drinking a beer. That might have been the easiest “real person” interview I ever conducted.

Did I think he might be an investor in the dog track or somehow tied to a larger representative collective that might undermine his credibility as a regular guy? No.

Did I consider that he was a white man, likely straight, and might not be representative of a broader spectrum of potential sources? No.

Did I ask the guy a dozen questions about himself like I was doing an “OK Cupid” profile on him to make sure I hadn’t missed any entangling alliances he might have? No.

I was just grateful to have a human source that said something quote-worthy.

Granted, this was in the time before everyone had the internet and we had a cottage industry of people digging into the work of other people for sport. However, I would be willing to bet I’m not alone in the, “OK, thank God I got that done” vein of journalism that likely exists still today.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve use the “B” answer a few times to keep conversations friendly. A lot of my neighbors in various stops were quite conservative and didn’t think highly of commie, liberal, pinko professors who were in their ivory towers at whatever university was in town. When we moved into a given neighborhood, they’d often see me working on my car or doing yard work and stop by to say hello.

When they asked me what I did, I’d respond with, “I work at the U.”

It was accurate, but the truth was, I had hoped they assumed I was a janitor or something. If they got to know me and liked me, I figured the topic would come up in a future conversation and my “professoring” would be unveiled.

In the end, there are limits to what you can do as a journalist when it comes to this stuff. Your hope always is that people will be honest and truthful. It would have been great if the person had said, “I’m involved in politics in XYZ ways,” so the reporter had a fuller version of reality. However, she wasn’t lying to the reporter when she said she was an interior decorator or a graduate from the University of Georgia, so she was accurate.

I’m sure I could turn this into a cautionary tale on how to avoid this problem in the first place, but it seems to be like trying to take out a fly with a rocket launcher. I would wager that, at best, there are three things I could tell you that you probably already know if you’ve read the blog and/or stayed alive during any journalism writing class:

The other two stupid mistakes we skipped past earlier would indicate that the reporter was sloppy, so… y’know… don’t be sloppy in your reporting.

The fact other people were able to figure out who these people were in about six seconds on Google tells us… Do a quick Google search of sources before putting them in your story… I guess?

The correction set the record straight, so when you do screw up, make sure you own it. So there’s that…


Throwback Thursday: Don’t let the chuckleheads win

My friends in student media are taking a beating these days. One of them had almost her entire staff walk out, blaming her for all sorts of things that a) she didn’t do and b) weren’t her fault. Another of them had the administration at her institution basically kneecap her and toss her out, and the silence from her staff, to which she gave so much of her life, was deafening.

They’re not alone. It seems every day, those of us in academia are told to “eat cake” when we note that we’re doing more with less, our students are at a breaking point and all we seem to get is criticized. We’re learning to live with permanent stress headaches and teach through foggy glasses, all because… well, most of the time we don’t know why.

Students are in the same boat: Working multiple jobs to stay financially afloat, pouring tons of extra time into online-only classes that are variable at best in their effectiveness. And, of course, dealing with people who decide that they get to take out their personal dissatisfaction regarding their station in life on a 20-something who is literally hanging on to everything in life by a thread.

What I have learned about myself over the years is that I am not the smartest, the fastest, the best or the whatever else -est out there. What I do have is a stubborn streak, born of a Bohemian lineage and love of cheesy sports movies, which often leads to me cussing an awful lot as I drag myself forward, thinking, “There’s no way these (expletive, expletive, expletives) are getting the best of me.”

If you have no aversion to some cussing, here’s a clip from the old TV show “Deadwood” that I often play when I think I want to quit at anything:

If nothing else, read the throwback post from a few years ago. I hope it helps.


Don’t let the chuckleheads get you down

(NOTE: “Chucklehead” is one of my favorite “Filak-isms” as a replacement for my more traditional outlandish cuss words. I’ve been asked to keep “unnecessary swearing” off of the blog, so I’ll be using “chucklehead” from time to time and only relying “necessary swearing” elsewhere.)

I was perusing my Facebook feed near the end of the year when the Timehop feature pulled up something from about four years ago:


I had completely forgotten about this review someone did on my first book pitch to SAGE. At the time, it was something that really felt like it was going to end my book-writing career before it ever got started. Now, it serves as a reminder why it’s important not to let the chuckleheads out there beat us down.

Back then, the acquisition editor and I were trying to figure out how to put a book together that would teach the basic skills of journalistic writing to students across all media disciplines. We were also coming to grips with the model of “We write, you read” was outdated and didn’t fit with what we were seeing. The ideas of how to do this were scratched out on a random piece of Renaissance Hotels stationary in my almost incomprehensible scrawl and grew to become a giant pitch for how to do this.

After this review came through along with several others, I got a call from Matt Byrnie, the editor who had asked me to build this pitch. I was waiting for the inevitable conversation that said, “It’s just not the right time” or something else that would dismiss me and get him off the hook for this thing.

“I’m not really seeing a book here,” Matt began. “I mean… I actually see two books here…”

In short, he was doubling down on this idea of reaching the audience. He wanted two specific pitches: One for a media writing text and one for a news reporting book. It was a huge leap of faith on his part. It was also a huge leap of faith on my part.

Neither of us knew if the reviews would be any better the second time or if Matt was right about two books being better than one. Even more, I’d never written one book on my own, so what made him think I could actually write two? On my end, I wasn’t under contract for anything at this point, so I found myself pouring a ton of work into not one potentially pointless project, but two. Still, I promised I’d meet his Feb. 1 deadline and I started hacking apart that pitch and rebuilding it into two.

Four years, a ream of wall-sized Post-It Notes full of deadlines and an incalculable number of Diet Cokes later, it’s all finally done and ready for public consumption. The first book, Dynamics of Media Writing, turned out to be a hit (well, as much of a hit as a textbook can be… I’m not going to shove J.K Rowling off the best-seller list or anything). The tone, the features and the vibe matched what Matt and I were trying to accomplish: Give all media-writing students a set of tools they can use regardless of their area of interest or specialty in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. That came out about two years ago and a second edition will hit the shelves in the next year or so.

(The office walls with giant Post-Its full of deadlines… Yes, this is crazy…)

The book that would be “pandering to… students’ interests” comes out tomorrow: The Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing. Even before the Media Writing book started selling, I was working on this book. Again, SAGE took a huge leap of faith, in that they decided to go big with this: Full color, lots of art and more. The workbook and blog became outgrowths of that faith, in that the goal I had was to make absolutely sure this book was going to be worth all that.

Will it be? I surely hope so. Either way, I wanted to make absolutely certain that whatever that chucklehead wrote about me wasn’t going to be true.

And this is what I wanted to tell you all leading into this new year: Don’t let the chuckleheads win. In many cases, people like this are negative for no real reason other than their own insecurities, their lack of ability to do anything better or just because… well, just because. Constructive criticism is helpful, but stuff like the review above doesn’t do anything of value.

Each time you face adversity in the form of one of these people, realize that their sole purpose for existing is so that you can use them to drive you to do more and better work than they believe you can. I like to think of them as the “nobody believed in me” part of the story I tell after I succeeded.

In actuality, the childish part of me actually wants just do this to the person:

It’s a new year, a fresh start and another opportunity to prove some chucklehead wrong.

Go get ’em.

A quick 2020 post script: The first book this chucklehead hated made it to the top 5 in Amazon’s best sellers in journalism and will be hitting a third edition next year. The other one I mentioned? A number one new book on multiple lists and a second edition hits the shelves in two months.

Eat it, chucklehead…

The Junk Drawer: Keep Your Hands Satanized and Off Your Weenus Edition


I know I had some soy sauce in here somewhere…

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.

With signing students up for classes and monitoring midterms, it’s been a bit chaotic, but there’s always time for a post:

From the “Maybe Wait Until After Work” department:

As we detailed here at the start of the pandemic, Zoom meetings can be disastrous, something journalist Jeffrey Toobin found out earlier this week when he was caught masturbating during a break in the action:

During a pause in the call for breakout discussions, Mr. Toobin switched to a second call that was the video-call equivalent of phone sex, according to the two people familiar with the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Asked Monday afternoon about reports that he had exposed himself, Mr. Toobin said in a statement: “I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologize to my wife, family, friends and co-workers.”

“I thought I had muted the Zoom video,” he added. “I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me.”

I’m not going to tell anyone how to live, but if you’re bored during a video chat, maybe, y’know, play cribbage on the other screen? Also, I’m sure the instructions for future breaks in Zoom calls at the New Yorker will no longer be: “We’re breaking for 10 minutes, folks. Do whatever you need to do and then come on back.”

Speaking of returning to the scene of the crime…


Toobin: I got caught on a sex call at work. This is the worst thing ever.
New Orleans: Hold my beer.

In journalism we look for oddity in things to kind of “spice up” our day-in, day-out coverage. Sometimes, we don’t have to look that hard for it:

A kinky sex romp between a New Orleans priest and two dominatrices on a church altar has led New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond to set fire to the altar where the “deplorable” act took place, The New Orleans Advocate reports.

The headline on the follow-up story is one of those you only get to write once in a lifetime, if ever:

Attorney for dominatrices says group sex with priest was legal

Speaking of things that might be legal but you really don’t want think about anyway…


Way to really target your audience:

I explained to my blogging class that you rarely, if ever, get comments or feedback from readers of your blog. Today, I got this email from a “reader” who “liked” my blog and had a few thoughts for me:

First, that opening line and that closing line don’t give me a lot of confidence in your ability to write something for this blog.

Second, and more importantly, please tell me what kind of vibe I’m putting out there that makes you think, “Hey, this guy’s blog is where ALL the people are coming to learn about increasing female libido and ‘wife-taking’ tips!” I need to fix that before I get arrested and/or every small religious school that adopted my textbooks decides to use them as kindling for a bonfire.

Speaking of things that clearly missed the mark…


Viva L’Otters and people who spell right:

Found this through a friend on Facebook and I’d gladly credit the original source (and interview them for the blog about it).

And speaking of terrifying times and fear…


From the “It’s Too Bad That New Orleans Altar Isn’t Available For This Kind of Thing” Department:

Make sure to keep satanizing and stay safe out there.

See you tomorrow.


A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper