“We just lost our friends.” Journalism at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

You never know what’s going to happen next in journalism. It’s what makes the job both exciting and terrifying at the same time. A group of high school journalism students discovered this truism in a horrifying way when their seemingly regular day became global news.

David Beard at the Poynter Institute tracked down the staff of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper to find out how the shooting at their school shaped the paper’s approach to journalism. His introduction illustrates the normalcy of the day, right up to the point when everything changed:

Suzanna Barna was just shutting down her computer in journalism class, thinking about her too-long story on her high school’s internet filtering policy.

The school newspaper story was 1,600 words, and her workaround was to chop it into two 800-word segments.

A few desks over, Lewis Mizen had finished a draft of his op-ed on DACA and President Trump, and Kevin Trejos, behind the other two on his assignment, had just gone into the hall to refill his water bottle.

Then the alarm went off at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Barna, Mizen and Trejos haven’t touched those stories since.

Reading that put me in my own student newsroom: My editor harping on the kid who writes too long and refuses to cut his story. The opinion desk banging out a draft on a national topic that will have me asking, “OK, how does this impact readers here?” The “last call for water” kid, heading upstairs to the water bottle refilling station with everyone’s cup or bottle before security locks off that part of the building off for the night.

Normal day, normal problems. And then none of it was normal.

In the weeks since the shooting in February, the paper and the yearbook became engaged in a crowdfunding effort to help provide each student with copies of the publications as well as to augment them in the wake of the shooting. Allison Miller, a student media adviser from Texas, started this cause and has worked with the students in Florida and on behalf of them in these efforts.

“Journalism doesn’t take a break in the face of tragedy, so they have to carry on,” Miller said. “We decided to start this to help raise the funds for these students to pursue any avenue that they choose to pursue and to use their voices without the fear of the costs and the fear of the repercussions.”

Unfortunate and truer words could not be spoken. About a day after Beard published his piece on Stoneman Douglas,  a student at Great Mills High School in Maryland shot two classmates before he died of a gunshot wound.


3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.


  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.


  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2


This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

Growing up as a Catholic kid, who spent way more time near nuns than is now recommended by the FDA, I found the concept of hell horrifying. Conceptually speaking, it was a place of fire, brimstone and evil where you went after you had sinned without repenting, angered God through evil acts or accidentally ate a Slim Jim on a Friday during Lent.

Later in life, I asked a priest who was a little more “new school” about the faith for his views on eternal damnation. He told me it was probably more of never-ending sorrow and sadness than the torture outlined by those who grew up before the Vatican II era. It was a a longing and pain for better things and regret over what we should have been. In other words, hell is more individualized and accounts for what we did and who we were.

If hell hits somewhere in that “sweet spot” between those points, I’m sure I know exactly what I’ll be getting myself into if I’m not a decent human being. Since I’ve invested most of my life in teaching and journalism, I know that hell will involve reliving certain conversations I’ve had with students over the past 20 years that continue to sap my will to go on.

So without further ado, I bring you the five conversations journalism professors have in hell and how you can help us avoid them while we’re still alive:



Look, I get it. Textbooks are expensive. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that textbooks cost too much, change too often and usually have the lifespan of a mayfly. That said, we assign them for a reason: They actually contain stuff you’ll need to know. This is particularly true for books like the AP style guide. Here was an actual conversation I had with a student half way through the semester:

Student: How much are these books?
Me: What do you mean?
Student: This AP book, how much does it cost?
Me: About $20-25. Why?
Student: It must not have been listed on the criteria for the class. I think I’ll go buy it though.

OK, let’s pretend that I hadn’t mentioned it about 10,002 times already and that I didn’t include it as a required book in the syllabus and that I didn’t mention this as a MUST HAVE for the class (as in, “If you are broke, don’t buy the textbook, but buy the AP book.) AND that it wasn’t stocked at the book store.

Every other student in that class had the book. What, they were clairvoyant and just figured I wanted them to have it?

Making things weirder, a student in the very next section of that class, sitting in that very same seat asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION about the AP book, swearing he had no idea that this thing would be important. I think I need to call in some sort of holistic medicine person to burn sage on that chair or something…

Still, this pales in comparison to the year I told the students in WEEK 12 that they should bring their AP style guides to class, only to have one student reach into his backpack and whip his out. “GOT IT!” he said, proudly displaying the book he was supposed to have read by that point in time.

It was still shrink wrapped.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Buy the books and read them. If you are REALLY broke (as in, stacking pennies for Ramen broke) and you CAN’T afford them, talk to the professor and see what is absolutely essential and what you might be able to dodge. However, do this somewhere before the midterm.


The constant yelling of old people (read: me) about “damned kids these days” come from the fact that we often wonder how hard students really tried before giving up all hope and saying, “Just give me the answer.”

Damned Kids

Case in point, here was a conversation I had about a midterm question in which students were asked to rewrite a lead on one of four stories. Each story included a specific time peg, so I told students to use the day specified in the story (e.g. The game happened Saturday, so use “Saturday” as your “when” element.) when they wrote their lead. About an hour into the test, here was the conversation:

Student: I know you said that there is a time element we need to use with each of these stories, but I honestly can’t find one in this story I’m using.
Me: OK, pull it up and let me see. (he does)
Student: I looked through this whole thing and there’s no time element.
Me: Really?
Him: Yes, I can’t find it anywhere.
Me: Read the first sentence out loud for me.
Him: Oh.

Yep. Right there in the lead was that elusive time element he sought. I suppose I was lucky the student didn’t have trouble finding his pants before showing up in class…

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Don’t give up so easily on figuring things out. There is something to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. Print it out or magnify the text or whatever you need that will help you consume the content. Also, if you really CAN’T find the content, when you ask, do so in a way that doesn’t immediately insinuate your professor is an idiot who failed to include the content.

Trust me, this is a great fear of many instructors and there are days we can’t remember what we ate for lunch, so screwing up a test is always a possibility. We then panic when you are “so sure” that whatever it is you’re looking for isn’t actually there. Finding out that, no, it actually is present and, no, we don’t have early onset dementia, is both a relief and a moment of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?”



Rules are put in place to assure fairness, standardize procedures and give everyone guidance on how to proceed with a test, an assignment or a project. If you want to curdle a professor’s soul, explain to him or her that, yes, you understand rules exist for all those reasons, but the rules really only apply to other people.

Student: I know you said we can’t interview relatives for this assignment, but I was wondering if I could interview my mom.
Me: OK, what does your mom have to do with (the story topic)?
Her: Well, she’s a parent of a college student…
Me: But that’s really not what the story is about and even if it was, there are like 14,000 students on this campus, many of whom have parents. Does she have some special insights that none of the others would have had?
Her: Um… I don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t I just interview my mom?
Me: Again, she has nothing to do with the story and I need you to get out of your comfort zone and interview people that you don’t know. It’s a skill you’re going to need as a reporter.
Her: So that’s a no?
Me: Yes. That’s a no.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Start by assuming that the rules, however arcane, have a reason behind them. Envision that “Karate Kid” moment where Daniel realizes that he hasn’t just been an indentured servant, but rather has been learning karate:

Also, realize that we WILL give people special dispensation for certain things, but it has to be germane to what we’re doing and provide a rare glimpse into something no one else could provide. If you’re doing a story on what it’s like to be an NFL referee and your uncle is an NFL referee, we might think, “That would actually work.” However, if you’re doing a story on how bad parking is on campus and you want to interview your best friend because he owns a car, think twice before asking on that one.

Nothing sounds worse to a professor than a student essentially saying, “Look, I know you told me what to do here, but you have to understand that rules don’t really apply to me because I want to do it my way and obviously that’ll be better for me, so can you just rubber stamp my demands? Thanks!”


Professors have a ton of stuff to do and most of them feel like they’re not doing it well enough to make anyone happy. The ability to focus well enough to deliver a two-hour lecture on something you will need to know to succeed in the class is the Educational Dream of the Millennium.

When you blow it off, fail to take notes or get way too into a SnapChat battle with your roommates during lecture, it can be irritating to us. When you then ask us to “fill you in” on what you “missed,” We tend to have this reaction:

Actual email:

I was just wondering what exactly the group interview project is again and what needs to be turned into you by Friday! I don’t quite remember everything you said at the end of class yesterday so if you could remind me that would be great.

At least that guy showed up, unlike the student who blew off class, skipped an assignment she knew about and then sent this:

Sorry, I was not able to attend class today. What did I miss? When is the interview paper due?

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Go to class. If you don’t go to class, get notes from somebody before asking us to rebuild a lecture for you. If you went to class and forgot to write something down, ask a classmate. If you are going to class, writing stuff down and still failing to remember major things, seek help immediately.


Me: Hello? Anyone out there?
Voice: Welcome to hell. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, evil incarnate, the lord of the underworld. Do you know who you sinned against to land you here?
Me: Do you mean, “Do I know against WHOM I sinned to land here?”
Voice: Oh great. Another journalism professor. Y’all are down the hall, third door on the left.


Writing sports leads that don’t suck: Avoid cliches. Rely on facts. Tell me what happened and why I care.

Newer sportswriters tend to go one of two ways when confronted with writing a lead:

  1. This was the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational event in all of human history! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yeah, take a back seat to this 0-0 soccer game between the Northeast West South-Central State Barbers and the Our Lady of Perpetual Motion Twitchers!
  2. Fill in flat cliche here. That is all.

While we’ve talked about the problems with hyperbole and the need to rely on facts before, a) we haven’t talked about it much in sports and b) the bigger problem in sports tends to be the latter issue. Sports lend themselves to cliche more than any other area of journalism and they do nothing good but bury the actual lead.

Case in point (and a minor plug for our school): The UW-Oshkosh men’s basketball team earned its first trip to the NCAA Final Four. It had been more than 15 years since the Titans even made the Sweet 16. Here are some things to consider as “important” that took place on Saturday night:

  • The team made its first Final Four game in school history.
  • The underdog Titans defeated the No. 9 team in the country on its home court.
  • Ben Boots scored a career-high 36 points to help the team win.
  • One of the reason Boots scored so many is because senior guard Charlie Noone was tossed out/fouled out after catching a technical foul for his fifth foul of the game in the middle of the second half. Noone was a career 1,000-point scorer, a big deal at this level.
  • Down 6 points with 1:45 to go in the game, Boots hit two key threes to knot the score.
  • The game went into overtime, the second time this season a clash between these teams went into overtime. (The previous one was a double-OT game.)
  • Refs called 45 fouls, costing Augustana two of its key big men.

In short, there is no shortage of amazing things you could use for a lead. Here is what the local newspaper posted as its lead:

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – History was made by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh men’s basketball team Saturday night.


Three quick things here:

  1. The lead is a cliche and a bad one at that. History is ALWAYS made. You reading this blog post is technically making history.
  2. The lead is written in passive voice. The cliche of “Titans make history” wasn’t even active.
  3. HOW the Titans made history is probably something people would like to know in the lead. What did they do? Did the coach murder a referee after a bad call? Did the whole team lose its uniforms and play the game in clown costumes borrowed from the circus? Did the team steal basketball powers a la “Space Jam” to win a game? Did they lose by more points than any team ever? Good grief…

When it comes to writing a sports lead, here are three key things to remember:

  1. Rely on the facts and tell me what happened: You don’t have to sell me on something being amazing. Just tell me what happened that was factual and yet cool and let me figure it out for myself. If the authors had woven in any of the components listed in bullets above, they would have had a great lead.
  2. Don’t assume people will read beyond the lead: Deadwood in the lead is a death knell for a story. The second paragraph is better and the head and deck include key information. However, you can’t rely on other components of the story to save you when you write a lousy lead. It’s like telling the cop who pulled you over for speeding how everyone else was driving faster: It doesn’t make you any less guilty.
  3. Remember your audience: Write for your readers, as in people who probably didn’t attend the game. If you went home after watching that game and your roommate asked, “Hey, how was the game?” what would you tell your roommate? “We won! We’re in the Final Four!” Would you ever imagine walking into your apartment and announcing, “History was made!” in response to that question? Probably not.

Scummy weasels and death peddlers: What some people think about journalism (and why we tolerate their ignorance.)

“Your mother didn’t raise you right.”

I forget the context of that comment, but I know a woman yelled it at me over the phone once when I had the temerity to ask her a question about something someone she knew had done that landed that guy in jail. The implication was that I had nothing better to do than make people miserable and that if my mother had raised me properly, I’d know how sleazy I was being at this very moment.

The reason I bring this up is the story that is making the rounds, thanks to Dana Loesch’s speech at the recent CPAC event. Loesch, a National Rifle Association spokesperson, told the room that the mainstream media just loved it when someone went on a massive shooting spree:

“Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it,” Dana Loesch said Thursday. “Now I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many in the legacy media in the back (of the room).”

As someone who spent a good amount of time in a newsroom and even more time teaching budding journalists, it’s a little hard to swallow that statement. (I’m not alone in that regard, as multiple journalists have called out Loesch for her statements at CPAC.) The point here, however, isn’t to poke at Loesch but rather to let you know that although the statement is a bit more hyperbolic than most of those made about the media, it’s not rare that people think about journalists this way.

Former college basketball coach Bobby Knight turned hating the media into an art form and a cottage industry. Here are 10 of Knight’s most “memorable” soundbites, about half of which involve him fighting with the press. (Number 8 is my favorite, in which he compares journalism to prostitution.)

Knight isn’t the only person to hate the media for being the media. The clip of CNN’s Jim Acosta trying to get then president-elect Donald Trump to let him ask a question went viral in the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration:

And he wasn’t the first president to rip on the media in front of a large group of people:

However, perhaps the greatest diatribe regarding how journalists react to disasters came not from a politician, but rather from musician Don Henley. His 1982 release of “Dirty Laundry” was No. 1 on the charts that year and really picked apart the way in which TV journalists appeared to enjoy “disaster porn.”

Personally, I’ve been called words I’ve been asked to avoid using on the blog. I think “scum” was the most user-friendly word I could include here. I’ve been accused of having vendettas against people for reporting that the caller’s son got involved in a shooting some place. I’ve been told to get a real job. I’m sure if you asked any of your professors who worked in the field, any one of them could tell you similar stories in which people took out their gripes on a journalist or two.

Still, as Allison Sansone noted earlier, you are serving readers who need you to get them information, even if that information is unpleasant. Of all the things I’ve seen that were nauseating, destructive or worse, I’ve never felt particularly happy about them. Sure, the adrenaline is pumping and the anxiety goes through the roof, so I can see how people would think I was “up” a bit while on the scene of something. However, I was never happy to see a dead guy, a fire-scarred woman or a flaming house full of dead dogs (all things I had to witness.).

This field can be a rough one to enter, especially if you enjoy people liking you or your work being positively appreciated on a universal scale. (I remember somebody once remarking about this idea, “If you want to be loved, go plan kids’ birthday parties for a living.” Personally, I find that more terrifying than covering a lot of the stuff I covered.) However, if you read through the responses the reporters gave to Loesch’s statement, you’ll find that they felt the job was worth it and the experiences associated with some of these traumatic events led to a greater sense of self.

I can’t think of many careers that will get you all of that. Even if it means you have to apologize to your mother for what people think of her child-rearing skills.

Picasso at the NFL Combine: Patrick Finley and his drawings are back in the news

Back in August, we spoke with Patrick Finley, the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Sun-Times, who was tasked with covering the team’s training camp. During certain parts of the practices, the media was not allowed to take pictures or capture video, even though the general public could do all of that and more, thus frustrating Finley and his colleagues.

Finley decided to “work around” the problem by creating artists renderings of the players and the actions in camp. The only problem? He can’t draw.

“I wish I could say I planned it out, but it made my giggle the first day I drew one, so I kept doing one a day,” Finley said. “I knew it was silly, but also subversive. Also, that’s the way I draw; I didn’t make it look toddler-ish on purpose.”

Twitter exploded with fans sharing his drawings, WGN did a piece on him and he gained more than a bit of notoriety among his peers.

Just last week, Finley’s art skills came to the rescue once again. While covering the NFL combine, rules prevented journalists from photographing or recording certain portions of the event. Behold:


With more than 240 retweets and 800 likes, that tweet blew away anything else he posted that week on Twitter.

A month or two back, Finley talked a bit more about this “artistic phenomenon” for the upcoming second edition of “Dynamics of Media Writing.” He said he didn’t really understand why people loved his artwork but he enjoyed the fact that they did.

“It taught me that Twitter appreciates something unique, no matter how absolutely silly it might be,” Finley said. “I don’t pretend to grasp exactly why it went viral — It was intended to be a gentle mocking of a training camp policy where fans could take pictures but media members couldn’t’ — but I imagine it reached beyond my typical football fan followers. My experience with the sketches was a fun one, though Bears PR staffers finally got annoyed by it by the end of camp, I think. It’s still weird that some people know me as the guy who sketches stuff, when I’d rather them know me for the job I do.”

The Sunflower at Wichita State: A testament to how journalism should work

The Sunflower at Wichita State is continuing to update readers about the funding situation it finds itself in.

Today’s editorial is a blistering example of how to lay out the facts and drive home a point: Behind closed doors, the people responsible for an equitable distribution of student money are lining their own pockets while cutting things they personally dislike. Here’s the best line of the piece, for my money:

It’s interesting how that works. The very organizations entrusted to equitably distribute student fees decided their own organizations deserved more money than those who had no say in the matter and weren’t even allowed to witness the deliberations. The only organization with a platform to question that decision was recommended a massive, intentionally-destructive cut.

Can you say self serving?

The Sunflower staff members, however, know that fire and fury alone isn’t going to get the job done. Overall, the paper is also providing readers with great examples of how to do journalism right, even when you become the story.

Here are a couple great things the staffers have done that serve as good examples for other writers:

Stick to the facts and let them do the work for you: I often have to tell students that they need to just let the facts speak for themselves, because the more they inject opinion or hyperbole in a piece, the less I want to hear what they have to say. This often happens at the end of some beginning-writing stories where students will write “summary paragraphs” like this one for their news stories:

In sum, it is important that people donate blood, as it’s not only lifesaving but it’s the right thing to do.

I often refer to these closings as “One To Grow On” closings, calling back to the 1980s PSAs where “stars” of the day would “guide” young people away from making bad decisions during a role-playing exercise. At the end, the “star” would make the case about how good it was that the kid did what he/she was told, ending with “And THAT’S one to grow on!” Seriously, it got really annoying:

(That’s right kids! Tootie from “Facts of Life” wants you to avoid smoking!)

It’s the same thing in sports where people decide to slather on the adjectives and adverbs to try to make something sound incredible. Often, if you just tell me a fact or two, particularly if you place them properly in the story, I’ll get the message.

This brings us to our ongoing look at The Sunflower at Wichita State and the attempt of the student government to slash it’s budget. Rather than grouse about everything happening, the staff members of the paper have been writing just what happened and letting the readers figure out if this is a hatchet job or not.

In one case, they literally just lay out each statement the SGA made as a part of the fee cuts and then fact check each statement.

However, my favorite use of facts to just drive home the point is this use of two simple statements that run back to back in an update of their situation:

Funding for other programs would have increased with the proposed budget, like Student Affairs, which was recommended an increase of $118,811.

Vice President for Student Affairs Teri Hall is the chair of the Student Fees Committee.

Just read those two sentences over again and let them sink in. No build up. No superfluous writing. Just….


Open records are your friend: Of all of the strange things that have emerged in this story, the strangest might have been a 1977 memo from the Kansas attorney general that gives some cover to the SGA for closing its meetings. (Feel free to click here to see how that all unfolded, as well as a great example of how polyester made a mockery of us all…)

OK, if we can’t go to the meetings, The Sunflower staff figured, let’s see what they’re going to talk about instead and share it with the readers.

The staff used the open records law to get the whole binder of funding requests the committee would be reviewing and posted the whole thing online. In looking at the budget for student affairs, the staff discovered that while the committee would cut The Sunflower budget by about $50,000, the Office of Student Affairs would see an increase of more than $118,000:


(The thick black line separates the 2017-18 actual budget from the 2018-19 request. Each column moving back from there is the actual funding for each previous school year.)

Not only is the division seeking to have its budget increase by a six-figure sum this year, this would be on top of a nearly half-million-dollar increase from 2016-17 to 2017-18. Collectively, the SA’s office, whose vice president (Teri Hall) sits on the fee board, will see almost $600,000 more in its coffers over a two-year period if the budget goes through as it stands. In addition, the specific line item attached to Hall’s office accounts for approximately $32,000 of this year’s increase.

As we’ve noted before, documents are amazing tools.

Keep telling stories that matter: It would be easy for the staff of The Sunflower to get buried in this story. Heck, I know I am and so are a lot of you if this freakish spike in blog traffic is any indication. Consider this “global” interest:


That’s right. We’re killing it in Somalia and Bahrain…

The point is, the staffers know they aren’t the only game in town and that other things that matter are happening. The Automotive Engineers got hit hard by budget cuts, the oldest literary journal in the state might die as a result of budget cuts, the 11th-ranked men’s basketball team lost the conference title by a single point and the team celebrated senior night as well. That’s just a taste of the great stuff the paper has produced, all while being the center of attention for a reason they’d just as soon get past.

At the end of the day, this paper is a testament to how journalism should work.





Following up on The Sunflower situation at WSU (or what happens when things get messy)

As information continues to emerge in Wichita regarding the student government’s decision to slash The Sunflower’s budget and the issue of how “open” the meetings should be, it makes more sense to clarify these things in new post than to try to rework the old one.

(If you haven’t read the whole backstory on WSU’s student government, The Sunflower (the student newspaper) and the general weirdness that has led to a lot of student media folks keeping an eye on this situation, you can do so here. Short version: The paper submitted its budget, asking for a return to the $158,000 it received prior to a massive cut a few years back. The SGA met in closed session, despite protestations of the paper and other journalists, and decided to slash the budget it had almost in half. It then defended its right to do all of this without providing much rationale.)

Here are a couple updates/housecleaning items:

  • The budget cut that was proposed reduced the paper’s allocation from $105,000 to $55,000. The numbers in the previous post ($100K and $50K) came from notes I took during a discussion with EIC Chance Swaim. I’m sure it’s my fault, not his. Either way, it’s basically cutting the money for the paper in half. The original amount the paper requested was $158,000, which would have restored funding to an amount the paper had received for years prior to a major cut about three or four years ago, depending on how you measure the time span. I did find in my notes, however, that Swaim explained that the paper has records going back to the early 1990s and the paper had NEVER operated in that time span with as little SGA funding as had been proposed during the closed-door meeting.


  • The Student Senate at WSU tabled the discussion of student fees and sent the matter back to committee for further discussion. This happened after Teri Hall, the vice president for student affairs, read a statement from the university’s president, calling for the fee committee to meet in open session to discuss these issues. This means The Sunflower’s budget is still up in the air, but it also means that deliberations will likely take place sometime in the next week at an open meeting of the fee committee. The president, John Bardo, did not issue any statement regarding the previous decisions the committee made, so it’s unclear where he stands on the funding issue.


  • Media folks are taking a stand on behalf of The Sunflower. An editorial in the Wichita Eagle supported the paper while listing a number of quality pieces of journalism The Sunflower has produced over the past year or so. In many of those cases, the paper questioned administrative actions that looked a bit “off” or situations that had the appearance of a conflict of interest. An article from the staff of the Student Press Law Center dug into the issue of “censorship via funding cuts” and also outlined a variety of reasons why the paper might be on the hot seat. One item cited in the report was an article the paper published last year about current WSU SGA President Paige Hungate’s parents. The article outlines a criminal investigation “for battery and anti-black, hate “fighting words” following an altercation at a student government banquet.”  Her parents have been accused of using racial slurs against Student Body President Emeritus Joseph Shepard when he stated in his farewell speech that Hungate was not his “first choice” for president. Paige Hungate has stated repeatedly that the funding cut “has nothing to with content or coverage” produced in The Sunflower.


  • According to the SPLC article, Hungate stated the reason the SGA is not required to hold open meetings in this situation is based on a 1977 attorney general’s opinion. The opinion was issued in response to a question pertaining to the Student Senate at Kansas State University and its use of secret ballots to determine the election of its officers. The opinion notes:

    [T]he decisions of the Student Senate themselves do not carry the official authority of those officers and employees entrusted by law with the supervision, management and administration of the University. Thus, I cannot but conclude that the Senate does not exercise the administrative authority of the State of Kansas, of the Board of Regents, or of the president of Kansas State University, and thus does not fall within the compass of the Kansas open meeting law.


With all of that in mind, this leads to two questions worth asking and one thought worth knowing:

Should the meeting in which the fees were debated have been open? The SPLC quotes legal scholar Frank LoMonte as saying “Kansas law, like most state laws, says that if you have any role in the decision making process for allocating public money, then you are a public body. A student fee committee must open its meetings.” However the attorney general’s opinion does provide a legal basis for the SGA to close the meeting. I went back to my legal expert with the document and asked for a general sense of what this all means:

I wouldn’t put a ton of weight into an AG letter opinion from 40 years ago...It does give them cover for now, with no court opinion altering it – but if they were sued today, a court would probably reconsider the question entirely. Old AG opinion (is) persuasive but not binding.

He also noted that it would be difficult for The Sunflower to recoup any legal fees if the staff sued because the SGA could claim it operated in good faith, given the opinion.

Two things are clear here, though: First, the optics are bad. Nobody ever closes themselves in a room and demands total privacy for something they’re sure is completely fine and that they’re totally proud of. This is why openness is a good idea and why Bardo’s request and the Senate’s subsequent actions make sense. If you’re willing to do this, do it where people can see it.

Second, if this four-page memo that was released a day after the original “Star Wars” opened is the only thing keeping the SGA from being forced to open all its meetings, somebody needs to take a legal whack at this thing. I don’t know exactly what life was like at K-State in 1977, but a lot has changed over the past 40 years. You can no longer smoke on airplanes, cars now come standard with airbags and we’re finally pretty sure that Elvis is dead. Also, here’s a picture of my dad from a 1977 family gathering:


Can we agree that a lot of things that probably made sense in 1977 now look really, really bad in retrospect? This single AG opinion looks nearly as god-awful as Dad’s homage to polyester. Hope the SPLC will get on it. (The case, not the outfit.)


Is this a case of “financial censorship” against The Sunflower? Hall and Hungate have said repeatedly that this isn’t a case of using the budget to slap around the paper because they didn’t like the coverage. However, the paper HAS covered the administration aggressively and has shined a light in some pretty sketchy corners of WSU. It also publicized a situation in which Hungate’s parents were painted in a criminal and racist light. When you couple those facts with the size of the cut and the lengths at which the committee went to keep things private, it’s hard to believe nobody had any ill will toward the paper. This is why an open and fair process is necessary to let people know whatever reasons the committee had for this cut. In addition, given the way in which the media is now watching WSU’s actions, the ideas of openness and transparency are essential.


The big take away? WSU knows people are watching and that matters. The Post’s line about “Democracy Dies in Darkness” applies here. If nobody outside of WSU had heard about this issue, it is likely the cuts would have rolled on through without a second thought. However, people ARE watching. They ARE commenting on the paper’s articles. They ARE sharing stories about this mess. The legal and media attention here makes a difference, not just in regard to the administration but also in regard to the staff members of The Sunflower. Knowing that they have some support makes a huge difference. So does the interest of state and national media outlets as well as the SPLC.

My experience being on the wrong end of a student government’s sense of purpose wasn’t all that great, but I remember hearing from a reporter who covered the meeting where the OSA proposed my ouster. SPLC had taken up my cause and pushed against this, leading one of the people who was leading the charge to express concern about “some special interest group out of Virginia” that brought several legal issues to light. According to the reporter, who told me this about a year after this happened, “he looked totally freaked out” when SPLC spoke up.

I know it’s a weekend, but keep looking at The Sunflower and the Eagle and follow these stories. The previous post has contact info for all the people involved so you can make your voice heard if you want.

If it can happen to The Sunflower, it can happen to any of us in the media.

Sunshine laws, The Sunflower and the student government at WSU’s attempt to smack the student newspaper around.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is long and complicated, but worth it. If you disagree but still dislike the idea of student government officials randomly closing meetings, student newspapers getting financially bludgeoned and other similar things, hop to the bottom and contact the people involved to have your voice heard.)

A student asked me this question during our advising appointment this week:

“Why do I have to take media law?” she wanted to know.

“Because you need to know if someone out there is trying to screw you,” I explained.

I wish I could remember who asked that, because the situation involving Wichita State University and its newspaper, The Sunflower, is a perfect example of how government, law and media can become a jumbled mess.

The student government decided to cut the paper’s funding in half, from $105,000 this year to $55,000 for next year. This is on top of the cut the paper took two years before that of $58,000. (In case you’re a journalist and math-averse, that means the paper went from $158,000 to an expectation of $55,000 to start next year. That’s almost a 68 percent decrease over that time span.)

“We are the line-item that got cut the most,” EIC Chance Swaim said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “In fact, many of the fixed items got an increase in funds.”

The Sunflower receives approximately 50 percent of its operating revenue from the student fees, with the rest coming from advertising. The student government retains the right to set amount of fee money the twice-weekly paper gets, which can create a problematic situation. News organizations serve as the “fourth estate” and will often have to call government officials to account for their actions. It is exactly this kind of coverage that has The Sunflower staff thinking the funding cut is retaliatory.

“We have not had the most favorable coverage of the student body president this year, but it hasn’t been overly aggressive,” Swaim said Wednesday. “We just cover SGA meetings. We had a lot of controversy last spring, but it’s been kind of a private year overall. The administration is where we’ve had a lot of big stories and they’ve given us a lot of push back on that.”

The administration’s take?

Paige Hungate, WSU’s student body president, said the proposed cut “has nothing to do with coverage, nothing to do with content.”


Teri Hall, vice president for student affairs at WSU, said the proposed budget cut “has nothing to do with punishing people for what they write.”


Neither of Hall nor Hungate said exactly what IS behind this draconian financial measure. At least, nobody said it in public, which leads to the second most egregious thing they did this week:

The Student Fees Committee closed the door to its meeting room in the Rhatigan Student Center Friday afternoon to deliberate about how to allocate between $9.53 and $9.82 million in student fees — claiming SGA is not a state agency, student fees are not state funds and, therefore, the meeting could be held behind closed doors.

Let’s unpack this quickly: The fee committee is part of the student government of Wichita State University, a public institution. In its own governing documents, the SGA notes the following:

The authority granted to the Association in this section is derived from and shall be subject to the authority of the Board of Regents and the President of the University.
The authority granted to student organizations, through a grant of official recognition, is derived from and shall be subject to the authority of the Association and its representative bodies.
According to the board’s website, the Kansas Board of Regents members are appointed by the governor (a public official) and:
The nine-member Kansas Board of Regents is the governing board of the state’s six universities and the statewide coordinating board for the state’s 32 public higher education institutions (six state universities, one municipal university, nineteen community colleges, and six technical colleges).
So EVERY entity in this chain of command is directly attached to a public institution, including the student government, making the claim that SGA doesn’t have to operate under Kansas Open Meetings Act self-serving and ridiculous.
I did some digging into the KOMA and couldn’t find a single instance in which the rules would allow for this meeting to take place in private. Given that my legal expertise starts and ends with binge-watching “Law & Order” reruns, I contacted a lawyer and a First Amendment expert for a ruling. His take:
Most places make student orgs like this subject to the law… 75-4318 sure makes it look like this is a government body subject to the act. It’s a board/council/authority supported by government funds and expending them, and it doesn’t fall under an exception.
The president of WSU, John Bardo, issued a statement to Hall after all of this, asking that future funding meetings be held in the open “so that the campus and the community know we are committed to the First Amendment and the freedom of speech required in a first-class university.” That’s great, but Bardo also noted that he did not believe KOMA applied or that the SGA violated the law, a statement that appears to be lacking in fact. It also doesn’t remedy what’s happened already.
The rule of law for the disbursal of student fees to organizations states that the money must be doled out in a “viewpoint neutral” way, lest the SGA violate the First Amendment. For example, an SGA can’t fund the Campus Democrats for X dollars and A, B and C activities and then turn around and deny the Campus Republicans X dollars for those same activities, simply because it doesn’t like what the Republicans have to say.
The way in which the public can figure out if this is what’s being done is to have these deliberations and decisions made in an open meeting. This prevents people from doing weaselly things in private and then polishing up their rationale for the public.
Even more, if, for some completely legal and yet unimaginable reason, the SGA COULD close that meeting for deliberations, there are rules that you have to follow to actually do so. The agenda for the meeting must note an intention to go into closed session and that agenda must be posted prior to the meeting in accordance with the state’s open meetings law. Then, the group must formally go into closed session. According to the state’s attorney general:

How does a public body properly go into an executive session?

First the public body must be in an open session, before going into an executive session.

Then, a motion must be made, and seconded.

The motion must contain statement of Justification for closure; Subject(s) to be discussed; and (3) Time and place open meeting will resume.

Example: “Madam Chairman, I move we recess into executive session to discuss disciplinary action against a student in order to protect the privacy of the parties involved.  We will reconvene the open meeting in the conference room at 8:30 p.m.”

Swaim said Wednesday no intention to close was posted, no motion was made and nothing else like this happened in the open, public part of the meeting (if one even existed).

“We tried to go in and Hall said, ‘This is a closed meeting,’ and closed the door on us,” he said. “Then she sent out the students who were on the committee to to see the attorney and they came back and told us ‘The meeting is closed.'”

In its reporting on the matter, The Sunflower found itself similarly rebuffed by vague answers and a lack of due process.

Hall said the students went to speak with the general counsel, “because the bylaws say, it’s a student government decision. That’s why they went over to do it.”

About 20 minutes after leaving the RSC, the students, led by (SGA President Paige) Hungate, returned. Hungate approached reporters and said the meeting would be closed “according to discussions with people.”

Asked to elaborate, she said she and the other students had consulted with “the general counsel’s office” who advised her it was “a student government decision.”

Hungate said she was advised “student fees aren’t public funds, and that SGA is not a state agency.”

The Sunflower basically finds itself fighting a war on multiple fronts: It is trying to figure out how to survive if it loses half of its already diminished funding, it is trying to find out WHY the funding cuts happened and it’s trying to fight for transparency in its government. It’s also trying to put out a twice-weekly paper and a daily online product.

“It doesn’t feel great,” Swaim said Wednesday. “I think, though, it’s a good opportunity for a lot of clarification. If we can get this cleaned up to where we don’t have to fight this every year, to where it’s clear where we stand on campus… I think it’s valuable to go through this. It’s something that will be an ugly fight, but it will benefit everyone and I think before it’s all said and done, someone in the administration is going to need to step up and say, ‘Enough. This is how we’re going to handle this.'”

With that in mind, here are three takeaways/action items associated with all this:

  • Know your rights and fight for them: People, especially people who don’t like you, will always try to weasel their way around the rules to benefit themselves and screw you over. This is why you have to know the law backward and forward so you can force the hand of people like the SGA folk. Most, if not all, state open records and open meetings laws put the presumption of openness first, which means you don’t have to prove why something should be public. The other side has to prove why it should be held private. That means actually citing a real law, not “tradition” or “our bylaws.” If the SGA rewrote its bylaws to dictate that before holding a meeting, the SGA president had to murder a freshman in front of everyone, would that make it legal to do so? Obviously not.
    If you know your rights, you can stop people from randomly violating the law and you can serve as a true watchdog for your audience.
    Don’t let people snow you under.


  • The media matters: The reason we all know about this is because media outlets (The Sunflower, The Wichita Eagle etc.) are on the case. The Washington Post adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and there couldn’t be a better example of this than what we’re seeing here. When any public body can operate without the oversight of the public itself (or its surrogate, namely the media), it can do a lot of things that will benefit it or harm its “enemies.”
    Truth be told, I HATED covering meetings when I was a reporter because they felt pedestrian, incremental and pointless. However, once I got into the editing side and could see more of the big picture, I started to realize how important it was to dig in on a lot of political issues, particularly those involving money.
    We have fewer and fewer media outlets out there and most of them are in a state of atrophy, due to budget cuts and staff reductions. Those that remain at the publications are expected to do more with less. This can’t lead to the erosion of democracy and public accountability.
    Support your local media in any way you can. Buy a subscription. Read it and talk it up. Connect with the staffers to let them know you value what they do.
    “We are the voice of the students on campus,” Swaim said Wednesday. We provide a forum for discussion of campus things. We bring the campus into the public sphere. We let people know what’s going on and we provide a historical document for our campus. We matter.”


  • It can happen to anyone, anywhere, so speak up: The story of The Sunflower is a sad one, but it’s not unique. The Student Press Law Center has a running list of stories that outline some of the egregious ways in which student governments or college administrations have yanked funding, threatened reporters, violated the law and other fun things. I know many student newspaper advisers and those of us who have been in the game long enough know that at any point, this could happen at our school.
    I had the benefit of working at Ball State University, which had its journalism department founded by Louis Ingelhart. Louie, as he was affectionately known, was a champion for and an expert on the First Amendment. His passion for student media imbued everyone in that department and flowed throughout the university. When we got a new president in the early 2000s, Louie showed up for the press conference. He was in his 80s at that point, but he found the student reporter and told him, “You go tell (the president) that nobody at this university has ever censored the student newspaper and nobody is ever gonna.”
    I also had the darkness that comes with student government people who feel way too self-important. After telling The Advance-Titan for years that we should “forget about the debt” we were accruing and that OSA (student government) would handle it, one group decided to use the debt as a cudgel to get rid of me. (It still bugs me to no end that if you google me, one of the top returns is the article where they told the city paper I needed to be fired if I didn’t resign.) Fortunately for me, I had a good chancellor and some good support, but there were also people unhappy that the paper and I escaped.
    The point is, that it can happen to anyone, or as Swaim told me,  “It’s really important for all of us (student journalists/media outlets) to be in this together because we are all in this together. An attack on one college newsroom is an attack on all college newsrooms.
    With that in mind, I’d ask that you let the people at WSU know what you think of this situation.JPEG ImageThis is Teri Hall, WSU’s vice president of student affairs, who was the administrator in the meeting where the funding was cut and the person who aided in the closing of the funding meeting. Click here for her email address and let her know how you feel about the issue of open meetings and their importance, or whatever else you have to say about The Sunflower situation.  Or call her at: 316-978-3021 and have your voice heard.

    Paige Hungate
    This is Paige Hungate, WSU’s SGA president, who said, “I’m not trying to have a discussion about this right now. I’m just trying to tell you what our decision has been made by student government association” as a legal rationale for closing a meeting in violation of KOMA. She based this decision  “according to discussions with people.” You can email her office here and express any concerns you have about this situation as well or call her office at 316-978-7060.

    You can also contact anyone at the WSA SGA from this page and express yourself, explain how open meetings work or generally let them know what you think about these actions.

    John Bardo
    This is John Bardo, WSU president, who wrote to Hall that the meetings should be kept open. You can email him here to thank him for a commitment to the First Amendment as well as state law. You can also let him know that you are paying attention to all this now, in case he decides to waffle after nobody’s looking. His office number is 316-978-3001 in case you’d like to chat with him.

    Finally, this is the website for The Sunflower, Chance Swaim’s office email address and the paper’s Twitter handle. Feel free to hit these folks up on any one of these platforms to let them know you support them. When the OSA was kicking my ass all over the place, the one thing that kept me sane was knowing people out there cared. It meant more than anything. I’m sure The Sunflower staff will appreciate it as well.



EXERCISE TIME: AP Style Spring Training Edition!

Baseball is perhaps my favorite sport and leads to my favorite time of the year. The sounds of Bob Uecker calling Brewers games on the radio that Dad kept in the garage was the soundtrack of summer for me. Now, I listen to him or Tom Hamilton calling Cleveland games on my MLB app.

In celebration of the opening weeks of spring training, here is an AP-style quiz that focuses on those picky rules that surround America’s pastime. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to play.