Antonio Brown’s “Ain’t No More Games” video, California’s two-party consent law and what you need to know about recording your sources

The saga of former-Raider-turned-Patriot wide receiver Antonio Brown took a strange legal turn this week, thanks in part to a law that actually matters to you as a student journalist.

Brown, a talented and yet volatile player, began this season with the Oakland Raiders by complaining about rules surround his helmet, complaining about his injured feet and ripping his own general manager for levying fines against him. He then asked for his release on social media and the Raiders complied gladly.

In the middle of all this, Brown published a hype video of himself playing with his kids and working out. The video included content from a call between Brown and his coach, Jon Gruden.


What makes this problematic is that it appears Gruden knew nothing about the recording of the call, and California has a law against that.

(NOTE: I put this together early Tuesday, only to find out when I woke up this morning that Brown has been accused of rape in a lawsuit. Deadspin posted both the formal complaint on its website along with text messages included in it that Brown is accused of sending to plaintiff Britney Taylor. I had an easier time understanding the legal jargon in the court filing than I did translating Brown’s off-color texts. With all this in mind, I think we can all agree that Brown now has more on his plate from a legal standpoint than worrying if Gruden is coming after him over a phone call. )

States have specific laws when it comes to recording people on the phone (or other similar communication devices), but most laws center on how many people on the call have to know the recording is occurring:

  • One-party consent: This means that only one of the two people on the call needs to be aware that the call is being recorded. In other words, if you live in a one-party-consent state, you can call someone and be recording from the moment of the dial tone. You are not legally obligated to tell that person you are recording or to get that person’s permission to record the call. (Whether you should be up front about this as an ethical consideration is a totally different argument.) According to the Digital Media Law project, 38 states and the District of Columbia operate under this approach.
  • Two-party consent: This means that all people (usually only the two people on the call, but in the case of conference calls etc., everyone involved has to be on board) have to know about the recording and approve of it. California is one of the 12 states that operate this way, which theoretically presents a problem for Brown.

(To find out which way your state swings on this, you can go to this guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which lays out everything in both a grid and a state-by-state analysis for you.)

On one of the Sunday pre-game shows, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher mentioned that it was illegal for Brown to do this. Once I checked to make sure he was right, I reached out to Chip Stewart, a faculty member at TCU and one of my favorite legal eagles, to see what he thought the shake out from this would be, if anything.

His response was kind of what I figured, given that the Raiders wanted to get away from this Dumpster fire as fast as possible:

I’d say it’s not likely Brown would be prosecuted for doing this, but presuming that the conversation – Gruden calling and Brown recording – took place in California, and that the parties reasonably expected that nobody was recording it, then yes, it is technically a violation of California law.

Section 632 of the California Penal Code makes recording a conversation without the consent of all parties to that conversation a crime punishable by up to a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail. But that’s not really going to happen.

I doubt Gruden would make such a big deal of it that he’d want to file a complaint to a prosecutor, and likewise, I doubt prosecutors would take this up on their own initiative to prosecute and drag everyone to court as a witness.

Further complicating this situation, news reports filed late Monday and early Tuesday noted that Gruden had known about the recording and had given his blessing to Brown’s use of it in the video:

Is “dumb-ass idea” hyphenated? AP updates its guidance on compound modifiers

If you read this blog at all, you know I have an almost pathological love of hyphens. It’s because I believe they clarify intent, especially in the case of compound modifiers.

I like to joke that I prefer to have a “smoking-hot car…”


…as opposed to a “smoking, hot car.”


In its most recent update, however, the Associated Press reworked its rules/guidance/thoughts on hyphens when it comes to “commonly known phrases:”


Journalism professors, editors and everyone else who picks at language took this news calmly and simply as always:


Let’s parse AP’s language on this one:

No hyphen is needed if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, early morning traffic, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, first quarter touchdown, real estate transaction.

The first problem with this is that “commonly recognized” creates a lot of trouble, as what is common for some people isn’t that common for others. Sure we could quibble about people who don’t like sports not knowing if it’s “first-quarter touchdown” or “first quarter touchdown” (as if you could score a quarter of a touchdown), but that’s the easy stuff.

Consider the style on issues of transgender individuals:

Sex reassignment or gender confirmation: The treatments, surgeries and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender. Balducci considered having sex reassignment surgery during his transition.

The example doesn’t hyphenate “sex-reassignment surgery,” a term that AP just added in June of 2019, so I’m not sure how this fits with the “commonly recognized” element. Also, given the need for things to be “clear and unambiguous,” I’d imagine it should be more helpful if the hyphen were there to clarify that we are reassigning sex (or confirming gender) in the surgery.

The rules on “public land management” had me perplexed as well, in that public land management could be land management completed in an open, public fashion via governmental agencies while public-land management could be the management and care of only public lands.

(Also, because I’m somewhat demented, I started thinking about things like “the golden shower’ act” (or is it the golden-shower act?) associated with the Russia-scandal dossier. Or as one report referred to it “the ‘pee tape’ controversy.” Or is it a pee-tape controversy? These are the thoughts that keep me awake at night… )

We no longer have “third-grade students,” but we still have “a first-hour class” they must attend. Also, we still have “9-year-olds,” but they’re now in a “third grade classroom.”


Every year, I provide my students with an AP-style worksheet (or is it AP style worksheet?) that has a number of the key rules they need to know. I’ve already had to go back through and change all the percent items because of a change that freaked us all out in March. Before I started messing around with “one-bedroom apartment” or “four-door sedan,” I figured I’d ask the editor for clarification. The “Ask the Editor” folks at AP were nice enough to respond with this:

We don’t have new rules on hyphenation, contrary to what you may see on Twitter. One-bedroom apartment and four-door sedan are correct; we use hyphens in compound modifiers. We continue not to hyphenate terms commonly recognized as a single phrase. We use high school student, not high-school student; real estate agent, not real-estate agent; climate change report; not climate-change report. We change our style on two terms to conform to that guidance: first grade student (similar to high school student) and first quarter touchdown (the lack of hyphen wouldn’t cause anyone to think there’s such a thing as a quarter touchdown).

So, I spent about 20 minutes trying to think about how I could NOT misinterpret “first grade student” but I COULD misinterpret “four-door sedan,” based on hyphenation issues. I was left without a good answer.

The way that I’ve always explained style to students and why they need to learn it comes down to a few things, none of which are helped here with AP’s approach here:


Consistency: The goal of adhering to a specific style is so that everyone who is using a term, a form of punctuation or an approach to writing does so in the same way as everyone else in that field. Sure, there are breaks from the norms here and there, but a lot of those come once we know the rules and consciously decide to go a different way for a good reason. For example, here’s the start of the entry on last names:

In general, use only last names on second reference. When it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name, generally use the first and last name on subsequent references.

OK, but when you write a feature story about a family that has run a diner for three generations, the last thing you want is a sentence like this:

“Suzy Smith said she talked to Mary Smith about asking their brother, Johnny Smith, to get on board with the restructuring plan, in spite of what Jane Smith and Carl Smith, Suzy Smith’s cousins, wanted to do with the restaurant.”

One of my favorite feature stories a student wrote for me was about a family farm and every time I read it, even 10 years later, I wince at the first name/last name references to everyone. She did it because AP told her to and she feared losing points in the class. Had she asked, I would have told her to break the rule.

Consistency helps us when we move from job to job or from one area of the field to the other. Sure, organizations will implement local style when it comes to certain things, but AP serves as the benchmark for consistency that allows us to avoid looking like idiots when we leave one place and go somewhere else. It also helps to make sure we’re all on the same page when we are looking at a particular way of doing things.


Clarity: I remember talking to a friend of mine in college who was taking Japanese to fulfill a foreign-language requirement (or is it foreign language requirement now?) and I asked him how he was surviving it. (I had always heard Japanese was a really tough language to learn.) He told me English was harder because it has all sorts of rules that have all sorts of exceptions to them, making it almost impossible to be right. Japanese wasn’t a breeze, but at least the rules were relatively clear and standard, he told me.

Think about all the rules English has the require kids to sing songs to help remember them, like,  “i before e, except after c, unless it’s an “eh” like in “neighbor” or “weigh.” No wonder my kid uses text lingo and can’t spell to save her life…

AP presents these stylistics as guidelines and ideals, but they also essentially serve as rules for how we do things. That’s why we, as academics, force the students to read the book and abide by it. When the rules are clear, we all tend to follow them or understand why we are penalized when we fail to do so.

Think about it like a posted speed limit: When the sign says “Speed Limit: 55 mph,” we all understand that’s about how fast the state wants us to drive on that road and most of us tend to drive around that fast. When the police officer pulls you over for going 125 mph in that 55 mph zone (or is it 55-mph zone?), there’s at least a sense of “OK, I understand. I’m going to jail.”

However, there are “guidelines” as to how to drive on roads where there is no posted limit, most of which I would wager we don’t know. For example, in zones with no postings in Idaho, the rules are as clear as mud:

Idaho code 49-654 (1) reads: no person shall drive a vehicle at a speed in excess of the maximum limits: 35 miles per hour in any residential, business or urban district, unless otherwise posted; 65 miles per hour on state highways, unless otherwise posted in accordance with section 49-201(4), Idaho Code, and provided that this speed may be increased to 70 miles per hour if the department completes an engineering and traffic study on the state highway and concludes that the increase is in the public interest and the transportation board concurs with such conclusion; 55 miles per hour in other locations, unless otherwise posted, up to a maximum of 70 miles per hour.

Well, that’s not helpful to me if I’m on a rural road where a farm truck pulling hay is going 25 mph while Parnelli Jones is flying up my keester at 80. I’m not certain if the police would let me get away with, “Yes, officer, I know I was going 70, but I swear I thought this road had a traffic and engineering study that concluded it was in my best interest that this not be an unposted 55 zone!”

If you are in charge of making the rules, try not to turn the situation into a game of “Bamboozled.” Come up with some clear thoughts, stick to them and make life easy on those of us who have to deal with them. (Or, more to the point, easy on those of us who have to teach other people how to deal with them.)


Improvement: It’s a simple rule that I tend to follow, but change is supposed to make things better. If you change something and it becomes worse, that’s a bad thing. If you change things just for the sake of change, that’s dumber than change that makes things worse.

Case in point: My parents bought a really nice luxury SUV with a set of third-row seats. (I’m guessing it’s not third row seats, as I’m guessing a “row seat” might be something crew folks use…) The problem? To use the area in the back for storage, you had to fold up and remove the seats, each of which weighed about 70 pounds. You then had to store the seats in a garage or basement until you needed them again.

I found this to be colossally stupid, because my smaller, crappier SUV had stow-and-go seats, which meant they just flattened out and things were fine. When the next version of this luxury SUV came along, the engineers figured out that having people who could afford luxury drag a set of seats into a garage wasn’t exactly “on-brand.” The newer edition had electric  stow-and-go seats. It was change that created improvement.

To its credit, AP has made numerous changes over the years that have improved things. Issues pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation have shifted over time, and AP has demonstrated its willingness to hear from people affected by those issues and craft the style entries accordingly. It has helped with everything from how to spell foreign leaders’ names to how the internet differs from the World Wide Web (and when to capitalized each of them…). Those changes definitely improved things. Even simple things, like spelling out all the state names instead of dealing with rules over which ones got abbreviated and which didn’t or when to use AP abbreviations and when to use postal abbreviations did make things better.

When they started putzing with punctuation, it made less sense. The hyphens and the percent changes didn’t make sense. For the sake of peace with honor, I could buy the percent sign situation, if forced to do so. However, compound modifiers seem to be pretty simple in general: If the adjectives can’t independently modify the noun, you connect them with a hyphen. AP’s reliance on the “commonly recognized” exception seems like less of an improvement and more of a “We’re just tired of hearing about this, so do what the hell you want” response.

Maybe that is oversimplification that makes me a smart ass, who doesn’t understand the field as well as those who run the AP.


Wait… Make that a smart-ass…

Student news outlet says “FU” to FIU football

The student journalists who work at various college, university and high school media outlets often suffer a number of indignities not laden upon their colleagues in professional area of the profession. They get overlooked, treated like second-class citizens and often chastised like sit-com kids for real or perceived slights.

I remember one particularly infuriating case in which a student photo editor went to the police department to get a copy of a mug shot. The desk worker said no such document existed, only to have the photo editor point out that a copy of the image was pinned to her cork board.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s for the REAL newspaper.” (Meaning of course the Gannett publication in town)

In most cases, the student media outlets have no real recourse but to take the smack on the keester and say, “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”

That’s what makes the approach of PantherNOW, the student media outlet at Florida International University, so refreshing. After getting stonewalled by the university’s media reps and sports information folks, the paper decided not to cover football this year. Making its reasons clear, the publication put together a thoughtful, reasoned and clear column that explains what happened.

While the students haven’t exactly pinpointed the source of FIU’s discontent, they have mentioned a possible sticking point in the column:

We have not been given a reason why we have been shut out of every coverage opportunity. After PantherNow reported that running back Shawndarrius Phillips, who had a warrant for his arrest the entire 2018 season was still playing on the team, we notice a rise in neglect for PantherNOW.

(You mean an organization associated with coach Butch Davis might have been overlooking shady things, acting in a “bush league” fashion and tussling with the media over openness? Get out of here…)

The students took a tough stand, as football is often the golden child of sports journalism. However, it’s the kind of stand worth taking when you know that you’re  going to get lousy treatment or worse. In the mean time, you can still read some great coverage of other sports at FIU on the PantherNOW website.

Conversely, if you want to find out how FIU lost to Tulane by four touchdowns, you’ll have to consult or some other publication.

Two Key Questions Every Story Should Answer Clearly For Your Readers

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

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

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

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


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

Brewers beat Cubs
Mayor blasts city council
University passes budget

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

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

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



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

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

Um… That’s not how this works.

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

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

A subsequent conversation went something like this:

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

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

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

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


3 takeaways from the Washington Post’s 579-word correction on a story about family farms

We have covered the issue of corrections here a few times, including the massive ones issued for the obituaries of politicians John McCain and Richard Lugar. At 135 words and 144 words, respectively, these pale in comparison to the correction the Washington Post recently issued on Korsha Wilson’s piece on black families trying to hold onto their ancestors’ farm land.

This correction covers 15 bullet points and 579 painful words.

To put that in perspective, consider this:

  • If you added the McCain and Lugar corrections together and DOUBLED them, the word count would still fall short of 579 words.
  • According to media coverage on the incident, the correction went on so long, it needed to be jumped in the print edition.
  • When I worked at a daily newspaper, we were taught that it was about 30 words to a column inch, which would make this correction 19.2 column inches. That is nearly twice the length of most stories I was allowed to write for meetings, breaking news stories and featurized obituaries at the time.
  • The correction is about one-fifth the size of the original story.

Longer narrative stories that deal in complex issues, especially historic ones, run a lot of risks when it comes to accuracy. People’s recollections sometimes run counter to other people’s memories. Nuance can be lost in the writing, thus leading to mistakes due to slips in verbiage. Even more, longer pieces that weave in multiple sources can feel like juggling Jell-O, leading the writer to attribute a statement to a wrong source or to make a cut-and-paste mistake.

Some of these pitfalls are at the core of Wilson’s piece, but they don’t account for the majority of the problems. Consider these corrections:

  • The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.
  • The number of children Freeman had with his second wife, Rebecca, was eight, not 10.
  • The partition sale of the Freeman estate was in 2016, not 2018, and it included 360 acres of the original 1,000, not 30 acres of the original 99.
  • Tashi Terry said, “Welcome to Belle Terry Lane,” not “Welcome to Belle Terry Farm.” The property is named Terry Farm.
  • Aubrey Terry did not buy 170 acres with his siblings in 1963; his parents bought the 150-acre property in 1961.
  • The eldest Terry brother died in 2011, not 2015.

  • Ownership of Freeman’s property was not transferred to heirs when Rebecca died. In fact, he used a trust before he died to divide his property among his heirs.

In other words, about half of the 15 bullet points involved simple fact-checking issues I would expect a student in a basic reporting class to be able to manage. Tom Jones at Poynter also noted the sloppy journalism, but said he thought the Post should get kudos for going to such great lengths to correct the record.

I would agree to a point, in that fixing mistakes is always a good idea. That said, not making so many mistakes would have been a better way to go with this. Wilson wasn’t a veteran staff member who got a pass on stringent editing because she was a known commodity. I would imagine that editors would drill down more deeply in a freelance piece to make sure it met the standards of the publication.

Also, Executive Editor Marty Baron’s pretty bland and opaque statement on the issue didn’t shed a lot of light on the issue:

“We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”

(And for a last piece of perspective, everything you read right to this point totals 579 words, the exact same length as the correction.)

The goal with this blog isn’t to beat up on people, but rather to help you learn from the mistakes of others. With that in mind, consider these thoughts:

  • Fred Vultee’s Theory on Drowning: Professor Fred Vultee of Wayne State University is an editing expert and a veteran journalist of the days in which smoking in the newsroom was common. We worked together at the Columbia Missourian back in the early 2000s, where he was fond of telling me (and anyone smart enough to listen) that, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was to treat small bits of copy (briefs, captions etc.) with the same care as the magnum opus stories that went on for scads of inches and wove together complex story lines.
    I liked to expand this to include the idea that it’s rarely the complex and nuanced issues of a painstakingly detailed story that lead to corrections, but rather the simple, stupid stuff you should have check on in the first place. This story exemplifies that with the mistakes on name spellings, dates and numbers.


  • Assume everything you wrote is wrong. Go prove yourself to be right: We talked about this one before, but it bears repeating. Fact checking is a vital aspect of what you do as a reporter. Sure, we could leave that to the editors, but with newsroom cuts and overworked staff, editors aren’t the safety net they used to be. (Case in point, this piece apparently went through the Post’s rigorous editing process and still ended up with more than a dozen points that needed correcting after the fact.)
    Write based on your notes, your recall and your research, but then edit the hell out of your work with the eye of a skeptic. Assume every fact is wrong until you can prove it right. (A former student of mine once interned at a place that required reporters to circle every verifiable fact and print out a piece of solid source copy to demonstrate its veracity.) If you read better on screen, edit it there. If you catch more stuff on a printed page, kill a tree or two if necessary. Whatever helps you examine your work clearly and with an eye toward detail, do it. You want to be able to point out to an editor exactly how you know you are right.


  • Get back up and try again: If you enter this business thinking you’ll never screw up, you have some wishful thinking happening in your head. A year or so back, I asked people in the hivemind about things they fouled up as journalists. These venerable writers, reporters, photographers and even professors noted a wide array of, “Oh crap…” moments that had each of us thinking, “There but by the grace of God go I…”People who were following the Post’s correction with the glee of an arsonist watching a four-alarm fire got their shots in on the writer for her work, with one noting:“At this rate, it is a wonder the author even got her name right. Speaking of which, the author of this hot mess is one Korsha Wilson… By the looks of what happened to Wilson’s Washington Post article, she should probably stick to writing about food.”

    Not to be rude here, but what a dick. Nothing says, “I’m a professional journalist” like kicking people when they’re down. And I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the writer of that insightful commentary likely has a correction or two in his writing history.

    We’re all going to screw something up at some point. I’m sure Korsha Wilson wanted to crawl into a hole and die when this story went south and her mistakes went viral. When I screwed up on a local level before things like this could spread beyond a print circulation area, that’s exactly how I felt each and every time I made a mistake. I feared making another mistake to the point that I was almost assured of making one, a syndrome that gave birth to my “handful of Jell-O” axiom.

    My hope for her is the same hope I have for any of you who screw up (read: everyone in journalism), which is that once you fix the mistake and you take your flogging, you persevere. Get up, dust yourself off and go back to work. The best way for people to forget you had a horrible moment is to have a few great ones.

“Journalism is never done. It’s just due.” (Embracing your “a-ha!” moment)

At the age of 19, I had one major goal that was driving my journalism education: Impress Steve Lorenzo.

Steve was the instructor of my first journalism writing class and he was pretty much exactly the guy I wanted to be: Smart, funny, talented and gifted. He had a way of grabbing the most chaotic sentences off the screens of our Mac Classic computers and crunching them down into incredible journalistic prose. He was able to reorder your messy chronology into a perfect inverted pyramid on the fly, never once stopping to ponder what he needed to do. The way you or I would wiggle a finger is how Steve would keyboard our work to perfection: It was as if journalism was attached to his central nervous system.

Of all the things he taught me, the most important came when time was running out during a lab exercise and I was one of the last people in the room. I was trying to make the words of a lead do what he said they needed to do, even as those words were being decidedly uncooperative. I was always looking for “another word for…” whatever it was I was trying to write. (I think it was an accident brief. You can only say “accident” or “crash” in so many ways…)

As Steve called out the minutes until our stuff was due, I kind of yelped out a phrase that I know I’ve heard at least a squillion times as an instructor: “But I’m not DONE yet!”

Steve’s response: “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.”

Whether he came up with that on his own or he borrowed it from someone else, I’ll never know. (I use this constantly and always do my best to disabuse students of the notion that I was smart enough to come up with it on my own.) However, that became the “a-ha!” moment for me that made journalism a lot less painful. (It still was painful, but not as much as it would have been had I not heard that bit of wisdom.)

His point was that you can always make something a bit better or a bit smoother or a bit clearer if you had five more minutes or 10 more months to work on it. However, the goal of journalism is to put forward the best possible representation of reality for your readers in the time you have available.

As I began to work deeper into journalism and then into journalism education, I took this to heart and used it to craft what I called my “90% rule.” The idea was that I wanted my writing to be 90% of the way to “as good as it’s gonna get” in two good swings: Draft one-Edit 1 and Draft 2-Edit 2.

After that, everything was a function of time and diminishing returns. I could spend six hours debating a comma that might make something .00001% better, but that’s a waste of time. That said, if I put in another hour and got it to 95%, that would be good if I had the hour to give. If not, at least 90% gets me to a point where I don’t embarrass myself.

For those of you still looking for your “a-ha!” moment or just feeling like you’re a 3-year-old who lost your mom at Walmart when you write, give this Columbia Journalism Review article a look. Dozens of top-notch journalists reveal when they learned a lesson they carry with them to this day. They share their “a-ha!” moments, with some being successes that inspired them while others were failures that left scars.

Another good read, especially if you’re the kind of person who can’t let go of a piece, is this take on perfectionism. A lot of students I know struggle to make something perfect, even when they aren’t entirely sure what it is they’re doing. That added investment and struggle is admirable, but it can also be devastating when they get the graded piece back and realize it seemed to be all for nought.

In any case, the best thing I can tell you about the “a-ha!” moment is it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You can’t go looking for it, but don’t worry.

It will find you eventually.

Keep the “journalist” in “photojournalist” with solid reporting and quality captions

A student editor reached out to me with some thoughts on a recent post, so I offered her the chance to pick a topic for me and I promised I’d give it a shot. It didn’t take long for her to get back to me:

I think the next biggest issue I’ve been dealing with is photographers, and even reporters, being too scared to talk to people, or even too lazy. I had a photographer try to argue with me a few weeks ago about whether it was “important” to get people’s names in captions if the picture is of them. Which, duh, it is.

Duh, indeed.

Photojournalists often have a thankless job in a newsroom setting. They are told to find visually appealing moments at meetings and speeches, which is kind of like trying to find a nun at an AVN awards ceremony. They get “assignments” after other people have figured out what the news is supposed to be and then they have to somehow figure out how to grab images that reflect whatever a writer or editor thought the story should be. (Also, back in the day, they used to get stuck in a chemical dark room with limited ventilation. God alone knows what that stuff did to them. I tried to learn film developing once in one of these places and I felt high for about two days…)

As a way to not only deal with that, but also to reaffirm their place in the media ecosystem, the word “journalist” is built right into their titles. It used to be just “photographer,” (or in some cases, “picture box monkey”) which indicated the only purpose they had was to grab images. In other words, “Let’s leave the news stuff to the big kids, OK, there, pal?”

Journalism is baked into every bite of what these folks do. They need to tell stories, communicate effectively and help audience members understand why things matter. Part of that is in the images themselves, as the photogs grab slivers of time that convey action, reaction, emotion, depth and feel. A good image can give people a sense of place and time. However, it can’t do the job alone. This is why images almost always have captions and the captions really do make the difference in storytelling.

Consider this photo:

Interesting and engaging. You get facial expressions and actions. For a “dude at table” photo, it’s pretty solid. However, without a caption, you lack the ability to understand much about what’s going on. A standard two-sentence caption should work like this:

Sentence 1: Tell me what’s going on in the photo without being patently obvious and do it in present tense.

Sentence 2: Provide me with an explanation as to why what’s going on here matters to me with depth, background and other additional information.

Now, let’s see how a caption makes you feel about this photo:

All-Star Shortstop Bucky Johnson signs an autograph for a young fan prior to the presentation of his Most Valuable Player award. Johnson set American League records for homers, hits and runs last year as he helped the Cleveland Indians win their first World Series since 1948.

A nice heartwarming piece with some fun, some feel and an “awwww” moment.

However, that’s not even close to what’s going on in this photo. This is a court image of Scott Peterson at the defense table with his legal counsel. He’s in the process of being convicted of murdering his wife and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay. He received the death penalty and has been on death row for more than 15 years.

Feel a little differently about it now?

The point is, the more information you include in a caption, the better the caption will be and the more helpful it will be in letting your photo tell the story.

When I had to write captions for photos on night desk,  I was really lucky to work with Joe Jackson, one of the best photojournalists I ever knew. Joe would not only gather a whole bunch of information for me to write the captions, but when he knew I was working on it, he would come over and tell me what he saw when he was shooting the frame and why he chose that image for publication. That helped me tell a better story in my writing and thus help his photo do a better job of communicating his intent.

With that in mind, consider the following tips for gathering information for captions:

  • Names: People who are identifiable in the image should be named. You also want to gather some additional information about who they are and why they are at the newsworthy event you are covering.
  • Actions: Find out what people are actually DOING and get specific. Two people laughing in a photo can be nice, but a caption that says they “share a laugh” is as pointless as a paraphrase that tells me “Smith had this to say:” If they’re laughing after listening to a comedy club act, that’s one thing. If they’re laughing at a murder victim’s vigil, that’s another thing. It’s the same thing when someone is on the phone in a photo (and those aren’t all that great as images, by the way): Find out who is on the other end of the line, what the conversation is and how things panned out.
  • Details: You are a journalist so get nosy. “Find out the name of the dog and the brand of the beer,” was the mantra of a former editor of mine, and that applies here as well. Find out as much as you can about the people in the images and what is going on. For example, is the person going to speak in favor of a labor agreement or against it at a big meeting? Is the person local or from out of town? Is the person at the county fair there to compete in some event or just eat his/her weight in funnel cakes? More depth is good.

In terms of how best to write these things, Kenneth Irby of Poynter put together a great list of “hot tips” for just such an occasion. Consider them words to live by.

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.

Unblock this: Modern advertising and why we hate it

According to the media-writing book:

Advertising is about more than telling people what to buy and where to buy it. It is a communication format that mixes information and persuasion elements in an attempt to convince audience members to act. The desired action can take many forms, including purchasing a product, supporting a candidate or forming an opinion. In addition, some advertising is geared toward preventing action, such as buying some other company’s product, supporting a different candidate or changing an opinion.

Much of what makes this happen is about knowing your audience, which we discussed at length elsewhere in this blog and in these books. Demographics, geographics, psychographics and more all play a role in making sure the message gets from a valued organization to an interested and engaged receiver. Given what most of us experience on a daily basis, particularly on the web, that might seem as idealistic as taking Cinderella as your spirit animal.

If you want to know why advertising and media operations are in such ugly spots today, consider a recent experience I had in trying to read an online column. See if it matches with what you tend to experience and then ask yourself if that initial paragraph meets with reality:

One of my favorite authors, Terry Pluto, writes about Cleveland sports for the Plain-Dealer’s website and a link to one of his columns popped up in my Facebook feed. I clicked on the link and hopped over to the PD’s site, only to get a lock screen in which it noted I was using an ad blocker and asked me to disable it.

Some sites give you an option to continue without shutting off the blocker. Some try to guilt you into shutting it off. Some are like a Joe Pesci character on a meth bender, demanding you turn off the frickin’ blocker, you frickin’ mook… In this case, the PD gave me the “shut it off” option and nothing else. (Previous times, I got an option.)

As I noted earlier, I’m OK with paying for content. I’m also fine with the model that has driven media for decades through its salad days: Ads pay the bills for the content. However, consider these crucial messages that I got as a result of shutting off the blocker:


Um… OK, apparently “history” is now about ’70s fashion and boobs… And thanks for trying to entice me with the “not suitable for all eyes.” It’s like the Simpsons monorail trick, but with sexual intrigue.



What the internet apparently thinks it knows, is that I’m broke, looking to cheat on my wife/get murdered and I have attention deficit disorder since it gave me TWO of these ads. It also presupposes that “older women” means anyone who can buy booze without the clerk breaking out a black light on her ID and that I wasn’t thinking, “Isn’t that Elizabeth Shue?” Moving on…


If you touch your lip, you’re dying of cancer. Got it. Thanks.


I’m not really deaf. I’m just ignoring you…

And finally:


(I spent three minutes trying to type a word that effectively captures that sound I make when I’m feeling like I’m throwing up in my mouth. Whatever that noise is, fill it in here…)

I’m guessing your experiences are somewhat similar to mine, with tweaks for age brackets and theoretical senses of what “kids your age” want to see: Hot chicks/dudes are waiting in your area… 10 simple ways to stop (Acne/HPV/Failing Calculus for a third time)… SHOCKING! You won’t believe what (Fill in your childhood Disney Show love interest) looks like now!…  Drivers in (fill in your area) can BEAT SPEED TRAPS…

This is what advertising has devolved into for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s cheaper: You can place millions of impressions for the cost of what it would take to get a full page ad in a major metro paper.
  2. You have wider reach: A newspaper or a broadcast signal can only reach so far. An internet ad can come from anywhere on earth (except our old newsroom, where apparently you can’t get a signal to save your life).
  3. Fewer risks/restrictions: There used to be a lot of vetting and careful checking of ads and products. Now, ad groups and sites and collectives just send out anything as long as the CC number works or the check clears.
  4. Money: Media outlets have always been accused of being cash whores when it comes to advertising. Back in the earlier days when money was free-flowing, they could rebut this by avoiding sketchy ads. In the “we’re still OK” days, they were more like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Today? Um…  My only analogies will get me redflagged by my editor, so just think of the lowest level of willingness to do stuff for money you can and you’re about there…

The unfortunate byproduct of this approach is a race to the bottom for advertising in the same way there appears to be a race to the bottom in news and other media fields. It can be easy to go along with the crowd in this regard, but if you want to make your advertising worth something, think about what it is you’re trying to do to create a message that reaches your readers and effectively evokes something from them. A great example of this just came out today (h/t Al Tompkins) with Nike showcasing the Women’s World Cup Team victory:


And here’s my favorite one from a few years back that still gives me the chills:

Nike gets it: Tap into something. Know your audience. Showcase the emotions associated with those people.

In the soccer one, it was one of announcing their presence with authority. With the Cavs one, it was that complete sense of quiet disbelief. The audience EXPECTED the women’s team to win and so it talked about the greatness of that team. Cleveland had gotten crushed so many times before, the audience EXPECTED the Cavs to lose (especially after going down 3-1 in the series). It got the emotions just right and it didn’t layer on the schmaltz.

If advertisers want to get beyond an eyeball grab, they have to fit more into this mold and touch on what we talked about at the beginning of the post. If the media companies that take their money want people to shut off the ad blockers, they’re going to have to ask questions that go beyond, “And what’s the 3-digit verification code on the back of the card?”

And if I ever want to eat lunch again, I’m not ever seeing another episode of Dr. Pimple Popper.

You get what you pay for: Three reasons why it’s stupid to complain about the cost of journalism

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl wrote a nice local column that took a look at how people consistently run red lights the corner of 60th and Capitol. The piece ran in the wake of a car wreck that killed an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, and was the kind of thing more papers would have done back in the days when staffs were robust and smoking was allowed in the newsroom.

I’ve linked to the article here, but most of you won’t be able to see it because it’s only accessible to the paper’s subscribers. When venerable journalist Crocker Stephenson, who used to work for the Journal-Sentinel, posted the piece to his Facebook wall, a number of people groused about their inability to access Stingl’s work.

Stephenson was not sympathetic:


In response, several people broke out the traditional diatribes against such larceny:

  • Print is dead!
  • You don’t cover the right stuff!
  • Paywalls are a tool of the man!
  • It’s stupid to pay for stuff like this because the internet is free!


Following the trail of breadcrumbs that led newspapers from being important local sources of information to disemboweled corporate shells would take far too long for a post like this. It would also take way too long to debate the merits of various profitability models that could return news organizations to prominence. However, in defense of the field itself, I’ll simply give you three reasons why complaining about having to spend your hard-earned couch-cushion cash on news is just plain dumb:

WORK COSTS MONEY: As dumb as that statement sounds, it seems necessary to make it up front. When your dishwasher decides to start flooding the house on a random Tuesday night, you call a plumber and beg someone to come over and stop the hydro-destructive force in your kitchen. When that guy or gal comes over and fixes the problem, you wouldn’t think to just say, “Thank you. I’m going on Facebook right now and putting a “like” on you today! Goodbye!”

The person did work, and you’re going to pay for it.

Truth be told, journalism ALWAYS cost money, but the readers didn’t notice because they weren’t footing the bill. It’s like picking up a prescription when you have insurance: You pay your $10 or $20 that is your part of the deal and the insurance company picks up the rest of the tab. It’s when your insurance is gone that you notice, “Holy crap! That’s some expensive stuff!”

For years, advertisers accounted for most of the costs of the work. Newspapers and magazines were chock full of large advertisements for everything from clothing stores to car dealerships. The money flowed freely, as newspapers could deliver eyeballs to the advertisers and thus demonstrate value to them. The ad money covered the big costs of doing journalism while your subscription or copy price was simply a token of good will.

The one benefit the audience had to the newspaper was in its sum total of eyeballs. The higher the circulation, the more newspapers could charge for ads. The system worked until it didn’t. (How and why it didn’t could take up a dozen books, but it’s not Craigslist’s fault, despite what publishers and hedge-fund managers who own newspaper stocks will tell you.)

Now you’re being asked to pay full price for the cost of journalism and it suddenly looks exorbitant.

In addition, the reason it’s easier to short journalists is because it never seems like we are saving you from a disaster like the tow-truck driver who gets your broken car off the freeway or the tree surgeon who pulls the giant oak that fell during a storm off your house. We don’t have a special set of tools that leave you in awe or a product that you can show other people to say, “Check out what I bought!”

However, journalism is work. It costs money to do the work. You need to pay for it if you want or need it.

YOU’RE NOT PAYING FOR WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE PAYING FOR: People often assume that becoming a journalist has been a life-long ambition for anyone who entered the field after seeing “All The President’s Men” or “The Paper.” Truth be told, I never wanted to be a journalist or a journalism professor growing up. My freshman year of college, my life-long goal of becoming a lawyer was crushed after one bad Poli Sci course, so I went hunting for another major.

I knew I could write, so I figured on a degree in English, a subject I had dominated throughout high school and even in college. When I went home for Christmas break that year, I told my father that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer and that I was looking around at my options. Dad spent his entire career in a factory, so he was always practical in his advice: “Just make sure you can get a job. Don’t do something stupid like majoring in English or something like that.”

OK, that shot that.

I found journalism shortly after that and realized that with a few tweaks and overhauls, the writing I did in English could translate to this new field. The reason I stuck with it was because there WAS a job at the end of the rainbow for this major and it was one my father could easily see. He read the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel cover to cover every day. He saw the newspaper as a tangible representation of careers in journalism.

When I got my first reporting gig, Mom bought a subscription to the State Journal and had the paper mailed to her. She would cut out and keep my articles. Again, it was that dead-tree-and-ink element that showcased my livelihood.

The problem now is that those rolled-up wads of tree pulp are landing on fewer and fewer doorsteps, thus giving people the idea that “Print is dead.” Furthermore, the users always assumed that what their money paid for was that physical publication. Thus, as those things became smaller and less frequent, and people found their information in ways that didn’t involve deforestation, they figured there was no point in paying money for journalism.

The truth is, we were actually paying for information, but we never saw it that way. It was far easier for us to understand that simple goods-for-cash exchange that took place on street corners, through subscriptions or via news stands. Because we never really saw it as a knowledge-for-cash exchange, when the “good” went away, we didn’t see why money should be involved. As newspapers revenues shrunk, we saw losses of people and pages. The people? We didn’t notice that so much from the outside, but the pages? Yeah, we saw those cutbacks in newspapers and magazines.

To complain about paying for newspaper content is to say the content itself lacks value. That can be a perfectly legitimate statement, depending on the quality of the content or the cost of the access. However, when you WANT something, it demonstrates that the “something” has some level of value to you. Paying for it showcases the way you value it.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR: When I was a grad student, I ended up at a conference in Washington, D.C. and a bunch of us decided to go out for a meal. What was supposed to be a run for cheap Chinese food somehow landed us at a restaurant where we were the worst-dressed people in there and most of us were clad in reasonably decent garb. We didn’t know how pricey the meal was going to be until one of the people in our party reached for a piece of bread and dropped some crumbs on the linen table cloth.

Out of nowhere, a guy in a white button-down jacket appeared with a little metal device. He scraped the crumbs into a white-gloved hand and then disappeared just as quickly.

Yeah, we were in for an expensive night.

Contrast that with what I usually see when I’m heading out for a meal: A disgruntled employee behind the counter at a local fast food joint takes someone’s order, screws it up twice and then can’t make change without an iPhone app. The customer gets the wrong meal, but usually just shakes his or her head and mutters something about “kids these days,” even if the employee is 35.

The point is, you get what you pay for. That’s true even in journalism.

When you’re getting stuff for free, it’s usually of a lower quality. What you’re paying for when you buy a subscription to the Times or the Post or the Journal-Sentinel is quality work. You’re paying to have someone who went to school to learn a trade present you with quality content that has value to you. You’re paying for expertise and experience. It’s the same way with the plumber scenario above: You could call your buddy to come over and “give it a shot” when it comes to getting the dishwasher under control, but you figure it’s worth the money to get someone in there who knows how to fix the thing properly.

The nice thing is that a lot of people who commented on Stephenson’s post saw things this way as well. Long-term subscribers saw the value in the content and noted they had willingly paid for it for years. My folks still get the paper delivered every day and on more than a few occasions, my mother has told me she worries that the paper might cease to be at some point. Thus, she pays for a subscription to help support the cause.

In looking at the costs associated with the paper, we aren’t talking about a critical spending decision, either. One offer let you pay something like a buck a month for three months of digital access. My print subscription to the Oshkosh Northwestern was something like $14 a month and that came with unlimited digital access. As Stephenson’s post points out, 33 cents gets you access to the whole paper.

(Conversely, it costs $2.99 to buy three lollipop hammers in Candy Crush and rarely do those things help as much as you think they will.)

Sure, I could argue that these publications aren’t what they once were, but I also know that candy bars used to be a nickel, but grousing about that doesn’t make them any cheaper now.

Besides, as my father and I like to say about buying random stuff at yard sales, I’ve wasted far more money on far dumber things.