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:

AdBlock1

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.

AdBlock3

AdBlock4

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…

AdBlock6

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

AdBlock2

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

And finally:

AdBlock5

(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:

Stephenson

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.

 

“Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

As we have discussed here before, I spend a less time thinking about how a headline or a photo or anything else can be awesome and a lot more time thinking about how it can go horribly wrong. That level of mild-to-moderate paranoia keeps me out of more than the average amount of trouble when it comes to my writing here and elsewhere.

I’m teaching an editing class this summer, which has me on the lookout for gaffes, stumbles and other snafus that pop up on all manner of platforms. Although horrible spelling and awkward moments make up a great deal of my finds, I have noticed more than a few areas in which the way in which a word can be interpreted or misread can lead to problems within writing.

One of my favorites came from USA Today as the country was crawling out from under the mortgage meltdown:

Shot.jpg

The questions I had were a) do I get to pick where they shoot me? and b) where do I sign up?

Obviously, in this case, the writer meant “shot” to be a synonym for “chance.” However, “get shot” can also easily be interpreted to mean someone put a bullet in you. (I suppose if you want to get technical, it could also mean a needle full of something or a small glass of hard liquor. “Barkeep! I’ll take a Tequila Sunrise and a shot of “Loan Abatement.”)

A similar problem emerges in this headline:

GayStraight

(Glad they finally got those Gay-Straight Alliance ruffians to stop picking on people in the school…)

Stressing different words in different ways can help you avoid issues like this one as well:

WalkerPodcast

The title in the tweet showcases the problem: “You can’t recall courage with Scott Walker.” The title is a play on words, in that Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. However, on a first pass, the word “recall” more likely sounds like people are trying to remember something. (“I clearly recall putting my wallet in my pocket, but now it’s missing.”) So, it sounds like we can’t remember anything about courage when it somehow relates to Scott Walker. (“I can’t recall any acts of courage on the part of Scott Walker.”) I’m sure that sits well with the former governor…

In any case, the point is that had the writers read these items aloud, we wouldn’t be debating the issue. Other similar problems happen when you get a bad headline break. In print, when you “break” a headline between columns, you create a natural pause at the end of the first line, similar to a comma. On one line, the head makes sense:

Smith, Jones dead even in polls

However, when split at the wrong spot, you get a zombie movie of sorts:

Smith, Jones dead
even in polls

When this happens in print, it’s often due to layout issues and those issues can lead to some awkward headlines:

Blows

(Wow… the soccer team must be exhausted…)

Even in digital copy, this can happen (h/t Testy Copy Editors)

SplitsMatter

How does one get “robbed accidentally?” (To be fair, it could be worse, I’ve seen “robbed” end up getting spelled “robed,” which always makes me think of Hugh Hefner for some reason…)

Here are a couple points to help you avoid these problems:

  • Read your stuff aloud: I often tell students to read their copy out loud, as that will help them find grammar errors, run-on sentences and structural issues. One other benefit is that if you emphasize different words in different ways while reading the copy aloud, you can see how something might not read quite right.
  • Watch your swaps for size: In many cases, the headline errors come when people are trying to swap out a longer word for a shorter one or (occasionally) vice versa. This is how you get things like “shot” for “chance” and similar errors.
  • Keep an eye on your breaks: When you have a break in a headline, regardless of platform, realize it’s going to shift the way in which the content is read. Therefore, you need to put the breaks in the right spots to avoid people hearing that two candidates are “dead… even in polls”
  • Beware of potentially hazardous word choices: We talked about this before when it comes to reading like a 12-year-old boy, but it’s not just the double-entendre sex-ed stuff that can get you into trouble. A headline on suburban sprawl could have a politician hoping to “retard growth.” That word, although technically accurate, has the potential for danger, as the “R-word movement” can clearly explain. All sorts of words can create danger for you, so always think, “How can this go wrong?” and you’ll save yourself some explaining and agony for sure.

Writing 101: Don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me something. Just say it.

Zoe got pretty excited this weekend because her “favorite TV show” (whatever it is this particular week) was coming out with a second season. The first season, as shows like this one are wont to do, ended with a cliffhanger. The main character overheard her aunt and the school’s vice principal talking about the girl’s dead mother. She then walked out and said to the VP, “How did you know my mother?”

Cut to black, thanks for watching, see you next season (maybe).

This kind of teaser approach can work well in ongoing serial dramas, but it’s a lousy technique for media writing. Your readers want to know what’s going on right away and they don’t want to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” to find key information. Additionally, this approach is a waste of time and space for busy journalists who want to get their job done and move on to the next important story.

We have talked about burying the lead before, so that’s not something worth rehashing. Instead, let’s look at the body of stories for print and broadcast and see how this problem can manifest itself and what we can do to fix it.

PRINT:

In most print stories, we like to operate in paraphrase-quote structure, with the paraphrase introducing the quote and the quote delivering on the promises established in the paraphrase. In the book, we refer to this as the “diamond ring” approach, with the paraphrase serving as the setting and the quote serving as the jewel.

The problem is when your setting doesn’t do its job and instead just tells your readers that you’re going to tell them something:

Mayor Bill Jackson talked about his thoughts on giving firefighters a raise.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The paraphrase talks about the content that is upcoming, but all it really does is tell me that you’re going to tell me something. When you run into a jam like this, you have several options:

Cut the first line of the quote and retool it to make it part of the paraphrase.

Mayor Bill Jackson said although he supports firefighters and their needs, no one in the city is getting a raise this year.

“I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites,” he said.

Find additional valuable information to include in the paraphrase that can still allow the quote to stand on its own.

Mayor Bill Jackson said he has supported raises for firefighters in the past three budgets but he can’t do it this year because the budget won’t allow it.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The main goal is to tell your readers something of value in each and every sentence you provide. If you just tell them that you’re going to tell them something, you’re not doing that.

BROADCAST:

In television and web-based video packages, reporters have to find ways to introduce their soundbites, the broadcast equivalent of quotes, in a way that adds value to the story. These introductory statements are known as lead-ins.

One of more common failings of new broadcasters is to just tell people the soundbite is coming. Here’s some examples from the media-writing book:

Horrible lead-in: In responding to the budget crisis, University System President Nate Craft had this to say:

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Bad lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says a 20 percent loss in revenue would force campuses to cut faculty and staff positions.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Better lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says the budget cuts the governor proposed would substantially weaken all of the campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

In each case you see improvement, although even these lead-in sentences would be a bit long for broadcast. If you feel they are overly long. You can always cut them in half:

Nate Craft is the university system president. He says the budget cuts would weaken campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

 

A Poynter Plea for Shorter Sentences and the Rosendale Theory of Speeding

A student in my reporting class turned in a story with a 64-word lead, leading me grumble about you damned kids and your hippity hoppity music again.

Ever since I taught my first writing class, I emphasized leads of 25-35 words. If you go past 35, it better be for a good reason. If you go past 40, you’d better be curing cancer with that thing.

Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one muttering about sentence length. Take a look at this piece from Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, a master of journalism who is about a dozen times smarter than I am on this stuff:

Within a text, white space is created by paragraphs. Short paragraphs create more white space. Long ones, especially in narrow columns, cast a gray shadow on the page. Without reading a word, readers see tombstones with the epitaph: “Heavy lifting.”

This dense packing of words presents itself not only in the body of stories, but even in the leads. An old nickname for this problem is “the suitcase lead.” The writer takes all the key elements, stuffs it into a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence, and slams it shut. If it doesn’t fit, the writer sits on it till it closes.

In the age of the text message, this trend seems odd.

The trend Clark outlines does seem odd, if you imagine that students are purposely writing gigantic sentences from the get-go. However, if you realize that this is more about language creep and failure to set meaningful limits, this makes sense.

Think about this like you would driving: How often to do you actively attenuate to the EXACT speed you are traveling for any extended period of time? If you’re like most of us, you’re cruising along at whatever speed everyone else is until you all spot the state highway patrol vehicle, at which point everyone starts driving 20 miles under the speed limit.

Only when you know you’re going to get crushed by a horrific ticket do you slow down, which is why a place like Rosendale, Wisconsin is so terrifying to most people.

The Village of Rosendale has about 1,000 people in it and it sits along Highway 23 just outside of the Fox Valley. Most towns of this size aren’t known for much. Rosendale is a legend for its speed-limit enforcement. If you find yourself going “just a few miles over,” you might get nailed. If you think I’m kidding, here’s a look at the T-shirts they sell in the village’s gas station:

RosendaleTshirt

The point is, they’re cracking down like hell and you knowing that puts a little sweat on your brow and removes a little lead from your foot as you drive through that little hamlet.

Think about the last time you were REALLY held to a word limit on a per sentence basis. Most professors force you to stretch for extra pages or longer essays, thus giving you a reason to infuse your writing with superfluous stuff. Even when you have word limits like on scholarship essays or eBay feedback, you’re not limited in each sentence. You can write a sentence that would put one of Bret Easton Ellis’ coked up protagonists to shame, so long as the total word count works.

When it comes to your writing, think about having that Rosendale cop sitting on your bumper, checking out your sentence length. That officer is just waiting to pounce, and all you have to do is ignore the simple rule of keeping things short and tight.

In writing longer sentences, we’re writing for ourselves, either feeling too lazy to go back and edit stuff or too proud of our winding prose to chop it back. However, the readers want to know two simple things:

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

In each sentence, you can tell the readers those ideas in a simple and easy way if you stick to the noun-verb-object structure and focus on what THEY need to know as opposed to what YOU want to tell them.

In essence, writing that way is just the ticket.

The Underwear Thief Theory of Lead Writing: When you either know too much or not enough about a Catholic school principal who was arrested at a strip club

I often joke that having spent my professional life on a crime desk meant that most of my leads essentially wrote themselves. Fire leads were basic: Fire damages house. Crime leads were basic: Guy robs store, Gal steals car and so forth.

When we got weird crimes, however, there was a difficult moment in trying to determine how much information to put into the lead while also trying to avoid putting too much information in there. It was also a game of, “What, exactly, do we care most about?”

The exercise that typifies this for my students is the one lovingly dubbed “The Underwear Thief Lead.” A story I pulled out of the Oshkosh Northwestern years ago told the tale of a guy who was arrested on suspicion of breaking into women’s homes with a ladder and stealing their underwear. Here is the original lead:

An Oshkosh man ac­cused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and ad­mitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — – including rape and murder but that his    religious  beliefs pre­vented  him   from following through.

The lead is nearly 50 words. It has a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he was sending threatening letters to people’s underpants (Dear Victoria Secret Size 8, I will find you and stretch out your waistband…). He considered himself a sexual predator? Well, I consider myself the starting center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, so let’s see how that goes… Also, what kind of religious beliefs can make you think it’s OK to break into homes, steal underwear, threaten women and so forth? (It also doesn’t help that the headline, “Thief thought of Rape, Murder,” essentially convicts him of multiple crimes before the courts get a shot at him.)

The story goes on for about a mile and a half before we ever get a “when” element, at which point in time we find out we’re hearing about this now because the guy was in court that day. If convicted, he’s facing more than 60 years in prison. There were all sorts of other “tidbits” in there, and if you’re interested, you can read the story here. 

The point of the exercise is about more than writing a lead better than what is listed above. The students need to be able to justify what they put in and what they left out. They can’t include everything, so they have to make choices. Here are some of the best discussions we’ve had over the years:

  • Age: Some students don’t see it as being important to note “A 43-year-old Oshkosh man” as it’s not a big deal. Others said it helped clarify this wasn’t a stupid frat prank, as at 43, this guy was like the creepy dude at the college bar who reeks of Polo and wants you to come to the parking lot and check out his Iroc-Z.
  • Penalty: Some want to list the EXACT number of years (62.5) while others say cutting it to a general area (more than 60) is fine. Also, should we include the fine ($125,000) or not? For some, it’s a lot of money so it matters. Others said if they had to choose between 62 years in the joint and paying $125K, they’d hock a kidney to pay the fine.
  • Lead type: Some people want to lead with the name (Christopher J. Sullivan) while others want to do an interesting action lead (delay the name). The question is how many people were likely to know him versus how many people were likely to read on after hearing about the underwear thing?
  • Level of creepy: The story goes into excruciating detail about decapitated Barbie dolls, threats to boil off people’s skin and more. How much of that can make the lead and what shouldn’t comes into play here.

This theory of trying to balance and choose came to mind today after a story about a Louisiana principal of a Catholic school resigned for a truly spectacular reason:

StripPrincipal

When it comes to the lead on this, you have an Associated Press approach that cuts to the chase:

A Louisiana Catholic school principal was arrested at a Washington, D.C. strip club after refusing to pay his bill.

It’s 19 words and right to the point. However, it’s really missing some of the nuances.

First, the guy hit the strip club while on a SCHOOL FIELD TRIP. I remember my mother freaking out when her school and my school ended up having a trip to the circus when I was in second or third grade and she saw our teacher smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer behind the big top. I can only imagine what parents at this school were thinking.

Second, the guy was drunk at 2:20 a.m., outside the club, refusing to move out of the roadway. And, again, remember this is a FIELD TRIP for a CATHOLIC SCHOOL.

Third, he had a history of problems, including the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina donations to a previous school. Still, he was a reserve officer in a local police department.

Still, the AP might not have wanted to use all the information that was in The Advocate, the local paper for this educational leader. Here’s the lead from that paper, where the writer clearly decided to go a different way:

Michael Comeau, the principal at Holy Family Catholic school in Port Allen and an educator who previously received the prestigious $25,000 Milken award, has resigned after his arrest early Friday at a Washington D.C. strip club while on a school field trip to the nation’s capital.

This is a case of throwing the kitchen sink into the lead, as it’s 46 words. The author names the person up front, relying on his presumed local fame to drive the interest. (I asked a friend who reads this paper and he said this guy isn’t a known entity, so there’s that…)

The part about him being an award-winning educator makes the lead (and about a half-dozen paragraphs throughout the story for some reason). It also updates the story to explain he resigned after the arrest, pushing up the newer stuff that AP didn’t use.

Neither of these leads hits the nail on the head, as I’m guessing more people would care about the action than the person, making the second lead a bit weaker in the approach. I’m also sure more people want to know about the field trip and the resignation than the arrest. However, WHY he was arrested (whatever the strip club/booze equivalent of “dine and dash” is) would be worth knowing up front. (There’s something in another story about his use of a service dog at the strip club, which just screams for a follow up…)

If you’re looking for a fun and yet somewhat disturbing exercise, use all the information in these two stories to determine what would make for a good 25-35 word lead for a broad audience.

Auschwitz is not a marketing strategy and neither is blaming your users

Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, an event that is largely seen as a critical turning point in World War II. In the following 15 months, Allied Forces would bring an end to the Nazi regime and discover the death camps throughout Europe and the Holocaust that took place.

Some camps have been preserved as memorials of what happened, in hopes that nothing like this will ever happen again. However, there’s a reason why you have never seen a “My friend went to a concentration camp and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” kinds of products out there: Auschwitz is not a marketing strategy, something that apparently came as a shock to internet store, Redbubble:

NaziSkirts

Redbubble, which began in 2006, is an Australian company that promotes itself as a marketplace in which artists can sell their artistic efforts to people interested in unique products. The company states it connects more than 700,000 artists and designers all around the planet.

The company responded on Twitter, noting it would remove the offensive material and that it has community guidelines that are suppose to prevent this kind of thing:

Redbubble Help responded to the Auschwitz Memorial tweet on Tuesday, writing: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The nature of this content is not acceptable and is not in line with our Community Guidelines.”

“We are taking immediate action to remove these and similar works available on these product types,” it added.

It also said Redbubble “is the host of an online marketplace where independent users take responsibility for the images they upload.”

The “Community Guidelines” actually touch on two aspects of this, neither of which is really helpful in guiding people not to wear Auschwitz:

Redbubble is a respectful, supportive, and encouraging community who is deeply passionate about art and creativity. We welcome artists of all experience levels and walks of life. Redbubble asks that you do not seek or engage with content you don’t agree with (no need for troublemaking). And if you see behavior or content that goes against our guidelines, please flag it through one of the reporting functions on our site. Above all, we urge you to make the most of your time here by offering support to artists. Contribute positively to the community, and you’ll find that Redbubble can be a fun and rewarding place. (Yay.)

<SNIP>

Works that deal with catastrophic events such as genocides or holocausts need to be sensitively handled. Works that have the potential to cause the victims serious distress may be removed.

Even more, this wasn’t the first dumb Holocaust-themed item for which it managed to provide a marketplace:

DrHolocaust

In terms of bad marketing, weak apology and generally not getting the full weight of one’s own responsibility, this will likely serve as a decent case study for media classes. If you decide to work in marketing, it’s wise to remember three simple rules:

  1. Even if you aren’t legally responsible for content, it doesn’t follow that the public won’t dislike you for that content.
  2. Blaming your users for something you should have caught (it says “Auschwitz” right on the sales page for these thing), is the grown-up equivalent of “BUT HE STARTED IT!” That boat won’t float.
  3. Genocidal acts aren’t a marketing strategy. I know this pretty much goes without saying, but clearly it needed to be said, because as recently as a month ago, a multi-national marketer of myriad products allowed you to buy a skirt/purse/pillow combo featuring a death camp. Just as stupid as it is when reporters refer to people as being like Hitler, a group of people being like the Nazis or a rigorous event as akin to the Bataan Death March, the Redbubble situation is equally stupid here.

“I don’t like it” isn’t the same as “You are factually inaccurate:” Four tips for when people say they’re going to sue you for something you wrote

I spent part of Wednesday afternoon on a conference call with students from Oshkosh North and the attorney for Hans Nelson, the school’s former vice principal. The story the North Star wrote about Nelson and his unceremonious transition from high school VP to a special-needs educator elsewhere in the district was at the crux of the whole censorship debacle last month.

In one of the articles on the Oshkosh North situation, Nelson’s lawyer, Charles Hertel, stated that the article was inaccurate and intimated a lawsuit might be forthcoming:

On Friday, Charles Hertel, a partner with the Dempsey Law Firm in Oshkosh, provided a statement to the Journal Sentinel on Nelson’s behalf. He called the article “factually false and defamatory.” He said Nelson is considering legal action against Doemel and possibly others.

“What he is doing is not privileged,” Hertel said.

The students, still pursuing a story to try to find out what happened to Nelson, were told via emailed letter that Hertel would speak for Nelson and that a call should be arranged. One of the students asked me to join, so I sat quietly for most of the call until at least the second time Hertel stated with certainty that the story was somehow false or inaccurate.

I asked Hertel to outline the factual inaccuracies, so the students could either correct the record or investigate this more clearly.

Hertel first stated that Nelson hadn’t been terminated. I asked the students if the story stated that. They said no. He then said Nelson hadn’t resigned. We quibbled over language a bit, noting that if he doesn’t have his previous position and he now has a different one, how could that be characterized as not resigning something?

After one more question, in which an inaccuracy did not emerge, Hertel noted he didn’t have the article right in front of him. He also said he didn’t think the students had a source (which, again, would not be an issue of factual inaccuracy). At that point, I suggested we move on.

This isn’t the first conversation I’ve had like this in my career as a reporter, editor and adviser, in which there seems to be a basic misunderstanding between the concepts of “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “What you are saying is factually inaccurate and libelous.” Since I spent much of my pro life on the crime beat, I had a number of people who were arrested or family members of the accused calling me to threaten lawsuits.

I vividly remember once having said the sentence, “Ma’am, it’s not our fault your son was involved in a shoot out at a Taco Bell Drive Thru.” This did not placate the woman, who continued to scream that our publication of the incident made her son (an adult) look bad. (I would argue it was the shooting he engaged in at the drive thru that made him look bad, but I figured she didn’t want to hear that.)

I took a call from a bounty hunter in Missouri, who was outraged that we wrote about his arrest. Police told us that he had spotted a person who was wanted for some outstanding traffic tickets, so the bounty hunter engaged in a high-speed chase that eventually flipped the suspect’s truck onto its roof. The truck came to rest on some active railroad tracks. If memory serves, the bond amount was no more than a couple hundred bucks. He, of course, threatened to sue us. It’s been about 20 years and I’ve yet to be served.

One guy who ran for the school board argued that we had factually misrepresented numerous things, including his military records. I remember being in a conference room with this guy, our head editor and the reporter who wrote the story. The guy had this giant binder of information that he said clearly outlined everything that was wrong. When the editor asked to see it, the man declined and said we’d see it in court and he didn’t want to talk to us (that despite the fact he was the one who requested the meeting). Again, I’m still waiting on that one to make the court dockets.

If you’re worried when someone says “I’m going to sue you,” you are completely normal. Legal stuff can get freakish and panic is easy when the word “lawyer” is bandied about. That said, here are four tips from the book that might help you when you are dealing with this:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: a threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources.
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to him or her as needed.

 

 

The New York Times 144-word correction on a prominent politician’s obituary and what you can learn from the situation

When Indiana’s legendary Richard Lugar died last week, the New York Times managed to crank out this 48-word monstrosity of a lead:

Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died on Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.

And yet, that paled in comparison to the 144-word mea culpa the paper had to write once the folks there realized they massively botched the piece:

LugarFail

I imagined this to be the conversation at the New York Times last week around the obituary desk:

Obit Writer 1: Man, we’ll never screw up another obituary any worse than we did when John McCain died…

Obit Writer 2: Hold my beer.

If you look at the mistakes in there, you can see that a lot of this came down to fact checking. People can argue about nuance, such as if someone “resigned” or merely “left a job,” but the date something happened is one of those things we can all figure out if we try really, really hard.

With that in mind, let’s look back at a few of the points we made when the times ran its mega-fail obit of John McCain and see how they still apply here:

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: This one still works wonders here, especially up at the top of this thing. The date he entered the service, his rank and the date of his marriage are all fact-based items that could easily have been checked against a dozen sources or digital documents. As noted in the McCain piece, when a person takes on a particularly important level of distinction in the world, newspapers like the NYT will usually start an obituary file for that person, so this thing has been on hand for a while.

That said, who knows who actually wrote that first draft of it or to when it was last reviewed? You shouldn’t grab something out of an old file and figure, “Well someone wrote it so it must be right” any more than you would grab an unmarked pill bottle out of a stranger’s medicine cabinet and figure, “Well, I’m sure a couple of these will probably help my headache.” As much as we venerate the “golden era” of the press, which consisted of a lot of typewriters clicking, lead-type machines and the concept of smoking indoors, those folks were people, just like us. They could have screwed up, just as easily as we can.

How you state something matters: When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:

  • “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
  • “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles. The second one is wrong because the Green Bay Packers won 13 NFL titles (most of them in the pre-Super Bowl era), so even thought Steelers have more Super Bowls, the Packers have more titles.

The line in the obituary for Lugar that got some criticism falls along these lines. Lugar pushing for something didn’t mean it encountered heavy resistance. That’s probably at least part of the problem associated with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program correction, although I’m not entirely sure how they missed by more than a decade.

Beware of “-est” statements: The obit’s correction didn’t have any of these errors, which was the case with McCain’s, but that might have just been a fortunate bounce, given the use of “-est” statements:

His greatest legacy, though, remains his work toward reducing the threat of nuclear arms.

Security was upgraded at nuclear weapons sites, at a time when the greatest fear was that a terror group would take advantage of the chaos in Russia or in one of the former Soviet states and buy or steal a weapon.

Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.

In these statements, the writer’s good luck had him attempting to quantify things that could not be accurately quantified, such as a “greatest” fear” or “greatest source.” People can quibble with those. In the case of the McCain obit, calling the fire on the Forrestal the “deadliest” incident could be measured (and proven wrong, as it was).

As a word of warning, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.

Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.

UNC-Charlotte shooting presses students at the Niner Times back to work

As we’ve noted here before, journalists are never really off the clock, given that news can happen at any point in time and it needs to be covered. Students at the Niner Times experienced this first hand when a gunman opened fire on their campus during the last week of school:

THREE HOURS BEFORE A SHOOTING WAS FIRST REPORTED on University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s campus, Alexandria Sands tweeted that she was “officially a retired college newspaper editor. Thank you for letting me tell your stories, #UNCC.” At around 5:42 p.m., as she was sitting in the last class of her college career, she saw a message in a group chat for the Niner Times’ college newspaper staff. “There’s a shooter on campus in Kennedy,” it read.

Two people died and four others were injured, including Niner Times sports writer Drew Pescaro. The Niner Times stated that Pescaro had surgery for his injuries and was recovering at an area hospital.

Police arrested former UNCC student Trystan Andrew Terrell, who has been charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder. Police are still investigating the situation and are releasing additional information as it becomes available.

In the mean time, the Forty Niner staff continues to release information on its website, and via social media.