Here is proof that UW-Oshkosh’s marketing department restricted the access student journalists had to interview subjects, and some ways you can help end this gatekeeping mess

I tried my best to give my university, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and its head of University Marketing and Communications, Peggy Breister, every possible benefit of the doubt when it came to FIRE’s allegations that UMC was suppressing student journalism. The exact charges in FIRE’s article included the requirement that student journalists MUST contact UMC for ALL interviews with university personnel.

Breister said no such policy existed.

Breister lied to me. And here’s the proof.

She told students at the Advance-Titan, the university’s independent student newspaper, they MUST  request interviews through UMC:

She short-stopped interview requests student journalists made to UWO personnel without talking to her first and demanded that all requests for interviews be routed through UMC.

In this instance, she also required that the questions be submitted in advance, something else she said never happened:

 

She leaned on the staff to make changes to published copy.  In addition, as recently as this fall, she reiterated that the A-T MUST go through UMC for any interviews, stating it is a “required procedure” for reporters who wanted to interview UWO personnel:

These are just the emails I was provided through former A-T staffers who had graduated. I imagine there are more with similar messaging that I could find with a full open-records request.

In light of these revelations, today’s post is going to look at what has happened, what needs to happen next and how you can help fix this situation:

THE PAST

I reached out to a couple former staffers at the Advance-Titan for their recollections of working through UMC over the past two or three years, which is when I’m told this non-policy policy started to take shape.

Jack Tierney was the editor in chief for the A-T in the 2018-19 school year and said he had generally positive interactions with UMC during the earlier part of his tenure, noting “I always thought that working with Peggy was easy.” During the later part of his time at the A-T, he said UMC officials established a policy in which interview requests needed to go through them.

“That became a problem toward the end of my time with the paper,” Tierney said in an email interview. “Instead of having streamlined communication between officials and the paper, the messaging would be filtered through UMC. This would add time, hours or sometimes days between requesting for comment and getting an interview done, which is a problem when working on deadlines.”

By the fall semester of 2019, several A-T staff members noted they sensed a change in how UMC was interacting with the paper.

“There definitely was a shift in UMC’s approach to dealing with the A-T in Fall 2019, and it escalated early in Fall 2020,” former managing editor Joe Schulz said in an email. “My first year on staff, I don’t remember talking about how UMC would feel about a story or feeling that UMC had much of an impact on our work. By Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, it became clear that UMC really didn’t want us printing anything negative about the university.”

Carter Uslabar, the editor-in-chief from Jan. 2020 to May 2021, said UMC had clearly established criteria that required A-T staffers to use UMC as a portal to university sources.

“There definitely was a policy that we were supposed to go through UMC to get interviews,” he said in an email. “Peggy repeatedly demanded that we go through UMC to set them up. In one email from Peggy on Sept. 15, 2020, she said she told Joe Schulz that ‘A-T staff must work through UMC regarding any requests for interviews with staff.’ She also said we should contact her if we ‘don’t understand this,’ which I thought was kind of comically rude, like a Newspeak way of calling someone an idiot.”

Schulz said he remembered “swearing like a sailor in the newsroom” when the staff received Breister’s email that mandated all interview requests for UWO personnel go through UMC.

“It’s understandable to have a marketing person sit in on an interview with the chancellor, but making all interviews with staff go through UMC is ridiculous,” he said. “Direct communication with sources is key to building good relationships with sources and establishing a sense of mutual trust. Being able to directly communicate with staff enabled me to build relationships with professors that I otherwise wouldn’t have built. Having a rapport with sources is crucial to reporting.”

The ability to build rapport was also important to Uslabar, who said he thought going through UMC made the whole process of reaching sources feel “very impersonal.”

“The general feeling was that it was bogus, and that if we had to do that, it would make it exceedingly and unnecessarily difficult for us to do anything meaningful,” he said. “I think people mostly ignored it at first. I was particularly frustrated because this really hurt our ability to build rapport with sources in the university. A lot of these relationships were built by students dropping by during office hours or sending cold emails to staff, and now that was going to be mediated.”

Former managing editor Amber Brockman said the transition to this new policy also included frequent chastising from Breister.

“Before all this,  we could just reach out straight to our sources and email them,” Brockman said in a phone interview. “We had no problem and we’d get an email back. Easy as pie. Then this thing started happening where Peggy started emailing us back instead and saying we had to work through her. In one case, the professor I emailed must have emailed (Breister), and Peggy scolded me for not going through her.”

Other former staffers, who asked not to be named, also noted emails getting intercepted or sources getting cold feet in talking to the paper after UMC rebuked them for talking to the A-T. One former reporter said she was working on a story in 2020 about custodial staff and what precautions existed for them as they sanitized the campus during the pandemic when UMC stepped in.

“I had four interviews with custodial staff already set up when they all turned around and told me they weren’t allowed to give interviews,” the former staffer wrote in an email. “Breister then emailed me saying reaching out to those staff was against policy and I was only allowed to talk to their supervisor. I had to vet my questions with Breister to get a response and I only ended up getting a brief statement from the supervisor saying UWO was doing its best to keep its custodial staff safe. This completely impeded my ability to be a quality journalist and essentially shut down the story. It was stuff like this that continually kept A-T staff out of key COVID-19 responses the university was taking.”

Uslabar also said not only was the policy that all interviews must go through UMC problematic for getting the news covered, but the department’s overreaching approach to what the A-T covered made him leery.

“It was disappointing that we were being told to go through UMC for interviews,” he said. “It made things slower for students and staff, and made it more difficult to work on a deadline. Additionally, it was concerning because the paper has always had trouble receiving adequate funding, and I was worried that if we ran coverage critical of the university or its administrators, our paper would receive even less funding in the future.”

Although all of the sources interviewed here said that neither Breister nor UMC issued any direct threats to funding, Schulz said the paper felt the department was looming large in staff discussions in an uncomfortable way.

“We received several somewhat demeaning emails regarding our coverage, and UMC became a regular topic of discussion at our meetings,” he said. “It was always a fear that UMC would cross a line that would make it impossible to do our jobs. It didn’t reach that point during my time at the A-T, but we did have those fears.”

Tierney said UMC’s actions did lead to at least one story being censored. After Breister reached out to him to complain of what she called a series of inaccuracies, he and journalism Chairwoman Sara Hansen scoured a story, looking to see how what Tierney wrote was different from what Breister was telling them.

(In a separate discussion, Hansen confirmed working with Tierney as he explained. She also said she found the paper had quoted Breister accurately, but Breister continued to argue that the paper had incorrectly stated the facts.)

“After working together for nearly an hour to get the story to a place where Dr. Hansen and I felt was accurate, the A-T re-published the story,” Tierney said. “UMC reached out to the A-T after re-publishing and said they found more errors than what was originally published. The story was about a funding change to the college of letters and science with opposition to the change from the faculty union. After continued messaging from Breister about the noted inaccuracies of the story, we decided to pull the story entirely. I followed the story for the remainder of the year without publishing anything about it.”

 

THE PRESENT

The student journalists at the Advance-Titan continue to operate under a system in which all interviews of UWO personnel must go through UMC. Uslabar said he felt UMC was more concerned with the university’s image than treating student journalists with dignity and respect.

“The way UMC interacted with student journalists was shameful,” he said. “The pedantic, all-bold email I received from Peggy was the most unprofessional communication I have ever seen, and it was clear that the university and UMC were more concerned with controlling its appearance than providing real learning opportunities for students.”

Tierney said he understands that the goal of UMC is to present a positive image of the university, but the press still has rights.

“I think this situation shows a university using its leverage to maintain its image,” he said. “I have respect for the university and the people who lead the university, but I think it is clear the university is hyper-concerned about the message that gets put out into the public and does not like to have any negative communications surrounding its image. I think this issue reflects larger on the university than it does on Peggy or UMC.”

The fact the policy has gotten to this point has upset former staffers, who didn’t like the intrusive nature of the process and the way in which this has all kind of flown under the radar to this point.

“I think student reporters at the A-T should be able to talk directly to their sources without being filtered through UMC,” Brockman said. “I can see where UMC is needed for busy people like the chancellor and other people who need more schedule-conflict help, but they shouldn’t be the middleman with all the communication.”

In the wake of the FIRE article, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Editor-In-Chief Cory Sparks connected to discuss the situation. Leavitt, Sparks, Breister, adviser Barb Benish and several other folks plan to meet on Thursday on this topic.

“I’m glad this is getting some attention and hopefully something will be able to happen,” Brockman said.

As an alumnus, Schulz said he plans to keep an eye on the situation, hopeful that this issue gets resolved in a way that protects the autonomy of the paper.

“I sincerely hope the policy is changed to give student journalists and UWO employees the freedom to speak to each other without marketing interference,” he said. “I can’t imagine having all interviews go through UMC. In covering any community, whether a campus community, a big city or a small town, more often than not most news stories will be a positive reflection of that community. However, local reporters — at any level — should not fear that negative stories will hamper their ability to do their jobs moving forward.”

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The whole group meets on Thursday, where I’m sure some of these issues will likely be discussed. This situation isn’t as bleak as it might seem and there is something you can do to help:

This is Chancellor Andrew Leavitt. He’s the head of UWO and a really all-around decent guy.

He prizes student press freedom and he was exceptionally helpful to me when I was advising the paper. At that time, a group of little… um… student government people tried to get me fired. It would have been much simpler for him if he just did it, but he told me, “That’s not how we do business here.”

He told me on multiple occasions he appreciates the importance of the paper to the campus and I believe that he honestly believes that.

His email is: leavitt@uwosh.edu

Please feel free to email him and explain to him why the approach UMC is taking here is problematic to you. Also, feel free to explain what you think the “best practices” should be for the relationship between UMC and student and/or all media.

 

This is Peggy Breister. She is the head of UMC at UWO and the person who wrote the emails I screen-shotted above.

Her email is: breistep@uwosh.edu

Please feel free to email her your thoughts about her approach to UMC, student media and other similar topics. Also, if you are displeased by her actions regarding the Advance-Titan, please feel free to respectfully explain how you think things should be handled in the future.

 

 

This is Cory Sparks. He is the current editor of the Advance-Titan and, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my students.

I’ve done my best to keep him out of the danger zone on any stupid thing I write on the blog and not ask him to comment on any of this, lest there be questions about entangling alliances.

That said, he and the A-T crew have been dealing with a lot of garbage these days because of this situation, so please feel free to email the kids at: atitan@uwosh.edu

Please let them know you’re supportive of their rights and that you are behind them. I can speak from experience in this one case: When you’re in student media, you are isolated in a lot of ways, since there is usually only one paper or one TV station or one radio station on a campus. You can feel alone or that no one cares about what you’re dealing with.

Please disabuse them of that notion with a note of support.

The Second Kind of Dumb: Investigating allegations that my university, UW-Oshkosh, is “muzzling” student journalists

“There’s two kinds of dumb. The guy who gets naked and runs out into the snow and barks at the moon, and the guy who does the same thing in my living room. The first one don’t matter. The second one you’re kinda forced to deal with.”

– Hoosiers


For as long as I’ve been here at UW-Oshkosh, I’ve told basically anyone who would listen that we’ve got a great place for young journalists to learn the trade. That’s why it really upset me when a former student sent me this article from FIRE about how the campus was “muzzling the campus watchdog” with a rather heavy-handed policy:

 Journalists at universities are essential to keeping the public informed on campus activities, whether through reporting on mundane affairs or acts of impropriety.

Administrators at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh have impeded this function, imposing an onerous process on reporters, including student reporters, who want to interview university employees.

Journalists at The Advance-Titan, an independent student newspaper at UWO, maintain they must go through particular steps in order to secure an interview with university employees. While university officials have refused to outline the details of this process in writing, these hurdles have been in place for at least two years and impose a constant barrier to the work of the paper’s journalists, whose reporting focuses on UWO and its personnel.

FIRE stands for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and its mission is “to protect fundamental rights on campus concentrates on four areas: freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality on campus.”

I’ve worked with them on a couple occasions in various areas of student press and found the organization to be really interested in making sure people’s rights don’t get stepped on just because they work or learn on college campuses. The folks there aren’t above being a tad hyperbolic, but I haven’t known them to be flat-out wrong on something. I’d heard rumblings similar to those FIRE described from former and current students about “having to go through UMC to get an interview” with pretty much anyone on campus.

I’ve raised a stink about stupid policies, administrative overreach, borderline threats to student journalists and all sorts of other things on this blog, regardless of where they were happening, so to have something like this basically show up in my living room really ticked me off.

Still, journalism is the field in which if your mother says she loves you, you go check it out. So, I read the article, dug into some research, talked to a couple students and then reached out to the head of the University Marketing and Communications department, Peggy Breister.

Breister has worked in UMC for about five years at UWO, currently serving as the department’s executive director. She also has news chops, having spent 25 years of reporting and editing experience in our state and having earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. I asked for an interview, but added that I knew she was busy, so I included a number of questions about the FIRE story, the university policies and the situation at hand in case she wanted to type up some stuff.

She responded via email and here’s a chunk of her response:

We ask media to contact us when they would like to do a story about the University. We are here to help reporters connect with the individuals who can best respond to their questions. We have not changed our practices. Since the A-T is the media, we feel we should work with them in the same way that we work with other media.

We don’t require the A-T to provide us with written questions, but that is often the way we receive their initial requests, often due to deadline, or it is what is requested of us by the individual they are seeking to connect with. Reporters are welcome to request interviews, send questions via email, etc. We do not pre-approve questions or responses. We do try to clarify vague requests to help us identify the topic and appropriate source.

We try to make connections so requests can be responded to quickly. I think we have been very responsive. The A-T also does many stories that we are not involved with.

Several things concerned me with this response:

THE NON-ANSWER: I know I don’t always ask the best questions, but I think I was pretty clear with this one:

What is the explicit policy regarding student journalists and access to university employees? Is it true that all their requests must go through your office?

I spent at least five minutes playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” with Breister’s response, trying to find a simple yes/no answer to that second part and some clarity for the first one. In regard to the first part, Breister responded by pointing me to this part of the university website, which isn’t so much of a  policy as it is set of vague tips on how faculty can talk to media folks about stuff.

In regard to the second part of the question, I got about four half-answers to completely different questions: We prefer if media folks contact us. The A-T gets the same treatment from us as we give to other media outlets.  We never ask for questions from them in advance. We’re working really hard here.

All of those things might be true and yet none of them really addresses the important issue, which requires a simple yes or no answer. Or, as I explained it to a equally peeved colleague: “It would be like if you asked if I thought you were a good classroom teacher and I responded with, “Well, there’s no doubt you’re here at a University, and nobody ever questioned your research skills and I know you think teaching is really important.”

Eeesh.

THE NON-DENIAL: The FIRE article really lays it on thick when it comes to allegations of First Amendment denial, information hoarding and generally weaselly behavior. As someone who prizes objectivity and fairness in journalism, it was a bit disturbing to me to see no mention of trying to get UWO to comment or trying to check this out with the university. I appreciate the heat FIRE likes to bring, but let’s play fair. So, I gave Breister a shot:

What is the rationale behind limiting access in the fashion the FIRE article describes? Or if you feel the article is inaccurate, please feel free to explain the inaccuracies here…

Nowhere in her email did she address the FIRE article, either to agree with it or to refute it. The closest she came was this:

I’m sure you have seen this piece, but I include it in case you have not: https://advancetitan.com/opinion/2022/02/23/student-journalism-must-not-be-censored

I guess if a national organization dragged me to the middle of the internet and started smacking me around, I would like to think I’d stand up for myself. Or, if they were right, I’d issue some sort of explanation as to how sorry I was about it or that I’d do better or whatever it is we make people say these days so they don’t get  put in Twitter Jail.

Maybe that’s just me, but not hearing a full-throated defense of my own institution made me a bit queasy.

THE RAMIFICATIONS: In reading through that email, I saw the lack of a clear policy, and that created problems for me on two fronts.

First, as a student-press advocate and journalism educator, I was concerned how this was going to impact my students. I don’t advise the paper anymore, but I send plenty of kids into the field for class assignments that get published there or elsewhere. I train them to go to sources for interviews and get answers from people who have them. Any restrictions that prevent these journalists from getting to those sources is worrisome.

Second, as an employee of the university, I know I’m governed by a lot of policies and rules. I also know that I’ve been interviewed for more than a few stories over the years, both through UMC hookups and from folks independently reaching out to me. If there’s a rule as to how I’m supposed to deal with something, I’d like to know what it is before I accidentally violate it.

Also, I’d like to know what the penalty is for breaking that rule. Contrary to popular belief, me having tenure doesn’t mean I can show up dressed like and acting like Rahad Jackson. Even more, there are plenty of people out there without tenure who would be operating under this policy, so that’s a concern.

So, I pushed back with two pointed questions that sought yes/no answers about the university’s policy regarding interview-seeking behaviors and the veracity of the claims of FIRE. I also provided this simple explanation for my concerns:

I guess what concerns me most is that student journalists (even those in my classes who aren’t operating student media outlets) are being told they HAVE TO go through UMC for anything on campus.
If that’s not true, let’s disabuse them of that notion and make it clear that UMC’s job is to help facilitate interviews when journalists need that help. I’ve worked with UMC many times at multiple universities over the years where some TV station wanted a professor who knows X and the UMC played matchmaker. That’s totally acceptable and makes sense.
If, however, it is a situation where the students ARE being told that public employees at a public institution are being actively withheld from them unless they go through UMC, lest some form of punishment (whatever it is… lack of access… a stern talking to…) befall them, that’s different.
If you can more clearly answer those concerns, it’ll make things a lot easier and simpler for me when I’m teaching the students and working with student journalists in various capacities.
Breister was clear in her response:
Hopefully this information will help you in your contacts with students:
UMC has guidelines related to media relations that we ask people to follow.
There is no policy, nor is there a penalty for not working through us.
OK, fair enough. I have worked in journalism, student media, education and parenting long enough to know that a lot of wires can get crossed over time and what I say isn’t exactly always what someone else hears. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, right? Bygones be bygones and all that…
So, I forwarded this to the one student who had been helpful to me as I tried to iron out what was “suggestion” and what was “required,” hoping this would close the book on the situation. If nothing else, it’s a good note to have on file for any future staffers.
Then, someone forwarded me this email between Breister and a former editor of the paper that just pissed me off:
Well, shit, sheriff, I guess this changes things a tad…

 

TOMORROW: What has happened, what needs to happen and what should be done about this situation.

GAME TIME: Spring Break AP Style Quiz

18 Spring Break Memes For Those Who Get Time Off, And Those Who Wish They  Did

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m currently working on a post that isn’t quite soup yet, so instead of rushing it, I decided to offer this fun little exercise for folks who desperately want both Spring Break (or is it spring break?) and improvements in their students’ AP style to come as quickly as possible. -VFF

See what you know about AP style with this quiz on our favorite time of the spring.

You don’t have to establish an account to play. It’s 10 questions and you will be judged on speed and accuracy.

Take a screen shot of your score and post it everywhere! Challenge a professor (who likely wants this break more than you do) and earn bragging rights for the year.

CLICK HERE TO BEGIN.

On the back end of the Corona-pocalypse, here are four stories student journalists could dig into

We’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a number of indicators have us no longer walking into the woods of this situation, but walking toward the exit. Around here, we’re looking toward system campuses getting back to whatever “normal” is, at least as far as masks are concerned:

University of Wisconsin System officials said Wednesday they plan to end their campus face mask mandates by spring break.

UW System President Tommy Thompson announced widespread COVID-19 vaccinations and waning case numbers on system campuses and across the state justify the move.

“While we will continue to take prudent prevention measures when warranted, restrictions can be lifted as case counts drop,” he said.

Thompson said vaccines and tests will still be available on campus and students and employees can still opt to wear masks if they wish.

(I’m sorry. My mind drifted off into a fantasy land of joy when I saw the words “spring break…” What else is going on?)

With the idea that we’re “getting there” (wherever “there” is), here are a few potential story ideas for college media based on these kinds of updates:

CONTINUED ACCOMMODATIONS: One of my colleagues here asked a really good question about what happens when we go back to “normal.” What will the universities do in terms of accommodations for students who have immune system issues in regard being in classrooms now and for future illnesses?

A lot of what we dealt with over the past two years was learning what an illness can do to people, how it can spread and what can be done to avoid putting students in harm’s way. As much as the coronavirus outbreak was a fearful situation for society as a whole, I’m quite certain it was even more terrifying for people who were most ill-equipped to have their immune system protect them. As universities started to understand all of this, it’s worth asking the question of, “So, when we have a flu outbreak in 2024, are we going to find ways to help these folks the way we helped everyone else, or is it ‘You’re on your own, dude’ kind of situation?”

ONLINE ACCESS: One of the greatest things of our lives as kids here in Wisconsin was waking up and seeing the cars on our street buried in snow. We would immediately tune the radio to WTMJ and pensively listen for our school to be called in the list of “snow day closings.” Once that happened, our joy erupted as our parents cursed a bit, trying to figure out what to do with us because they still had to go to work.

Today’s students don’t have that same joy in every case, thanks in large part to online access. In the pre-pandemic era, we kind of had a split between the “hip, young, tech-savvy profs” who would just send a video or a podcast for a lecture that would have otherwise been cancelled due to weather and the “old-school, screw-this, technology-peaked-with-frozen-pizza profs” who just called it a day and let the kids have the day off. Now, after two years of going online, most of the folks teaching have online versions of in-person classes. To what degree are professors making those options available to students who can’t make it to class? To what degree are students still requesting this kind of access, rather than going to campus when it’s lousy outside (or they’re reaaaalllly too hung over to walk six blocks).

Also, how many classes are likely to remain in a mixed/hybrid/online only version on your  campus going forward? Are they expected to be more or less popular than the old-school lecture approach?

THE KIDS ARE(N’T) ALL RIGHT: The incoming freshman class for the 2023 school year will have spent more than half of their high school career in some form of online schooling, doing hybrid coursework or otherwise learning in a way that we haven’t seen before. A number of schools are trying to adjust to this through all sorts of things, like making SAT and ACT scores optional for applicants. Other schools are trying to find ways to help students adjust once they get to campus.

The question that’s worth asking is what is your school doing to try to get this group of anomalies ready and capable to survive in college, given how screwed up their high school life was? This would be worth digging into.

It would also be worth digging into how the freshmen currently on campus are doing, given that they’ve had three school years of total weirdness. What are grade trends professors are noticing? What are social anxiety trends campus health services are noticing? What are academic concerns advisers are noticing? This is especially important in terms of comparisons to other years. In other words, what’s happening to these kids that seems different or potentially problematic compared to previous generations of students?

FACULTY FALLOUT: Even before the pandemic hit, a number of universities were offering older faculty members who were close to retirement a “golden handshake” deal as an incentive to move on with their lives. Whether it was extra money, better insurance or something else, the goal was to prune the branches on the faculty tree where maybe those professors weren’t needed or to eliminate the big-salary profs and replace them with younger, cheaper options.

Then, we saw the rise of COVID-19 and the faculty tree was pretty much struck by lightning. Even if we don’t entirely ascribe to the theories of “The Great Resignation,” it stands to reason that more than a few people on your campus said, “Screw this. I’m not dying here…” Over two or three years, a number of people will naturally come to the conclusion that they should retire, so those folks probably moved on. Then there are people who started coming to grips with their own mortality and decided now was as good of a time as any to be done with the rat race. There might have even been a few deaths that didn’t get the same level of notice as normal on your campus because nothing was normal on your campus.

In looking forward either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, take a look around at the data of how many faculty and staff have decided to call it a career. See if any particular areas have been hit hard by this (food service, the chem department, whatever) and what plans are in place to replace folks. Maybe this is the time your school decides it no longer needs an underwater basket weaving department now that both faculty members have left. Maybe the once-great physics department lost a lot of folks that made it great, and now your institution is trying to figure out if the B-team has what it takes to sustain the rep.

Anything is possible when it comes to this recovery, so keep an eye out for potential stories as you start getting back to “normal” again.

Some really kick-ass headline that will make people read this thing goes here and here and here

(I wonder how many people clicked on that headline because it looked like a stupid mistake.)

Headlines like the one I (purposefully) wrote above are known as placeholders or dummy text. Journalists tend to use them to fill in blank spaces or show where content is supposed to be when the real content eventually comes around.

The perils of dummy text showed up a lot for me this weekend, when cruising through my various news sources.  A couple came from my old newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, like this social media post:

And this one via email blast…

A former student chimed in with this one he’d seen recently as well:

A good friend who works at the paper mentioned on social media that in a lot of cases, things are set up on templates and that occasionally, someone pushes the wrong button and the template gets published instead of the story. Or the template gets published before the story shows up.

Although this is the peril of playing with live ammo in a digital world where a click of the mouse can lead to a nuclear launch, these kinds of mistakes have occurred in a number of print publications over the years, like this photo caption that just got passed along without an edit:

(Poor lady. First she dies and now she gets cropped…)

The internet has no shortage of fun moments with things like this, with one site even collecting the shortcomings of our editorial colleagues. As my friend pointed out when everyone was piling on about the headline errors at the State Journal, it’s not the end of the world. We are going to make mistakes, run stuff that’s not ready and fail at so many levels it’s not even funny. With that in mind, here are a few helpful hints to prevent these errors going from bad to worse:

DUMMY, NOT STUPID, TEXT FOR PLACEHOLDERS: You might notice the “lorem ipsum” stuff in some of these placeholder pieces, as this is a good way to catch content that shouldn’t be there. (We rarely write a lot in Latin these days, although the back story for this filler text is pretty cool..) When it does run, we do look dumb, but at least we don’t look stupid, or worse.

If you plan to run placeholder text, the XXXXXX route is fine, but X-rated isn’t. I’ve seen people use F-bombs to fill in space at student media outlets, thinking it’s pretty funny or that it’s the easiest thing to catch. Well, it’s probably not funny if you don’t catch ALL of the F-bombs, so it’s probably best not to do that.

The “blah blah blah” example on the linked example looks like people don’t care about the person, place or thing the paper is covering in those refer boxes, so that’s not a good outcome. Also, you don’t want to have people wondering if that’s what you think about them behind their backs while you’re working in the newsroom.

If you plan to have “filler copy” in the space, make it as benign as possible.

IF YOU WOULDN’T RUN IT, DON’T TYPE IT: Broadcast has a similar rule about treating every microphone like it’s broadcasting live to the world. The basic concept is to make sure that you never put yourself in harm’s way by being funny, angry or just plain “ugh.”

Journalists have an odd sense of humor, to be sure, and quite often, pressure, writer’s block and other forces can lead to some harsh moments. The last thing you want is for those momentary lapses to become marks against you on your permanent record.

I have seen more than a few times where a writer is frustrated by a headline’s specs, and thus they write something like “Dick/Head/Todd/Specs” to pick on the person who gave them a 1-32-4 set of specs. I’ve seen something where people write the headline with about four F-bombs in it because they are so upset that they can’t come up with a good headline. I’ve also seen joking heads playing off of a story, with the idea that “we’ll get back to it” only not to do so.

(This might be my brain breaking, but I remember seeing either a proof page or a failed attempt at a headline or something related to the Bill Cosby rape trials that had the headline “Hey… Hey… HEY!” That’s definitely a “no-go” headline. If someone actually knows of this example, please send me a message so I at least know I’m not losing my mind.)

This also goes for randomly dashed off alt-text for photos or file names for stories. We almost had a crisis one year when we had a story about a priest accused of molestation and the reporter named the file “FatherBadTouch.” Alt-text can be seen as well, so don’t do a “Photo of three dipshits” alt for a picture of a group of fishing tournament winners.

Always imagine that the worst happens and what you wrote gets sent everywhere. If you might be uncomfortable with that, don’t type it.

BE CONSISTENT WITH YOUR DUMMIES: You might not catch every instance of dummy text, but a good way to up your odds is to use the same stuff all the time.

It might feel good to be “creative” each time you decide to fill in some space, but that only makes it more likely that the content will blend into the rest of the publication. The “lorem ipsum” stuff stands out because a) It’s weird and b) people always use it so they usually know to look for it.

Simply running one more set of “find” searchers for a couple words common in your dummy type can help you locate any missed elements, like fake pull quotes, fake graphics chatter or fake captions.

In the end, you won’t be perfect, but at least it won’t be the end of the world.

 

 

Before your student newspaper hops on the “Let’s Cover Ukraine” train, here are a few things to keep in mind

The story that will dominate the news cycle for the foreseeable future is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as every state, national and international news organization has ramped up its war coverage. I have always said student journalists are no different than any other journalists, and have taken severe umbrage at the idea that these collegiate folk were just “playing reporter,” to quote one particularly idiotic idiot I know.

That said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that college media outlets should follow suit and flood the zone with all Ukraine, all the time. Here’s why:

Audience-centricity: One of the most memorable arguments I’ve had with a student writer was one in which a columnist wanted to publish a detailed opinion about why the U.S. should annex Puerto Rico. When she first brought it up, I honestly thought I was being punked, until I realized she wasn’t old enough to remember “Little Giants:”

When I asked her why the students at UW-Oshkosh should care about this topic, she stiffened and chastised me by stating, “EVERYONE should care about this!”

OK, fine, there are a lot of things everyone SHOULD do, like eating vegetables, flossing and jogging a few miles per day. As I do none of those, I’m clearly part of a psychographic group that will require someone to give me something a lot more specific than “EVERYONE should do X.” And I don’t think I’m alone.

Case in point: A few years back our university’s foundation was in the middle of a sticky situation regarding university funds and how money was coming and going through its system. At one point, the foundation was looking to declare bankruptcy and nobody knew what that would mean for all the donations that were sitting in its coffers.

I walked into my 8 a.m. reporting class and said, “Wow! Have you all been following what’s going on with the foundation?”

Blank stares. Then one kid asked, “What is that and why would I be?”

So I asked, “How many of you in here have a scholarship?”

Every hand went up.

“Where do you think that money is kept?” I asked.

The looks changed from disinterest to horror as they suddenly figured out they had some skin in the game if this situation went from bad to worse. When I gave the students a break at the halfway point of class, they were all feverishly Googling everything they could think of having to do with the foundation.

Self-interest drives readership, and we as writers really need to take advantage of that. So, unless there is a direct way to tie a topic like the situation in Ukraine to your readers, it’s going to be a waste of time.

Niche publication and limited resources: When it comes to student publications, you are serving a niche audience: A specific campus, with an educated audience, that sits in a specific age range (mostly) and has certain heightened interests (Are classes going online with the next COVID surge? How did the basketball team do in the conference tournament? What was with all the cop cars outside of Smith Residence Hall last night?). That audience is also getting information fed to it through a fire hose right now, so to break through, you need to be really specific with how any particular story impacts your readers’ lives.

In addition, you’re covering that niche with resources that are nowhere near those available to the major international news outlets. Never once have I seen Wolf Blitzer speed up an interview with a member of the Joint Chiefs because he had to make a study session at the library for some BS group project.

In looking at these two issues, it’s clear that you’ll need to apply your resources judiciously and you’ll need to focus on things in your niche more than things outside of it.

If you have access to AP wire and you want to run a Ukraine story, that’s not a problem. However, your readers can get all the Ukraine coverage they want from hundreds of other places. They can only find out about the locks on the bathrooms in Hawthorne Dorm being broken from you.

Addition, not repetition: George Kennedy, the long-time managing editor of the Columbia Missourian, would frequently ask editors and reporters under his watch, “So, how does this add to the sum of human knowledge?” (In his more bitter moments, George would  declare that we not only failed to add to the sum of human knowledge, but we actually managed to subtract from it.)

His point was that everything we put in the paper should move the needle, advance the ball or chip into the kitty of information somehow. If we were writing the exact same thing that everyone else was writing, what was the point?

This is where that understanding of your audience and your niche can come into play. If you have stories that nobody else is telling about this invasion, tell them. If you’re basically telling people what you saw on Fox News or MSNBC or CNN or whatever, why bother? This is even more true for publications that tend to operate on a non-daily schedule. If you’re publishing once a week, a fast-moving war can render your content way, way, way out of date before it hits the stands. (The same thing applies for posting to a website, if you’re not actively updating it as things continue to change.)

So now that we’ve dumped all over what you planned to do for the next two weeks at the student paper, let’s look at some things that could meet all of those needs in some interesting ways:

Local events: As is always the case, if there’s a local event that deals with this situation, cover it. That could be a local candlelight vigil calling for peace or a protest over involvement/lack of involvement/whatever. (Some campuses have a ton more activism about almost everything than others do. When I lived in Madison, the joke about the city and campus area was, “Two’s company. Three’s a protest.”)

It’s always good to find out what the purpose of this is, who’s running it and what they hope will come out of this public display of concern.

Local folk, Ukraine tie: One of the simplest ways to show local impact on a national or international story is to find local people who are actually feeling the impact. See if your area has a large swath of Ukrainian immigrants who have family or friends still over there. This could provide some good human interest coverage with people who are well-known to the community around you.

Check with the faculty and students on your campus to see if any of them are connected in some meaningful way to that area, either through relatives or through travel experiences. Maybe your school even did a study abroad in that region at some point. Find people who can tell you what it’s like pouring over content from as many sources as possible regarding this mess and hoping to find out what is happening to people who matter to them.

Expert insight: Colleges and universities have a great number of people who have studied certain topics for a long time and know a lot about them. Between the folks in international relations, global studies, poli sci and probably a half dozen other departments I’m forgetting, you probably have some folks who have a really good set of insights on what is going on over there and WHY it is going on.

Find those experts and get them to help you craft some good explainer pieces about what is happening. The layout of who is involved, why this situation got to this point and what is likely to come out of all of this can help students care more about a topic that seems either overly reductive (Putin is a dink) or way too complicated (that whole region has a lot of history, to say the least). It might also be interesting to find out what they think about how the conflict is being portrayed in the media. (In some cases, folks might note the media is taking a “side” in a situation. I don’t think there’s another side to this one, but I don’t know, so I would definitely ask if I were interviewing someone on this.

It’s also a good idea to ask them about specific local impacts. (“So, what would you say to the average university student who doesn’t think what’s going on in Ukraine has any direct impact on them?”). When the war in the Gulf began in the early 1990s, I started to realize I lacked a truly fuel-efficient vehicle and it was killing my pocket book. I also had family and friends who were being deployed to that area, giving me a direct connection to what was going on over there.

This situation is at the front end of the conflict, so I’m sure there are a ton of things that Russia, Ukraine and a bunch of other countries in that area have/do/build/export that will have an impact on folks that we have yet to see. Those experts can look three or four moves ahead on the chessboard and give your readers a few insights about what’s going to happen and why it matters to them.

Military moments: If your institution has a strong ROTC presence, or a lot of folks in the reserves, this would be a good time to check in and see what they have heard. My initial instinct was that if we were staying out of this one, there wouldn’t be much to think about. That said, Zoe came home from school and told me two of her teachers who are somehow part of the military are being shipped out to Europe over spring break for support and training because of the invasion. (I trust the source, but the specificity was really lacking.)

If people at your institution are planning to go somewhere because of this situation, it would be good to sit down with them and get some information about what’s happening. This can also be helpful to make a connection for an overseas source, if some of those folks are deployed to the region. The ability to have that audience-centric perspective right in the thick of the situation can’t hurt.

It might also be good to talk to vets who have chewed similar dirt along the way. This isn’t the first conflict of this  nature and it (unfortunately) won’t be the last. Talking to people who have walked the walk about what is happening there for the average deployed military participant could provide some insights that other publications won’t have, as they’re so busy covering the minute-by-minute stuff.

 

Why almost everyone in today’s social media era should be happy Sarah Palin lost her libel case

Former Alaska Governor and former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin lost her libel lawsuit against the New York Times last week, as she failed to prove the news outlet was purposefully inaccurate and/or out to get her:

… after two weeks of testimony and nearly three days of deliberation, a jury decided Tuesday that the Times did not libel her in a faulty 2017 editorial — echoing a decision by the judge, who a day earlier said that he would dismiss her case regardless of its decision.

The jury’s decision conformed with that of U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who said on Monday — while the jury was still deliberating and unaware of his comments — that the former Alaska governor had not demonstrated that the Times acted with “actual malice,” the high legal standard that public figures must demonstrate to claim libel.

The editorial in question inaccurately tied Palin’s political action committee to a mass shooting in 2011, an error the Times corrected within eight hours of publication. Palin brought suit against the paper anyway, even though she would have to prove the paper acted with reckless disregard for the truth, a barrier neither the judge nor the jury believed the paper breached.

In picking through the coverage of the outcome, what struck me was the voluminous nature of comments and posts from readers who were outraged that the Times “got away with” an attack on Palin. Consider a few comments from just one article that I could repost without violating the “unnecessary cursing” edict I operate under:

“What is the purpose of a Free Press if they can abuse their libel and slander protections to the benefit of their preferred politicians?”

“She will take to the SCOTUS if she loses here. We know Roberts will vote with the wrong side again, but Palin should win 5-4 – and hopefully start the flow of lawsuits against the legacy MSM.”

“I’m amazed that there hasn’t been more outrage that Clinton-appointed judge, who already had one of his Stalinist rulings against Palin thrown out last year by the appeals court, was allowed to pull another Stalin last night. This is not the US anymore.”

“So they can print totally false information that smears the name of a politician who is running for public office, admit they lied and still get off scot-free. Just saying “Oops” the next day seems to be the magic word. Never mind that it has already planted the seed. Never mind that this gives them free rein to smear anyone they want with impunity as long as they say “Oops” the next day. How comforting.”

In these and other responses across the digital universe, a common theme of “hang ’em high” seems to have emerged among a particularly angry sect of folks. The argument is that the best answer to published mistakes is to smack the media publishers as hard as possible so they get the message.

Well, keyboard warriors, here’s the problem with that: You are publishers. You are the media.

And if this case, or any of its progeny, gets any closer to opening up those libel laws, as one politician famously requested, it isn’t the New York Times that will be in the most trouble.

It’ll be you.

In teaching students the basics of writing, I’m a beast about accuracy, punishing fact errors with the stiffest of penalties all throughout the semester. I’m a pain in the rear end about making sure opinions are properly attributed and that the students are sure to be sure about any information they include in a piece. They grumble and grump about my overreactions to these seemingly minor concerns, wondering why being a journalism professor seemingly equates to being a reactionary jerk.

When we get to the end of the term, I outline the concepts of libel, defamation, slander and so forth. They see how these things have led to lawsuits, the loss of careers and other painful things, and they admit, this is all terrible. Still, they seem to be oddly detached from these stories, especially since they’re not working for a major newspaper or TV station.

I then ask, “How many of you are on social media?”

Everyone of them raises a hand.

“Great,” I explain. “You are all publishers. Anything you have written that meets the standards we outlined here could get you sued for defamation.”

It hits them kind of like this:

 

The responses I have heard over the years are priceless:

“But I wrote that just for my friends. It was supposed to be just a private thing…”

You put it on the WORLD WIDE WEB. What part of “world wide” don’t you get?

“I’m not a professional journalist, so that shouldn’t count!”

We don’t license journalists in this country. Everyone enjoys the same rights and everyone gets the same kick in the pants when they libel somebody.

“It was just on Twitter!”

You can libel someone on a gum wrapper if you put your mind to it, so your digital dissemination that has the potential to go viral isn’t immune to libel laws.

“I didn’t really think about it before I posted it.”

That’s a great answer. “Your Honor, I’m just a sloppy dimwit. Sorry about that.”

When the excuses are exhausted and the reality sets in, the students start to get why I am the way I am about facts and accuracy and keeping stupid stuff out of the public eye. They also start taking those apps on their phones a little more seriously.

Which brings us back to why basically everyone is so much better off that Palin lost this case.

The Times, the Washington Post, CNN, ABC and every other major media outlet out there have operated in a world for quite some time in which libel was a real threat. These outlets have trained professionals who know what can and can’t get them in trouble. The publications also have lawyers and experts who can vet content prior to publication, just in case someone is a little too close to producing defamatory content. In short, these folks know the game and they play it carefully.

In comparison, here are just a handful of cases that have made it to court involving “regular citizens” who published content online:

Now let’s imagine a world in which Palin won, in which the bar to prove libel was much lower. Who is likely going to end up in deeper trouble? The major media outlets with trained reporters and experienced legal teams or randomly enraged citizens with no legal training, no verbal filter and who are the reason silica packets have to bear the phrase “DO NOT EAT” on them?

So, as great as it would seem to some folks if the Times “got what was coming to them,” I’d argue we all probably better off that it remains just a little bit harder to libel someone.

Throwback Thursday: Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

A student in my reporting class mentioned last week that he feared writing obituaries. “Those must have been the toughest stories you ever wrote,” he noted.

In some cases, they really were, as I was reaching people at the worst times of their lives and asking some of the most difficult questions I ever had to ask. In other cases, they were the best stories I ever got, because I was able to learn a lot about people who I wished I had gotten to know when they were alive.

At the end of the last semester, a student who was struggling with all sorts of things told me that her grandfather was dying so she’d be missing a class or two. During our semester break, she emailed me an update:

“My grandpa died on Tuesday morning, but one of his last wishes was for me to write his obituary! Thank you for showing me how to do it!”

With that in mind, here’s a throwback Thursday piece that goes through the best and the worst of obituary writing.

 

Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

In a discussion among student media advisers, one person noted that obituaries are probably the second-hardest things journalists have to do frequently. (The hardest? Interviewing family members about dead kids.) When a person dies, media outlets often serve as both town criers and official record keepers. They tell us who this person was, what made him or her important and what kind of life this person led. This is a difficult proposition, especially given that people have many facets and the public face of an individual isn’t always how those who knew the person best see him or her. Couple these concerns with the shock and grief the person’s loved ones and friends have experienced in the wake of the death and this has all the makings of a rough journalistic experience.

The New York Times experienced this earlier in the week when it published an obituary on Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. The Times produced a news obituary that focused on multiple facets of Monson and his affect on the church. This included references to his work to expand the reach and the population of its missionary forces as well as his unwillingness to ordain women and acknowledge same-sex marriages. The obituary drew criticism from many inside the church, leading the obituary editor to defend the choices the paper made in how it covered Monson. (For a sense of comparison, here is the official obituary/notification of death that the church itself wrote for Monson.)

You will likely find yourself writing an obituary at some point in time if you go into a news-related field.  Some of my favorite stories have been obituaries, including one I did on a professor who was stricken by polio shortly after he was married in the 1950s. I interviewed his wife, who was so generous with her recollections that I was really upset when we had to cut the hell out of the piece to make it fit the space we had for it. Still, she loved it and sent me a card thanking me for my time.

Some of my most painful stories have also been obituaries. The one that comes to mind is one I wrote about a 4-year-old boy who died of complications from AIDS. His mother, his father and one of his siblings also had AIDS at a time in which the illness brought you an almost immediate death sentence and status as a societal pariah. I spoke to the mother on the phone multiple times that night, including once around my deadline when she called me sobbing. Word about the 4-year-old’s death had become public knowledge and thus she was told that her older son, who did not have AIDS, would not be allowed to return to his daycare school. Other things, including some really bad choices by my editor, made for a truly horrific overall situation in which the woman called me up after the piece I co-wrote ran and told me what a miserable human being I was. She told me the boy’s father was so distraught by what we published that he would not leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me responsible for that. Like I said, these things can be painful.

No matter the situation, there are some things you need to keep in mind when you are writing obituaries:

  • Don’t dodge the tough stuff: Your job as a journalist is to provide an objective, fair and balanced recounting of a person’s life. The Times’ editor makes a good point in noting that the paper’s job is to recount the person’s life, not to pay tribute or to serve as a eulogist. This means that you have to tell the story, however pleasant or unpleasant that might be. One of my favorite moments of honesty came from hockey legend Gordie Howe who was recalling the tight-fisted, cheap-as-heck former owner of the Detroit Red Wings:

    “I was a pallbearer for Jack,” says Howe. “We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he’s … a dead, miserable sonofabitch.’”

    It’s not your fault if the person got arrested for something or treated people poorly. If these things are in the public record and they are a large part of how someone was known, you can’t just dodge them because you feel weird. Check out the Times’ obituary on Richard Nixon and you’ll notice that Watergate makes the headline and the lead. As much as that was likely unpleasant for the people who were closest to Nixon, it was a central point of his life and needed to be discussed. In short, don’t smooth off the rough edges because you are worried about how other people might feel. Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

 

  • Avoid euphemisms: This goes back to the first point about being a journalist. You don’t want to soften the language or use euphemisms. People don’t “pass on” or “expire.” NFL quarterbacks pass and magazine subscriptions expire. People die. Also, unless you can prove it, don’t tell your readers that the person is “among the angels” or “resting in the arms of Jesus.” (Both of these euphemisms ended up in obituaries I edited at one point or another. They obviously didn’t make it to publication.) Say what you know for sure: The person died.

 

  • Double down on accuracy efforts: People who are reading obituaries about loved ones and friends are already on edge, so the last thing you want to do is tick them off by screwing up an obituary. I don’t know if this was just a matter of newspaper lore or if it was a real thing, but I was told more than once at a paper where I worked that there were only two things that would get us to “stop the presses:” 1) we printed the wrong lottery numbers and 2) we screwed up an obituary.
    True or not, the point was clear to me: Don’t screw up an obituary.
    Go back through your piece before you put it out for public consumption and check proper nouns for spelling and accuracy. Do the math yourself when it comes to the age (date of birth subtracted from date of death) and review each fact you possess to make sure you are sure about each one. If you need to make an extra call or something to verify information, do it. It’s better to be slightly annoying than wrong.

 

  • Accuracy cuts both ways: As much as you need to be accurate for the sake of the family, you also need to be accurate for the sake of the public record. This means verifying key information in the obituary before publishing it. The person who died might told family and friends about winning a medal during World War II or graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School. These could be accurate pieces of information or they could be tall tales meant to impress people. Before you publish things that could be factually inaccurate, you need to be sure you feel confident in your sourcing.
    Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be shaking the family down for evidence on certain things (“OK, you say she liked to knit. Now, how do we KNOW she REALLY liked knitting? Do you have some sort of support for that?”) but you should try to verify fact-based elements with as many people as possible or check the information against publicly available information. Don’t get snowed by legends and myths. Publish only what you know for sure.

 

  • Don’t take things personally: Calling family, friends and colleagues of someone who just died can be really awkward and difficult for you as a reporter. Interviews with these people can be hard on them as well as hard on you. I found that when I did obituaries, I got one of three responses from people that I contacted:
    1. The source told me, “I’m sorry, but I really just can’t talk about this right now.” At that point, I apologized for intruding upon the person’s grief and left that person alone.
    2. The source is a fount of information and wanted to tell me EVERYTHING about the dead person. I found that for some of them, it was cathartic to share and eulogize and commemorate. It was like I was a new person in their circle of grief and they wanted to make sure I knew exactly why the person who died was someone worth knowing.
    3. The source was like a wounded animal and I made the mistake of sticking my hand where it didn’t belong. I have been called a vulture, a scumbag and other words I’ve been asked to avoid posting on this blog. One person even told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right” because I had the audacity to make this phone call. I apologized profusely and once I hung up, I needed a couple minutes to shake it off. I knew it wasn’t my fault but it wasn’t easy either.

Your goal in an obituary is always to be respectful and decent while still retaining your journalistic sensibilities. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you do an obituary well, you will tell an interesting story about someone who had an impact on the world in some way. I like to think a story about this person who died should be good enough to make people wish they’d known that person while he or she was alive.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Lead writing: Finding the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

The look we did at leads earlier in the week seemed to hit a nerve for folks, so I dug into the archives for another lead-writing post, complete with an exercise at the end.

 

Enjoy!

—-

Lead writing: Finding the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

Some stories contain a lot of twists and turns, thus making a lead extremely difficult to write. An assignment I give to my introductory media writing class is to rewrite a lead on a story that has all sorts of problems. Here it is:

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 problems include:

  • The lead is 47 words long.
  • It includes a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he’s threatening underpants.
  • We have no idea why we’re reading about this now (turns out, he was in court that day, which we don’t find out about until the second-to-last paragraph).
  • The thoughts he had or his self-confidence in his predatory-like nature isn’t as weird as what he actually did (which we find out more about later).
  • No real impact noted here, but if he was convicted, he would face more than 60 years in prison on five charges.

A more recent case of all sorts of potential elements clamoring for a spot in the lead occurred late last week when  Alec Cook, a former UW-Madison student, pleaded guilty to several charges related to sexual misconduct. Cook’s case was an odd and sprawling one, involving multiple victims and varying degrees of criminal activity.

According to one complaint, he choked and raped a woman after dinner and studying with her. Another complainant said he had drugged her before having non-consensual sex with her. Other complaints include allegations of stalking, inappropriate touching during class and strangulation attempts. In all, 11 women came forward and 23 charges were filed against Cook.

Trying to explain the magnitude of this while still avoiding the pitfalls of doing too much with the lead can be difficult. Below are the leads from several publications, with links to the stories.

Here is the lead from the Wisconsin State Journal, the daily newspaper located in Madison:

Former UW-Madison student Alec Cook pleaded guilty Wednesday to five felonies, including three counts of third-degree sexual assault, nearly bringing to a close a sprawling case that had been set for seven trials involving 11 alleged victims that were to have happened over the next several months.

 

Here is how The Capital Times, another daily news source located in Madison, wrote its opening:

Expelled student Alec Cook, who was scheduled to go on trial on Feb. 26 in the first of seven trials on 23 charges involving 11 female UW-Madison students, pled guilty Wednesday to five felony charges involving five accusers.

 

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest newspaper, wrote this version:

An expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison business student accused of sexually preying on 11 women pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges involving five of them, closing the book on a high-profile case that shook the state’s flagship campus and drew national attention in fall 2016.

 

Here is the Associated Press lead, as published on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

A former student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has pleaded guilty to five felonies stemming from a string of alleged assaults around campus.

(UW-Madison also has two independent student newspapers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald. Both the Cardinal and the Herald covered the event and you can find their leads here. As I’ve said before, I don’t pick on student work in public whenever possible because a) students are learning and b) I don’t want to chill anyone’s desire to go to a student media organization to learn for fear of knocked around by an uppity Doctor of Paper. You can apply whatever lessons you learned here to them.)

You can see how various publications tried to encapsulate this case and the pros and cons of each. The State Journal and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel both went big, which led to leads of 47 and 43 words, respectively. They significantly exceed what you normally shoot for with a standard news lead (25-35 words), but they do focus strongly on the “Oddity” interest element.

The Capital Times and the AP both go shorter, although the Cap Times still goes beyond the 35-word limit (38). However, they both skip out on the thing things that make this case well known and also extremely disturbing. The AP lead almost makes it sound like a) the assaults didn’t actually occur (“alleged” gives me hives) and b) this could have been a guy punching out bouncers or something instead of raping women.

You will also notice that the two Madison papers used a “name-recognition lead” (Alec Cook) while the other publications used an “interesting-action lead,” which focuses on the What more than the specific Who. The name, in this case, gets delayed to the second paragraph.

There is no such thing as a perfect lead, so you have to figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s worth cutting. This is why you have to think critically while writing your lead. Each lead has key benefits and drawbacks, based on the approach the writer saw fit to use and the audience each writer was attempting to reach.

EXERCISE SUGGESTION: Look through the four publications cited here and build a lead that fits the parameters outlined in both books for lead writing: 25-35 words, applies FOCII elements, contains key 5Ws/1H elements and will draw in your readers while remaining factually accurate and non-opinionated.

Lead Writing 101: You’re a journalist, not William Faulkner

Given that we just spent a great deal talking about the limits on the human attention span, I figured it might be a good time to take another look at leads. If we’re seeing people with less and less cognitive focus, the last thing we want to do is write a sentence like this famous one by William Faulkner, which once held a world record for length.

In the simplest terms, a lead should do two things:

  1. Tell the reader what happened in a simple, direct and engaging way.
  2. Tell the reader why this matters to them as a reader.

This is why starting with a noun-verb-object core works really well:

  • Packers beat 49ers
  • Bucks draft guard
  • Mayor rips media
  • Company wins contract

Then, we build around that core with more of the 5W’s and 1H. That usually keeps the focus on the important stuff and keeps the audience in our crosshairs when we’re writing the lead.

As numerous people have explained to me, not every lead needs to be that strict or bare bones. I agree, as I often tell students to try something different if they think they have an angle that might better engage the readers. However, I also point out that if the “new way of doing things” isn’t working out, it’s better to back away than to press on and make things worse.

Consider the following leads that needed a significant edit, a better sense of what matters or generally just a hug:

Georgia 33, Alabama 18, Lead Writer 66:
Take a look at what is essentially the lead on this story about the national championship. I say “essentially” as the first sentence of the story was basically a throw-away sentence that just got me to this monstrosity:

With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo intercepted Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown — the longest pick-six in championship game history — cementing the No. 3 Bulldogs’ 33-18 win over the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the program’s first national championship since 1980.

I don’t know if the writer was trying to celebrate the longest pick-six with the world’s longest sentence about one, but there has to be something we can do to chop back this 66-word monstrosity.

With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s championship game, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo intercepted Alabama’s Bryce Young and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown to cement the Bulldogs’ first national title since 1980.

Got it down to 34 words, or almost half of what that was without losing a whole lot in there. The only keeper I wish I could have kept would have been the score. We could fix that if we felt like it:

With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s championship game, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo’s 79-yard pick-six off Alabama’s Bryce Young cemented the 33-18 win and the Bulldogs’ first national title since 1980.

There. We’re at 31 words and we still didn’t lose anything, really.

The problem with this lead initially was the author was trying to turn a simple thing into a NASCAR vehicle: Just keep slapping little stickers on it until you eventually run out of them. The goal of any good writing is to present content to the audience members in the way that THEY would want it. So, let’s consider things that we definitely don’t need in the lead:

  • College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T: The formal title is eight words of jargon and marketing. You’re not beholden to the money gods here, so feel free to simplify it.
  • quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner: First, you tell me he was intercepted. I don’t have an exact figure, but most interceptions are thrown by quarterbacks, so we can probably trim that. Second, it’s great he won the Heisman, but it’s not necessary in a sentence that’s already oversized. If you want to argue, “Hey, it shows how great of a QB he is,” OK, fine, but it’s the national championship game. I think we can assume he’s at least functional for a paragraph or two.
  • The rankings: No. 3 and No. 1. You told me it was a national championship game already, so, again, I don’t need the specifics in this sentence. If it weren’t teams in the top five playing for this, I’d be worried.

Stuff we could keep or pitch:

  • The longest pick-six in championship game history: It’s a nice tidbit, but it’s a long way of saying something we already said (defensive touchdown). If it were the longest pick-six to end the longest championship drought, maybe that’s a deal maker. Or, if the D had sucked all year and finally made a play, maybe. Still, it’s a mouthful for very little value.
  • With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s (game): A couple things to ponder: First, it’s at the front of the sentence. If the most important thing you want to tell me in the most important sentence is the “when,” it might not be a great sentence. Second, it’s really specific, which I could take or leave (with less than a minute left or something would be fine). Third, if you keep it, you now have a lead sentence that’s got seven numbers in it: 54, 79, 1, 3, 33, 18, 1980. It looks like something my mom would have played in a game of Keno.

The point of lead writing is to pick the things you MOST want to tell people and then trim away the stuff that doesn’t make the cut. It’s not supposed to be an attempt to cram 13 facts into a single sentence for the heck of it.

Question: How do you screw up an obituary for a rabbit?
Answer: Try to say 382 things in a lead:

Marlon Bundo, former vice president Mike Pence’s family pet who was the main character in a series of children’s books by the second family and a parody book that posited the rabbit as gay in a jab at the couple’s stance against LGBTQ rights, has died.

If you missed how a random rabbit became a best-selling author and flashpoint for LGBTQ issues, here’s the John Oliver segment on Mike Pence, cued up to the bunny bit:

I would normally spend a great deal of time picking this thing to pieces, but let’s just say I have some empathy for the reporter who had to work on this thing, given the number of random weird-ass assignments I got in my career. (There is still probably a locked file at the State Journal city desk in which three poli sci profs discuss the imminent death of Boris Yeltsin and its likely impact on Clinton presidency. Spoiler alert: He lived until 2007.)

That said, here’s a good rule of thumb: If your non-essential clause is 10 times larger than your essential clause, you probably need to rethink everything about that sentence.

Full House, meet Overly Full Lead:
Here’s the big dog, quite literally. It’s a lead sentence on a tribute to comedian Bob Saget, who died Jan. 9 at the age of 65.

No gaudy feat of method acting, no gnarly Christian Bale–as–Dick-Cheney physical transformation, no brazen bit of stunt casting in any of our lifetimes can compare to the magic trick Bob Saget pulled in 2005, when the gentle doofus who’d spent eight years as America’s Sweetest and Corniest Dad—via his starring role as Danny Tanner in the benign blockbuster ABC sitcom Full House, which ran from 1987 to 1995 and made the Brady Bunch look like the Hells Angels—popped up in a modest little film called The Aristocrats and told what can credibly be described by somebody on YouTube as the “Dirtiest Joke in the World.”

Not every lead needs to be 25-35 words or a pure inverted pyramid quote, but there are limits even in the world of “narrative” or “long form” journalism.  Or as a good friend and talented journalist noted: “Someone needs to tell this weenus that ‘long form’ doesn’t mean ‘no punctuation.'”

Again, it comes down to choices. Is it crucial to tell the readers EXACTLY how long Full House ran? Or that it was a blockbuster? Or that he did BOTH of those saccharine shows? Or describe everything with two sets of adjectives (sweetest and corniest; modest and little)? Or go through the verbal calisthenics to describe the world’s dirtiest joke?

Maybe all of those have value, but maybe not all at once in a single sentence that drones on for 109 words.