“I never wanted to make it about me:” Columnist Robert Feder’s reflections upon retirement and what his 40+ years in the field can teach you going forward

One of the best columnists I ever had the pleasure of working with, George Hesselberg, recently posted this item on social media about Chicago-area columnist Robert Feder’s retirement. Feder’s bio is extensive, but simply put, he covered radio and entertainment issues in the Windy City for more than 40 years, during a time of much upheaval in the area and in the profession.

Feder’s reflections on his work, approach, life and more have a ton of value for you as a beginning journalist, even if you never read one of his columns or don’t aspire to be a columnist. In his discussion, two key things hit me as being vital to being good at the job:

FOCUS ON THE NEEDS OF THE READERS: Feder talked at length about his duty to the beat, how he felt obligated to do the best job possible and how he wanted to earn the trust of the readers every time he wrote something. The one part that really drove that home was this chunk:

Readers and subscribers reached out constantly with questions, and they expected answers: “Why did WFMT go off the air for 10 minutes last night?” “When is that weekend weather person going to be back?” “Why did that radio station play the same song twice last night?” Believe me, I don’t carry all that information around in my head — and the answer was probably never going to be a news item for me — but trying to be helpful to individual readers was a big part of the responsibility that I felt.

Feder wanted to make sure he could answer those questions for the readers in a clear and immediate fashion. Despite having been the gray eminence of media columnists, he didn’t see these questions as beneath his attention. It’s not, “Look, dweeb, I’m trying to do a multi-source story here on the Federal regulations halting a multi-million dollar media merger. Who gives a crap that WBZR played “Hooked on A Feeling” by Blue Swede twice in a row?” He seemed to approach it more like, “Someone has a question in my area of expertise. I owe it to that person to answer it.”

This also attaches itself to another key point about audience-centricity: If the audience you serve is interested in something, it’s not a “nothing” story. I remember a lot of expose-style stories my students wrote at my various media adviser stops throughout my career, but the one story that really sticks out to me still was the time the student newspaper at Ball State wrote about something simple: Water cups.

Since the start of the newsroom’s collective memory, the food court below the office would allow anyone to come in and grab a plastic cup of ice water for free. Then, one day, when we dispatched a kid to get a tray’s worth of water for the room, the kid came back and said, “They charged me a dime a cup!” When a staffer called the food service people, the answer was, “Well, it’s always been that way,” which it hadn’t, and then another person up the food chain said, “Well, it’s just what we need to do,” without explaining how, when or why this decision was made.

A story in the paper got a lot of students to rail against this in person and online. Less than a week after we ran the story, water was once again free.

Did the story solve the conflict in the Middle East? No.

Did it cure cancer? No.

Did it matter to the readers? Yes, and that’s the goal of all good journalism.

Whether it’s quick blurb on how a squirrel’s decision to snack on a high-voltage line knocked a station off the air last night or when the weatherperson on channel 3 will return, if people want to know something, give it to them.

DECIDE WHO YOU WANT TO BE: Feder had a number of potential role models when he started, but it ended up kind of coming down to two columnists he discusses below:

Deeb was famous for his take-no-prisoners style. And it was enormously entertaining to read if he wasn’t writing about you. But every time you burn a bridge, you lose the opportunity for that person or that organization to trust you.

So you have to decide: Is it better to write something that makes you the center of attention? Or is it better to focus on the story? I never wanted to make it about me. I just wanted to get the goods and have the people trust me.

In that way, Kupcinet was much more my role model. It was never as important where Kup got his information as was the fact that it was coming from him. When Kup said something was happening, you believed it because you knew that he knew everybody. And I think taking that approach had a lot to do with the longevity of my career.

I would likely argue that in the end, he probably became his own version of Kup, blending those ideas of being an authority without being a jackass with his own personality and sense of how best to meet the needs of the audience. Many parts of a journalism career are formed over time, through experiences and based on reactions we receive from peers, colleagues and audience members. It’s less about being poured into a mold and coming out fully formed and more like being a statue chiseled out of marble.

In any case, it’s important to figure out how you want to approach your career and how you want to operate in it. A lot of people I know tell me that they find someone who was influential in a positive way and emulate that person. I tried to do that with Steve Lorenzo, my first journalism teacher, only to have him tell me not to do that. After that moment, I started working on the opposite side of the situation: I found experiences that were unnecessarily painful, editors who were completely terrible and other similar bad outcomes guided me to what I DIDN’T want to replicate. In many cases I’d think, “What would (NAME OF TERRIBLE EDITOR) do here?” and then I’d do the exact opposite.

In any case, the trick here is to make sure that you are being true to who you are and not trying to play a character to fit the parameters established by another individual. Be you and do it to the best of your ability. That’s what Feder did and it led to a hell of a career.


What counts as a “big story?” It really depends on your audience…

I spent the better part of the last week traversing the Minnesota/Wisconsin border to talk to student journalists as part of the Associated Collegiate Press Mega Workshop in Minneapolis, and the Kettle Moraine Press Association high school journalism workshop.

(Somewhere in there, Amy and I managed to sandwich in a Motley Crue/Def Leppard/Poison/Joan Jett concert we’d waited three years to see. I think I’m still partially deaf after that…)

The thing that came up repeatedly in the reporting and writing sessions was the ability to find stories. Many students mentioned that they covered student government meetings or official announcements because they didn’t have much else to do. Others noted that they found their outlets covered the same thing year in and year out without much variation.

As one student asked, “I want to find a big story! How do you do that as a student?”

When we started talking about what made for a big story, it became clear they didn’t really have the audience in mind. To them, covering a huge crime or a national political issue mattered far more than whatever was going on around school. It was almost as if the news that was closer was the news that was more worthless. Also, how big of a deal could it be if it was happening in their lives? I mean, we’re just kids, right? Who cares about what’s going on with us?

Well, that depends a great deal on your audience, a point I make at the front of every book and a point I make at the front of every class. If you are writing for a student newspaper, at your school or on your campus, and your audience is other “kids” with similar demographic and psychographic measurements, the things that matter to you likely matter to your audience and thus account for “big stories.”

Case in point: During the last day of our ACP convention in Minneapolis, a couple students from the University of Texas-Dallas got a tip through the paper’s email. A senior CS graduate adviser and lecturer posted on Twitter, “Can we at least try to find a cure for homosexuality, especially among men?”

Screen shot from the top of the UT-Dallas student newspaper The Mercury.

“Oh yeah,” one of the students said. “I had this guy in class. He’s said and posted worse.” She then went to recount all the times a computer science lecture wandered off into this guy’s theories on the LGBTQ+ community.

The students put up a short story about the tweet, while we talked about the other places they could go for sources. Obviously, they needed to send this guy an invite to interview on the topic, but we also started talking about administrators, the LGBTQ+ groups on campus, faculty/staff groups and more. They started sending emails to folks, even as more reactions hit Twitter and emails came to the paper. It seems this was not a one-off for this guy, and a lot of students were really uncomfortable about his class. (“All CS majors are required to take the class this guy teaches,” one of the students told me.)

We talked about the concept of a “tick tock” story, which involved posting the original story and then updating the top end of the story with short, time-stamped blurbs each time another source weighed in or a big event came through. That way,  they didn’t have to rewrite the whole story each time new info came in and they could keep people aware of the updates.

The story continued to build steam, with local TV and press getting tipped to the students’ story, and things continuing to get bigger and bigger. The instructor had the tweet banned from Twitter and he subsequently killed his account. It continues to evolve and I don’t think this is even close to over yet.

Why was this a big story? Sure, we could make the case that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable and should be a big story, no matter where it happens. However, the reason this thing gained traction is the point of this piece, so let’s look at a couple key aspects of what made this a “big” story:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: The students at The Mercury knew this mattered to their readership, not only because they had received emails about it, but also because the campus had several strong equity groups on campus. The Gender Center, the Rainbow Alliance, Pride at UTD and other organizations were prominent and active on their campus. A tweet like this is inexcusable regardless of audience, but knowing that these groups represented a swath of the audience meant that covering this topic was important to them.

The students also knew their audience included a lot of CS majors on the campus, so a lot of folks had contact with the department and probably this instructor. (The department’s website pitches itself as “one of the largest CS departments,” so on a campus of nearly 30,000 students, that’s a big chunk of folks.) These people are likely to have an interest in what is happening on their campus, in their major and in regard to issues that resonate with multiple groups within the student population.

Other stories about the war in Ukraine or the fires in London might seem like they are far more important than an ignorant tweet, but not to this audience at this point in time. Other media outlets can cover those things and inform people about them. The audience at UTD needed the Mercury to focus on what mattered to them, and this was it at that moment.

UNDERSTAND SHARED EXPERIENCES: Key in that initial story was the idea that “everybody” was dealing with this guy or this situation. While a universal like that is rarely true, it does tap into an important idea for student journalists: Look for things to which a lot of people can relate.

In the high school workshop, we were talking about a variety of things that could make for good stories when I broke out the topic of a dress code. The reason was, my own kid had gotten nailed for some sort of violation related to whatever the Omro School District thinks is “too much” for people to handle. Immediately, one student told a story about how she got dress coded for a pants suit that had full sleeves, but was topped with spaghetti straps. Another talked about how certain teachers always seemed to target certain people. Then, others chimed in with stories.

Suddenly, we had a pretty good riff going and stories started pouring in:

  • Why is it that the dress code has about 912,230 things that girls can get nailed for, but only one real rule for boys (wear pants)?
  • What is the most common dress code offense in the school?
  • Who hands out the most dress code violations?
  • When was this created and how can it get changed?

The one that got to me was one I’d heard before: “A teacher told me I had to  put on a sweatshirt because ‘boys will be boys,'” one young lady said in the high school session. OK, so I have to dress my kid like a Mennonite because you never taught your boy to keep his hands to himself? Is that where we’re going? Go to hell…

A professional journalist at a national newspaper probably doesn’t care about this topic, unless it gets a lot bigger and a lot more sinister. However, the shared experiences among these people said, “This is a  story for our audience and we’re all dealing with it.”

I’ve seen similar stories emerge at the college level about lousy jobs or poor working conditions. In one case, I had five or six people talking about being hosts or wait staff at “supper club” restaurants around the state and how terrible it was. In a couple  cases, the women had gotten groped or otherwise treated like they were sexual appetizers on the menu, just above the mozzarella sticks. Then, they started telling stories of bosses who told them things like, “It’s not that bad.” or “He’s a really big deal around here, so just hang in there.” or “You know you’ll get a big tip.” Eeesh…

What makes people pay attention to a story is when they feel connected to it in some way. That’s where shared experiences come into play with things like this. Look for the things like classes, jobs, groups, experiences and more that are shared among  your peers and you start seeing big stories.

LOOK FOR THE IMPACT OF SELF-INTEREST: Of the FOCII elements we discuss in the book (Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy and Impact) the one that gets overlooked a lot is impact. I don’t know why journalists tend to ignore it with the “You’ll figure it out for yourself” approach to the readership, but I’ve seen it a lot in the things I read.

When I worked at the Columbia Missourian, we had the phrase “This matters because…” at the top of every story a student wrote for the paper. They had to finish that phrase to the satisfaction of an editor before they could write their piece. This made them focus on the concept of impact, particularly as it related to the audience.  If they couldn’t do it,  they didn’t have a really great handle on the story.

This isn’t a student-journalism problem, but it’s an all-journalism problem. I remember reading a lot about a crisis at our UWO Foundation a few years back and how several improper fiscal moves put the whole place in peril. I walked into my reporting class and asked them how big of a deal it was to them and I was met with stunned silence.

“How many of you have scholarships? I asked.

Every hand went up.

“Where do you think that money lives?”

Suddenly, I had a room filled with terrified faces and anxiety-riddled students. When I gave them a break during the class, instead of looking through their Instagram feeds or playing games, they were frantically Googling “UWO Foundation Bankruptcy” and the names of their scholarships.

I didn’t blame the students for not initially making the connection, but rather I blamed the writers and reporters who put out the “big story” of millions of dollars and high-level administrators, without ever once saying, “OK, so this is what it means to YOU, the individual reader at X level of involvement.”

For a story to truly be “big” it has to have an impact on the people reading it. I’ll be honest, I read about floods and disasters halfway across the world every day and don’t think that much of them. I know as a citizen of the planet, I should care, but I really lack the ability to get into a story like that, and I don’t think I’m alone. However, if it’s happening to my hometown, or it’s happening to my kid, or it’s happening to me, I’m paying attention.

Self-interest is a natural human emotion, so take advantage of that when you’re working on your stories. Instead of talking about how many millions of dollars something will cost overall, look at how much it will cost an average reader. Instead of broad-stroking a story about a school policy, look at what it will do to an average student (or in the case of dress codes, what it will do the average male and average female student and then ask why that’s so damned different…).

The stories that matter to readers really are the big stories. You don’t have to cure cancer to make the readers care.

Media Writing 101: Accuracy and clarity are not the same thing

Don Drysdale

Don Drysdale had a “2-for-1” system when it came to pitching. If your team hit one of his batters, he would hit two of yours. Nice guy.

One of my favorite stories that distinguished accuracy and clarity involved legendary pitcher Don Drysdale, a mean and nasty SOB, who had no compunction about hitting batters as part of his game plan.

In the middle of a game, manager Walter Alston came out to the mound and told him, “I want you to put this guy on,” meaning Alston didn’t want Drysdale to pitch to the batter, but instead walk him and pitch to the next hitter.

Drysdale nodded and then subsequently drilled the batter in the side with the first pitch.

Alston ran back out to the mound and said, “What the hell are you doing? I told you to walk the guy!”

“No,” Drysdale replied. “You told me to put him on. He’s on first base. Get your ass back into the dugout.”

Media writing requires us to be accurate above all else, but being right doesn’t always mean we’ve clearly communicated with the readers. Something can be right while simultaneously being as clear as mud.

Let’s look at this short crime story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that ran over the weekend. Starting with the lead, we’ve got some issues:

Two men were shot and killed, and an innocent bystander was injured, about 10:25 a.m. Saturday outside one of the El Rey Hispanic grocery stores in Milwaukee, police said.

Solid information about key things (two dead, shooting occurred). It includes a time element and an attribution. However, what’s not there is probably more important than what is:

  • “One of the El Rey Hispanic grocery stores” implies that there are multiple stores with this name, which is true. However, as a reader, I’d like to know WHICH ONE of the three stores experienced this shooting. I don’t get that until the fourth paragraph of the story.
  • The passive voice in the lead (“were shot and killed”) leaves me hanging a bit, as I don’t know who did the shooting, how many people were shooting or if the person/people doing the shooting are still running around out there. That could be frightening if I knew where this thing actually happened, which I still don’t…
  • The term “innocent bystander” has a lot of trouble here. First, as opposed to what? A guilty bystander? Someone who probably deserved a little lead justice? Second, this implies that the people who were shot probably had it coming, as they are not designated in this way. Third, it’s an opinion, so get rid of it.

The second paragraph gets us some additional info that would have been helpful up top, but still has some clarity issues:

Following a disturbance in the store, two security guards and a man went into the parking lot, where the man and guards exchanged gunfire. The man, who has not been identified, and one of the guards — a 59-year-old man — were struck and died at the scene, according to Milwaukee Police District Two Sgt. John Ivy. Police did not specify which man fired first or how many shots were fired.

One of the hardest things to deal with in a story like this is trying to balance lack of information against potential libel. If we had names for these people, it would be easier to explain what happened. (“Smith entered the store and argued with Jones and Jackson before the three men left the store. Smith then shot and killed Jones before Jackson shot and killed Smith.”) It’s not poetry, but it prevents confusion.

Here we have “man” as the only real descriptor that we can use because we can’t call someone a shooter (there were at least two, probably three from this reading), an assailant (libel issues) or other similar terms. That said, we have to do something to make this clearer for the readers, and that probably starts with the lead. Try this:

A 59-year-old security guard at an El Rey Hispanic grocery store died Saturday after he exchanged gunfire with a patron who was also killed, police said.

This does a couple things:

  • It closes the loop on the shooting so we know who was involved and that there’s not an active shooter in the area.
  • It gets a better set of descriptors up top for the guard so we can call him “guard” as opposed to “man” later in the story. It also pulls the bystander out, who was injured but not killed, and focuses on the bigger issues.

I hate the term “exchanged gunfire” as it sounds like a rebate program or something, but since the cops can’t say who shot at whom first, it’s the best we’re gonna do here. I’m also not thrilled with “patron” as I suppose we could argue if the guy is a patron because he might or might not have bought something. Other news coverage of the event seems to say this was a robbery of some kind (not sure if it was shoplifting or whatever), so maybe that would help shape how we define this guy if we could independently prove it ourselves.

(Remember, never take stuff from other media outlets, as you have no idea if they’re right. In this case, we also appear to have a discrepancy over the exact time, so make sure you get it on your own.)

Now in that second paragraph we can do some good work to improve clarity:

The shooting took place around 10:25 a.m. outside the store at 916 S. Cesar E Chavez Drive following a disturbance inside. Police did not say if the man or one of the two security guards who confronted him in the parking lot fired first, but added that a 41-year-old woman suffered minor injuries from a stray bullet.

This cleans up the “where” issue a bit better, moves the minor injuries down a bit and helps avoid the overuse of “man” in the second paragraph.

The rest of the story covers most of the rest of what little we know about the situation in functional fashion, so it’s not worth parsing. The thing to remember is that most people aren’t going to read deeply into a story to find all the details, so you need to give them the most-important information up top and as clearly as you can.

Helpful tips for student media outlets that want to cover the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade situation

A draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion regarding the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked late Monday night on the Politico website. The 98-page document, written by Justice Samuel Alito, would reverse the nearly 50-year-old precedent of Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutionally protected right to abortions in the United States, if it remains unchanged when the court formally renders its opinion.

I have a hard time imagining that many student media outlets wouldn’t have a vested interest in covering this situation as it unfolds. With that in mind, this post does not aim to direct the opinion of those students, nor to take a stand on the issue itself. The point of this post is to provide student journalists with some help in navigating some truly risky waters when choosing what, when and how to present information to their readers on this topic.

First, let’s start off with a few key things you need to be aware of before you even start thinking about publishing something here:

  1. You will not change most readers’ minds about anything on this topic. Most of what people think and believe about this issue will have been codified in their minds, hearts and souls long before you showed up. A good friend, who was perhaps prescient, posted this explanation from The Oatmeal of why it’s hard to change minds or get people to listen on certain issues the other day and it bears a look. Trying to move the needle on this issue among readers is going to be as successful as bailing out a sinking boat with a pasta strainer.
  2. There aren’t two sides to this. There are many facets. Certain topics tend to bring out the extremes when it comes to public opinion. Yes, there are probably people out there who believe that life begins when a man unhooks a woman’s bra. Conversely, there are probably people out there who believe there should be free abortion punch cards available at Starbucks. Those people do not represent the majority of people who have an interest in this issue. If you want to dig into this issue, you need to look beyond the loudest voices screaming threadbare talking points. It’ll take work.
  3. This is not law yet. This is a leaked first draft of a document that the public wasn’t supposed to see, at least not based on tradition and protocol. The information, including how many justices voted to make this a majority opinion, who they are, how tied to this they are, how much they support the language and more, is not codified through official channels or publicly declared by the court itself. A lot can happen in multiple aspects of this case, including what the final opinion looks like, if Congress will make moves to solidify abortion rights and other things nobody has thought about yet. When covering this issue, it’s crucial to keep that in mind when making declarative statements, asking questions of sources and writing content (particularly headlines where space limits can lead to fact errors).
  4. You are running out of semester. TV shows can be great when they use the “cliffhanger” approach at the end of a season. News doesn’t benefit from that kind of situation, so be aware of how much time you have left to cover this topic, how many issues you have yet to publish and how those things should factor into your approach here. A half-baked “get-er-done” story that runs in your last issue can likely lead to more harm than good when you lack the ability to correct any errors, follow up on any developments or otherwise continue telling the story. You might have one shot at this, so make sure it does what it needs to do.

With those things in mind, here are some tips and hints on how to approach this topic:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: If it sounds like I harp on this every time I write something, it’s only because that’s exactly what I’m doing. This isn’t the time or the issue where you should assume everyone is “exactly like me” or guess about how much of your readership feels a certain way about the topic. Even within the newsroom itself, people probably hold differing views on if this is the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen in this country. It’s also likely that many of those views will come as a surprise to folks once they are vocalized.

One key thing to do is to really assess who reads your paper and what matters most to them. In a case like this, it’s a little too late to do a readers survey, but you can look for some breadcrumbs that might be out there for the finding. Some private, religious schools might clearly lean more pro-life, but look around for pockets of dissent. Some liberal, public schools might lean more pro-choice, but look around for pockets of dissent.

Look for groups on campus that have voiced their opinions on topics before and see how large, engaged, involved and representative they are of the larger whole. Look for previous coverage in your publication of this issue to see who is out there and what they had to say. Talk to people in the newsroom and the classroom about this with the idea of finding out not just what they think, but also what their roommates, friends, teammates and peers think.

Get a handle on what kind of room you will be playing to when you publish your work.

RESEARCH LIKE HELL: You are looking at the possible reversal of a court decision that likely is older than some of your professors. In the nearly five decades since the court handed down its ruling in this case, a lot of stuff has happened. Your going to want to be the smartest person in the room on this topic before you start interviewing people and writing stories.

Learn as much as you can about the original case, the ruling and what changed because of it. Look at the other challenges to it over the years, including the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992, to see what has transpired over the past 50 years or so. Look into the history of abortions within the United States to figure out what happened during times when the procedure was legal and illegal. You’ll likely need to spend some serious time digging into this, but the last thing you want to do interview someone without having a full view of the facts. This is one topic in which the stakes are too high to risk getting snowed by a source with a bias.

Here are some tips and hints for potential stories:

LOCAL IMPACT: The court ruling, if it becomes final in its current form, would essentially kick the decision of whether abortions should be legal back to the states. States have had widely varying laws regarding this procedure, as you can see from the series of maps from the Washington Post. Figuring out what will happen to your readers will matter a great deal in how you approach this topic. Some states have laws that go into effect the minute the Court reverses Roe. Others have laws that remain on the books from decades ago that simply stop getting overridden by the Feds. Others are looking for laws that will remove or improve access to abortions once all of this gets sorted out.

Everyone else will be talking at the federal/macro level on this. You should explain it at the local/micro level. This could entail everything from what your student health center is allowed to provide to if any private businesses in the area provide this service and will no longer be allowed to do so.

Your job is not to tell people the sky is falling or the world is finally going to be right. Your job is to factually outline what it is that has happened, will happen and could happen if this draft becomes final.

UNPACKING “UNPRECEDENTED” AGAIN: If COVID taught me anything, it was to hate the word “unprecedented.” However, this situation has rolled out more cases in which that word will likely apply. Start looking at them:

  • Talk to local legal scholars about the leak. Folks are initially saying this “has never happened in modern history.” That’s a dodge within a couch of an argument, given “modern history” could be anywhere from post-Civil War era to since last Tuesday. Find out from people who study this stuff how rare this actually is, what the value/problem with such a leak can be and the likely impact the leak will have on the final draft.
  • Talk to local experts in history and law regarding an overturn of this nature. How often does the court fail to apply precedent in a situation like this? What issues have seen this kind of shift before? What results usually occur in a situation when the Court zigs like this, both in terms of the decision at hand as well as other cases that could follow?
  • Talk to local political experts to see what kinds of steps the executive and/or legislative branches might take in response to this judicial decision. There is already a rumbling about getting rid of the filibuster and trying to crank through something in the House and Senate that would counterbalance the court decision. Pro-choice advocates have noted President Joe Biden’s relative silence on the issue, as well as his history voting on the topic. Will he look to define his presidency with a move on this topic? I don’t know, but I’d surely ask someone smarter than me about it.

HISTORY TRIP: Generations of people have existed in a world in which this topic was hotly debated, but also clearly codified into law. Generations of people also lived through a time before Roe v. Wade, so it would be valuable to find out what things were like back then.

Most of what I have heard falls into oft-repeated phrases like “back-alley procedures,” “under-cover-of-night travel,” “unscrupulous and dangerous” and more. What that actually means in terms of true history is beyond me in many cases, so finding people who can better provide context, truth and history will be helpful. (The 19th did a piece on this topic not too long ago that followed women’s memories through their experiences in the pre-Roe era, if you are interested.) Professors at your school who study history, women’s studies and other scholastic areas that traverse this topic could be helpful, as could sources who were involved in either side of the struggle back then.

It would also be interesting to look at both current and historical data regarding the number of overall procedures that occurred in your coverage area, if that is available. The thing most people forget in talking about overturning Roe v. Wade is that it won’t eliminate abortions. It will just make them illegal and harder to come by. The numbers might tell a story both “back when” and “right now.”

PERSONAL STORIES: This is one of those that really has a strong risk/reward element to it. It is highly probable that you have students at your school who, in some way, connect strongly to this topic. How they connect, what they are willing to share and to what degree the reporter can work with these sources will determine the overall value of something like this. If you are unsure as to how to proceed with this, I strongly recommend you talk to your adviser, smart professors who have experience in the field and other journalism folk who can help guide you.

FINAL NOTE: The one last important thing to keep in mind on something like this is that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. You might do an inordinate amount of work, only to find a weak or wobbly story that might not do the job you had hoped it would. There is no rule in journalism that dictates you publish it and take your chances. In many cases, caution is the better part of valor. This is probably one of those cases if you feel the story isn’t where it needs to be.

That said, don’t let fear of public reaction dissuade you from running a quality story. This is one of those topics where you will inevitably upset someone, so disabuse yourself of the notion that a well-reported, well-researched, factually based story will garner universal applause. If it’s good, run it.

In God We Trust. Everybody Else Gets Recorded

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has found himself playing a lot of defense this week, as recordings of his calls in and around Jan. 6 hit the media. The recordings appear to directly contradict McCarthy’s frequent statements that he did not and would not tell President Trump to resign in the wake of the Capitol Riots:

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) – Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, came under fire from some of his fellow party members, after an audio recording showed him saying that then-President Donald Trump should resign over the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

The comments, which McCarthy had denied hours before the recording emerged, could undermine his widely known ambition to become House speaker next year if Republicans take control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, as expected.

We could spend an entire post with clips of politicians of every stripe saying they never said something, followed by audio or video evidence that shows they said that EXACT THING. It’s why this joke rings so true:

Q: How can you tell when politicians are lying?
A: Their lips are moving.

Instead, let’s talk about the importance of recording everything you can shake a stick at when you interview sources. Here are a few things to keep in mind while doing that:

Rules for recordings

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that federal law allows you to record calls and other similar communication with just one party to the call knowing that the recording is happening.  In addition, 38 states have adopted similar “one-party consent” rules, which allows you to record someone without their consent. The other 12 states require that all parties involved in a phone call or other similar discussion consent to the recording. In almost no circumstance can you record a call to which you are not a party, a concept often referred to as wiretapping.

You can find a full listing of the states and their laws on recording on here on the committee’s website.

What you “can” do doesn’t include what you “should” do, in that trust and credibility play a pretty big role in what we do. Thus, ethically, it’s better to just ask people right up front if you can record the call or record them in person when you’re conducting the interview in most cases. If you’re trying to catch someone in a lie, that might not work, but if you’re interviewing the Queen of Corn Elise Jones about her exciting duties that go with the title, I doubt you’ll need to be surreptitious.

Also, for all the grumping journalism traditionalists do over email interviews (and I include myself among the grumps), the use of email does provide you with a written transcript of what the person said, so it’s a lot harder for them to cry foul when the stuff hits the fan over their comments.

What if a source says no?

One of the risks of behaving ethically is that someone might tell you not to record the interview. In that case, you have a few options.

Explain why you want to record them (to provide the most complete record, to back up your notes in case you misunderstand something, to allow you to be more conversational because you aren’t burying your head in your notes), in hopes that this will soften their stance.

If that doesn’t work, make the case that this is good for both of you because it protects both of you from having mistakes get into the public sphere. It’s also good to have that record for future examination, in case something needs to be looked back upon.

If none of that works, you’re kind of stuck between doing the interview without the recorder or not doing the interview. It’s a choice, but be ready to make that choice either way.

How best to record

Before you do any recording, you should have tested out your recorder in a few different environments. See what kind of range you get, the overall sound quality the device provides and if anything you would normally encounter in an interview would limit the device’s effectiveness. (If the source is playing with a pencil on the desk where your recorder sits, will you hear nothing but a series of TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP sounds?)

People can get jittery when they’re being recorded. Interviews themselves can freak people out, so the idea that every word they say is being preserved for all time can make things a little more anxiety-provoking. (A broadcast student of mine referred to interviews that go to hell because of a recorder fear as the source having “red light syndrome.”)

That little red light on a recorder can be a powerful tool, so it’s best to keep it away from them. If you have a recorder that can pick up sound from a bit of a distance, you can keep the recorder in your hand and flip over a piece of your reporter’s notebook to cover the thing. Eventually the source will forget it’s there and relax, I would hope.

If that won’t work, I try to at least obscure the red light or place it in an unobtrusive space. The goal is for it to blend into the background. If your recorder is so weak that you almost have to lodge the thing into the source’s nasal cavity to get a decent recording, buy something better.


Best Practices for Recording

It makes a lot of sense to purchase a separate recording device if you have the ability and funds to do so. Depending on if you need broadcast quality audio or just something you can hear and understand, costs can range between $20 or so to upwards of a couple hundred.

It is possible to use your phone to record in a pinch, but a lot can go wrong, including an app that only records a few minutes because it’s a “free” edition (and they never told you that) or an app that gets knocked off any time you get a text or alert. Also, battery issues are pretty prominent when it comes to most of my students’ phones, as they’re usually on their hands and knees in the classroom before class, searching for a power outlet.

For recording phone conversations, that mini-recorder plus your phone on speaker works well for low-grade audio. If you have a landline, which most of you probably don’t unless you work in an office that has these dinosaurs, you can get a phone coupler for a couple bucks online that allows you to jack your recorder right into the phone itself. (In days before this technology, reporters would drill holes in their phones and wire in recording devices. It looked cool, but the tech was risky.)

In any case, here are some basic tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure your recorder is functional and ready for recording. Do a test recording, check the batteries, bring extra batteries and generally make sure this thing will do the job.
  2. Test the recorder in the environment you’ll be recording, when possible. If you have some annoying background noise, see if you can move the interview elsewhere or tell your roommate to turn down the Cardi B. for 20 minutes.
  3. Start the recorder before the interview and ask the person if they would allow you to interview. This seems counterintuitive, but the goal is to capture the person’s answer on the recording. If they say yes, the thing is already going and they didn’t see you turn it on or place it somewhere so they aren’t freaking out as much. Plus you have the confirmation on “tape.” (or whatever term we’re using for digital stick recorders)
  4. If the source says no and won’t change their mind, pick up the device and shut it off in front of them to clearly show you’re abiding by their wishes. It’ll help with trust and credibility. Then, be prepared for hand cramps.
  5. Keep the recorder going all the way until you are out of the presence of the interview subject. Even after you agree you’re “done,” things can come up or other questions can happen. You want those recorded.
  6. Immediately check your recorder after  you are outside of the interview to make sure it worked. If it didn’t, you can pour some additional work into fleshing out your notes while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you figure out what went wrong and now the recorder works, you might be able to run back in for a quick follow up question or two before the source is involved in something else.

Hope this helps. Any other suggestions or thoughts on this are always appreciated.


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

Action Snark: The $43 billion cost of a “platform for free speech around the globe”

Billionaire Elon Musk will spend $43 billion to acquire Twitter, the first step in taking the company private, according to multiple media reports released Monday morning.

What this means is in the eye of the beholder.

Business Today’s take, in part:

Musk wants to maintain this “free speech” status for Twitter so that he can, for all practical purposes, continue s%$t posting on the platform without consequences. If he owns the platform, he also does not need to listen to governments’ grievances. For example, what would Musk do if the Indian government demanded (again) that certain tweets be deleted and accounts blocked?

The New Yorker looked at this in a similar way, but with more of an “old boys’ club” vibe:

His acquisition quest appears to be less about increasing the company’s profits—“This is not a way to sort of make money,” he has said—than preserving Twitter’s capacity for chaos as a tool for himself and others to continue influencing their vast audiences without interference. “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, during a TED-conference interview in Vancouver, on April 14th. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

The once-and-future-king question for Donald Trump’s return to Twitter was the focal point of this Bloomberg look:

Musk has said he prefers to stay out of politics, but there are good reasons to suspect a Musk-owned Twitter would reactivate President Trump’s account. Beyond saying at TED that he wants to be “very cautious with permanent bans,” Musk applauded the former president two years ago when Trump supported Tesla’s plans to reopen a California car factory during the Covid-19 lockdown. And in a few recent tweets, Musk appears to embrace the right-wing, Fox News-bingeing perspective on various cultural flashpoints. (“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” Musk tweeted last week.)

Time magazine might be rethinking the 2021 Person of the Year award they tossed at the tech billionaire, if this is their take on the problems with this supposed “free speech” move:

But many on the frontlines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s move – if it is indeed serious, and if he can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than bolster, democracy. Employees of the platform and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may try to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of the ways that the design of social media sites has an impact on civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes. One of their key findings: sites that privilege free speech above all else tend to result in spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, restricting participation to a privileged few.

What is lost in all of this, at least for the moment, is the full understanding of what free speech is, how it works and why our traditional checks against some of the worst abuses will be lost in this move.

First, and we’ve only said this 10,242 times on this site, free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want, however you want and without consequence. From at least the U.S. perspective, it’s the ability to express yourself without fear of government interference. Private definitions of “free speech” vary widely based on who is making the definition and how speech is policed, censored or punished. I’m sure if you asked a citizen living under a dictatorial regime right now about free speech, that person would say, “Oh we totally have free speech here. We just have to watch what we say about XYZ.” Thus, the problem with this blanket term.

Second, people feeling like they’re given unfettered speech freedom are unlikely to think before they use it. This reminds me of the documentary I saw on the old “Action Park,” where the owners basically built a bunch of insanely dangerous rides and activities and told people, “You’re in control. Go for it.”

Thus, all sorts of things that Twitter’s guardrails used to prevent will now be unleashed in the name of free speech, leading to a ridiculous number of harmful things that none of us can stop, but most of us can foresee. When someone disagrees with someone else about anything from the political prowess of Joe Biden to the length of the foul lines at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, we’re going to see the rage machine start to redline the engine. Suddenly, we’re all wondering how six people got stabbed to death in real life because nobody wanted to say, “Look, it was 315 down the line and stop calling that guy a lib-tard.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have Musk in a position where his wealth overrides the free-speech system as it was intended to operate. In most cases, free speech carries with it responsibilities and consequences: We need to act responsibly in what we say about people, for fear of suffering legal consequences.

Thus, if some kid writes on Twitter that I’m taking money for grades, and this really gains traction and I get in trouble, I can sue that kid. If I prove the kid was negligent in his speech (or in some cases he knowingly lied), I can recoup financial losses and a court can assign punitive financial penalties to that kid. In short, free speech, when done poorly, can cost you.

Now, look at Musk. First, he’s probably got a function argument that he’s protected under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which tends to hold platforms blameless for user content.

Second, let’s say he screws that up and encourages bad action on the platform, what’s the penalty? If you sue him, he’s got enough money to legally bury in motions and documents you before you get anywhere near a courtroom.

If you manage to survive all that and win, a ridiculously high bar to clear, then what? He buries you in appeals until you go broke. IF you manage to get through all of that and still win an financial award from him, it’s not really a consequence for him.

This guy has what people who report on rich folks call “F— You Money.” It’s the level of wealth that essentially allows you to tell everyone around you “F— you” and not care. He literally had enough money to send himself to space because Earth is so last century… You think he’s going to worry what you’ll do to him if Twitter lead to the end of modern civilization? Gimme a break.

It’ll be interesting to see what all this leads to, much in the same way it’s interesting when you find that you left a Tupperware container full of noodle salad in your backpack in the back of your closet since freshman year. God alone knows what we’re dealing with, but it’s probably not something we’re all going to be thrilled with.


The one who shall not be named: An effort to keep the focus off mass shooters in media coverage and three reasons why it might not matter

An interesting article published this week in The Fourth Estate looks at the issue of how law enforcement and media have sought to keep mass shooters’ names out of the public eye:

Supporters of not naming perpetrators make the case that the less written, spoken or known about the perpetrators, the better. It also eliminates any incentive for perpetrators to become famous from such horrific acts. Whether this trend of reducing the naming of mass shooters helps reduce mass shootings or perhaps makes them more likely is not something my research can determine.

Mass shootings happen for a host of reasons. Lax gun laws in the U.S. and the lack of mental health services are two of the most discussed reasons. Some say they are unavoidable random events that cannot be stopped.

It is not yet clear how much notoriety is a factor for potential shooters. But we do know that the news media is heeding the call to limit naming perpetrators in mass shootings.

Thomas J. Hrach,  an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis explained this as part of a larger review of his research into the naming of shooters in these cases. While his research has several caveats, he does point out that the media’s naming people who have committed these acts has decreased significantly over the years.

Organizations like “Don’t Name Them” and “No Notoriety” have long pushed for media outlets to limit the name usage associated with mass killers. These and other groups have stated that the naming of these shooters leads to copycat crimes, increased intentions to act among potential shooters and the diminished attention that should be paid to victims.

Research has indicated a “contagion effect” can occur in incidents like these, although Hrach’s study noted that naming the shooter or the volume of coverage has yet to be directly linked to increased incidents. In other words, we don’t entirely know what drives people to do this, but we at least examining to what degree media coverage impacts these situations.

In working through my mass-shooting series a few years back, I’d read a lot of various opinions on these issues and found no real consensus on how best to cover something like this. I also came up with three confounding variables that might make all of this “to name or not to name” discussion moot:

TRENDS OF MASS SHOOTINGS: Trying to come up with a standard for what counts as a “mass shooting” or a “shooting spree” or a “mass killer” makes data almost useless in some cases. That said, whenever an organization applies some base-level look at shooting deaths that occur in bunches to a series of incidents, one thing is clear: we’ve trended up over the past 40-some years.

Mother Jones did one that lists the mass shootings from 1982 to present and we can see that we are getting more mass shootings in the more recent end of the spectrum than we have in the beginning end of the spectrum. What is strange is the degree to which each case gained notoriety, leaving open the possibility of media coverage being a contributing factor.

For example, the Columbine shooting is often part of the larger discussion because it involved two high school students killing their classmates. However, the Mother Jones database lists a similar high school shooting in Springfield, Oregon less than a year earlier. The Sandy Hook shooter’s name and face are burned into the fabric of society while the two shooters in Jonesboro, Arkansas lack that level of fame.

For me, the strange thing is that the increase of shootings has almost made it impossible for me to remember names and incidents, an admission of which I am quite ashamed. I do remember certain names because they involved incidents that hit so close to home: The Sikh temple in my home state, the Virginia Tech situation, the Northern Illinois situation and the Columbine shooting, in part due to a friend’s connection to the area. The others have become nameless.

If Hrach’s research is on the right track, this might be because the media isn’t beating us over the heads with the names as much anymore. Or, it just might be that it’s harder to keep track of every one of these incidents, as they’ve become disturbingly more common than they used to be.

NOT EVERY MEDIA OUTLET PLAYS BY THE SAME RULES: The famous, perhaps apocryphal, story about Babe Ruth bears repeating here. On a train to an away game, a group of reporters is playing cards when a naked Babe Ruth comes running through the train car being chased by a semi-nude woman with a knife. The senior scribe pauses before saying, “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we didn’t just see what we saw.” The story went unreported in the papers and didn’t emerge until years later.

The point is that we don’t have such a limited set of “gates” on information anymore that are ruled by a few gatekeepers. Pretty much any ham-head with a phone and social media account can publish anything at any point. Sure, it’s great if the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN enter into that “gentlemen’s agreement” not to name a shooter, or to limit the identification of that person to X number of times, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

Websites, online broadcasters and social media operations can decide to run or not run whatever they want, with many not having the same level of journalistic training and education as some of the more traditional or established outlets. In many cases, fringe outlets delight in publishing things that these storied legacy media don’t or wouldn’t put out there. And, really, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

PEOPLE ARE NOSY: Humans have an innate curiosity about things that happen around them. When given limited information on a topic, there is a high probability that people will go nose around to find out what they’re missing.

It can be on simple things like when someone says, “I need to tell you three things…” and then only talks about two of them. In my own mind, I’m usually ignoring whatever the heck the second thing is if the conversation about it gets too long because I’m thinking, “OK, what’s the third thing?” It drives me bonkers when a sports announcer says something like, “Jose Ramirez has just become the fourth player in Cleveland history to (DO SOMETHING),” and the announcer doesn’t tell me who were the other three.

It’s also why game shows like “Let’s Make a Deal” were so successful: People were torn between what they knew they had in their hand and whatever mystery was behind Door Number Two.

When it comes to terrible situations like mass shootings, those curiosities emerge as well. I was watching a documentary about a 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre, an event I’d never heard of before. Throughout the documentary, the participants never named the shooter. About half way through, the documentarian noted that he refused to name this person because he wanted to focus on the victims. As much as every element of this film was spellbinding, once it was over, I found myself Googling this event to find out who this guy was and what his problem was.

Withholding information can lead to more interest in a situation than simply laying out everything for the audience. It’s why we preach transparency in public relations as, to quote Ivy Lee, it’s better to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”

I’m sure there’s a balance between pounding the audience over the head with the names of these people and making sure not to tempt the curious. I’m also sure I don’t know where that is, so it might be a while before we figure it out.


5 reasons a pivot to an Axios writing model might not help improve the readership experience of your student newspaper

(When in doubt, pivot…)

A journalism colleague I hold in high esteem mentioned his frustration with how traditional news formats just weren’t doing the job for his readership:

How I got here.
  • For years, I’ve shown students lots of ways to make articles more snackable, scannable, graphically appealing, etc.
  • I think I’ve failed because it was too much to expect they’d look at every story, evaluate multiple ways of packaging it and decide what to do. It’s soooo easy to just “write it.
And it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
  • When I look at how people read our email newsletters and print newspapers, it’s clear they are not interested in reading ANY paragraphs stacked into a column.

His solution to the problem is to promote the “Axios Approach” to content for his students at his publication.

The Axios method of content dissemination takes several key things into account. At the core is the “smart brevity” dictum we’ve discussed here before. Beyond that, the company uses bullet-pointed articles and news letters to hit on the key “What?” “So What?” and “Now What?” elements of material before moving on to the next story. Deeper digs are available for bigger stories.

Here’s a clipped example from a Mike Allen newsletter:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an Axios NewsShapers interview with Jonathan Swan today that he has “an obligation” to support former President Trump if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024.

  • Asked where he draws his moral red lines, McConnell said, “I’m very comfortable with my moral red line.” (Watch a 3-minute clip.)

Why it matters: This was the first time McConnell was pressed on the contradiction between his Senate floor comments in February 2021 saying Trump was “morally responsible” for Jan. 6 — followed two weeks later by saying he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he were the party’s 2024 nominee.

Not everyone is keen on this or the long-form approach Axios takes, but it can’t hurt to try something to break through the doldrums of blathering text that people are already ignoring. Or as my grandfather used to say, “If it’s already broken, try fixing it. You can’t really break it worse.”

That said, here are five quick reasons why this approach isn’t a Golden Ticket for improved journalism:

WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: Every time a media organization loses reader eyeballs, the answer always seems to be to “pivot” to a new way of putting out the content. This was particularly true of the journalistic shifts of the 1980s, when the “Wall Street Journal” format became popular in writing long-form stories, the 1990s with the “alternative-storytelling-graphics” approach, the 2010s “pivot to video” moves and the 2020s “shift to social” maneuver.

In each case, it met with a minimal amount of success across the board, as some places got some value out of it while others continued to fail.

This leads us to point two…

AXIOS ISN’T REALLY DIFFERENT. IT’S JUST GOOD: What Axios is doing isn’t any different from what good journalists have done for generations:

  1. Tell me what happened.
  2. Tell me why I care as a reader.

The format emphasizes these two elements in a more-direct fashion than other publications, but if you read any decent news lead, you’ll find those things:

The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, 133-115, on Sunday, securing the No. 8 spot for the play-in tournament in the NBA playoffs.

Despite continuing sanctions, Russia’s oil profits continue to stabilize the country’s economy, making a quick end to its war with Ukraine highly unlikely, experts say.

A bald eagle captured in Bay View died of avian flu this weekend, with veterinary experts saying this is likely the first of many such deaths among birds this year.

What distinguishes these leads and the Axios model from the content we grouse about is the failure to hit the target quickly and efficiently. The writers at Axios know what matters to the readers and they quickly draw a big circle around it before moving on.

In short, it’s as much about value as it is about format, if not more. I can take a terrible story one of my students wrote about a meeting and put it in the Axios format:

The Oshkosh Student Association held a meeting  Monday, where they talked about several topics.

      • Can students opt-in for online learning next term? Co-adviser Jean Kwaterski said it’s under discussion.
      • When will election results be available? Kwaterski said students have “until Friday at noon to turn in any violations” of voting protocol before votes will be certified
      • Will mask mandates be lifted? Co-adviser Missy Burgess said we don’t know.

Key Quote: “We will look at the data and make sure that it is good. Another reason is that faculty needs time to prepare for no masks.” -Burgess

Why it matters: OSA is the student government of UW-Oshkosh, which means it represents the students. Student representation is important on any campus.

Next moves: OSA will meet again May 3.

(This is the guts of the story. It only took 21 paragraphs for me to find out that apparently the mask mandate was actually being lifted on a specific date, barring an outbreak.)

The point is, if you can’t write a decent lead that tells me the answer to those original two questions along with some focus on the FOCII elements, you can’t make the news work in Axios format.

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY 101: The reason Axios is successful with its content and with its format is because it knows its audience. As mentioned before, Axios co-founder Jim Vande Hei is a political junkie with a ton of key sources and readers inside the beltway. When he came to UWO to speak as an alumnus, he outlined a lot of the things Axios tries to do, the most important of which is knowing the audience and catering to its needs.

The people reading this stuff already like the content because it’s micro-targeted and niche-specific. If people like the topic and are targeted clearly, they’ll read anything decent. Generalized and generic content doesn’t do the work.

Student media outlets have some of those opportunities (specific demographic range, certain campus interests etc.) but they often fail to reach the readers because they don’t learn enough about the readers to make that work for them.

Every year, I ask my students to define the campus at UWO for me. They always define it in one of two ways:

  1. The most generic way possible (“We’re college students of a regular college age and we are going to school to get a degree…”)
  2. The most self-centered way possible (“Everyone here is JUST LIKE ME!”)

Neither of these things are true, so I force them to find out stuff that nobody else would likely know about UWO’s student body. This is how they started to figure out we had a really strong gymnastics program, more parking than other UW campuses, the tightest geographic density of any Wisconsin campus, a strong ROTC and veterans’ program, a series of majors unavailable elsewhere in the UW system and more.

Every campus has a unique feature that draws in readers. That’s why one campus will run it’s “Party Animal” edition to great fanfare every year while another school has a “Bridal Guide” for its graduating seniors. The key to getting readers is figuring out that niche interest and catering to it.

THE LAW OF THE INSTRUMENT IS A BIGGER PROBLEM: This “law” is often attributed to Abraham Maslow and is best captured in the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As my colleague mentioned initially, his students tend to look at a situation, an incident or a project for some new or innovative ways to tell the story before eventually saying, “Screw it. Let’s just write it.”

There is nothing wrong with “just writing” anything, so long as writing it is the best solution to the problem. Unfortunately, even when that’s not the case, a lot of writers just go back to their favorite tool and use it to the best of their ability.

This isn’t a text-only problem. I remember co-teaching a “converged” class with a veteran broadcaster who thought every story could be told on TV. When I mentioned stories like budget analyses or data-driven pieces, he told me how he’d take video of someone tossing a budget on a table or use close-up shots on fingers turning pages. He was right that the story COULD be told via video, but it wasn’t the BEST way to tell that story.

We had a similar situation at Mizzou, when we hired a graphics expert and suddenly every story needed a box, a chart or some other visual cue. In one case, we wrote a story about an upcoming snowstorm and the graphics guy immediately chimed in with, “You need a box of safe driving tips with that!” My response: “Is this going to be anything more than what 75 other Missourian stories and common sense have told you about not driving like an asshole?” He got offended. The box ran. It was literally what I thought it would be.

The point is,  you can tell stories in alternative formats, but we often gravitate to the tool most familiar to us. We also tend to become enamored with a particular tool if it’s a shiny new toy that we want to take with us on every adventure.

The Axios format might be a great tool for telling certain, specific stories, but not others. I have seen students build amazing graphics that tell stories better than text. I’ve seen video do a job that audio could never do. I’ve also seen the exact opposite of all of these things.

In short, the key in getting the stories told better is to put more tools in the students’ tool boxes and then teaching them how and when to use each one to its optimum level.

YOU CAN’T PIVOT OUT OF CRAPPY CONTENT: The reason most of these things fail is because of the “garbage in, garbage out” truism that journalists don’t want to confront. If you aren’t covering things that matter to people, you can’t improve readership through repackaging those things in a new format.

While I was speaking to a college newsroom, a student asked me if I had any tips on how to make their meeting coverage better. When I asked what kinds of things were happening at those meetings that made them valuable, I got dead silence.

It seems that they covered the meetings because they always covered the meetings, regardless of what was going on at those meetings. My first bit of advice was to stop covering meetings unless they could determine that something important to the readers would be happening at them.

In other words, they could do their meeting coverage in Axios format, audio, video or virtual reality, but it wasn’t going to make people engage with the content.

When all is said and done, I hope the Axios approach does make a difference for the people deciding to make that move. My sense of the matter is, if the underlying stuff is good, the model will move the needle more than a bit. If not, it’ll be one more pivot that won’t get the job done.

Another lesson in how the First Amendment does and doesn’t work: The story of Oberlin College and a bakery accused of racism

(or a few other things, as Oberlin College discovered…)

As we have noted here numerous times, the First Amendment provides U.S. citizens with the right to free speech, not consequence-free speech. A recent appeals court decision in Ohio made that clear when it upheld a multi-million-dollar verdict against Oberlin College:

A private college in northern Ohio has lost its appeal after a lengthy court battle with the owners of a local bakery who accused the administration of perpetuating false allegations of racism against their business.

Now the college could be on the hook for $31 million.

A three-judge panel in Ohio’s 9th District Court of Appeals rejected Oberlin College’s arguments in a 50-page opinion published on Thursday, March 31. In doing so, the appeals court upheld a lower court decision that awarded Gibson’s Bakery $25 million in damages and $6 million in legal fees, the Associated Press reported.

This decision dates back to a 2016 incident in which a bakery employee accused three Black students from Oberlin of attempting to shoplift and use a fake ID. The students later pleaded guilty to various charges related to the incident, but before that, members of the college community protested what they felt to be racist and unfair treatment of the students.

During the protest, the school’s dean of students handed out a flyer that stated, in part: “This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” In addition, the student government at Oberlin passed a resolution stating:

A Black student was chased and assaulted at Gibson’s after being accused of stealing. Several other students, attempting to prevent the assaulted student from receiving further injury, were arrested and held by the Oberlin Police Department. In the midst of all this, Gibson’s employees were never detained and were given preferential treatment by police officers.
Gibson’s has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike.

Oberlin argued that the protest and statements made at it were part of a free-speech exercise and thus protected by the First Amendment. The courts ruled that the students could protest all they wanted, but that’s not the point of the suit. This is where it might be helpful to break down what the First Amendment does and doesn’t do:

It does:

  • Prevent government interference that limits speech. In other words, had the protest been shut down by the cops or the city council, or prohibited from occurring in the first place, the First Amendment rights of the students would have been violated.
  • Allow people to express opinions without fear of governmental retaliation. Simply put, if I want to tell people I dislike the president, or that the food at a restaurant doesn’t thrill me, I have that right.

It does NOT:

  • Protect all forms of speech, including false, defamatory content. The courts have to decide, as they did in this case, to what degree something is stated as a fact or an opinion. “This weather sucks,” is a statement opinion. “The weather forecaster on Channel 3 is a pedophile,” is meant as a statement of fact, and carries with it potentially defamatory content, if untrue.
  • Protect people from consequences from their free-speech activities. If you engage in free speech, you can say whatever you want, but you are held to account for that speech. This is where defamation suits come into play. It’s also why I’m a raving psychotic about fact-checking and attributions in stories.

Oberlin argued the protest, flyer and resolution were opinions, thus protected by the First Amendment. What the court in this case found was that the flyer and the student government resolution were presented in a way that a reasonable person could construe them as being factual. That includes the allegations that an employee assaulted a kid, that the situation was racially motivated and that the bakery had a history of racial profiling/racism. If the school wants to win the case, it has to demonstrate fact-based proof that this stuff has happened.

Although the court didn’t cite the Ollman Test in this case, it still serves as a benchmark for how to determine if something is fact or opinion. Two of the four standards are pretty important here:

Can the statement be proven true or false?

In order for a libel suit to be successful, the plaintiff must demonstrate the material in question is false. If the material is pure opinion, it cannot be proven true or false and thus cannot be libelous. In this case, claims of assault, racism and a history of racial profiling all could be proven or disproved at some level. Oberlin didn’t make any real effort to try to make the case the content was true, the courts found.

What is the common meaning of the words?

Assault, racism and racial profiling all have definitions that could be determined and applied. We do have degrees of assault, but what do people think of when they hear someone was “assaulted?” Probably physical violence that leaves injuries. What about “racism?” That is clearly more wide-ranging and based on a variety of factors, but in holding to the “reasonable person” standard, the court has to make a call. Is failing to say “hello” to an unknown person of another race a reasonable standard? Probably not. Is burning a cross at the home of a person of color going to fit the bill? Heck yeah and then some. Thus, somewhere in the middle of that range is where reasonability is going to come to play and that’s where the court gets to say if the accusations fit the meaning.

In short, the school put itself in jeopardy by failing to fact-check a situation and not considering the ramifications of failing to do so.  The school says it might appeal, but I’d probably put my money on this case being upheld.

That’s just my opinion, based on the facts.



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

I’ve noticed a lot of weak lead-in copy lately among my students, as they seem to think the paraphrase is there to tell me that they’re going to tell me something in the next paragraph. I hit up a former broadcaster for a broadcast perspective, and she had also noticed a lot of “so and so had this to say” as lead-ins to soundbites.

Today’s throwback tries to push back against that terrible approach to copy with some suggestions for media writers across the board.


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.


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.


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.”