Revisiting “The Midterm From Hell”

In honor of my students who will be taking this exam today, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this post with a few tweaks. Enjoy. — VFF

I often get to hear students complaining about classes and professors, as that comes with the territory of being an academic adviser, a  former newsroom adviser and having an office right next to the computer lab. When they don’t think I’m listening, I’ve heard students mutter about the amount of reading I assign in Feature Writing or the way that AP style is way too big of a deal in the Writing for the Media class.

However, two grievances have been repeated about two specific things I force students to do that are both points of annoyance and points of pride for them. When they gripe about these things, they do so loudly and with an odd tone like someone in a really bad 1980s movie yelling, “I was in ‘NAM, man! You don’t even know!” It’s a mix of irritation and self-congratulations.

The first we’ve discussed here before: The Feel-It Lab.

The second is what one student referred to as “The Midterm from Hell.”

Conceptually speaking, it’s reporting in its purest form: You get an assignment you know nothing about, you research it, you find sources and you turn the story in for publication immediately. Maybe working night desk where asking “Can I get this done tomorrow?” would have gotten me mocked and then fired and then mocked again has jaded me to the difficulty of this, but I doubt it.

Below is the outline for “The Midterm from Hell” as it is presented to the students. Feel free to use it as you see fit or adapt it as you need. Consider it a “share the hate” moment from me to you.

——-

Reporting Midterm Assignment

The 24-Hour Story

As promised, this isn’t going to be your standard “memorize some facts, regurgitate them and move on” type of midterm. Reporting is a skill that you hone over time and in many cases, you don’t have a lot of time to do the honing. You will be responsible for your own fate and the fate of your colleagues in this midterm exercise.

Part I: The Pitch

As per your syllabus, you will have to email me a midterm pitch no later than Sunday at noon. If you do not turn in your pitch, you will not be able to participate in the midterm itself on Tuesday.

(UPDATE NOTE: About one student every other year fails the midterm before it even launches because of this. I guess if I had this threat hanging over my head, I’d make it a priority to beat the deadline by several days.)

What you are attempting to pitch is a story that you believe you could accomplish within a 24-hour period. The pitch itself should include the following things:

  • Your name
  • Your contact information (phone number, email address etc.)
  • An introductory paragraph of about five or six sentences that outlines what the story is about, what makes it worth doing and why it matters to a specific readership.
  • A list of at least THREE human sources, including contact information and rationale behind these people being used as sources.

You should attempt to create a quality pitch, obviously. If your pitch is too weak or fails to meet the basic elements of the assignment, your pitch will be discarded and you will not be allowed to participate in the midterm.

 

Part II: The Story

Everyone who turns in a pitch will be expected to be in class ready to go on Tuesday. I will print off all of the acceptable pitches and give each pitch a random number. Each participant will select a number and thus receive the associated pitch. YOU CANNOT RECEIVE YOUR OWN PITCH. I will read the pitch to the class and give you a copy of the pitch. The person responsible for the pitch can then augment the pitch with additional information or suggestions. We then open the floor for other people to suggest other sources or other places for information. Once you feel comfortable with your pitch, we move on to the next person.

When all the pitches are handed out, you will then have approximately 24 hours to complete a solid news story on that topic. It must be at least 2 pages, typed, double-spaced. It must contain no fewer than three human sources. You do not need to use any or all of the sources suggested to you in the pitch. You can augment the list or stick to it. The pitch is merely meant to guide you.

Your story must be in at noon on Wednesday.  If you are late, you fail the assignment, so remember the old line we repeat in here: Journalism is never done. It’s just due. Your completed work will be graded along the same lines as your previous stories, with one-third of the grade being assigned to each of the three main areas: Reporting, Writing and Style.

This is going to typify the quote on the front of your syllabus: You have to improvise. You have to adapt. You have to overcome. Stuff can go wrong. People might not get back to you. Sources might be out of town.  Your job is to be a reporter and figure out how to get the best possible version of the story out of the assignment based on what you have available to you at the time. Perfection is unattainable, so don’t panic about that. Make sure you’re accurate, clear, concise and balanced. Work on smoothing out your writing without obsessing about how perfect it is.

You can do this. We’ve been preparing for it all term.

Questions? Ask ‘em.

Fetch-Gate Parenting: Stop trying to name every phenomenon with some cute term

The saga of rich parents trying to bribe people to get their kids into great colleges has given birth to many stories, arguments and memes built from old “Full House” episodes, thanks to Lori “Aunt Becky” Loughlin’s involvement. One of the more annoying trends has been the media’s desperate need to name this phenomenon, something the NY Times chipped in on this morning:

Snowplow

The Times is a bit late on the name game in this situation, as others have already dubbed these folks “lawnmower parents” because they like to “mow down” any obstacle, discomfort or problem for their children. My favorite idiom was “curling parents,” named after the stone-and-broom sport, because the parents frantically try to sweep all the problems out of their children’s path.

 

Prior to this situation, we had “helicopter parents,” named for their ability to hover over every aspect of their children’s lives, who were quickly replaced by “drone parents,” who are like “helicopter parents on steroids.” A number of years back, we had “soccer moms,” stereotypical middle-America parents who used a calendar and a mini-van to help their kids engage in every possible extra-curricular activity that looked great on a college application.  In resistance to all of this hovering, sweeping, plowing and mowing, the concept of “free-range parenting” became popular in the media, with publications telling tales of parents who kind of just left their kids alone for 10 seconds or more each day.

This phenomenon of naming something that doesn’t really need a name isn’t new, as any journalist who started working after 1972 can tell you. In that year, several men connected to President Richard Nixon were caught while attempting to plant listening devices in the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This led to arrests, congressional hearings, impeachment hearings and Nixon’s resignation as president. The scandal became known as “Watergate,” named as such because that was the building that housed the DNC’s offices.

In the years that followed, every scandal has seemed to enjoy a -gate suffix moniker. We had “Bridgegate,” “Pizzagate,” “Deflategate,” “Clown-and-Cheesegate” “Sausagegate,” “Hookergate,” “Penisgate,” “Vaginagate,” “Dildogate,” “Potatogate” and at least two dozen more.

This is stupid for a couple reasons:

  • It’s not clever or unique: I remembered the first three. After that, I just started randomly typing foods or sex terms into Google with the word “gate” attached and got all of these. I never missed once, so you get the idea that this concept of “-gate” naming stuff isn’t new or innovative. It’s lazy writing and a stupid idea.
  • The scandals aren’t that scandalous: Watergate was a scandal that went to the highest office in the land and forced a sitting president who had won re-election in a walk to resign, something that had never happened before. Tom Brady “maybe” making footballs softer isn’t in the same neighborhood as this. Hell, it’s not even on the same planet. I’m sure that your university’s decision to keep taxing feminine hygiene products is a problem and should be covered, but don’t call it “tampongate.” (Besides, not one, but two, “scandals” have already used this one.)
  • The -gate thing isn’t real: The reason we called the Nixonian scandal “Watergate” was because that was the name of the building. It wasn’t like he used a “gate” to try to stop “water” or something. Thus, a scandal about a bridge or a clown or whatever, shouldn’t reference a suffix that isn’t part of its original title. I’m trying to imagine if someone stole stuff out of the Watergate now and how it might be a “Watergategate” or “Watergate 2.0,” another stupid way of building a term.

When it comes to covering a topic, you want to tell people what happened that matters to them. Your job isn’t to become a lexiconnoisseur or some sort of trendsetter. All it does is make you look like you can’t do your job without being cute. In addition, it will annoy your readers as you try to make your “-gate parenting” thing happen. As Regina George famously explained, you need to stop this right now:

 

 

GAME TIME! Spring Break AP Style Quiz

If you’re anything like my students, you are desperately awaiting the start of spring break. Or is it “Spring Break?” Or maybe Spring break…

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.

To start, click this link.

Brown M&M’s and The “Deliverance” House: Why details and first impressions matter

When my wife, Amy, and I went looking for our first house, we had 72 hours to find one and make a decision. We were living in Missouri and I had a job waiting at Ball State University in Indiana three months down the road. We didn’t want to move a bunch of times, so we decided to take one weekend, work with a realtor and get our first place.

The realtor did a great job of setting up dozens of appointments, which made the whole process dizzying for Amy and me. We ended up keeping track of the houses based on things that stuck out in our minds. One house had this immense great room that was filled with infant supplies and toddler toys, thus leading us to call it the “Baby House.” Another must have been owned by a heavy smoker who died months earlier (possibly in the home) and it became the “Smoking House.”

The last house we saw on the first day took the prize, however. The family inside was either renting or squatting and the place was a disaster. Every appliance had about a quarter-inch of grime on it and there was a Ball jar on the stove filled with grease that they used to butter bread.

Kids were everywhere as were piles of clothes and used food items. Doritos were ground into the carpeting on the steps and every bedroom just had a mattress on the floor. It was one of those homes where we kept telling ourselves, “Look past the mess.” However, when we went into the secondary basement, we decided to get the hell out of there.

There was a kid, about 7 or 8 years old, sitting in the dark, watching TV while rocking in a rocker. A big horse saddle was next to him on a wooden beam. The real estate agent tried to say something engaging to him. He just stared forward and kept rocking.

Thus, the “Deliverance House” was born.

I thought about that last night, when I was reading through some student journalism contest entries I needed to judge. The candidates for Reporter of the Year were impressive from this particular state and the broadcast reporters in particular were amazing. The first kid, however, had me in a bit of a pickle because I couldn’t get past my first impression.

I read her resume and something in her listing of TV work didn’t look right. I was a bit tired, so I reread this spot about four times before I realized that I wasn’t going crazy. She couldn’t spell:

FebFails

I did a screen grab and cut off as much of the identifying content from her resume as I could so you could see what I saw. Over THREE positions, she spelled “February” THREE ways. Obviously, only one of them could be right, and I guess you could argue that the third time was the charm. Still, I found myself watching her packages thinking, “If she can’t get this right, what else isn’t right?”

That was the lesson I hope you took from the spot in the writing book where I talked about the Van Halen 1982 tour rider. The band denied this existed for years until The Smoking Gun ended up finding a copy. The rider, which detailed specific needs of the band that went beyond its contract, was 57 pages long and called for all sorts of crazy, tiny items. The famous one was the requirement that the dressing room be stocked with M&M candies, with the admonition, “Warning: absolutely no brown ones.”

The guys in the band later explained that they had a lot of stuff to worry about during a show, such as if instruments would be set up right and if the lighting systems would work properly. If they walked into the dressing room and found the M&M’s and there were no brown ones, the staff at the venue had paid attention to detail and the band could relax about everything else. If the guys found brown M&M’s or no M&M’s, they began to worry about what else might be wrong.

I’m not writing this post to pick on this student, who I have no doubt will have a heck of a good career ahead of her. Truth be told, I once sent in a cover letter where I misspelled the name of the hiring editor in my salutation. (He hired me anyway, but that’s not the point.) The point here is that I hope you can see how something so small, especially in a first impression, can make a difference in the minds of readers, viewers, contest judges and even hiring managers.

As much of a pain as it is to pick at every document and review every comma, know that your work isn’t wasted. Even if nobody notices how clean your work is, at least they won’t notice something negative and get the wrong first impression about you.

GAME TIME! AP-Style, Spring-based Quiz of Mirth and Hope

In Wisconsin, this time of year makes you really question your sanity and hate every Facebook friend from Florida who is posting beach photos. It was -18 windchill the other day and I don’t see it getting better any time soon. A friend of mine told me that the giant pile of snow at the airport in Milwaukee is expected to melt no sooner than July. And he was serious.

In hopes of bringing on a season in which “windchill” is not a word, here’s an AP quiz based on spring themes. Speed counts, but accuracy matters most.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

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

Click here to begin the quiz.

Cover Letters 101: How to tell your story and connect with an employer in journalism

I spent about half of the week working to get students into classes through our advising process and the other half working with students in a panic over trying to get an internship or a job.

Their biggest freakout? Cover-letter writing.

I’m hoping this post can help you (or your students) build a pretty standard cover letter that will touch on the basics, avoid any major problems and possibly even stand out among your peers as a quality candidate. (I grabbed most of this from the reporting book’s appendix, with a few alterations to make things clearer or better…)

Cover letters 101

In the days of texts and tweets, the idea of a cover letter can seem as quaint and unnecessary as communicating via the Pony Express. Some publications require a cover letter as a matter of course and to meet specific requirements set forth by a human resources department. Other places will ask for an email or a video or some other form of introductory element that goes beyond the resume to explain who you are and why you matter. Regardless of the format, you want to put your best foot forward when you formally introduce yourself in the hiring process. Here are a few bits of advice to help you alone:            

 

Start with a connection if you have it: If it’s an opening paragraph or an opening line in a video, you want to introduce yourself to your audience in a way that gives you an edge over any potential competition. One of the best ways to make this happen is if they already know you, which is why networking is so crucial throughout your college (and professional) career.

If you went to a journalism conference and met a recruiter for the Johnson Journal, she might say, “Hey, we have an internship this summer that you might want to consider.” That connection can be helpful in pulling you to the top of the stack, if she remembers you. That’s why you want to start with something like, “It was great to meet you this fall at the ABC Media conference, where we talked about potential internship opportunities. Given what you told me there, I was excited to see you had this internship available and I couldn’t wait to apply.”

In some cases, you won’t have that connection, but you will have that “friend of a friend” connection that you can exploit for your own benefit. Professors get emails or messages from former students all the time, asking if they know of any good students that might be interested in an internship or a job. If the professor handed this off to you, this is another great way to connect with a potential employer: “Professor Smith said you were looking for a hard worker to fill your internship position this summer and he recommended that I send you my resume.”

If you lack any specific “in” with a potential employer, consider telling the employer where you found their advertisement and why you felt you compelled to apply for the opening. For example, you could explain that you read the publication frequently or that you have professors who speak highly of the writing it puts out. You could also look for a way to tie your interests to their needs. In doing this you could mention how you covered specific things such as crime or sports and that is what drew you to the company’s open position for a crime reporter or a sports reporter. Look for a way to reach out and explain to the person reviewing resumes, “Hey, I’m interested in you for a good reason!”

 

Explain, don’t repeat, your resume: When students take essay tests, I often advise them to go through the essay question and highlight key phrases and active verbs so that they don’t miss any section. Things like “Compare and contrast the four ethical codes” and “Describe the structure of an inverted pyramid story” call for specific actions on the part of the student. Going through and noting those requirements can be helpful when the students want to provide the most complete answer possible. If you use that same formula when you write your cover letter, you can set yourself apart from the people who use form letters to regurgitate their experience.

Go through the job posting and highlight specific things the job requires or the employer wants. This could include things like “must be proficient at social media” or “needs the ability to work well under deadline pressure.” Once you highlight those elements, pick out the ones you want to discuss in your cover letter.

At this point, you don’t want to repeat your resume, but rather link your experiences to their needs and do a solid job of explaining how they connect through narrative examples. Let’s say the need is “must work well under deadline pressure.” You can link that to your work in student media with an example of how you did this:

“You noted in your position description that you need someone who works well under deadline pressure. As a news reporter at the Campus Crier, I often found myself working on tight deadlines including one case where I got a tip about the university’s president resigning. In less than two hours, I managed to get the story confirmed and written. Even better, I scooped the local paper.”

Not every need will attach itself to one of your great adventures in media, but you should look for those opportunities to show people what you did and how it can be of benefit to them.

 

The Money Paragraph: Why should they hire you? After you outline your skills and traits but before you thank the person for considering your application sits the most important couple of sentences in your letter: The Money Paragraph. At this point, you should have made a good impression and have the person on the other end of the letter thinking that you might be a good fit. It is right here that you want to seal the deal and give the employer something to remember.

Each of us has that “one thing” that we think we’re better at that most of the rest of the people in our field. We pride ourselves on our ability to work through problems, to constantly look for positives in every situation or to smooth over personnel concerns. Whatever that “one thing” is for you, hit it here with some emphasis. The goal is to say to an employer that if she is looking through your application and Candidate X’s application and everything completely equal to this point, here’s the big reason why you should get the job over that other person:

“Above all else, I constantly look for new ways to reach the audience. I was one of the first reporters on our staff to integrate digital tools like Periscope and Storify into my work. I knew this was how most people in our audience got the news and now everyone else at our publication uses these tools as well. I will always look for the next best way to connect with the readers and viewers and I think this approach could really boost readership for your organization.”

 

The last paragraph should simply wrap things up with something like,” With all of this being said, I think I’d be a great candidate for (WHATEVER), so please feel free to contact me at (PHONE NUMBER) or via email at (ADDRESS).” Make sure you type your name and sign the letter. If it’s digital, you can sign a printed copy and then scan it back in there.

(Instead of doing that, a long time ago, I grabbed a piece of paper and practiced my signature until I was happy with it. I then did a large version of it with a big Sharpie and scanned that into my computer. I saved it as a jpeg and just insert it now as a signature. Works well.)

Before you send this off, have at least one other person read it for any spelling, grammar or other goofy errors. Make sure you have the name of your contact spelled right and the name of the organization done properly (is it Advanced Titan or Advance-Titan  and is it hyphenated or not?). Then, fix any minor glitches and submit your application.

Burying the lead (or “Man shoots self in scrotum, see sentence six.”)

In terms of press releases, this one clearly puts the thing you would probably most want to know near the end. This is one of the main reasons why you should learn to write in the inverted pyramid instead of simply recounting things chronologically.

To be fair, a “self-inflicted gunshot wound” does sound terrible, but it only gets worse:

PenisRelease

Press releases like this make me miss working on the police beat.

(Instructors: A good exercise with this one would be to write a lead based on the release. The content has a pretty good number of the FOCII elements in there and a rewrite could create a better emphasis on them.)

 

Bryce Harper scores a 62-word, 9-preposition lead from the Washington Post (Oh, and $330 million from the Phillies…)

 

The question of, “How much money is one player worth?” came up once again when free agent Bryce Harper signed a contract Thursday the for the largest total salary in baseball history. His 13-year, $330 million deal eclipsed fellow free agent Manny Machado’s deal for 10 years and $300 million just a week prior.

It’s hard to value players in terms of dollars, but the Washington Post apparently decided that a mega-contract deserved a mega-lead:

Outfielder Bryce Harper agreed to a record-setting, 13-year $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, completing a protracted, four-month journey through free agency and officially ending his seven-year tenure with the Washington Nationals, the franchise that drafted and developed him, brought him to the majors as a teenager in 2012 and watched him blossom into one of the game’s biggest superstars.

As stat geeks were breaking down the various ways in which Harper’s performance and added wins would benefit or kill the Philadelphia franchise, those of us in journalism were doing some number-crunching of our own on this monstrosity. It contains the following:

  • 62 words
  • 3 conjunctions
  • 9 prepositions
  • 5 numbers (six, if you count teenager)
  • 5 hyphens

If you consider that leads are supposed to be 25-35 words, these numbers are even more ridiculous. (Maybe each of the two authors on this byline thought they each got to contribute 25-35 words to the lead…)

This thing could be good if it stopped at any of the following points:

The 28-word edition: (26 if you trim “protracted”  and “Outfielder”)

Outfielder Bryce Harper agreed to a record-setting, 13-year $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, completing a protracted, four-month journey through free agency.

The 34-word edition, if you want to weave in the local angle: (29 if you trim “Outfielder,” “protracted journey through,” and “officially”)

Outfielder Bryce Harper agreed to a record-setting, 13-year $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, completing a protracted, four-month journey through free agency and officially ending his seven-year tenure with the Washington Nationals.

This could also easily be rewritten in a half dozen other ways to get the point across that this guy who played for your team is now playing elsewhere for a lot of money. (I would have loved the headline “13 years a Phillie” if I could have gotten away with it… Just a thought.) So consider the following things you can take away from this:

  • Pick a main point and make it: What, exactly, did this lead want to tell me? The answer is “Pretty much everything all at once.” How is the best way to make this point? The authors’ answer was apparently, “Like a meth-addled toddler, hopped up on sugar telling me about his entire month-long trip to Disney world in six seconds.” Instead of doing this, you need to find a main point and focus on it. If you think your audience needs to know about the mega-dollar deal, focus there. If it’s that you lost your hometown star, focus there. The idea is that when you make everything the main point, you lack a main point.
  • Write, then edit: There’s nothing wrong with WRITING a lead like this to get all the ideas you have out of your head. (You wouldn’t believe how insanely long some of the sentences I write can become during the first draft of some of the textbooks.) However, you need to go back and EDIT after you do this so that you can get a handle on what needs to be there and what is just taking up space. The goal is to have a well-crafted lead that tells people the things the need to know most, first. Some of this gets done in the writing, while a lot of it gets done in the editing.
  • It could always be worse: Here is the NY Times opening sentence:

    PHOENIX — Maybe the faucets were just a little rusty.

“This really brought me back to why I decided to be a journalist in the first place.” How the Northwest Missourian’s coverage of a fatal drunken driving trial served its readers well.

The Palms is a popular bar near Northwest Missouri State University that is usually jammed with students both inside and out. On weekends, the outdoor bar area has students packed shoulder to shoulder as they enjoy the atmosphere of college life.

On Jan. 7, The Palms became the site of a chaotic and deadly night when 22-year-old Alex Catterson slammed his pickup truck into the entrance of the building, killing sophomore Morgan McCoy.

“With the initial coverage of this story, we decided to cover the incident as breaking news and just tried to piece together a story that told what happened,” Darcie Dujakovich, the editor in chief for the Northwest Missourian, said. “Many college students were in the bar the night of the incident and left not knowing someone had died and that guided how we covered this story. We wanted to get the most important details out as quickly as possible: the death, her name, his name, location, how he crashed and any other injuries.

Shortly after, we did a feature piece on Morgan talking about her involvement on campus, hearing from friends and not necessarily focusing on her death but the impact her life had on the people around her, as we do with every student death we see at Northwest.”

What made this situation different was the importance of following the criminal aspects of the case, she said. Catterson had a blood-alcohol content of nearly three times the legal limit, officials said, and he would face felony charges associated with McCoy’s death.

“We had this trial on our radar for months and started planning for it pretty early out,” campus news editor Rachel Adamson said. “We knew we needed someone in the courtroom at all times to be able to accurately relay the information back to our readers. Darcie, our managing editor Joe Andrews and I all agreed we would need a story each day detailing what happened and Tweets throughout the day. ”

The newsroom often had multiple reporters at the courthouse during the day, capturing not just the major elements of the case, but also the details that brought clarity and intensity to their work.

“We knew we wanted to have coverage of this every day because it was something that shook our campus to the core, and people wanted to know what was happening,” Dujakovich said. “We felt as if we needed to provide them with that information.

The publication did daily work that provided some of the most painful details of the event, ranging from witness accounts of the crash to the recounting of Catterson’s often-tasteless interactions with police during his arrest.

“The hardest part of the trial to cover was the environment of the courtroom,” Adamson said. “There were heavy emotions coming from both sides of the gallery throughout the case. During the first couple days of the trial, graphic evidence and testimonies were shared and I remember thinking there was no way I was going to be able to sit through that for the rest of the week but I did.”

After a week-long trial, the jury found Catterson guilty of a Class B felony in causing McCoy’s death. Working on the trial still has an impact on the publication’s staff members, even after they finished their work, Dujakovich said.

“I found this coverage extremely hard to deal with and am still dealing with the effects it had on me,” she said. “Just emotionally, I have never covered something like this before. We were able to see body camera footage of CPR performed on Morgan’s lifeless body, we were able to hear the screams of her friends as they saw her being carried out on a stretcher assumed dead, we heard in gruesome detail about the puddle of blood she laid in and how her leg had been amputated. The details were and still are hard to swallow. However, being in the same room as Morgan’s family and watching those people relive her death six days in a row as I take notes about their tears for a story felt heartless – but it was not, people wanted these stories.”

The most difficult and yet rewarding decision in the coverage was to rely heavily on description and narrative, the editors both said. This provided the readers with a sense that they were watching the trial as well, and gave them a sense of how the hearing was unfolding from an emotional point of view.

“I never thought I was capable of illustrating a story and making readers feel like they were actually there,” Adamson said. “There had been countless times when I had read Time magazine and The New Yorker and thought, ‘Wow, if I could just write like that.’ But while covering this trial, I put aside trying to write like someone else and instead I just started writing and didn’t stop until all my thoughts were typed out. While writing, I kept circling back to ask myself, ‘How did it feel?’ That’s what kept me writing, that’s how we told the story – how did it feel?”

“I learned the importance of details in news writing,” Dujakovich added. “I feel like so often, especially as news reporters, we feel as if it is so cut and dry. Here are the facts, here are some words people said, and that is it. The details in these stories really made a difference. I never used detail in this way before and moving forward I do not think I will ever neglect to use detail as we did here, it made the story compelling and kept people coming back.”

Adamson said she also learned the value of telling the story as it happens so that the facts don’t get lost within the writing of the emotion.

“I walked into that courtroom day one of the trial with a lot of pre-conceived ideas of what I had thought happened,” she said. “I was quickly reminded through evidence that was presented that I needed to keep an open mind. That was the first lesson of many that covering this trial taught me.”

Dujakovich said although the coverage was difficult, she felt that she served her readers well and gave them a strong look at an important event.

“I made my decisions based on what I thought the readers would want to hear most,” Dujakovich said. “I tried to make sure they could picture the courtroom and the people in it. I wanted them to be able to see and hear what I saw and heard. I mean, the reader should always be top priority, but it is easy to write and forget about them. This really brought me back to why I decided to be a journalist in the first place.”

Inflatable rats and car horns aren’t free speech. Flipping the bird? Totally protected…

Courts often must parse what does and does not count as protected speech, and apparently, a giant inflatable rat doesn’t fit the bill, according to a court ruling last week:

A Wisconsin town’s sign ordinance did not violate a local union’s free speech rights, even though the ordinance prohibited the union from displaying its 12-foot inflatable rat, Scabby the Rat, to symbolize its protest against a local business.

The union erected Scabby the Rat to protest a local car dealership in the Town of Grand Chute, alleging the dealership was paying nonstandard, lower wages to masons on a construction project. The union placed Scabby the Rat in a right-of-way on a major thoroughfare near the dealership, drawing attention to protesting picketers nearby.

In other cases, courts have ruled in favor of some “different” forms of speech, such as holding protest signs, yelling slogans or even singing.

A Wisconsin appeals court ruled on Thursday morning that a state requirement for singers in the state Capitol to obtain a permit was unconstitutional.

The ruling by Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg of the 4th District Court of Appeals appears to be the last word on the matter, which became a hot-button issue during the summer of 2013 when Capitol Police arrested hundreds of protesters for singing in the Capitol rotunda without a permit.

However, my favorite parsing of what is and isn’t free speech involves a probation and parole official from Wisconsin who was disgruntled with then-Gov. Scott Walker.

Between 5:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. each day, someone in a black Honda would drive past Walker’s house in Wauwatosa, blow his horn like crazy, give the finger through his sunroof and shout, “Recall Walker.”

He was ticketed for using his horn, a charge he fought to no avail:

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Mary Kuhnmuench found that there was no precedent for horn-honking being constitutionally protected political speech. Brodhead, who represented himself, was fined $166.20.

That said, he was still able to continue his protest without the use of a horn, and he did so.

During the workweek, he leaves his downtown office around 5 p.m., drives by the governor’s residence near the corner of N. 68th St. and W. Blue Mound Road, offers a one-finger salute and bellows his support of the Walker recall effort.

Only now he doesn’t blow his horn.

So, you can call someone a rat, but you can’t display a giant rat. Conversely, you can flip the bird at someone to honk them off, but don’t honk at them while you do it.

Who says the law isn’t fun?