How to write about sports when you don’t know anything about sports

Here’s an email request I got that inspired today’s post on sports journalism:
I’m now requiring that all of my students write at least two sports-related stories this semester. I figure if they all have to write a crime story and a meeting story and an issue story, that they should know the basics of writing a sports story.
I’m not asking for game stories (short shelf-life anyway) or analysis, but I have some students who are freaking out like I told them calculus was required.
So, how about a post about writing sports when you know nothing about sports?
The idea of writing about something you know nothing about can be terrifying, especially something like sports, where the readers are so well-versed in and so passionate for the topic. Rather than letting this kind of thing freeze you in your tracks, here are a few things to think about as you work the problem and put yourself in a better position to succeed:
KNOWING NOTHING IS PAR FOR THE COURSE:  I get that the idea of covering a topic that you know nothing about can be jarring and anxiety provoking. That said, you need to start with the fact that you probably don’t know squat about most things you’ll cover initially.
Do you know how the city council reads, debates, amends and finally votes on a proposal?
Do you know stagflation can create financial concerns for businesses in your coverage area?
Do you know how a school decides what curriculum will be taught at a particular level or who decides if students meet the standards of that curriculum?
Probably not, at least not right off the cuff, so don’t worry so much about not knowing anything about sports more than you would anything else. Realizing that should cut your anxiety by one-third.
RESEARCH YOUR TOPIC: The whole idea of reporting before you write is to learn as much as possible about whatever it is you’re going to write about before you have to write about it. Sports isn’t any different than anything else you’ll have to write about, in the broadest sense, so you should begin covering sports the way you begin to cover anything else.
Figure out what the topic is you have to cover, do some internet searches on that topic, dig into the previous stories other smart people have done on the topic and form some questions on that topic based on what you’ve learned. Then, go to smart people who are involved in that topic and ask the questions you have, get some answers and start piecing your story together.
Don’t endow sports with some sort of mystical power just because it’s different or because thousands of people show up dressed like the people who play it, scream their heads off every minute of the game and drink beer in the parking lot. It’s the same as anything else you cover, so research the hell out of it and feel more grounded in the topic. Don’t let the “it’s sports” excuse allow you to under-prepare.
FIND THINGS YOU LIKE IN A FIELD YOU DON’T: It’s tough to write about something you don’t like. As someone who had to cover governmental issues for short periods of time in my career, I can say for sure that good writing does not grow from abject hatred of the topic. To make this kind of situation better, you need to look for the diamond in the cesspool and polish it up for the good of humankind.
You can’t hate everything you might be forced to deal with. (OK, I guess you could, but if that’s the case, change your major and go into business. At least you’ll make some good money on the deal…) There have to be at least a few topics, story types or intriguing moments you’ve experienced somewhere in your reportorial journey, so go there and do some digging.
You hate sports? Fine. Look for someone to profile and try to figure out why this person has dedicated themselves to something you completely don’t understand. Write a story about that person in a way that helps your audience (and maybe even you) connect to the sport on that emotional level.
Or, look for other stories that surround sports that fit into things you do care about.
  • Like money? Look into the costs of sports, the financial benefits/drawbacks of sports being located in certain areas and not in others or the money spent on keeping up fields/courts/arenas. Look at what jobs pop up AROUND sports like the people who have to clean the place up after Joe Nutzofan decides to eat 12 pounds of nachos and barf all over the place, the folks who run the ticket booths/entrance gates and the people who run the technology for the stadium/arena/whatever.
  • Like science and medicine? Look into the advances in technology that make shoes/uniforms/socks/whatever better than they used to be. Look at the surgical repairs that athletes frequently undergo and how they work. Dig into the world of performance enhancing drugs that are illegal or the health plans and team diet structures that are legal.
  • Like history? Dig into the past to find out what happened at your school in terms of athletics 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago. Did you have any superstar athletes that people have forgotten? Did a team do something amazing and an anniversary is coming up? Do people have stories about a long-gone superfan who used to do some outlandish stuff while the games were going on? What about “where are they now?” features on people who were the top dogs and big wigs of the day?
  • Like psych? Get into the head of an athlete who is at the top of their game. What makes this person tick? What makes this person push themself beyond what others can do? Get into the mind of the recovering athlete. What’s life like after a major surgery or health scare? How do they come to trust their body again? Get into the mind of people entering their final year of sports. Few will get to move on to “the pros” so what is going on with them now as they enter that final phase? Dig into coaches or refs. How do these people do what they do and why do they do it?
  • Like weird stuff? Sports is nothing but weird stuff. Figure out who is the mascot and what the point of this is. Look at some weird sports that people don’t think about as sports like spikeball, pickleball or even noodling. As they used to say about ESPN8 The OCHO: If it’s almost a sport, we’ve got it here.

SHADOW A REPORTER: If none of this works for you, you can always figure out sports by following someone around who knows sports. As a student journalist at a college or university, you likely have student media outlets out there like a newspaper, magazine, TV station, radio station or digital media operation. The reporters in these places who cover sports have an interest in the area and are likely working on the same kinds of projects and schedules you are. This makes them a perfect resource.

Find one of them and ask if you can follow them around while they do their work. Treat it like a personality profile: Use the time with them to gather some observation of what it is they do and then ask questions like an interview for that profile to learn more about what you’re seeing.

The chances are pretty good that you’ll pick up on some of the things they do to cover the topic well. It’s also likely that the reporter will be happy to help you, given that you’re both going through the same kinds of things as student media professionals. At the end of your shadowing, you probably will have enough to scrape together a couple ideas you won’t hate in the field of sports to pass your class.

Or, better yet, you might actually start to like sports.

Throwback Thursday: It’s not our fault you’re bad at this: Law and ethics and “accidentally” public information

In honor of Constitution Day (Sept. 17), I dug up this look at the law from a few years back. This was written shortly after the Parkland shooting, when the courts ruled that the school district had to provide certain documents to journalists. The administrators did, but redacted certain information, which they had a right to do. However, they didn’t redact things PROPERLY, which gave the journalists the ability to see what they tried to hide, and boy… was that some serious stuff.

What I didn’t know at the time was that shortly after we published this, I’d find myself working with a former student in a similar set of circumstances. Alex Nemec had written about a professor who was removed from his classroom on the first day. He then sought records associated with that incident, a legal battle that end up just below the state’s Supreme Court. When the court dust finally settled, he got them, but the redactions were screwed up. What followed was a lot of the same things that happened here in terms of legal wranglings, but Nemec eventually prevailed.

This is one of the main reasons I always despise people who belittle student newspapers as “kids playing journalists.” Truth be told, journalists of all stripes and experience levels can find themselves dealing with the same kinds of serious legal issue.

Happy Constitution Day (tomorrow…)

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


It’s not our fault you’re bad at this: Law and ethics and “accidentally” public information

Journalists often use open records requests to shed light on things public officials would prefer remain secret. Courts often seek to balance the public’s right to know against individual privacy rights in determining which documents merit public scrutiny and which ones should be kept out of the public eye.

In some cases, courts or public information officials will try to “split the baby” on the release of documents through a process known as information redaction. For example, if a document contains information that meets the standard of public information, but it also includes information that should clearly remain private, record keepers can “black out” those private parts before releasing the documents. Here’s an example of what that might look like:


In the “old days, the copying and redacting process was often done with a thick, black marker and a photocopier. Now, since many of the documents are kept and shared digitally, records keepers use PDFs and some Adobe editing tools to do the redactions, which is what led to a clash between the Broward school district and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The paper requested documents pertaining to the school district’s interactions with Nikolas Cruz, the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, who killed 17 people at the school in February. The courts ruled that the documents should be released, but that certain information needed to be redacted, which the district thought it did.

However, when reporters downloaded the files and pasted the information into a word-processing file, they found that all of the redacted information was visible. They also found that the information in the documents painted a much different picture of Cruz and the school district than the public officials had put forth. Seeing this information as valuable and in the public interest, the Sun-Sentinel published it. The judge who ordered the release of the documents was not pleased about this, as she demonstrated in a hearing to determine if the reporters should be held in contempt of court: 

Scherer was not swayed. She threatened to restrict what the media can report, a practice known as prior restraint.

“From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print – and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie … then I’ll do that,” she said.

At this point, let’s unpack a few things you might find useful or at least amusing:

  • The statement Judge Elizabeth Scherer issued about writing “word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print” is a bit scary and more than a bit unconstitutional. The courts cannot dictate content to the press in this fashion. It’s barely legal for your high school principal to do this, and that’s only through gross misinterpretation of one of the worst court cases in media law history.


  • In the video, the judge berates the publication for manipulating the documents by downloading them and then pasting them into another program, saying she had “never heard of such a thing.” Scherer is 42 years old, so computers have been around for much of her lifetime. It’s not like she’s Sen. Strom Thurmond, who lived to be 101 and once referred to a microphone as “the machine.” I have no idea how she never had to use a PDF before. In any case, just because you don’t understand how something works, it doesn’t follow it’s not standard operating procedure for the rest of the world.


  • She also made this statement: “You all manipulated that document so that it could be unredacted,” Scherer said. “That is no different than had they given it to you in an old-fashioned format, with black lines, and you found some type of a light that could view redacted portions and had printed that. It’s no different.”
    Right, and I know that more than a few of us have done something like this to try to figure out what was behind the black lines. In the days of typewriters, the keys made impressions on the page, which were still visible through the black marker. With toner (essentially plastic powder melted onto a page), the black of the text was different from the black of the marker, which allowed reporters to backlight the page and read the content. None of this is illegal.


  • I checked in with two legal experts about the issue of publishing information that was intended to be redacted to see what the law had to say about the topic. Both of them told me that it’s the record keeper’s job to redact the information he or she wants to keep out of the public eye. It’s not the newspaper’s job to look the other way. In short, it’s not our fault you’re bad at this. The law does not prohibit the publishing of this information.

What you should be concerned about is the ethical issues associated with publishing information in a case like this. This is where the balancing test comes into play, where you weigh the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy. As one of the “legal eagles” explained to me:

Basically, I think it’s completely ethical for journalists to hold redacted documents up to the light (or, in the digital sense, to search for letters/words to see if they show up in the redacted blocks of text). In fact, I think our job demands us to find out as much info as possible (seek truth and report it, right?).

That said, I think ethics come in when it comes to publishing. It’s a bit like handling a leak — what distinguishes us from Wikileaks, besides the Russian control and efforts to undermine democracy of course, is that we make editorial decisions based on journalism principles and practices. So you’ll be balancing public need to know with privacy concerns.

So, as a reporter, you might not want to publish certain information you receive from a source or a document, such as the name of a crime victim or an unproven rumor. However, that’s a judgment call that rests with the journalists, not the courts. When you have the information, it’s up to you to determine what the public should know and what they probably shouldn’t. It’s a monumental responsibility, but that’s why journalists make the big money.

The paper saw within the documents a pattern of the district failing Cruz, as it denied him access to services he desperately needed. Reporting this information was within the best interest of the public, the paper decided.

Earlier reporting on this, done without those documents, was refuted by the superintendent, Robert Runcie, who called the coverage inaccurate and even “fake news.” Runcie and his colleagues sought to hide these failures and gloss over the district’s responsibilities and without those reports, the paper was at a decided disadvantage. This is why open records matter and why using the information within them can shine a light where it matters most.

The Junk Drawer: Taylor Swift Can’t Save The Cops edition

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:

MAYBE JUST BE BETTER AT YOUR JOB? At the risk of creating anarchy with the title of this post, let’s tackle how Taylor Swift ended up in the middle of a controversy surrounding police officers in Alameda County. It turns out that, in addition to not understanding copyright law, the First Amendment and general common sense, at least one officer in this fine hamlet doesn’t understand how YouTube’s service agreement works either:

Last month, Sergeant David Shelby, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Department officer, was caught playing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” from his phone as he was being filmed by activists, in a move he said was done “so that you can’t post on YouTube.” The incident was the latest in a bizarre trend in which police officers play copyrighted music while they are being filmed by the public, in hopes of triggering social media antipiracy filters, which would theoretically get the video deleted. 

Aside from not doing what he had hoped it would do (keeping people from filming him and/or allowing YouTube’s “bots” to save him), Shelby actually brought more attention to his actions from both inside and outside of the police department. He is apparently not the only one who has tried this:

In the last few months, cops across the country have been trying this cute little trick for keeping their interactions with the public off social media: Playing pop songs over interactions with the public when they’re being filmed. One Beverly Hills cop played Sublime’s “Santeria” when he realized he was being live-streamed in February and another with the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and another in Illinois tried it with Blake Shelton’s “Nobody But You” in March.

They think that if the audio captured was smothered by a copyrighted song, posting it to sites like Instagram or YouTube would result in the poster getting smacked with a copyright takedown notice—and the platform would either remove the video, mute the audio, or ban the user altogether. In each of these cases, it didn’t work, and the videos remained online. People have a First Amendment right to film the police.

Shelby tried it, but it didn’t work: the video stayed up on the Anti Police-Terror Project channel, and now has almost 740,000 views.

It’s unclear what any of these officers were doing at the time that made them so worried that they were being filmed, but maybe THAT should have been the bigger concern. If you’re doing something so bad that evidence of it requires you to try to force illegal actions (copyright infringement) on other people to get away with it, that doesn’t say much for you.

On the other hand, I’m waiting for the first time some officer tries this with a Brittney Spears song, so this can start making the rounds again:

Speaking of outrage…

I AM FURIOUS AT… UM…: Journalism has two simple rules when it comes to telling a decent story:

  1. Tell me what happened.
  2. Tell me why I care.

Usually, people being upset with something leads to a pretty good answer to both of those stories. That said, it only really works if you let us in on what you know:

OK, Augusta McDonald might have been following the story, and the outrage, and the lawsuit, but maybe a couple people out there reading this thing (read: Me and Amy at least…) have no damned idea what happened, so how about filling us in? The photo of a basketball team (I think) with blurred faces and three smug looking weasels in red shirts isn’t helping here either.

I get that you don’t always want to give away the whole story in the promo like they do in “The Kentucky Fried Movie” but for Pete’s sake, give us a bit of a hint in either the head, the lead or the photo captions.

Speaking of things that are usually Kentucky-fried…

THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST FOR THE AP: Fred Vultee, a journalism professor at Wayne State University and eternal copy-editing god, was fond of telling folks that it’s just as easy to drown in 2 inches of water as is to drown in the Pacific Ocean. His point, in the editing realm, was that we should read every piece of copy carefully and fact check everything, regardless of how important we think it is.

I’ve often taken this a step further in explaining to students that it’s rarely the deep-dive, FOIA-driven, scandal-based investigative piece that ends up with problems or that costs journalists their jobs. It’s usually the small stuff that we either overlook, joke about or just make random assumptions on that tend to kill us.

A case in point is this article that shows how the Associated Press did the chicken industry wrong with its use of improper “chicken art” with a story on a corporate poultry merger:

When the AP distributed the story to all of its member news outlets, it also distributed a photo of an egg laying operation, rather than one of a broiler operation such as Sanderson Farms, or Wayne Farms, with which Sanderson Farms will merge.

And that layer operation photo was published on the websites of some of the nation’s major news outlets, such as USA Today, Financial Times, U.S. News and World Report, Boston Globe, and many others. Considering USA Today is part of the Gannett network, which owns over 100 daily newspapers and 1,000 weekly newspapers, its hard to tell how many readers saw this.

But the simple fact is that way too many people did. And my guess would be most of those people don’t understand that broilers and layers are totally different breeds of chicken and the operations are completely different.

Chickens are chickens, in their minds.

(Side Note: We have eight chickens at the ol’ homestead now and all I really know about them is how to build stuff like a coop, a “poultry palace” and a chicken run. Well, that and that it’s a major pain in the keester to try to catch them when Amy says, “Go make sure the chickens are in the coop for the night.”

If you ever want to visualize a humorous moment, imagine the author of your textbook cursing in the darkness while diving headlong after a pile of fleeing poultry, only to grab one by the leg and be beaten about the face with its wings.

You’re welcome…)

The thing that is important to understand here is not that the AP had some sort of fowl up (Sorry, I had to…) but rather that there are ALWAYS people out there who have niche interests reading your stuff and they are ALWAYS going to be upset when you screw up their beloved topic. For an earlier edition of the media writing book, I interviewed Meghan Plummer, who was working at the Experimental Aircraft Association as a publications editor. She told me stories about how she would get angry letters and emails when she’d mistake one kind of tail rudder from another in a piece or incorrectly note the year in which a plane was built or flown.

To some folks, planes are planes, but Plummer understood that these people have a passion for the topic and have come to expect that the material they read from an aviation publication will feed that passion. Keep those kinds of folks in mind when you’re writing about a topic, even if you couldn’t care less about it.

And finally, speaking of things you couldn’t care less about…

THIRD TIME IS THE CHARM: The Dynamics of Media Writing’s Third Edition has just pressed and is available for purchase at all fine textbook institutions (and I imagine free downloading already on at least three hacker sites). The update covers a lot of the crucial updates in the law, ethics, social media and web writing while doubling down on the basics that that still matter in all fields of writing.

It’s been more than a decade since I went looking for a media-writing text that treated each field of media equitably and honestly, if for no other reason than I was tired of having students in my class say, “I’m going into PR! Why do I need this stuff? The whole book is just news, news, news…” I can still remember the conversation I had with Matt Byrnie of SAGE at an AEJ conference that led to this book:

Matt: “That’s a great book! We don’t have it. You should totally write it.”
Me: “I don’t want to write a book. I want you to have someone write it so I can buy it from you.”
Matt: “You don’t understand. NOBODY has that book. That’s why I need you to do it.”

We scheduled a sit down for noon the next day where I would pitch him a concept. I remember doodling on a piece of paper from the Renaissance Hotel with ideas, rules and core concepts. When I showed it to him, he said, “We might have something here.”

I looked the book up at Amazon when putting this post together and saw this:

Number one new release in communications? Maybe we do have something here… And I’d like to thank all of you who read my stuff for making that happen.

Have a great week.


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

How to avoid letting a source’s memory lapses or outright lies destroy your stories

I’ve made a point of telling anyone who will listen that if they need ANYTHING from me in terms of content to help their students or their student newsrooms, all they have to do is ask. Thus, the following request came from a fellow journalism teacher:

Do you have any great lessons or content on how to analyze if a source, esp a source for a profile, is lying or misrepresenting information (either purposefully or due to memory erosion)?

It’s difficult to know for sure when someone is lying or if there are memory gaps that make for some problematic moments within the story you want to tell. As I’ve often told folks in my classes, it’s not always about being perfectly successful in your efforts when it comes to something like this, but rather avoiding the things that can really screw you over that matters most.

With that said, here are a few things beginning reporters can do to mitigate disaster when dealing with a source that might not have the facts 100% perfect:

GET A SENSE OF THE SOURCE: One of the primary reasons I tell students they need to conduct interviews in person is so they can capture more observational elements to add color and feel to their pieces. A good side benefit of being in person is you can get the vibe of the source and decide how much you really want to trust them.

Some sources are great at hyping themselves up like they’re trying to sell you the Bass-O-Matic ’76. Others do some great “humblebrag” stuff that really can sound like they’re important and vaguely decent people. In spending time with these people, you can find out who is likely worth trusting and who you can’t trust any further than you’d trust a pyromaniac at a gas station.

The one thing to understand is that there is a crucial difference between people who are full of crap and people who literally have lost track of things over time. Honestly, I have told a number of stories over and over again to the point that I’m not sure if they’re perfectly accurate, slightly altered or complete BS. (I am grateful, however, that I found support for the famous “Olde Un Theatre” robbery and the “Mraz, where’s Mrefund?” headline.)

I had one student who SWORE she wrote an obituary that had a particularly awkward headline on it. I found the piece, with the headline she described, and it wasn’t her byline. Maybe she wrote the headline, or edited the piece or something else, but it wasn’t her byline. This is why it’s important to fact check basically everything when it comes to people telling you stuff that you plan to use in your work.

Once you get that vibe, you can do more work with the questions you have and the level of insistence you enact when dealing with your questions.

IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS MUST PAY CASH: Even in profiles, there is a benefit to becoming what I call a “non-denominational skeptic” about the information you received. Whether you like the source or you wouldn’t believe them if they came into your house, soaking wet, and told you, “It’s raining out there,” apply a similar level of rigor to your questioning. This is particularly important when it comes to things you really plan to focus on as part of your story.

Let’s say you’re doing a profile on a business person who turned his life around after a rather rough patch in his 20s and now helps ex-convicts find work. You likely are going to ask what was the turning point that got this guy on the right path, and here’s the answer you get:

“I wasn’t a good person back then. I was arrested for a series of burglaries back in ’85 around the Cleveland area. I was supposed to get 6 years, but the judge gave me 12 and shipped me off to Folsom prison, way across the country. Being that far from home, in a prison like that, well, it changes a man. About 50 prisoners were killed while I was there for those 12 years and I always thought I’d be one. I told God, ‘If I ever get out of here alive, I’ll make my life right for whoever else gets out of here.'”

Sounds compelling and amazing. Now, how much of that is stuff you NEED to check? A goodly amount:

  • Check arrest records from “the Cleveland area” in 1985 and find out if this guy was ever arrested.
  • Check court records to find out if he did get sentenced to 12 years.
  • Check prison records to find out if he went to prison, let alone Folsom
  • Check prison records (and others) to find out if 50 people REALLY got killed out there from about 1985 to 1997.

This is just smart reporting and it will help you fill in some of the key details about the source’s live. Also, the more of this you can verify, the better off you are. The less you can verify, the less you should trust this source.

Clearly, you can’t verify if he “wasn’t a good person” or if he had a conversation with God. (“Hello, St. Peter? Yes, this is Vince Filak with the Dynamics of Writing blog. Is God there? I need to confirm a conversation He had back in 1985 or so…”) But you can check out enough stuff to feel like you’re not getting fed a line.

TRUST, BUT VERIFY: Another key way to poke back at people is to show interest and engagement with their stories while offering them ways to help verify this information for you.

If you’re interviewing someone and they say, “I was amazed when I received my Silver Star for my tour in Vietnam, but I really was just doing the same job as everybody else…” you could check a database when you get done with the interview. However, you could also try this approach during the interview:

“That is truly incredible! Could you show me the medal? I’d love to see it!”


“Do you have any pictures of the ceremony? My editor would love to put something visual with the story!”

If the answer is yes, you’re in decent shape. If the answer is a dodge or something like, “Nah, I threw it away.” then you are probably going to want to push back a bit more with stuff like, “So where was the incident that took place that got you considered for the honor?” or “I would love to talk to anyone who was in your platoon at the time for more on this…”

In other words, you’re giving the person an opportunity to verify this stuff for you. If they can’t or won’t, tread cautiously.

WEIGH COST VERSUS VALUE: Journalism in a lot of ways is like catching sand in a sieve. You’re never going to catch everything, but you want to make sure you don’t lose too much of the small stuff or any of the big stuff. To that end, you want to weigh the cost versus value of the amount of work you’re doing on any particular fact-finding dig.

Let’s say you’ve got a source that was paralyzed from the waist down during a car accident in high school. After that, he went into a deep depression, but found God and now goes on speaking tours throughout the country to explain how to overcome obstacles in life. The source tells you this:

“I was driving a 1979 Ford Thunderbird with this great V-8 351 Cleveland in it when I had the accident. The truck that hit me mangled that car like you wouldn’t believe. I honestly feel that if I had been driving something smaller, I’d be dead.”

The guy shows you a picture of the wreck, so you can see what happened to the car. He’s clearly paralyzed or has been faking it well for decades. The opinion is his that he might have died in a Toyota Camry. is it really important to fact check whether that car had the 351 Cleveland engine in it or if it might have had a 302 or a 351 Windsor? Probably not.

Look at what matters most and make sure those things are solid. The random fringe stuff can be checked if you have time and if it’s easy. However, it’s not going to behoove you to go plowing through thousands of DOT and Ford Factory Sheets to figure out what engine landed in what car in a case like this.

RESEARCH BEFORE, FACT CHECK AFTER: The goal of quality research in advance of talking to a source is to make sure you ask good questions and that you don’t get turned around if the source tries to BS you. The goal of a quality fact check is to make sure what the source told you makes sense before you publish the piece.

You then can decide to what degree you want to keep certain bits of information and what degree you feel the need to actively fact check with in a story. Ted Bridis, a fellow journalism prof, shared this example with a bunch of us to outline the ways in which a “personal tale” can have enough bullcrap in it to fertilize the back 40 acres. The writer of the piece literally takes each element that this source outlines as “fact” and checks it out with people after the fact to show what is clearly not true and why it matters.

If you ask the right questions, you’ll find that many sources will try to snow you less, as it’s clear you aren’t coming to them fresh off a turnip truck. However, there are still people out there who will try to convince you that they were the one who convinced Lin-Manuel Miranda to go with Hamilton instead of “Aaron Burr: The Death Metal Musical!”

That’s where the fact check really comes in.

FIND OTHER PEOPLE TO HELP: I remember certain things about my childhood that might or might not be true. Some of them, Mom or Dad might have an angle on (and judging by how we kept pretty much everything I ever did in the file cabinet in my folks’ back room at the house, we might actually have physical proof of that thing).

REPORTER: “Hey, I was talking to your mom and she said you never scored a basket in your fifth-grade season. She still has all the box scores. You did almost foul out of nine games, thought.”
ME: “I’ll be darned. I swear I hit a basket at least once. Anyway, I’m sure that foul out thing is right, as I played basketball like Danny from ‘Grease’ that year…”

If you can get verification from people who would likely know, it’s probably a safe bet you can go with that information. If you can’t or the information seems to contradict, go back to the original source for verification:

REPORTER: “Hey, I was talking to your mom and she said she thinks that story about Mrs. Schutten screaming at your class was from fifth grade, not third grade. She said the woman taught you in both grades. I just wanted to know if you’re sure on what you told me.”
ME: “Oh, yeah… I forgot that she got us twice… After I had Sr. Kenneth in fourth grade, the beatings we all took from that nun basically scrambled my memory for some things…  Mom’s probably right, then.”

The goal of asking other people for things is to help solidify things that are important to telling your story. In some cases, you’ll have conflicting reports from key sources and it’s up to you to determine who you believe and how important those conflicting elements are.

A great example of this is in the book “Loose Balls” by Terry Pluto, where he outlines the wild life of the old American Basketball Association. He tells this one story about Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and how he missed a team flight to Norfolk, where Barnes and the Spirits of St. Louis were supposed to play the Virginia Squires.

Barnes blows off the flight and figures he’ll catch a later one, but it turns out he missed the last commercial flight to Norfolk. So he chartered a plane (something unheard of at the time) and got down there at the last minute. He shows up to the locker room with like 10 minutes to go before game time wearing a full-length fur coat, carrying a couple bags of McDonald’s burgers and a big smile. He opens his coat to reveal his uniform like he was changing from Clark Kent to Superman and declares, “Have no fear, BB (his nickname) is here.”

The story was verified by a number of people who all told essentially the same story. However, people deviated on one detail. During the game, the pilot supposedly showed up in the team huddle and demanded to be paid for the flight, so someone had to run back to the locker room and get Marvin’s checkbook so he could write the guy a check. The amount of the check varied widely from about $700 to more than $1,500, depending on who told it.

Pluto recognizes that the story perfectly captures the insanity that was Marvin Barnes and this team of weirdos. He knows that it is mostly true and pretty solid in its confirmation. He also knows people want to know what it cost to do this little stunt and that he doesn’t have the goods. He acknowledges that by including that information and the variations in his chapter. Something like that is easy enough to do if you have a few inconsistencies that don’t undermine the larger truth you’re trying to convey.

THE DUTY TO REPORT VERSUS THE DUTY TO PUBLISH: No matter how much effort a reporter puts into a story, there is never a guarantee that the story is absolutely right. Mistakes happen, memories fade, BS intrudes and more. The goal is to try to put forth the best version of reality, regardless of how difficult that is.

This is where we separate the duty to report and the duty to publish. As journalists, we need to ask questions and poke at facts to figure out what happened and why our readers should care. Not every effort we make in that realm will give us the results we feel comfortable with. To that end, we have to be OK with the decision not to publish something if we’re not 100% certain on the issue.

It’s better to have something missing or come up a little thin in a story than it is to publish something that is flat-out wrong.

A great example of this is an article Bethany McLean, a financial journalist, wrote in 2001 about Enron. The company basically had stock that just kept going up and up and up for no real reason and the company big wigs couldn’t explain to her in any meaningful way how money moved through the company. She knew something wasn’t right, but she wasn’t 100% sure of what it was.

In several interviews, she noted that there were several partnerships that were doing deals with Enron that appeared to be owned or operated by Enron executive Andy Fastow. She saw them disclosed, but she never mentioned them in her article. In the documentary, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” she explained:

“There were these partnerships that were run by Andy Fastow that were doing business with Enron and they were disclosed in the company’s financial statements, but I didn’t mention them in the story because I thought, ‘Well, the accountants and the board of directors have said this is OK so I must be crazy to think there’s anything wrong with this.’ The story I ran was actually pretty meek. The title was “Is Enron Overpriced?” (because) in the end, I couldn’t prove that it was anything more than an overvalued stock and I was probably too naive to suspect there was anything more than that.”

She realized she had the duty to dig in hard on this. When she couldn’t make it work perfectly on the first pass, she understood that she didn’t want to screw this up, so she went with what she could prove.

As it turned out, the partnerships were a large component of a major financial fraud and the company was a house of cards, things McLean and others found out after she put out that first article. However, at the time, she couldn’t go beyond what she had, so she stuck to what she could prove and lived to fight another day.

Couldn’t have said it better myself: How a great quote can grab your readers by the eyes

Direct quotes are an important part of journalistic storytelling. They allow the sources to speak directly to the readers in the sources’ own words, providing both information and a “feel” for the topic with the choice of their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, some journalists view quotes as just “meat” between the slices of bread that are “paraphrase” in their stories, and the writers care very little about the quality of that meat. Just because someone said something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good quote. It’s our job to separate the trash from the treasures when it comes to that word-for-word component of our stories.

When you get great quotes, they can really grab your reader’s attention as they just nail the underlying concept of a story in a way that few other things can. Here is a series of quotes that fit the bill and that make reading the whole piece worthwhile:


“Showing up to a school with zip ties is not a way to solve a problem.”
-Vail Unified School District Superintendent John Carruth

The story behind this one comes from a story about the “mask battles” we have seen during the pandemic. An Arizona man was contacted by a school employee and told his son had to quarantine at home after being in close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

Instead, the father and two “other men” (the words “dudes,” “buddies,” and “idgits” would seem to be more on point here, but then again this is Washington Post) went to the kid’s school to demand the kid be taken back:

“Apparently Mesquite Elementary thinks they can break the law and act like the covid Gestapo,” the man wrote, referencing Nazi Germany’s secret police. “We will be headed over there shortly to disagree. Come join us because we won’t have this in OUR community!”

Later that morning, the father and his son arrived at the school. The other two men met them in the school’s parking lot, Carruth said.

In a live video posted to Instagram, one of the two men who joined the dad told his followers that they were about to “confront this administration” for “breaking the law.

“If necessary, we’ll do a citizen’s arrest,” the man said before showing off the “law enforcement zip ties” they brought.

So these three yahoos end up in Principal Dianne Vargo’s office, threatening her with arrest if she didn’t let the kid back in school. The whole thing escalated until Vargo left the office and called the police. The men, who moments earlier were so certain of the legality of their actions, left before the cops showed up.

In reviewing the incident for the Post, Carruth mentioned the need to model good behavior for kids and such, before delivering a great closing quote.


“I’m like Gerard Butler in ‘300.’ I’m in the hot gates at Thermopylae, holding the pass against the million-man Persian army.”
-Lawyer John Pierce

Quick question: He does know that Leonidas ended up with about 1,085 arrows through him at the end of that movie, right?

Pierce is the now-missing attorney for defendants associated with the Washington, D.C., riot on Jan. 6. Aside from his comparison to the leader of the Spartan resistance, he has offered up some insight as to how he planned to get his clients off:

A self-described pro-Trump populist, Mr. Pierce has promised, for example, to force the government to give him video footage of the Capitol for several days before and after Jan. 6, and has said he will demand information about every police officer working at the building that day. He has also vowed to subpoena hostile witnesses like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ostensibly to learn what she may have known about security at the Capitol before the attack.

Without citing evidence, Mr. Pierce has said he intends to implicate the F.B.I. and the intelligence community by showing that the riot was something like a grand act of entrapment or an inside job. He has often talked about his cases with a conspiratorial zeal, painting himself as something like a lonely legal warrior out to save his clients from an overreaching government.

All of the words the New York Times puts together to explain and describe this guy don’t do half as good of a job as Pierce’s own quote does.


“The defendant stated he was trying to show off for his date. The female said she was screaming at him to stop, but he refused. This was their first date.”
– Police Report, Clearwater, Florida

Some of the greatest quotes ever come from police officers trying to explain something completely insane in a report that requires them to be clear, concise and even-handed in the description. (My personal favorite was a road rage incident in which the combatants “exchanged hand gestures,” according to the report.)

In this case, a 22-year-old man apparently eyed up a cop at a stoplight and then decided to lead the officer on a high-speed chase. The reason? He wanted to impress the woman riding on the motorcycle with him:

Police temporarily broke off the chase while Beverly darted through traffic, running multiple additional red lights and traveling “at well over 100 [miles per hour].” They were able to apprehend him at an intersection minutes later. Court records indicate that Beverly also refused to slow down as his date was “screaming at him to stop.”

The article did not note if the couple had planned a second date…


“Mr. Lee was incredibly stupid, felony stupid but, I think given the situation and the fact that he has absolutely no record I am going to listen to pretrial services.”
– Arizona Judge Rosemary Panuco

(“My client’s a moron. That’s not against the law…”)

Judges operate under what is called “absolute privilege,” which means they can say stuff the rest of us would really like to but can’t for fear of being sued. Thus, they tend to have some of the best quotes when it comes to summing up situations like this one:

Tucson police released surveillance video from a Suntran bus showing Zachary Lee just before he got off the bus and approached the police officer last Friday at 29th and Swan.

The video showed the sergeant’s vehicle parked.

The risk assessment form read, “According to the arresting agency, the defendant got into a verbal exchange with a Tucson Police Department Sergeant, who was conducting unrelated surveillance in an unmarked car.”

Mike Storie represents the Tucson Police Officer’s Association of which the sergeant is a member. He said the assessment is incorrect.

“Actually, there were no words exchanged. The sergeant was in a vehicle with the windows rolled up and never spoke to this person,” Storie said.

The video showed Lee using hand gestures. Storie said lee was throwing gang signs, shortly after that he added Lee began firing at the officer. Tucson police said they found a gun on Lee when he was arrested, and casings at the scene that matched the gun.

The judge in this case released Lee prior to the trial without requiring him to post bail, something that drew the ire of the prosecutor and the police. To explain her rationale as to why a man accused of trying to kill a cop could go home for the day, she relied on a pretrial report and a sense of the man’s own stupidity.

I don’t know what kind of judge she is, but I would love to interview her if these are the kinds of quotes she comes up with.

Throwback Thursday: Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

With a lot of folks starting the semester this week, instructors are going to be spending a lot of time trying to help students learn how to write leads.

A couple profs asked if I had any older posts I could pull up for a “Throwback Thursday” that might show what makes for some bad leads and explain why they’re terrible. I dug around and here’s what I’ve got from 2018. I updated the links to make sure you could still get the original material as well.

Hope this helps!


Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

The lead is the most important thing you will ever write in a story. It’s supposed to grab your readers by the eyeballs and drag them into the guts of your story. It’s supposed to explain who did what to whom in a clear and concise fashion. It’s also supposed to be between 25 and 35 words, lest it get wild and unruly. This is one of those skills you need to work on constantly, even if you are a pro.

Consider a few of the following leads and what went horribly wrong with them:


Lead 1: It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational…

Hyperbole is the art of creating overblown excitement for no real reason. A straw man approach is the ability to set up a weak argument or premise that no one has stated so you can refute it and establish your point of view. If you put both of them in a lead, you have something like this story’s opening:

Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does.

I don’t know much about Bozeman, Montana, but I’m guessing its entire populous doesn’t stay awake at night aspiring to deliver wheelchairs to people. Also, who says this aspiration would likely go unmet if my supposition in the previous sentence were incorrect? What is this “On Bozeman, Montana’s Waterfront?”


The author has overstated her point, and that’s just one problem with this lead. Here are two others:

  1. The story isn’t about ROC’s past. It’s about the launch of a new program involving veterans building and delivering chairs as part of a therapeutic activity. Thus, the lead is buried in the second sentence.
  2. The origin of the term “pipe dream” relates to the smoking of an opium pipe and the wild visions this activity evoked in people. Eeesh.

This is a clear case of what happens when a writer tries to do too much with a lead. Just tell me what’s going on and why I care: Veterans will build and deliver wheelchairs, an activity that helps the recipients as well as the veterans.


Lead 2: How can we bore people with a story about sex?

Question: How can a lead about sex toys be bad?

Answer: Like this.

Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State‘s football headquarters in 2015, according to an online report Friday, raising more questions about the former assistant coach’s conduct while employed there just as the university prepares to conclude its investigation of the program and head coach Urban Meyer.

This 50-word monstrosity manages to pour a ton of random facts into the mind of the reader, like that treatment scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even more, the lead skipped several other elements of the report that were far more likely to grab the readers’ attention:

  • He spent more than $2,200 on this stuff, including on items named “WildmanT ball lifter red, candyman men’s jock suspenders (and) PetitQ open slit bikini brief,” none of which are the most offensive items he purchased. Plus, that’s almost twice what I spent on my first car…
  • His lawyer threatened the reporter over the publication of these documents and refused to engage in the premise that this was a legitimate story.
  • Smith apparently had a “photography hobby” of sorts, namely that he took shots of his genitalia while at work, including multiple photos believed to have been taken at the White House during a celebration of the team’s national championship.

I’m not saying you should always go with salacious details in a lead. The point is that if you pick a key element of a situation like this for the lead, don’t lose the thread as you try to weave in six other plot lines. This is a sports story, not a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.

LEAD 3: Something happened! Oh… you wanted more?

Here’s the lead on a story about a county conducting alcohol-compliance checks where you learn nothing more than what I just told you:

ENID, Okla. — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and PreventionWorkz partnered earlier this month to conduct alcohol-compliance checks throughout the county.

This is a version of the standard “held a meeting” or “gave a speech” lead. It often shows up in sports reporting as well where someone will explain that Team X played Team Y on Friday or something. The problem with every version of this lead is that it fails to tell the readers the outcome of something. Instead, it simple explains that something happened. In this case, the writer could have focused on a number of things:

  • In the 25 random checks, four places sold alcohol to the underage person, down from eight sales in March.
  • In all of the cases, the clerks checked the person’s ID, but the four sales came from reading the ID wrong.
  • Of the four sales, one person had sold to a minor and been cited at least once before.

There’s also some information about upcoming legal changes that will require sellers to take a course in IDing people and such. Finally, the story noted that the authorities look to hit 100 percent compliance, but it never mentions if that ever happens. In any case, telling me an alcohol check happened isn’t telling me much of anything as a reader.

Lead 4: Here’s your lead. Guess the story:

Quote leads are always difficult for readers, because they lack context. Try this one:

“There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

It’s a great line from a great man: Frederick Douglass uttered it in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” However, dropping it up at the front of a story doesn’t make it a lead.

Whether the quote comes from a source in the story, a movie, a poem, a song lyric or a famous person, as is the case here, the reader will likely be unable to determine the point of the piece. Quote leads are always dicey for exactly this reason: It feels like you were dropped into the middle of someone else’s conversation at a party.

By the way, you can find the whole story here and see how close you were to guessing the point of it, based on that lead.


Student media outlets provide great coverage of Hurricane Ida for their readers

Hurricane Ida bulled its way onto the shores of Louisiana on Sunday night, causing massive flooding and storm damage throughout the area. New Orleans in particular saw devastation, as the entire city lost power amid what forecasters are calling one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the U.S.

Amid the chaos, student media outlets are pumping out content to their audiences, touching on the “big story” scope of the issue, but also drilling down into things that matter directly to students on their campuses.

These publications understand the importance of knowing what’s going on at the college level, because while CNN and The Weather Channel are focused on mega graphics and drone coverage of devastation, students on those campuses want to know what’s open, what’s broken and where they should go to stay safe.

The students here are operating in less-than-ideal circumstances and are working to remain safe while still informing the people they serve. This is incredibly selfless and it’s also why it always infuriated me when “professional” media operatives or professors would note that campus media staffers were “just playing journalist.”

I don’t think the hurricane is taking it easier on these folks just because they’re college kids.

Take a look at some of the great stuff they’ve done in the past 24-48 hours:

Here’s a piece from the Tulane Hullabaloo that explains not only what the storm is doing to the campus area and what most concerns administrators:

A major concern of the Tulane community is the large tower crane overlooking several student residences on campus. In the Aug. 28 update, Tulane administrators provided insight into the status of the crane and its ability to withstand hurricane-force winds.

It also gives students information on how the school is handling the situation for students living on campus:

In an additional update posted to the Tulane University instagram page, off-campus students who feel unsafe were urged to come to the Lavin-Bernick Center prior to 8:30 AM.

This is the first time the LBC-Commons complex is serving as an impromptu housing arrangement for many students. 

The Maroon at Loyola University in New Orleans took a look at what students, faculty and staff were doing in advance of the hurricane, finding more than a few who opted to make a run for it:

Those who have experienced hurricanes in the past are especially sensitive to the shift in plans. Visual communications freshman Virginia Armstrong is from Puerto Rico and said she was without power on the island for three months after Hurricane Maria.

Seeing people gather water bottles and other essential storm supplies struck a nerve in her before she drove off Friday night with her roommate and suitemate to stay at a relative’s home in Jackson, Mississippi.

“The pain never really goes away,” Armstrong said. “It’s there. You live with it.”

At Louisiana State University, multiple student media outlets were covering the storm and it’s impact on the student body on multiple levels. Tiger TV, the broadcast outlet at LSU, has posted updates about class cancellation and statements from university officials.

It has also nudged students toward its Twitter account, where it continues frequent updates as to what is happening around the students:


The Reveille, which has served as the campus newspaper since 1887, constructed a “tick tock” style  set up on the front page of its website. This updates with key information as it becomes available, such as cases of storm damage, power outages and official announcements.

In addition, the staff continues to post breaking news stories on the site right underneath the website’s banner head, like this one on the cancellation of classes.

Aside from the breaking news and damage estimates, the publication managed to find some space to let people know about the status of the school mascot, a 4-year-old tiger named Mike. I would be willing to wager that this story tops all the others in terms of site hits today:

Mike the Tiger isn’t spending Hurricane Ida swimming in his pool or hiding under trees: he’ll be staying snug indoors and eating goat-milk popsicles until the high-speed hurricane passes through LSU’s campus.

I’m sure I”m missing some other good stuff out there, so feel free to add it in the comments.


Yik Yak is back: Love it or hate it, this anonymous social media tool has value for journalists

Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that drew heavy criticism for the horrifying crap its users posted, has returned after a four-year hiatus, promising new rules and better behavior:

Before shutting down, Yik Yak was the subject of hate speech and cyberbullying across high school and college campuses.

But with the newly launched app, the owners say they’re committed to taking a strong stance against threats and other abuse.

“On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information,” the company says on its website.

The app had a four-year run, starting in 2013 and closing in 2017, amid diminished use and criticism that it protected awful people and the awful things they said. The new owners have pledged to keep the anonymity the users loved while weeding out the bad actors:

We’re committed to combating bullying and hate speech on the Yik Yak platform by any means necessary.

On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information.

If someone bullies another person, uses hate speech, makes a threat, or in any way seriously violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service, they can be immediately banned from Yik Yak. One strike and you’re out.

I’m not sure how a model that says “Nobody knows who you are, but we can ban you if you misbehave” works, but I’m not a tech dude, so I’ll let that slide and believe it when I see it. Also, if we’ve seen anything over the past eight years, it’s a massive spike in misinformation, cyber-rage and online harassment, so I imagine the folks at Yik Yak will find themselves working like this when it comes to trying to stop the bad actors from getting through:


Prior to this reboot, I asked one of my media writing classes if they ever heard of Yik Yak or used it and I probably would have been better off asking them if they ever rode a penny farthing bicycle, given the blank stares I received. Apparently, four years is enough time to completely obliterate market awareness among the 18-24-year-old market.

However, when Yik Yak was at its peak, the staff members at the paper I advise followed it with an almost religious furvor. The paper ran the “Top Five Yaks” of the week on the entertainment page. I wasn’t a fan of the app or its approach to media, and I knew that for every “good” thing we got out of Yik Yak, there were at least a dozen awful things that I couldn’t believe people had the audacity to write. Still, there were moments that gave me hope this thing could work.

With all that said, here are some potential benefits Yik Yak can provide to campus journalists and journalism students with its return:

GEOGRAPHY IS FRONT AND CENTER: When I wrote the first edition of the reporting book, I featured Yik Yak because it touched on the audience element of geography, something few other social media platforms did at that time. While the other apps were trying to expand people’s reach to the farthest reaches of the globe, Yik Yak was keeping its users close to home.

The platform used a 5-mile radius to establish a local community, which was usually enough to capture a college campus and maybe even a few off-campus venues. Whenever someone in that range tossed out a “yak,” everyone in that zone could see it. Those people didn’t have to “follow” someone to see what they were saying or sort the posts into certain streams. This kept people abreast of what was going on all around them.

The benefit of this approach is that your geographic location follows you (or at least it did… We’ll see how this new version shakes out) while still allowing you to have a home base. Thus, you can see what’s going on around you when you visit a friend at another campus, while staying on top of what’s happening back home. It is the digital equivalent of reading a good local newspapers while you’re on vacation.

Geography is often the overlooked audience element, as demographic and psychographic information tend to be both easier to define and more relevant in a digital world. However, this app shows that world nearest to the user can matter a great deal.


BREAKING NEWS TIPS AT THE READY: When I groused about the return of Yik Yak on Facebook, one of my former editors reminded me, “That’s how I found out about the ricin kid.” UWO student Kyle Smith was arrested on suspicion of possessing the deadly substance in 2014, a story the Advance-Titan broke at the time. Follow ups that remain online show he eventually pleaded guilty to the crime and received a 40-month prison sentence.

Another said, “That’s how we found out about the dorm fires.” At the time, someone had set fire to multiple pieces of furniture in the laundry room of one of the residence halls. (That Advance-Titan story has somehow managed to disappear into the internet ether as well, but it was a big deal.)

I remembered both of those pieces and they were amazingly good ones, but I had forgotten we got the tips through “yaks.”

In flipping back through a few issues of the paper I kept from those days in the mid 2010s, I realized that Yik Yak alerted us to accidents on campus, police calls to certain buildings, those fires and, of course, the FBI swooping in on “the ricin kid.” Obviously, we did a lot more digging into each of those stories before publishing them, but they each had their genesis in Yik Yak.

To that end, it basically became a digital police scanner (and then some) of sorts for us. When someone “yakked” about something like, “WTF R all the cops doing @ South Scott?” we could run over to that residence hall and figure it out. We also knew that whatever people were yammering about on the app was happening within a bike ride of our office, so we could figure out what was going on and quickly decide if it merited coverage.


ANONYMITY DOES PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES: I am fully aware of the dark side of the anonymity of Yik Yak. Professors have been threatened and sexually harassed in their own classrooms DURING CLASS. People have used the app to make racist statements and threats, with one even saying they would “shoot every black person I see. Users have threatened rape on too many occasions to count.

In short, I’m still not thrilled that this thing is back, despite general reassurances from the app’s new owners that this will be a kinder, gentler Yik Yak. However, now that the die has been cast, it’s probably worth trying to make chicken salad out of this chicken crap. And that starts with understanding the value of anonymity when paired with an easy-to-use platform.

Back in the pre-digital days, newsrooms often had a tip line, where people could call in about things that concerned them or that they thought people had the right to know. It could be a complaint about their landlord or it could be an allegation against a city official or it could be some truly whacked-out weird story that only made sense in the demented mind of the caller. Journalists were able to separate wheat from chaff and dig through these tips, many of which yielded important stories.

The distinction here is that the tip-line tips that failed to pass muster never saw the light of day back then, while Yik Yak is basically a full public display of EVERYTHING, including whatever racist, sexist, homophobic, terrifying crap some imbeciles decided to type up with their thumbs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t diamonds in the cesspool, so it’s worth digging around.

When granted anonymity and easy access to something that gives them a voice, people are more likely to be honest in exposing things that are problematic. Journalists often talk about how things like Larry Nassar’s behavior and Harvey Weinstein’s behavior were “open secrets” among people in their areas of employment, but nobody would put that information out for public display. The #metoo movement has its roots in the idea that sexual violence affected more people than anyone knew, but the survivors remained silent for fear of public identification among other reasons. The ease of use associated with social media allowed the hashtag to spread and more people to come forth without having to fill out a 23-page document.

Yik Yak has the potential to take those key elements and provide you with information about things happening around you that people otherwise wouldn’t say publicly. It could be that the track coach is skimming money or that a professor in the art department is “handsy” with certain students. It could be that a CA or RA is selling weed to people on their floor or that the security cameras at a residence hall have been broken for six months.

With most “hush hush” stories, once there is a crack in the foundation, other people begin to chip in their experiences and help bring the whole house down. A single “yak” could start that process or at the very least get you the thread you need to start digging into that story more deeply. Like all stories rooted in anonymous tips, you should make absolutely certain that you have fully reported the piece before it sees the light of day.

However, every story has to start somewhere. Maybe it’ll be on Yik Yak this time.




5 Back-To-School Stories College Newspapers Should Do As COVID-19 Rises Again

Marty McFly's Radiation Suit Minecraft Skin

“Welcome to Journalism 221! I’ll be your professor this semester. Let’s recap the university’s safety rules regarding COVID-19…”

With many colleges and universities getting back into gear this week (We’re off for at least a couple more weeks, but I know a lot of folks are already strapping on masks and wading back into classrooms.), here are five potential story ideas for student newspapers:

RECAP THE RULES: This is a basic one that I’m sure most folks have thought of, particularly given the rise of the Delta Variant. (Honestly, it sounds like it should be a lousy movie sequel, brought to you from the people who turned “Sharknado” into a cottage industry… “This fall, get ready for ‘COVID-19, Episode II: The Delta Variant!’…“)

Still, the things that are going to be important to hit on will be the basics, such as:

  • Will move-in procedures  for residence halls/dorms change in any meaningful way for people this year?
  • What are the rules that govern mask wearing on campus, both inside of buildings and outside of them?
  • What are clubs, groups and organizations allowed to do or not do in terms of gathering and recruiting? For folks with a lot of clubs, a “student org fair” could be a super-spreader event that the administrators want to cancel. For folks with a strong Greek system, fraternity and sorority chapters tend to have rush near the front of school, so there’s a lot of social events. Who sets the rules and what are they?
  • What are testing procedures for COVID on campus and follow-up precautions in case of positive tests?
  • Are classes being given only in person, only online or in a hybrid/whatever situation? Do students still have “opt-out to online” options or not?
  • What are professors building in terms of “back up” for students who have the illness or have to quarantine after a close contact?

There are dozens of other questions, so consider having a think-tank kind of session with your staff and have someone write them down as you think of them to see how many stories could develop.

LANDLORD LIFE: Complaining about landlords who rent to college students is as common of an occurrence as complaining about tuition hikes and the lack of decent parking. This time around, however, there are more things to consider regarding landlords than if they’re gouging students or if they still haven’t located the source of that smell in the basement:

  • Rental availability: When I was in school 119 years ago, we had to sign next year’s lease for our August move-in date in early January. Students now tell me that around here, they get about three weeks of living in the property before landlords either have them sign up for year two or start showing the property. Given the limitations associated with the 2020-21 school year (isolation protocols, distance learning etc.), it might be a good time to check in with some big and small rental folks in your area to see how things are proceeding for their rentals.
  • Eviction moratoriums: When the Feds cracked down on evictions during the pandemic, most news stories focused on the poor and underprivileged people in big cities who couldn’t make rent during the shutdown period. College students were also renters, so the same rules applied to what could or couldn’t be done to them in regard to evictions. Thus, it might be interesting to see how this affected local landlords and if there are concerns regarding back rent that might never get covered.
  • Bankrupt businesses: Not every rental business is a giant monolith of towers of steel and glass, owned by a hedge fund and operated by a landlord who swims around in a Scrooge McDuck vault of money every night. The “mom-and-pop” rental folks who own a few beat-up houses or who have one small building also tend to populate the landscape of college rentals. Check to see how many of these either didn’t make it due to revenue loss or how many just called it quits, selling off their properties with a raging housing market.

CHECK THE PLAYERS ON YOUR SCORECARD: Old-time baseball vendors used to hawk programs by proclaiming, “You can’t tell who the players are without your scorecard!” (This was probably no more true than for the Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals series, after the teams shipped off a collective 17 players to other teams as part of a trading deadline fire sale. That represents about one-third of the players the teams would collectively carry.) The point here is that after about 18 months of isolation, semi-isolation and general lack of daily connectivity to the campus for most folks, it might be worth seeing who is still on campus and who is gone?

  • Any top-level administrators or high-level athletic coaches decide to go elsewhere or retire?
  • How many professors have called it a day? Any seriously senior-level folks decide to say, “Screw it. I’m not learning Canvas (or BlackBoard or D2L or whatever). I probably should have retired two years ago.” or are folks hanging on? A data check of retirements and resignations comparing the past year to the previous five or ten might be a good idea.
  • How many of the “legends” of campus have left? The cool custodian, the lunch server who always asked “How you doin’?” or the librarian who looked like they were installed when the library was built in 1875 might be gone. Also, think of other folks that make stuff happen on a day-to-day basis that might have been transferred, quit or retired?
  • Death. I know. It’s not a fun one to think about, but sometimes leaving a university isn’t an issue of choice. Check to see if the school has had any students, faculty, staff or administrators who died since you last checked in on everybody.

YOUR PANDEMIC GRADES… JUST AS GOOD. RIGHT?: I don’t think I’m alone in my doubt whenever university officials told us that the online/hybrid/KODAN Armada/whatever version of teaching was going to be “just as good” or “exactly the same” as what we did in a traditional classroom setting. It reminds me of those giant metal boxes they hang on the bathroom walls at truck stops that say, “If you love “Ralph Lauren’s Polo Black,” you’ll love our Pollos Hermanos scent. Insert $1.50 in quarters and push button C-5!” Although the original wasn’t my favorite, the truck-stop version smelled like sour milk and cat urine, so, no, it wasn’t “just as good.”

Someone, somewhere has to have a sense of what grades looked like over the three pandemic semesters (or two if you only want to count 2020-21) and how they compare with what happened before that. There are always anecdotes from students or teachers, but the data could reveal a few things:

  • How many more drops were there in courses during the pandemic terms as opposed to prior terms? If it was a lot more, find out why. If it wasn’t a lot more, report that as well.
  • How did grades fluctuate for both students AND professors? Students might say their grades were better or worse, but the data can back that up, generally speaking. It might also be interesting to see if you can find out if professors’ grading shifted during this time. Grades might be lower, because students had difficulty with life as well as the new environment. They might be higher because traditionally hard-ass professors decided to start giving out more A’s and B’s because of the difficulties.

ATHLETIC ATROPHY: I know a number of our sports had cancellations last year or severely diminished seasons. This is particularly true for sports that have a smaller budget, receive less attention or generally aren’t the kinds you’d see on TV outside of ESPN:8 The Ocho. With that in mind, it might be interesting to dig into the sports area to see how the teams are getting along at brushing off the rust, hitting the workout circuit and generally getting ready for another season

For some teams, it might be great, as it’s a time to let the nagging injuries heal that don’t get a chance to do so under normal circumstances. For others, it might be risky with the idea of muscular atrophy, bad eating/exercise habits setting in or a general loss of connection to the sport.

Hope these help or at least jump-start some ideas for future stories!

The Junk Drawer: The “Bad At Your Job” edition

(Allegedly, we’ve got enough paint in here to fix the Plover water tower.)


Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:



I often rely on spell check to bail me out of a “how is that spelled?” situation. That said, people can’t always rely on a spellcheck function to save them, as the folks in Plover, Wisconsin found out recently:

As painters scrambled to fix the error, some folks, like those at RayGun T-shirts had some fun with this:

In other news…


Some things are kind of patently obvious, but when you say them in sports with conviction (or a big honkin’ headline) they seem almost profound. To wit, in advance of Game 5 of the NBA finals, my hometown paper made this bold proclamation:

Let’s review how the NBA finals and basic math work:

  • The Phoenix Suns have the home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series, meaning four games will be played in Phoenix and three will be played in Milwaukee.
  • To win a best-of-seven series, a team needs to win four games out of the seven available.
  • If only three games are played in Milwaukee, the Bucks will obviously need to win at least one game in Phoenix.

This reminds me of the time I heard a coach say something along the lines of, “Most of our best come-from-behind wins happened when the other team was ahead.”

And, the Bucks did win one in Phoenix and won the championship, so I guess the headline wasn’t wrong, just dumb…

In other “Bucks-related news…”



(If you’ve got this vibe happening in your lead, you might want to rework it…)

I get that not every lead can be 25-35 words, simply covering the 5W’s and 1H, but there needs to be some sort of limit to how much stuff a writer tries to cram into a single sentence. Here’s a look at a lead written shortly after the “Bucks in Six” victory on Tuesday night:

MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”

That’s 67 words, which is almost twice the “legal max” for a decent news lead. The problem with this lead isn’t just that it’s too long, but also that it’s a rambling word salad that abuses every element of writing we teach:

  • Lousy word choice: “Aftermath” means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.” If this was this wonderful and legendary thing, it shouldn’t have aftermath for Giannis. It should have aftermath for the Suns.
  • Adjective-palooza: “Immediate aftermath” and “legendary performance” go without saying, but there’s also “his five-year, supermax contract extension.” You could chop upwards of five words out of here and still have the same meaning.
  • “Partial Quotes” that “don’t help:” Read both of those partial quotes and tell me exactly why they are in quote marks. Save partial quotes for things that merit them like odd phrases or dangerous terms: (During his post-game interview, forward Bob Smith called referee Jim Xfer a “racist, cracker punk” for calling a foul on him in the game’s closing seconds, adding, there was no way Xfer would make “that bulls–t call on a bench-warming white boy.”)
  • Drowning the noun-verb-object: When students have difficulty figuring out what a sentence is trying to convey, I tell them to do a simple sentence diagram so they can locate the noun and verb (and possibly the object). Once they find those, they can build around them judiciously. Here, the author drowns the sentence core in all sorts of slop that doesn’t help people understand the point of the story. The simpler and more plain the sentence core, the better off you are. Let this cheesy PSA from the 1980s be your guide:

And finally, speaking of leads that need a hug…



When it comes to words to avoid, put “allegedly” at the top of the list. As we’ve detailed here before, this offers you no legal protection, hides the source of the allegations and often leads to misplaced modifiers.

I get the journalists are often trying to couch their statements or cover their keesters, but the use of allegedly here makes even less sense than it usually would:

A vehicle allegedly struck a 6-year-old girl who was riding a bike on the 2100 block of High Ridge Trail in Fitchburg between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Sunday evening.

A few reasons why this is dumb:

  • If “allegedly” is meant to keep us safe as writers (which it doesn’t do, but let’s just say it does for the sake of the argument), exactly what are we worried about getting sued for here? Are we worried that an unnamed vehicle will sue? The girl’s parents? The bike? Allegedly used in association with a direct accusation at least would make sense (“Sen. Jane Jones allegedly stole money from her campaign fund.”) but here?
  • If “allegedly” is trying to cover us as writers in case the thing we said happened didn’t happen (which again… yeah… I know… broken record here…), what are we trying to say in the lead? That we don’t believe the girl? (“Mommy! I got hit by a car while riding my bike!” “Honey, is that really true or were you doing street BMX again?”)
  • If we are really worried about couching things in the lead, why was this the headline: 6-year-old riding bike struck by vehicle in Fitchburg

When it comes to “allegedly,” we’ll let Lou Redwood of “Semi Pro” have the final say here:

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

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