“Smart Brevity”

Politico co-founder and Axios Media CEO Jim VandeHei just explained what made his brand of journalism successful in an 85-word blog post, reinforcing his motto of “smart brevity.” Here are a couple highlights we can all learn from:

 

  • Obsess about your reader/viewer/listener. Their addiction/appreciation equals long-term biz success.

  • Related to first one: Never do stupid tricks for clicks or ad dollars. Short-term high but long-term buzz kill for biz/consumers.

 

These two items are at the core of everything we talk about at the front of the books: The audience matters most. If you don’t know for whom you are writing, you aren’t going to be able to help them or make them want to seek you out as a source of information.

In addition, the reason VandeHei and his crew can write so tightly is because they have a strong working knowledge of the topics on which they write. I can always spot the student with the least confidence in his/her writing when we review stuff in class because that person always has the longest and most complicated sentences. The people who know what they are talking about? They can boil it down to the noun-verb-object in nothing flat. Even if you aren’t in a reporting class, you have to “report” enough (read, ask questions, bother people etc.) to have a good grip on the topic. That will improve your writing.

 

 

  • If you don’t know with precision what your company is doing broadly, and what you are doing personally, run. Clarity of purpose is 🔑.

 

This is more about making the company successful, but it falls nicely in with our discussion of writing. One of the hardest shifts we have to make in learning to write for the media is from the long, descriptive-filled sentences of English, sociology and history papers to the noun-verb-object, bang-it-out structure we use in our field. After years of writing one way, it can feel frustrating to strip a sentence down to its core.

The reason we need to do this is to give people what they need to know quickly and simply. That’s our purpose.

And after taking four times the word count to explain half of what VandeHei had to say, I’ll end here for the sake of “smart brevity.”

 

When reporting crime feels criminal

The idea of “stupid criminal stories” is as much a staple of the crime beat as first-graders doing hand-print turkeys for Thanksgiving is for the education beat. Readers can seemingly never get enough of this kind of stuff, whether it’s the man arrested on suspicion of smuggling monkeys in his pants or the woman who showed up for her drunken driving court appearance drunk. Cranking out these stories is simple, as the leads tend to write themselves and they drive traffic to your site from all over the world.

However, as we talk about in the book, there is an ethical standard we ascribe to as journalists and within that standard is a call for empathy. Hunter Pauli took a hard look at his work in this piece, recalling the saga of “Dickface,” a low-level criminal in Butte, Montana with an unfortunate facial tattoo. The question he asks is a good one: What the heck are we doing here and why are we doing it?

We should be thankful small places in America are safe enough to not always need a daily update on last night’s mistakes, but instead we blow small crimes out of proportion and ruin people’s lives for pennies, all while missing the big picture.

The question, “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” is at the core of the critical thinking we preach here. Keep it in mind the next time you read about a guy who tries to rob a store with a banana (and then eats it instead).

Guest Blogging: Context Counts (or when an airline cuts flights)

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Jessica Sparks, an experienced journalist and assistant professor at Savannah State University to discuss the importance of context in journalism. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

In the first few weeks of my entry level course in media writing, I introduce students to three specific values the media has traditionally held- fairness, diversity and context. Without these three pieces, we become Rush Limbaugh- pick apart the facts to support your opinion and forget all those pesky statements that completely oppose it.

Context, to me, is one value many novice journalists tend to forget. There are two possible explanations for this: They know the context, but forget to include it in the story so the audience can see the information they way they saw it; or they didn’t ask enough questions to really understand the information given to them and therefore don’t have enough context to explain it thoroughly.

In class, I often pose this question to my students:

An airline announces it will cut half of all its flights from a mid-size airport near your media outlet. Is this news?

Without posing follow-up questions for context, you cannot definitively say yes or no.

As Vince points out in his book “Dynamics of Media Writing,” a good story applies to a mass audience- it’s interesting, timely and informative. In addition, it has at least some of those characteristics (conflict, impact, proximity, prominence, novelty).

For this example, most students picture an airline such as Delta cutting hundreds of flights, which could affect thousands of travelers and hundreds of jobs. Yes, that is news.

However, what if it’s a regional airline that flies twice a month with a 20-person plane? The announcement isn’t nearly as newsworthy as the aforementioned scenario, and it might not be worth a full report.

During my “Back to the Newsroom” fellowship with the Wall Street Journal, I was placed on The Numbers blog team. My job, essentially, was to identify data that would intrigue an audience and build visual elements to accompany short blog posts about that data. One of the most memorable of these pieces for me was “More kids born outside of marriage, but fewer teen births.”

In terms of context, this story stuck out to me because the numbers provided by the Census Bureau pointed to a traditional generational process. As the world has changed, so has the core family experience. This headline pushes that agenda.

However, the statistics still showed, the majority of new mothers were married when birthing their first child.

That’s context. The headline grabs the reader, but the story must still make clear that the data is showing a possible trend- not a rule. There’s not rule from this data saying children will be born out of wedlock. All it’s saying is that there is a possible trend emerging through the numbers.

What can you do to make sure you have the context around each fact, number and quote?

  1. Make sure you understand it yourself. Don’t write about something you don’t understand, and don’t feel silly asking a question of a source because you think it will make you look dumb. Sources would prefer you get the story right. (Though, you should do your best to come prepared and knowledgeable.)
  2. Continually ask yourself if you are misleading your audience. Are you choosing to omit information because it contradicts something else in your story? Don’t. It’s better to write that there was some confusing detail than to seem opaque in your reporting process.
  3. Read it out loud to yourself. Sometimes hearing the fact instead of reading it forces you to notice missing- yet important- details.

Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.

“Picked up some Hookers!” (or why knowing your audience matters)

Hooker-Headers-Heart-511x412

A guy I know who works on classic cars made a social media post a while back that told everyone who follows him that he “picked up some Hookers” over the weekend.

Not one person shamed him online or forwarded the information to the guy’s wife. A lot of people responded with comments like “happy for you” or “so excited,” mainly because his audience was other car nerds.

Hookers, in car parlance, are exhaust headers named for their inventor, Gary Hooker, who constructed his first set of these back in the early 1960s. Headers like these provide your engine with more power because they help move the exhaust gas out of the engine more quickly.

In a more general context, it could appear that this guy was bragging about purchasing the services of prostitutes. In a car context, he was just making the engine more powerful.

And that is why understanding your audience matters.

News writers often cover topics that fall into “beats” when they work for general-interest publications like local newspapers or news magazines. Bloggers often have specific niches as do magazine writers for publications on health or hobbies. Public relations professionals have internal publics, who share an intimate understanding of how an organization works, and external publics, who often lack the detailed knowledge of a company or group. In each case, the writer has to understand what the readers know and don’t know as to best fine-tune the material and clarify the vocabulary.

Too often, we forget that people don’t know everything we know as writers, and thus we lapse into jargon, lingo and “alphabet soup” that can alienate the audience. Here are a couple thoughts to help you refine your writing as you work to reach your readers:

    • Who is reading this? Don’t assume that you know your audience or that the audience is as informed as you are. Go check it out. Web analytics, market research and other similar data can help you figure out who is most frequently reading your work. This can help you determine if mostly local folks who know what “The Dean Dome” is or if the audience contains mostly out of state people who need the formal name (the Dean E. Smith Center) and some information about location and purpose.
    • At what level are they reading this? A student once wrote an incredibly good piece for one of my writing classes on the issues surrounding raw milk. As I read it, I felt like I learned a ton and I suggested she get it published, probably in a local agricultural publication. The student, who grew up on a farm and had frequently read the publication, smiled at me like a parent smiles at an innocent child. “Um… This is really way too overly simplified for farmers…,” she explained.
      For me, a non-farmer, she was writing at exactly the right level: Assume I’m somewhat educated but have spent no time on a farm. For farmers, this would have read like a “See Dick and Jane” book. Know how much your audience knows, how much background the readers will need and how slowly you need to walk into a topic to avoid losing anyone.
    • Avoid alphabet soup for the most part. If your writing looks more like an eye chart than it does a story, you probably have a few too many abbreviations or acronyms in there. Some of these letter-based terms make sense within niche markets. If a business journal notes that a CPA for a B2B marketer uses GAAP, this will likely make sense to readers who know that CPA means “certified public accountant,” B2B means “business to business” and GAAP means “generally accepted accounting practices. However, for most of us, it looks like we would either need to spin the wheel again or buy a vowel. AP suggests using generic terms like “the organization” instead of using an abbreviation or acronym that would be confusing to readers.


(Case in point from “Good Morning, Vietnam.”)

  • Help people out. In traditional media, it never hurts to include a brief definition or some context clues for audience members who might need a little help on an unfamiliar topic. If you’re working on the web, a link or two might make the difference between informed and lost readers. Always give people a chance to figure out what you’re telling them.

At the core of all storytelling is language and shared understanding. For health aficionados, adjusting your carbs might lead to weight loss, while car folks know adjusting your carb will help your engine run better. Somewhere in between, the rest of the world resides, so it’s on us as writers to make sure we make our message clear.

Filak-ism: “Don’t use a hammer to change a light bulb”

Hammer

Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.

I always tell students in my class the simplest rule in journalism is this: Right tool for the right job. Or put another way, “A hammer is a fine tool, but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb.”

Tim Stephens, of SportsManias, shared this Newsweek article about the “pivot” many news organizations are making to video. MTV News and others are chasing demographics (and advertising money) with the idea of adding video to everything to better monetize content. The article cites several key statistics as to why this makes sense as well as why it will never really work out well for these outlets:

The forecast is grim. “Pivoting to video” won’t solve long-term media business woes in 2017, just as Facebook Live didn’t solve them in 2016 and quizzes didn’t solve them in 2014 and curiosity-gap headlines didn’t solve them in 2013 and listicles didn’t solve them in 2012 and blogs or whatever didn’t solve them in 2007. Eventually, algorithms change and ad models collapse and executives panic and money flows apace into Facebook and YouTube and other distribution channels. Flashy, short-sighted solutions don’t really solve existential crises. Or, as Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery‏ phrased it on Twitter: “Pivots, more often than not, aren’t led by real audience strategy. It’s chasing an ad demo, or dream of a demo, like a cat chases a laser.”

Reporters and editors can smirk at this cash grab, but we aren’t immune to the idea of using new technology or trendy toys just because we can. If you want a great example of this, watch this old Daily Show clip of Jon Stewart take down CNN’s coverage of a missing airliner. Journalists flock to a form of technology because it’s new or different and it seems like they’re “ahead of the curve.” However, live-tweeting a planning and zoning meeting or doing an interactive graphic of how to buy a dog license just because you can makes no sense.

Conversely, some journalists retreat to a platform of comfort, using it regardless of its applicability to the situation. A veteran print reporter can find a way to make every story a text-based story while a veteran broadcaster can turn anything into a video story. However, just because you can, it doesn’t follow that you should.

In the book, we argue that things like text, images, graphics, video and audio are simply tools you can use to tell stories. You should learn enough of each of them to understand their strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly. This will better serve your audience and will improve your overall storytelling.

It will also keep you from breaking an awful lot of light bulbs.

 

Both of my grandmothers are dead (Or “Why you shouldn’t assume you know your audience…”)

SeniorSex

This headline ran on a USA TODAY Network story about “senior sex,” which sought to debunk several myths about how older people feel about intimacy and carnal acts. The story itself was well researched and provided data on the issues at hand, ranging from STDs among seniors to a continuing sense of sexual attraction.

The problem for me? Both of my grandmothers have been dead for almost 15 years.

As much as I believe in a satisfying afterlife, I couldn’t get past the arrogance of the headline: “We know you, humble reader, and have a line on the sex life of your family members!”

According to its own audience metrics, almost two-thirds of its digital audience is 34 years old or older. Approximately one-third is in the 50+ range. Its print readership sits at approximately 64 percent at age 50+. At that age range, it seems highly improbably that the majority of the audience has grandparents, simply based on the math.

This is the risk you run when you assume your readers are “all like me” or allow a cute idea to override logic and fact. If you know your audience well, you can avoid these issues and make your point without whiffing like this.