The “king of the mountain” lead and brief writing exercise

Lead writing is one of the more difficult tasks for beginning journalists to master. I would guess that it’s because it involves two things we’ve not really trained students to do in recent years: Think critically and make choices.

In most of their education, they are told to look for right answers, understand X because it’s going to be on the test and read content that is cast in chronological format. Now, we’re telling them there are no right answers, just better and worse ones. We’re saying, “There is no test. Just write the content well.” We tell them, “Put things together in descending order of importance, not the order in which things happened.”

With that in mind, I built an exercise that forces them to look for things that matter most, make smart choices and then justify those choices. The idea is to reinforce that something being important at one point might cease to be as important later. It’s to give them content that has them weighing its overall value in relation to other pieces of content.

I called this the “King of the Mountain” exercise, based on a game we played during the winter back when I was in grade school. The school would plow the parking lot of all the snow, creating a giant mountain of icy, slippery goodness. One kid would climb to the top of the pile and declare himself (usually it was guys, as the girls were smart enough to avoid this stupid ritual) “King of the Mountain.”

Who wouldn’t want to scramble up this thing to get knocked butt over tea kettle down the other side? These are the kinds of games you play in a state that has winter eight months out of the year.

Immediately, a half dozen or more other kids would start scrambling up the sides of the snow pile, trying to knock that kid off the top and claim the “throne.” Wrestling moves were common, punches were often thrown and more than a few drops of blood were shed, as each challenger tried to hold the top as long as possible.

The remainder of the day was spent arguing over who held the peak the longest or why they were the best.

This exercise essentially follows that pattern: There are four sets of factual statements that you can release to the students regarding a car accident near campus. You release the first set of facts to the students and have them write either a lead or a four-paragraph brief. They can then discuss what they selected for the top of the piece and why it was the best or most important thing for that lead or for the top couple paragraphs of the brief.

After that, you release the second set off facts and tell them, to rework anything they want in their lead/brief based on this new information. They can use both sets of facts in their rewrite.

And thus the process continues through upwards of four sets of facts, each getting more detailed and more enlightening.

If this works the way it should, the students should see how certain things become more important than other things and how looking for value in content can improve their approach to writing and reporting. Additionally, it can provide them with the understanding of why we keep bothering people for more information after we have gotten our initial set of basic facts.

I’ve linked it here, so feel free to grab it and use it as you see fit. I also dumped a link on the Corona Hotline page. I left a few spots open for you to fill in days or campus names etc. I also encourage you to change names, times, addresses and more to fit the “vibe” or “feel” of your audience. It’s in Word, so go for it.

Hope this helps!


Throwback Thursday: You’ll Never Shame TMZ and 3 Other Impolite Observations on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Breaking News

It’s hard to believe that it was one year ago this week that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. At the time, it was hard to imagine a bigger story. Now, it’s like, “Man, that was only a YEAR ago?”

In tribute to the Black Mamba, here’s a look back at what we were talking about when TMZ broke the news of his death:


You’ll Never Shame TMZ and 3 Other Impolite Observations on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Breaking News


The death of Kobe Bryant led to a massive outpouring of media coverage, social media mourning and public grief over the past 24 hours. For my money, the place that did the best job of this was the L.A. Times, which dedicated multiple pages to the former Lakers star. It covered the accident, mourned the loss, didn’t sidestep the ugly (even a photo from his “rape allegations press conference” made the inside page) and generally did a good job on a breaking news piece. The layout and headline treatments also reminded me why when it comes to a huge story, newspapers still can do it the best, regardless of circumstances.

(If the LAT is like any other newsroom I’ve ever worked or visited, I’m betting it was a pretty sparse crew on staff when all this took place on Sunday morning. Getting this kind of “flood the zone” coverage on a weekend in today’s gutted newspaper world says a lot.)

One thing that emerged in this breaking news cycle was to what degree the gossip news site TMZ was derelict in its duty as journalists when it published the news about Bryant about an hour after the incident. Officials chastised TMZ for its “very cold” approach to this, noting that families and friends of those who died had yet to be notified personally before the news broke. TMZ, for its part, has yet to respond to that aspect of its reporting, but it continues to publish on Bryant after breaking the story.

While it seems that professionals and the public alike are having a go at TMZ for its role in this situation, here are four thoughts that, while probably impolite, are both accurate and worth considering:

You’re never going to shame TMZ: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami took their shots at TMZ, noting that the publication was “extremely disrespectful” and “very cold” for reporting Bryant’s death this early. Others in the media also took to Twitter to add their condemnation of the decision to publish the information about an hour after the sheriff’s department received notification of the crash. Talking heads all over the place continue to cluck about how “this kind of publication makes us all look bad” and how TMZ “isn’t real journalism.”

Here’s an unfortunate reality: TMZ couldn’t care less.

This publication has made its bones (pardon the pun) on reporting the deaths of celebrities. It was first on the spot for the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince. It ran the Ray Rice “punch in an elevator” video, showing the former NFL player laying out his fiancee with a single swing and then dragging her limp body down the hallway.

Even more, here are a couple screen shots of things they ran just before the Bryant story broke:


And those were just two of the better and yet SFW ones available. Sleaze, mayhem, celebrities and death is what they do. A bit of side shade on Twitter from an undersheriff isn’t going to bring those folks around to the world of buttoned-down journalism.

Trying to make TMZ feel guilty is like trying to humble Kanye: It might make you feel superior to try, but it’s not going to work.

Most media folk won’t admit it, but they would have done it too: It’s easy for people who DIDN’T publish this first to say what they WOULD HAVE DONE if they HAD gotten the information first. It’s hard to say for sure what they ACTUALLY would do if put in that spot.

The old-guard media folks, who had three broadcasts or two newspaper editions a day, had more of a luxury to wait than current journalists, for whom a minute might be 58 seconds too late. Even more, I’ve seen what people get like when they get an exclusive story or find themselves at the front end of a scoop-able story. There’s not a lot of sober reflection and deep thinking involved, and far too often, people let the desire to get it first beat down their sense of human decency.

I’m not saying we SHOULDN’T aspire to being more humane in what we do. It’s just that the gap between the hypothetical and the actual is often a lot wider than we would like to believe it to be, especially when the actual makes us look bad.

(If you don’t believe me, watch about six minutes of a show like “Temptation Island” where “committed” couples explain how they’d never, ever, ever, EVER break up. In three minutes,  Blake has left Ashlynn in the room to go make out with Trevor’s fiancee, JayCee, in the hot tub.)

The first story I saw was on another media site (not TMZ) that posted about 20 minutes after the TMZ news broke. Additional news outlets were also cranking out stories shortly after, each falling back on that original “as first reported on TMZ” notice.

(It’s amazing how quickly they all swept those stories away and those early notices once they could get their own sources and after everyone decided to pile on TMZ. If you look on various “mainstream” media outlets now, you’ll find no reference to how TMZ got there first, unless it’s to chastise TMZ.)

What I didn’t see, and might never see, is a timeline that tells me when the officials notified the families of the people involved alongside the information of when each media outlet published its breaking news story.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that TMZ wasn’t the only media outlet to push out a piece before everyone’s family got the word of the crash. That’s not to say this was appropriate, but it is worth noting that a lot of the “holier-than-thou” outlets clucking about the disgraceful state of TMZ probably ran as fast as possible to grab second place in the race to report the story.

The police couldn’t care less about the media 98.9% of the time: Both Villanueva and Murakami have a point: It’s better if the safety officials can do their jobs and notify people before the media does. However, and I can say this based on personal experience, if you are a media professional waiting for police, sheriffs, state highway patrol folk or other officials acting in an official capacity to tell you everything you need to know, it’ll be like waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last week.

If you look at the stream of stories on CNN, for example, you’ll notice that it identifies pretty much everyone on board. Even after those stories ran, the sheriff declined to confirm the identities of those people. If you check out the sheriff’s department social media even today, the IDs aren’t posted. You have people responding to the tweets and posts with more information than the sheriff is willing to divulge.

Journalists know that the police will release information in whatever time frame they feel to be appropriate and that in most cases, you’ll get more info seeking other sources. As much as the police have often said to journalists, “I know you have a job to do…” they also don’t make the journalists’ job a priority. At best, they see the media as something to deal with like paperwork and jock itch: annoying, problematic and part of the curse of being them. At worst, well… I’ve heard the phrase “the F—ing Media” so often from cops I know that I honestly wondered if we’d created a new branch of journalism. (Y’know, like the Space Force…)

This isn’t to say that journalism is more important than the work of police or firefighters or first responders or anyone else who runs toward danger to help people in trouble. It’s not. However, pretending that if the TMZ people had just waited five more minutes until the police called them and said, “We’ve notified the family, so go ahead” everything would have been fine is disingenuous and borders on laughable.

Did this actually happen? I have come to the conclusion that being a “non-denominational skeptic” places me in the awkward role of asking questions people don’t like to hear. However, in journalism, we’re taught that if your mother says she loves you, you should go check it out. Therefore, here’s the question:

Did Bryant’s family (or anyone else on the chopper’s family) get the news of the death from TMZ?

Murakami’s tweet seems to say so:

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported … Kobe had passed. I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”

I can’t find any reference in a post, a note, a tweet or a story that says this actually happened. I saw press releases from various organizations, tweets from tons of people and at least two dozen stories on various “respectable” media sites, but I could not find a single statement that would corroborate this. TMZ isn’t saying anything, either, on this topic. (If I missed it, feel free to email it to me via the contact page. I’ll give you the credit for showing the world I’m a dipstick.)

You can easily respond to this with a “That’s not the %@#^%ing point, Vince!” statement, and I get that. However, consider these two equally valid concerns:

  1. If we’re not into the accuracy of facts when they fit the point we want to make, what the hell are we doing in this job? Sure, I get the idea that it would be horrible if I died and my wife got a call like this:
    “Hello, is Mrs. Filak home?”
    “This is Mrs. Filak..”
    “Yeah, not any more… This is TMZ asking for a quote about the death of your husband five minutes ago.”
    However, if we’re going to let the sheriff’s folks use “couldabeen” BS about TMZ’s actions to make a point, why not let them go all the way? Why not have them invent the tears in the eyes of the other Bryant children, as they heard the news on TMZ? Why not let them slather on the details of how Vanessa Bryant got the alert from TMZ mere seconds before her phone rang with the news from the sheriff? The point is, if something is accurate, use it. If not, don’t let people use you to perpetuate something that is not.
  2. As much as this was an easy slam for the sheriff’s folks to make, kicking a publication like TMZ, it wasn’t meant for TMZ alone. This is the media version of a brush-back pitch, in which the sheriff threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate. The goal of a pitch like this is to let the media think long and hard about digging back in the batter’s box.
    TMZ is gonna TMZ. We’ve established that. However, when the L.A. Times or the Orange County Register or the Pomona Tidbit or whatever else is out there gets a tip like this, the sheriff and his colleagues in law enforcement hope this kind of incident will get them to slow up or pull a punch. In most cases, the media outlets will react with a higher level of discretion than TMZ, I would imagine, but simply putting the thought of “we might be the bad guys” in the media’s head is enough to cause some concern. It’s like how people tend to drive slower once they see someone else getting pulled over by a cop.
    In a speeding case, it’s probably a good idea. Here? It might be a toss up.

The Junk Drawer: Doritos Conspiracy Edition

If you stare into this mess long enough, you’ll see the message to the followers of QAnon… Unless, of course, you’re in on the conspiracy…

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.

Without further ado, here’s a mix of the good, the bad and the truly weird…

Update on the Indiana Daily Student

Last week, we talked about the financial problems associated with the Indiana Daily Student, the student publication at Indiana University. The staff published a letter-from-the-editor, explaining how the paper was likely to run out of money at the end of the semester and its future was tenuous at best.

As the editors gear up for another semester, there appears to be some potential good news, as IU has made it clear it knows the paper is hurting and that this media outlet has too much value to let it die on the vine.  According to the joint statement from the IDS, the School of Media and the provost’s office, the paper can operate at a deficit for three years, starting in the 2021 fiscal year. During that time, the three groups will work together to find a viable long-term solution to make the paper financially stable.

This shows some great forethought on the part of the school and it provides the student journalists the opportunity to breathe a bit while this gets sorted out. It’s truly one of the best possible outcomes anyone had the right to expect, so congratulations to all parties involved.

Speaking of dealing with tough times as a journalist…


Reporting: Come for the insurrection, stay for the threats

The riot on Jan. 6 demonstrated a number of things, not the least of which was a general disdain for journalists and journalism. Consider what happened to several reporters during the scrum when they had to abandon their gear:

Just in case you weren’t entirely clear of how these people felt about journalists, here’s another tidbit from that scene…


The one that got me the most, however, was a shot of the door inside the Capitol. Someone had found the time (and the spelling acumen) to express their dissatisfaction with how journalists operate in this country through graffiti:

(Side note: He might have pretended to be a writer, but he sure as hell couldn’t have passed as a photog, given that no photojournalist I know would EVER do a posed shot let alone one with the “thumbs up” approach.)

I find it interesting that the people who want to “murder the media” probably couldn’t adequately define the media, outline what areas of it are most dissatisfying to them or explain what it is they dislike about it. Because to do that, hey, they’d need to be educated or at least aware of things going on around them… and that might require MEDIA!

Speaking of life-and-death issues…


One professor is releasing more posthumous material than Tupac

Students often wonder to what degree professors pay attention to their emails, questions, discussion board posts and other forms of interaction. In at least one case, the professor has a pretty good reason for being less-than-responsive to their inquiries this semester.

He’s been dead for almost two years.

During one of those recent lectures, a question occurred to Ansuini that he wanted to follow-up on with the professor. He was eager to learn more about a particular example the professor had used.

So he paused the video on his laptop and Googled the professor’s name in order to find his email — that seemed quicker than hunting around for the syllabus on his desktop. What he found instead was an obituary. At first he assumed it must be for someone else with the same name.

In fact, no: François-Marc Gagnon, an art-history professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, had passed away in 2019 at age 83. Turns out Ansuini’s favorite new professor was dead.

Turns out, there had been another professor “ghost teaching” the course at the direction of the university. While people debate property rights of his lectures, I’d have a real hard time sticking with this class. It was weird for me watching the final episodes of “Jeopardy!” with Alex Trebek, knowing he was dead already. I also haven’t been able to listen to my Bill Cosby records for years, now that I know he was a sexual predator.

Speaking of other awkward collections…


That’s a pretty nice ass. you’re trying to sell

In editing, we joke about how headline abbreviations need to avoid causing more problems than they solve. (The best one was about an interstate murder investigation which states, “Ill. man accused of Mass. murder”) In working through some Marketplace listings, I came across an offer I almost couldn’t refuse:


And, finally, speaking of things that you can’t make up, no matter how hard you try…


Doritos: Illuminati and Sea Salt Flavor

I always appreciate honesty and thoroughness in all of the corrections I read, but I have to admit, I wondered how in the world the content in this one ever saw the light of day:

I’m only imagining the conversation that led up to this:

Editor: “You sure on this QAnon pin thing?”

Writer: “Well, it was orange and triangle shaped… I mean what else could it be?”

Editor: “All right, let’s run it!”

As always, this comes with a valuable lesson, which is, “If you don’t want to be accused of being part of a conspiracy-theory group with ties to all sorts of unsavory people and actions, don’t eat Doritos.”

UPDATE: Turns out, I got smoked. This was apparently debunked, as a friend told me after this ran:

The content in that one never did see the light of day.

Dammit. I hate when this happens. Goes to show that I’m going to need to work on being a bit more careful.


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

3 teachable moments in the “Antifa dressed as Trump supporters” photo caption failure

On Jan. 8, conspiracy theorists reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Texas probably thought they had their deepest Deep-State suspicions confirmed about the melee at the U.S. Capitol that week.

According to a photo caption that accompanied an AP picture of rioters scaling walls outside the building, “Members of antifa dressed as supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the case and it wasn’t what the paper would have printed if it had a “do over.” As the readers of the Telegraph deluged the paper with questions, concerns and outrage, the journalists there scrambled to figure out what had happened. The paper’s regional editor finally tried to stanch the bleeding with a declarative tweet:

“It was not done by editorial staff. That is not the correct cutline and we are addressing it.”

In other words, “Look, we have no damned idea what this is, either, but we’re not thrilled about it, so back off until we figure out how the hell this happened and if we need to fire someone.”

On Inauguration Day, the paper published an editorial that outlined what happened, how it happened and what happens next. Of all the revelations the paper put forth, here was the least shocking one to me:

How did this happen? To the best of our belief, it was a joke taken literally. We found that no staff member acted in a malicious manner to deliberately put misinformation in your paper. Instead, what we found was a misguided and misunderstood joke put on the page when it should not have been.

The moment this caption started making the rounds in journalism circles, I gladly would have bet my HOUSE on the fact that this would all trace back to one chucklehead thinking they were funny and nobody in the newsroom noticing until everyone else on Earth started to notice it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. I have a manila file folder or three just THICK with screw ups like this, where someone punched down something in a hurry or with a taint of dark humor or both, and it found its way to the general public. The one that still makes the rounds in many journalism classes is the “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” debacle that we detailed on the blog a while back.

However, to help you learn how best to avoid being the next in the never-ending parade of cautionary journalism tales, consider these three pieces of advice:

IF YOU DON’T WANT IT TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY, DON’T TYPE IT: The rule in broadcast is that you treat every mic like it’s a hot (or live) mic, so you don’t accidentally start cussing on air. In most print/web media outlets the rule is to never type anything you wouldn’t want the world to see. It’s a basic rule that we tell ourselves and each other multiple times over the course of our newsroom lives and yet, for some reason, we STILL don’t listen.

Part of this is that journalists tend to think they’re funny, and to other journalists, they really tend to be. However, our audience rarely shared the “mortician’s humor” that we espouse. This is why writing a caption that includes a phrase like “Beth Jones, whose probably going to screw us over and die before this photo runs, celebrates her record-setting 103rd birthday Thursday during a party for her at the Shady Pines Assisted Living Center in Weyauwega.” isn’t going to be in our best interest, even if we’re just joking for newsroom eyes only.

Perhaps the greatest, and maybe entirely apocryphal, story of a joke gone wrong that either did or didn’t see print was one I’ve been looking for my whole life. The story I’ve heard was that an Ohio-based paper either nearly ran or short-printed a paper with a brief at the bottom of a local-section rail that had the headline: “Easter Services Cancelled.”

The body copy was one line: “They found the body.”

Another part of it is that we use humor as a coping mechanism. Between the low pay, long hours and general insanity we cover every day, it’s a miracle we’re not more damaged than we are. Somewhere between deciding if we should use active voice in describing a massive interstate pile up and answering the 194th phone call of the night where we have to explain that, no, it’s not a conspiracy that the “TV section” wasn’t in your paper this week, people crack.

They also crack when they’re trying to make a headline fit in an impossible hole or cram 20 inches of copy in a 5-inch hole. Thus, a quick note of “Cut the shit out of this dumbass councilman’s quote” sent back to the reporter or a filler headline of “Woman’s vagina outperforms clown car” on news feature about a family of 20 kids  seems like a good idea a the time until it shows up in black and white the next day.

The lesson here is a simple and yet seemingly impossible one: If you don’t want to get in trouble for doing something purposefully stupid, don’t do that purposefully stupid thing.

BEWARE OF TWO INCHES OF WATER: Wayne State University professor and copy desk legend Fred Vultee was fond of the saying, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was that errors, libel and general stupidity could just as easily occur in the smallest piece of copy as it can in the largest one.

What I have found in collecting stupid mistakes over the years is that this mantra holds water. (Sorry… I had to…)

Rarely was it the sprawling investigative story that accused powerful people of unspeakable acts that led to the worst problems. It was usually the relatively innocuous brief, the simple caption or the run-of-the-mill meeting story that created massive uproar.

The “Green Wave” story is just one of the many where someone inserted a fake lead or a side-glance comment. I have photo captions that note “this lady might be dead so we might want to crop her out” as well as a photo of a basketball team that refers to an unknown player as “Some Fucker.”

This is why it’s important to avoid screwing around with small copy and to also read ALL copy with the same level of concern. The first part is easy to manage while the second part can feel almost impossible much of the time.

I know that when it came to a story we ran accusing a student of trying to make ricin, everyone in the newsroom went through that story like our lives depended on it. That photo caption about the Environmental Club’s recruitment drive? Not so much.

Still, knowing the most damage can occur in the smallest places with the least amount of obvious concern should motivate all of us to dig in a little harder on these things.

TRUST IS HARD TO BUILD, BUT EASY TO DESTROY: The only real currency we have as journalists is our credibility. We use it to buy trust from our readers. It takes years to build up that accumulation of credibility and it must be used judiciously because it’s precious and once it’s spent, we might not get any more.

I don’t know how trusted the Telegraph was before this incident, but it essentially blew through whatever stash it had and went into debt on this one. And, for what?

The paper’s editorial outlines a series of safety valves that it either put into place or reinforced in the wake of this disaster-bacle. It also provided a great amount of transparency in explaining EXACTLY what happened in awkwardly painstaking detail for its readers. This was an attempt to start rebuilding its credit at the bank of trust.

It also implored its readership to hang in there and not judge the whole product and its entire history on the basis of one really dumb thing. Unfortunately, that might not be very easy, given that we tend to remember people, places and things based on the best or worst thing they’ve done.

It’s why if you ask any football fan what they know about David Tyree, they’re going to say “Helmet Catch,” while the name Jackie Smith will have them saying, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.” That said, Jackie Smith is a Hall-of-Fame tight end, while Tyree played 83 total games in an undistinguished six-year career. The best or the worst thing usually sticks.

It’s unclear to what degree the paper will be able to recover, but the fact that it HAS TO do so and because of something THIS DUMB is what really makes this situation sad. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that we need to treat the public’s trust in our work with true appreciation each time we ply our trade.

Throwback Thursday: Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

With the start of another semester, it’s a good time to remember the adage of, “Just because I’ve said it 1,000 times, it doesn’t mean the student has heard it at all.” With each new crop of students, it can be tempting to skip past the basics we pound constantly into our classes or look for ways to “jazz up” what are the seemingly tired tenets of writing.

Instead, it’s worth remembering the value of those tried-and-true “rules” that help keep the students safe and stable initially and to which they can return when they face dangerous conditions, even after they have moved beyond the basics.

Here’s a look back at our need for some “driver’s ed journalism” in the classroom:

Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.

Starting 2021 asking for a favor of Dynamics of Writing readers: Help me help you.

As most of you are either just starting the spring/winter semester, or about to do so shortly, it’s time to get the blog up and rolling again.

Each semester, I start with the same concerns: “How in the hell am I going to be able to blog about something decent four or five times per week?” Each semester, the universe sees fit to throw me enough bad writing, administrative overreach on student media and general stupidity to keep the site stocked with new stuff.

That said, this site is supposed to be about what the audience wants most of all. As I say to my students frequently, “You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for your readers.” Given the array of people who show up here every day, however, this can often feel like dating a hydra with multiple-personality disorder.

With that in mind, I’m asking a simple question: Help me help you. Over the past 569 posts, what are the things you thought, “Man, I’m glad I read that!” or “Wow! That was really helpful.” Conversely, what were the things that made you say to yourself, “Well, that’s 18 minutes of my life I’m never getting back…”

I have stuff in the hopper for various occasions, and I’m sure the  media world at large will continue to feed me wonderful moments of horrid writing to critique. Other than that, I’m all ears. You can contact me here, or just post in the comments below.

Thanks for reading and we’ll kick off the term in earnest tomorrow.


(A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend

A friend of mine on a student media listserv asked this end-of-semester, why-don’t-kids-listen, why-is-God-angry-with-me question about her students and their ability to attribute information properly:
WTF is wrong with “said?” Why can’t students use it?
I’ve begged. I’ve put it on copy-editing lists. I’ve highlighted it on rubrics. I’ve talked to them individually. Nothing works.
Today I’ve seen at least 10 words in place of said and none of those situations required anything other than said.
We don’t know what the fire chief “believes” about the cause of the fire.
The university certainly doesn’t “feel” anything.
My biggest peeve: shared.

In situations like this, it always helps to know you’re not alone, and she wasn’t. More than 20 other emails popped into place after this one, all noting the various trials and tribulations of “said.”

For the last “Throwback Thursday” of 2020, here’s a look back at the last time I looked at “said.”

Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend


Four letters, one word, simple perfection.

As far as verbs of attribution go, not much else can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:


The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”


Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.


According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

That said, if you want to have fun with verbs of attribution, enjoy the ridiculous ones we gathered below for your reading pleasure. (Whatever happens, don’t blame me if you use one of these on your reporting final…)

“I just can’t shake this head cold,” he sniffed.

“I’m going to have to draw you a picture to get you to understand this,” he illustrated.

“Of course I’m chewing tobacco!” he spat.

“All I know is, I love doing a ton of cocaine,” he snorted.

“This is the saddest movie ever,” he cried.

“Bethany said I was being distant, but it’s her fault we broke up,” he ex-claimed. “And that One Direction CD is totally mine as well.”

“I love this vintage, but I can’t remember what vineyard it comes from,” he whined.

“I used to have a poodle named Princess, but my ex-girlfriend stole her,” he bitched.

“Get me the phone so I can get a hold of Mom,” he called.

“Whose dog is making all that noise?” he barked.

“My empty stomach speaks for itself,” he growled.

“Don’t forget my Post-Its!” he noted.

“I know, I know, I know,” he echoed.



Get a job, kid! Sound employment advice from LinkedIn’s Andrew Seaman

I have always felt sympathy for the kids I’ve taught who graduated in December. Somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, they’re pumping out resumes and cover letters to hiring folks that are trying to keep their year-end budgets in check while planning office holiday parties and trying to do their own holiday stuff.

Even more, in Wisconsin, December is a dismal, cold and gray month that gives people that feeling of misery and provides seasonal affective disorder with a home-field advantage. Nothing like getting rejection letters when you’re also feeling like the world itself is curling up into a corner and dying on you.

One great resource to help those of you trying to find a job during this “unprecedented” time of pandemic, hiring freezes and general misery is Andrew Seaman over at LinkedIn.

Seaman, who serves as senior editor in the job search and career area for this LinkedIn News, spent time as a journalist at Reuters and USA-Today. He was also the chairman of the Society for Professional Journalists’ ethics committee for four years, during which time he helped rework the organization’s ethical code.

(As a minor side-plug, he was also nice enough to be one of the “Pros” for the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book in the “Thoughts from a Pro” feature.)

Seaman has covered many topics over the past few years that are associated with high-wire act we must endure to find a job. His “Get Hired” newsletter has more than a half-million weekly subscribers and always offers interesting angles on important topics. These are archived on the LinkedIn site as well, just in case you missed one of his posts.

Here are a few I would recommend right off the bat:

He’s also got great advice for how to turn down a job, what kind of digging you should do to learn about a company that’s offering a job and how to network well.

The things that make Seaman’s work great come from his background as a journalist:

  • He relies on sources. You can find actual people with actual quotes who actually did things he’s talking about or deal with them in some way. He’s not giving you a “Based on how important I think I am, here are some pontifications” kind of thing. It’s real.
  • His work is clearly written. The journalism end comes through in this because he’s not using industry jargon (or if he is, he defines it) or a load of random lingo. He’s also writing in a concise and smooth way that makes his writing a joy to read.
  • He understands the audience-centricity principle. Seaman knows who is reading his work and he understands what they want out of him. His work is timely and topical. It makes sense to people who are looking for a job. He doesn’t go off on flights of fancy. It’s just damn good stuff.

Hope you enjoy his stuff and good luck with your job search!


Thank you for making this necessary: The second edition of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” is now on the press

For the first time in quite some time, I was happy to open an email:

If I don’t say it enough, please let me say it here in the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “Thank you all for making this day necessary.” The fact that so many of you were willing to take a chance on a new book in a time in which books have the appeal of a mauve polyester leisure suit means a lot to me. It’s not easy to adopt a new text and rewrite stuff for a class, especially as we’re being all asked to do more with less, so I appreciate the help and the faith.

As a sneak peek, I wanted to let you all know some things that the new book will include:

  • Social media. The book includes a lot of best practices for blogging and simple-message posting. The book not only shifts more toward stronger “how to” content in the chapters on these topics, but it also addresses these issues as they relate to “fake news,” disinformation, the law and ethics.
  • More exercises. The goal was to provide you with enough stuff that your students would learn to hate me for putting a ton of work in front of them. (I think I’ll have Zoe open my mail for a while after this edition hits the shelves.) I added extra options for simple exercise as well as some more “mid-range” pieces for people who want to do lab exercises. If that’s not enough, there’s always the Corona Hotline page.
  • Best of the Blog: I get that not everyone is sitting on the website every day with bated breath hoping I’ll post something. (Except for my mom. Thanks, Mom.) I also understand that with more than 500 posts over the past three years (Wow… That went by in a blink), you might not always find the perfect post for each chapter to make a key point. To that end, I decided to build a “greatest hits” album of sorts, with each chapter having one blog post that attaches itself to the theme of that particular chapter. As always, all 500-some posts are available on this site and everything up here is freebie for anyone to use.
  • Appendices: As with the last version, we broke out stuff like extra lead exercises, freedom information requests and video editing into the back of the book in appendix format. We also updated the “Get a job” appendix with more advice and added a whole thing on how to do freelance work, relying on three professional freelancers. Why freelancing? Because a professor asked for it, so we did it. (Good tip for anyone else who wants something: I have a hard time letting anyone down, so the more I can do to help you, the better I feel about myself.

As always, the blog will keep things current and humming in the time between editions, so you’ll never be “out of date” in terms of content. And if you want something that I haven’t provided, just ask and I’ll blog it.

This should be available just in time for that hard-to-shop-for person on your holiday list and as a perfect stocking-stuffer for every human being you actively dislike. I’d even be willing to autograph any copy, with the idea that it will decrease the value in it and the bookstore won’t buy it back.

Seriously, though, I really want to let you all know how grateful I am for all your support, help and suggestions over the years. I hope this book is what you want and need to keep the next generation of students moving toward greatness.



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

3 ways to avoid letting Tucker Boner, Dick Hertz and Heywood Jablome turn your story into a prank

The world of news features is fraught with danger when you couple unsuspecting reporters with people who enjoy trolling them. A journalism colleague and friend alerted me to this potentially suspect source in a New York Times story about Zillow Surfing:

As my friend noted, “I couldn’t help but think the reporter got duped,” before referencing this classic “source” in a New York Post story:

If you need the joke spelled out, I’ll answer the question for you: “No, I would not like to blow you…”

The Post story is coming up on two decades old, but the folks there are apparently not giving up the ship when it comes to Heywood’s bona fides (sorry… couldn’t resist) as this story is STILL AVAILABLE.

Is it possible that these guys were both real people with just unfortunate names? Sure. I mean, one of the best pitching coaches in baseball history (at least in my mind) had probably the world’s worst name if he wanted people to take him seriously: Dick Pole.

Of all the greatest “add another layer” moments was the year in which Pole played for the Portland Beavers. Although you should know by now I’m not creative enough to make this stuff up, here’s proof:

We could spend hours going through a list of names people have used to punk reporters. The Seymour Buttz and Mike Rotch’s of the world are well known, thanks in large part to “The Simpsons” and Bart’s penchant for pranking the local bar.

There are plenty of cases where “regular” people have names that go beyond common spellings or those we have seen hundreds of times before. We once had a music guy who kept calling us to promote the promising bands he represented. His first name was Spackle. I have no idea how or why…

Even more, there are cases where people share famous names with people who have entered the public spotlight in an unfortunate fashion. (In my time at the State Journal, I worked with a “Susan Smith” right around the time another “Susan Smith” was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Our “Susan” actually wrote a column about these unfortunate pairings…) And, of course, it’s probably no great shakes for these regular folks, either, who have to deal with this on a daily basis:

However, as a journalist, you can’t cut people out of your stories or avoid them just because “that name sounds weird.” With that in mind, here are a few tips for keeping yourself out of trouble in these situations:

Trust but verify: In most cases, you’re getting people to tell you their names and spell them, so you’re in pretty good shape for making sure you got the name itself right.

If the name seems like it might be a “trolling moment,” you can’t automatically assume this person is messing with you. (“So that’s Dick P-O-L-E… wait a minute!”) It would be in poor form to demand ID from that person, but you can get around that concern in a few other ways.

Make use of the other publicly available databases, such as those for court records. Maybe “Yankton Weiner” was sued, filed suit, got a speeding ticket or got a divorce from the former Mrs. Weiner, which would help you figure this out.

Do a search through multiple other websites connected with the topic at hand to see if that person was cited as a source. A quick run through your own news site and a few others in the area would be helpful as well. If you keep coming up empty, telephone directory searches are also helpful.

Also, the internet has a burgeoning public records industry where various companies swear they can find out anything about anybody. If you search for a name, chances are, you’ll get at least something in the free version of the company’s site. Worst case, pay the $20 or whatever if you’re desperate to use the source but afraid of looking like an idiot.

Box the source in: One of the easiest ways to prevent a source from snowing  you is to pin that source down with specific questions about themselves. A person might quickly give you “I. P. Frehleigh” as a name, but would likely be less adept telling you what the I and P stand for. The more questions you ask, the more hemmed in that source will be.

If the source works in some professional field, ask for a business card with the idea that you might want to reach out to them later. If they balk, that’s a pretty good indication that something might not be above board. If they offer a phone number instead, use that number to reach out to them from another phone and see how they answer. Or use a reverse-directory app to get their name from that number.

Throw some basic chatter at the person to get some other information such as, “So how long have you lived around here?” or “Where did you say your office was?” If the answers are quick and easy, the person is likely on the level. If they feel forced, be wary. Either way, write the answers down so you can check them against other information. Also, don’t be afraid to go back and ask a basic question a second time to see if they have it the same way twice: “I’m sorry, but HOW did you spell ‘Frehleigh’ again?”

Ask that source to give you some contact information for their colleagues or other folks who might be just as helpful. This will help limit the number of lies that you can hear. At the end of the day, paranoia will be your best friend, so ask as many questions about the person as you need to

Cut it: There’s no rule that says you have to use a source just because you got the source to talk. Granted, some sources are crucial to a story, but if you review what Mr. Jablome and what Mr. Boner told the reporters here, you can see nothing vital or unique. This is a case of a reporter just deciding, “Well, I got the source, so I’m using him,” a concept in journalism known as notebook emptying.

At the end of the day, I’d rather be one source short than to add to the legend of “Elle Phunt,” “Dee Z. Knutz” or “Barry McCockiner.”