Three myths students believe about their professors that hurt the students’ educational journey

Myth 1: “I’m bothering the professor if I ask for help.”

A derivation of this myth is “Professors are too busy to help me.” Yes, we are busy people and, contrary to popular opinion, we do stuff outside the classroom, like research, meetings, service, meetings, advising, meetings and other meetings about meetings, we are never “bothered” by a real request for help.

The truth is, we see it as an investment for a couple reasons. First, we help you improve the specific assignment that troubles you. That makes life easier on us when we have to grade the assignment and we get to read a quality piece. Professors can fly through quality work, quickly sing your praise and then move on to the next thing, which is probably a meeting. Work that is lousy takes forever and a day to get through, as we correct every glitch along the way and ponder if we should chuck it all and become a long-haul truck driver.

Second, it’s an investment in future assignments. If we help you fix the mistakes now, chances are, you’ll avoid making those mistakes in the future. That means we won’t have to muddle through the grading process each time we read your work. It’s that “Teach a man to fish” approach to giving you an education.

Finally, it gives us a chance to make adjustments for the class. If you’re having a problem, you probably aren’t the only one having it. Thus, if you bring it to our attention, we’ll probably find a way to help you fix the problem and then share what we figured out together with the rest of the class. That improves everyone’s experience and makes life easier on us when we have to grade your papers as well.

In short, you’re not a bother if you have a real concern, so bring it to us and we’ll help you get through it.


Myth 2: “Professors like failing students.”

Versions of this include “This guy/gal gets off on being a harsh grader” or “Nobody gets an A in Professor Smith’s class.”

We don’t like failing students and we probably aren’t that thrilled when we have to give out even worse grades like a “D+.” (Why do we have a D+ as a grade option? Who thought it was a great idea to dress up a D? I can’t imagine going home with one of these to have my old man yell, “You got a D?!?!?” and having me respond, “No, Dad, it’s a D PLUS!”)

Contrary to popular opinion, professors don’t get cash bonuses or a set of steak knives if we meet some quota for failing students. In fact, it takes far more work to fail a student than it does to pass one. Think about that the next time you bomb out of a class.

Professors typically have two main gripes about student and grades:

  1. Some students just want the A or the B or whatever but don’t care about the knowledge, information or learning to go along with it.
  2. Some students figure A’s are like Halloween candy: As long as they show up and go through the motions, they should get it.

If you approach the professor for help by saying, “I need to get an A (or  a B or a C or whatever), so how can I do that?” what the professor hears is, “Look, I really don’t care about anything going on in this class other than what I need to get out of it grade-wise so that I can move on to something much more important than you and whatever crap is happening in your class.” However, if you ask for help with the idea of better understanding the material so that you avoid failure or a grade too low to keep your scholarship or whatever, we’re totally in your corner.

I believe that, for the most part, grades will result from the effort the students put in, so failure takes an awful lot in my class. In other courses, I’m sure the failure rate is higher because the stakes are higher. My wife, Amy, has taken nursing courses where people get smoked every semester with F after F after F, which always seems to me to be Draconian. That said, the stakes are much higher if you have a nurse who doesn’t know the material perfectly. The last thing I want to hear before being sedated in advance of a surgery is a nurse saying, “I think I gave him the right dosage, but I had a real easy grader in Med-Surgery…”


Myth 3: “Professors don’t care.”

This drives us nuts because so many of us do care. It also smacks of that whiny, self-indulgent, woe-is-me crap that everyone has said at a bar, three drinks after getting the break up call from our significant other. (Versions of that include, “Women are evil, man…” and “Men totally suck…”) Sweeping generalities mean to camouflage personal shortcomings don’t get the job done, and professors know that. We STILL say this stuff in other aspects of our lives. (“The reviewers who rejected my article don’t know squat about this field!” or “The sabbatical committee is playing favorites!” or “Chancellors are evil, man…”)

We all have our own version of this myth and it distracts us all from the ability to get stuff done. Early in my career, whenever I would get a rejection from a journal, I’d crumple up the letter up, throw it in a corner of my office, dump a bunch of stuff on top of it, curse and then start looking for jobs in the automotive mechanic sector. A day later, I’d pick it out of the stuff, look at it, crumple it back up and throw it in a different corner. By Day Four, I’d read through the comments, figure out which ones were legit, which ones were crap and get cracking on a revision. Eventually, I learned to trim that grieving process substantially…

There are always people who are a-holes for no good reason, who like pulling the wings off of flies and who just don’t care about you. In professor-speak, we call them “Reviewer 2.” However, the majority of your professors want you to be successful if for no other reason than they get to brag about you when you do well. (I’m still yakking about students who are at “major media outlets” that I taught introductory writing to, as if my “noun-verb” lesson was the only thing that helped them succeed in life.) They also want to see you have that moment where the light goes on for you and you “get it.”

That’s the ultimate payoff for most of us.

Following up on the Times Argus’ coverage of its coverage of the murder-suicide: 3 learning moments for all media students

EDITOR’S NOTE: The piece I ran Monday regarding the murder-suicide in Vermont was less about the people involved and more about lessons to learn from the situation. The subsequent discussions that followed seemed to shift that focus, so I thought it was important to update and revisit the issue. In doing so, I wanted to make it clear that I know Adam Silverman well. I’ve known him for almost half my life as a student, a colleague and a friend. He contributed to my books and he stood up for my wedding.

I didn’t really think this disclosure was necessary before, as the post was more about the issue than it was about him. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve known Chris Evans, who is quoted in the VTDigger piece, for many years as a student media adviser and friend. Chris, however, did not stand up for my wedding. I’m sure he would have if I asked. Now, on with the post…

The apology the Times Argus issued Monday in the wake of its coverage of a murder-suicide in Vermont should have capped the issue entirely. Unfortunately, the leaders of the paper apparently never heard of Filak’s First Rule of Holes: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

In a brief recap, the paper published an article on Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, a young couple who died in a murder-suicide when LaCroix shot Gaboriault and then himself in her apartment last week. The follow-up story included many details on LaCroix, including his status as “a popular lacrosse coach” at an area high school and how he was “well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area.”

The details on Gaboriault were limited and thus some folks felt the story leaned toward favoring LaCroix. I referred to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, where everyone always praises someone who died in a horrible way, never seeing anything bad the person did or at least not expressing it.

Gaboriault worked for the Department of Public Safety, as does Adam Silverman, who took to Twitter to deconstruct the story and to demand some sort of remedy from the paper. Rob Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of the paper, issued an ombudsman’s column on this issue Sunday, explaining the rationale behind what the paper published and offering an apology to people who took umbrage with the story.

It felt like the story arc was over until two things happened:

  1. Silverman took to Twitter to deconstruct and respond to the apology.
  2. The Vermont Digger, a statewide news organization, published a piece on the situation and the editors of the Times Argus spoke.

In both cases, it was like two people wanted to have “the last word” in an argument, so rather than let sleeping dogs lie, both sides picked at the tenuously healing wound.

Silverman’s Twitter feed on this did acknowledge the apology, although it also continued to note the paper’s need to do better. Yes, but it’s hard to “do better” 12 seconds after screwing up and apologizing for it. It’s also pokes at the assertion that the story was a mess but the writer and editor were not to blame for this, which he calls “a paradox.” I can’t make a call on this one either way, but I don’t know a lot of EICs who would dump a reporter or editor under the bus in a public column unless egregious fact errors emerged.

The Digger’s piece did the “media looks at media” approach, which makes sense, in that this is a public spat between a public information officer and a media outlet, who will likely need symbiosis at some point in life. The reporter gave Mitchell a chance to “fire back” (a term journalists have somehow taken to using for no good reason) at Silverman and Mitchell took it:

However, Mitchell said in an interview Monday that he does not believe criticizing newspapers is the public information officer’s role.

“It puts him and the state police in the position of becoming ombudsman of every article about crime,” Mitchell said. “That’s not to say we can’t learn something from his criticism. But there’s a line there that he needs to be careful about. There are many victims of crime in this state. It can’t just be about one or another.”

And so did editor Steve Pappas:

Times-Argus Editor Steve Pappas said Monday that the newspaper received no warning that the Department of Public Safety planned to publicly lambaste the paper.

“Bottom line is, I felt like it was a cheap shot,” Pappas said about Silverman’s social media posts.

This has led to additional Twitter outrage, arguments and other such kerfuffles, thus shifting the focus away from the dead people and the initial problem with the reporting.

So why talk about it here? Because there are a couple things you all can learn, regardless of which area of media you plan to enter:

  • Don’t take the bait: If you go into public relations, you will have plenty of chances to either stoke a story or let it die. When you already find yourself in an awkward position, the last thing you want is for that story to continue. Thus, when the reporter for the Vermont Digger asked Pappas and Mitchell for comments on this, the smart move would have been to say something like, “We always appreciate feedback from all of our readers with the hope of constantly improving our service to the greater Barre area.” It’s simple, true and it gets you off the dime on this. Statements like “There’s a line he needs to be careful about” are going to keep the story rolling the same way that “Yeah? So’s your mother!” will keep a schoolyard fight at DEFCON 1.


  • Consider the platform: I often espouse the Filak-ism of “A hammer is a great tool but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb,” and that applies nicely here when it comes to Twitter. I agreed with a number of the statements Silverman made on the initial coverage and I disagreed with some of the other ones both there and in the follow up he did. However, I didn’t like the use of Twitter here because the platform seemed wrong.
    If you have to use a dozen or more 280-character bursts to make a point, it can feel like a deluge of information pouring out into the public. Several folks in the Digger story seemed to reflect that issue, including Chris Evans and Pappas. I’m not sure a press release would have been the way to go here, as it wouldn’t get as much public play, but considering other platform options might have been a good idea. Twitter is more like a lead and/or a headline. If you start lapsing into soliloquies, Twitter isn’t the right platform.


  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?: I always ask this whenever dealing with a tough decision, in that I want to figure out if what I’m about to do is worth whatever I’m going to get out of it. It’s akin to the “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” question my friend Allison and I used to ask of ourselves when doing something that had heavy good and bad potential. Both sides really needed to look at this here:
    Silverman made his points and got out there on the issue, garnering an apology and a sense that the newspaper understood enough of what upset people to make the staff rethink its processes. Was it worth it to go back and re-litigate the issue in digging through the ombudsman column and thus pushing harder on it?
    The paper has to work with the state police and to at least some extent, I would guess, Silverman throughout his tenure as the PIO. Was it really worth it grousing to another media outlet about this, ticking him off again and extending the shelf life of the story? I know him well enough to know he’s not going to spite the paper, but the paper did make stuff awkward for the reporters who have to call Silverman for stories in the future. Was it worth it?
    I have my own theory on both of those, but what really matters is to what extent both parties considered these issues and then made their choices. You should also have a similar mental conversation before you make any moves as a media professional.


In the wake of the Capital Gazette shooting, I worry about “my kids.”

I have told anyone who will listen to me over the years that I only have one child, a daughter I love more than anything in the world. But, I have hundreds and maybe even thousands of “kids” I have taught and advised that I love and care about as if they were my own children.

Someone once chastised me for using that term, as they felt it demeaned students or treated them as less than. For me, I couldn’t imagine a more honest and heartfelt way to explain to these students what they mean to me.

They come to the classroom on unsteady journalistic legs and with fuzzy concepts about who they want to be. They arrive at the doorway of the student newsroom with the trepidation of a shy first-grader entering a new school where everyone else seems to know everyone else. They knock tentatively on my door, asking if I’m “Dr…. Filak?”

Years later, they graduate with a stronger sense of who they are and what they can be. They depart a newsroom where they are now “the big kids” who welcome the newbies with a confident handshake or a self-deprecating joke. They enter my office like Norm entered “Cheers,” flopping down in a chair and saying, “Hey man… what’s up?”

What they don’t understand is that I, like so many of us in this field of education, never stop thinking about them or worrying about them. We cheer for their professional successes and mourn their painful losses. We take pride in their work, whether it’s at the nation’s leading media outlets or in fields far from where they thought journalism would take them.

Once our lives intertwine over discussions of “noun-verb-object,” or why it is the Indians can’t seem to win a World Series, we never really part, regardless of the physical space between us or the amount of time between contacts.

I thought about this all last night as the coverage of the Capital Gazette shooting poured into my news feeds. Five people killed, two others seriously wounded at the hands of a disgruntled and imbalanced man. I knew none of these people personally, as was the case for most of the people I know. However, the overwhelming number of posts, tweets and stories journalists and journalism educators shared told me I wasn’t alone in my sorrow over this.

A friend who advises a student media outlet out west posted that one of her “kids,” who graduated in 2011, worked at the paper but was safe. Others on our adviser listserv shared a supportive sigh of relief for her, even as we knew five families lost a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife or more.

And somewhere, some journalism educator or adviser lost a “kid.”

Reminders of “my kids” are everywhere around me. A wedding invitation is posted on our refrigerator. A fundraising T-shirt for a woman recovering from breast cancer sits in my dresser. A printer’s plate of our “We Need the A-T” page rests against a wall in my basement. Two paintings hang on the walls of my “man cave.” A resume from a mid-career professional sits in my in box with a “could you please see if this is OK” email accompanying it.

In my office, post cards, thank you notes and personal letters jut out at all angles from an overflowing cork board. Pictures of former staffs cover wall surfaces, next to the framed receipt that commemorates the time I tried to get the university to pay for some porn film an editor bought. (Long story…) Facebook updates tell me about their new jobs, new careers, new spouses, new children and new lives. Even as they reach their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, they remain to me one of “my kids,” mentally trapped in my head as the 21-year-old who showed up hung over out of his/her mind for my 8 a.m.

A few years back, two broadcast journalists were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague as they filmed a morning-show puff piece on the chamber of commerce. A local news crew interviewed me to do a localization on safety issues that should be addressed for journalists after this shooting.

Most of what I had to say didn’t make the final cut, mainly because I was arguing against the station’s premise that journalists needed to find ways to be careful these days. How? What could I possibly say that would have kept Vester Lee Flanagan from shooting two people in broad daylight? What lesson would have kept the Capital Gazette safe from Jarrod Ramos and his violent rampage?

And that’s what really kept me up last night. That’s what really bothered me.

I can teach them almost everything, but I can’t teach them this.

So, I do the best I can with what I have. I dance at their weddings and I mourn with them at funerals. I light holy candles in my hometown church, hoping it helps as they face “the Big C.” I edit resumes and I answer emails with supportive messages. I try to help them in any way I can.


Just before I headed to bed last night, a message popped up on my screen from one of my more recent graduates. He left journalism and now writes scripts for a telemarketing company. He’s content and yet restless, finding his way in this whole “adulting” thing everyone else seems to have under control.

He had a link to the quote from a staffer at the Capital Gazette who declared for all the world that not even something as abhorrent as what had just occurred would stop the presses that day:

“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

He then wrote: “I read that quote in your voice by habit.”

Thanks, kid. That means more to me than you know.


“Definitely Doable:” Either hire or fire a pervert and other headline advice for the rest of us.

Whenever someone screws up a headline in the worst of all ways, it doesn’t take long before people I know are shining the Bat Signal in my direction:


The headline in question is a little easier to see here along with some context for the story:


The story about Amelia Benjamin winning the Miss Kansas Outstanding Teen carried the double entendre headline “Definitely Doable,” which includes a term that is that at the heart of this classic SNL skit. When I initially saw the headline, I told the person who asked me about it that this was likely a case of one of two things:

  1. The phrase was in the story somewhere and it made sense there, but out of context, it’s truly horrifying.
  2. Someone in the newsroom did the “I’d do her” joke, wrote the headline as a spoof and said, “We’ll change that before it presses” and never did.

Turns out, it was the first issue, as the story (which has a more appropriate headline on its web version) included this quote:

In Pratt last week, Benjamin said she wasn’t quite sure what to expect because this was her first time participating in the Miss America organization teen pageant.
“It was really hard for me to be away from my family for a week because we are have always been so close, but it was good for me coming here,” she said. “This week taught me that this is definitely doable.“

There are about 93 problems with all this, including that this young woman will be the “definitely doable girl” for a long time, but here’s the worst one: This isn’t the first time the Pratt Tribune has landed in the headlines for a headline. This classic was the Tribune’s as well:


We talked about this when it happened, along with a series of other headlines that went awry, and provided some advice to the Trib and other folks who want to avoid these problems. The best advice I can give them after this screw up is to find out what went wrong and do one of two things:

  1. If the same person keeps writing these headlines, fire the pervert before he or she (OK, if I had to put money on it, it’s a he) gets you into even bigger trouble.
  2. If it truly is a situation where nobody really saw either of these headlines as being potentially sexual, hire a pervert to read everything you write and have him or her (probably a him) try to turn anything you type into something dirty.

For the rest of us, here are a couple other headline helpers beyond what we covered last time:

  • Create better headline specs: One of the reasons I’m sure “Definitely Doable” ended up in the paper was because the space left for the headline didn’t give the writer a lot of options. One basic rule we used to have at a paper I worked on was, “If you cut the hole, you need to know how to fill it.” In other words, you can’t give someone a one-column head space for a story about California kindergarten rules under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, unless you can suggest a decent headline for that space.
  • Do a headline throw-down: When you get into a jam with a headline, get away from the computer and do a throw-down session that will give you a fighting chance of coming up with something decent. Create a list of potential nouns, verbs and objects that could tell the story, based on what you read. List everything you can think about and empty your head. If you have some colleagues around, get those folks involved as well. This will provide you with a potential word bank for the headline and a chance to see how certain words might fit that space. If you find a pairing or an NVO structure you like, see if it fits. If it doesn’t, try swapping longer words for shorter ones on your list. Get close and see if some minor tracking or a small reduction in point size would help.
  • Consider a deck: This headline probably wouldn’t have been helped by a deck but other versions might have. If you don’t have the width for a good noun-verb-object headline, see if you have a punchy word or phrase that could be explained well with a deck head, conversation deck, c-deck or whatever else people are calling that secondary headline these days. If you don’t have to win the day with a single headline, you can make the deck head carry the load for you.

And, it goes without saying, think like a 12-year-old boy before you publish something. If that kid can turn your head into a “head” joke, get rid of it. You could always ask for different headline space or simply ask someone else to give it a try. When all is said and done, that headline should be “definitely doable.”



The “Do We Need J-Schools?” Debate, Part II: Solutions based on the World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge and 1970s self-esteem commercials

In the last post, where I dug into the special report from Columbia Journalism Review on if we need J-schools, I promised that all was not lost if you chose this path in life. I doubt you all have waited with bated breath for the answer, but I hope this post will give you a sense that having two dudes with a myopic view of journalism education that starts and stops on the corner of 116th and Broadway argue about your future shouldn’t scare you.

Consider these points when you look at what you’re getting out of your J-school experience and see if this helps you feel a bit better:

What do you want to get out of this? Let’s call this “The World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge” argument.

At one point, I owned a really nice mini-fridge to keep soda and beer cold in my basement. It was clean, new-looking and jet black and I really liked it. However, when my mother-in-law was put into assisted living, she needed one of these things and she didn’t have a lot of money, so I gave it to her. I then needed to replace it, as there’s no way I’m running up and down a flight of stairs every time I need a Diet Coke. If I did, I’d have thighs like Eric Heiden…

In any case, I ran into a lady at a rummage sale who told me she had one for $10. “It’s not that pretty, but it keeps stuff cold,” she told me. I bought it on the spot, even though the “it’s not that pretty” part was a drastic understatement:


Here’s the point: All I wanted out of this thing was to keep soda (and beer) cold. It did that. I could care less what it looked like. So why didn’t I just give my mother-in-law this one and keep the nice one? Because she has OCD (really) and she would rather die than have this Rorschach Test of an appliance within 20 feet of her. I got what I wanted (cold beverages) and she got what she wanted (a nice appliance that didn’t embarrass her) so it all worked out.

The point is, you have to start with an understanding of what you want out of your journalism educational experience because this makes the difference in terms of which side of this argument you want to be on:

The assumption both authors in the “Do We Need J-Schools?” debate make is equating journalism school to Columbia’s God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. As we talked about last time, there are a ton of other journalism schools out there that will provide you with opportunities to get a great education, good opportunities and a fine life without having to hock a kidney at your local pawn shop. You will also have the opportunity to gain a strong sense of media literacy, something a colleague told me I shouldn’t forget when talking about J-school. (She was totally right. You get to be wicked smart on how media works in this world and why it matters if you go to J-school.)

What you want out of the experience is really where the rubber meets the road in this discussion. As I mentioned earlier, I had students who wanted to go home and run a local newspaper, so coming to us at UWO, getting a good degree they could afford and going home worked for them. I always push students to be as good as they can be, but I would never slight a student whose goal wasn’t to be the next Jake Tapper or Bob Woodward. Even more, I have had plenty of good students who came through this program and landed jobs at Facebook, ESPN and more. They set some goals, met some good instructors and got what they wanted.

If you feel that having the ability to say you went to Columbia or Northwestern or any other “name” school is the end-all and be-all, then by all means, go that route. The degree and its cache matter if they matter to you. I equate it to the guy next door to me at work who loves designer clothing. If I ever say, “Hey, nice shirt,” he’ll tell me, “Yeah, it’s a Ralph Lauren…” or whatever. (Every piece of clothing he owns has a name to it.) The niceness and the label matters to him. If you say to me, “Hey, nice shirt,” I’m more likely to say, “Thanks. I think Amy bought it for me for Christmas about five years ago…” For him, it’s the label. For me, it’s about not spending $200 on a piece of clothing I’m going to ruin by dropping my lunch on it.

If where you are is getting the job done in the way you want, J-school is worth it.

Weigh cost versus value: This goes along with the first point, namely that you’re trying to figure out what you’re getting and what you’re giving in this kind of relationship with your school. There is no doubt that student loan debt is scary, so treat it like the food trade off in “The Hunger Games” where you got extra eats if you put your name in the reaping more often: Keep this approach to a minimum as best you can and avoid it whenever you can.

With that in mind, and acknowledging that student loans are as much a part of life now as professors who think they’re funny and assignments you blow off until the last second, the best way to keep the loans low is to go places where you pay less and get more. I’m sure Columbia University is a fine institution, but that nearly $216,000 price tag seems to have the cost/value balance way out of whack. That costs more than TWICE what I paid for a really nice four-bedroom, two-bath house in Muncie, Indiana about 15 years ago. And this leads to the point: I’d rather have two of those houses in my really nice neighborhood back there than two years in Columbia, preparing me for a job where I’m making about $32,000 a year.

Journalism has a strong element of meritocracy to it. The people who hire you care what you can do for them, not where you went to school or what your GPA was in college. I have had more “C” students get great jobs because they got published, took good internships and showed skills than “A” students who could recite the meaning behind Times v. Sullivan. Are you getting good value for what you are spending? If so, you need the school and the school needs you. There is balance in the force.

All of which leads to the next point…

The “Mizzou Brain” discussion: I spent five years at the University of Missouri working on the Columbia Missourian and finishing my Ph.D., so I spent a lot of time at a place that calls itself “The World’s Journalism School.” My first job after that was at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where the kids there were mostly state students who had a strong interest in journalism. One of the big questions they had for me was, “Are we as good as the Mizzou students you taught?” The assumption there was what I call the “Mizzou Brain Theory.”

The Muncie students seemed to think that going to Mizzou was like opening the Wonka Bar with the Golden Ticket inside: You get lucky enough to go there and you get this magical experience that transforms you. I had to explain that the kids at Mizzou start off at the same point they all do (as in they can’t find a decent lead with two hands and a flashlight), but they get better through taking advantage of the experiences they have over the years (and there are many unique ones) that make them who they become.

Yes, the degree is a little shinier and the experiences are a bit broader and more available, but the students there don’t show up, hang out for four years and get a “Mizzou Brain” at graduation that has all the answers. In other words, the smartest kid I ever would get at Ball State wasn’t going to be dumber than the dumbest kid I ever got at Mizzou, simply as a result of their presence at that institution of higher learning.

And I was right about that: Many of the students I had back at Ball State went on to incredible careers as head editors of major news outlets, reporters for big city newspapers, graphics experts for international TV outlets like CNN and marketing professionals from everything from casinos to the UFC. They got a ton of experience at student media outlets, parlayed that into great internships and then leveraged that into great jobs. All for quite a bit less than what Columbia University charges.

In short, it’s not where you go, but rather what you do when you get there. Finally…

It’s all about you: I spent the last three-to-five books telling readers that they need to write for an audience, not for themselves. In short, “It’s not about you” should have been translated into Latin and emblazoned on my family crest. However, this is a case where it is ENTIRELY all about you.

With that in mind, look at the following things when you consider where you are and what you’re getting:

  • Professors:Are these people truly invested in you or not? This doesn’t mean you should approach this like you’re a customer at a restaurant and you expect the professor to be the waitstaff. I mean it more in terms of where the professors priorities sit. A lot of the “name” programs reside at what are known as “R-1” institutions, where professors are judged heavily on how much research they do and how many journal articles they publish. This “publish or perish” approach means less time spent helping you and more time figuring out the difference in uses and gratifications for media use by left-handed guys named Ted. A lot of institutions like this will have instruction completed by teaching assistants and graduate assistants. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, as two of my best teachers in college were TAs. Are you getting meaningful connections with quality educators who can help you reach your goals, whatever they are? If so, you’re fine. If not, see if that can change. If it can’t, look elsewhere.
  • Learning type:You know how well you learn, even if you can’t explain it to anyone else. For some people, it’s the small lab setting or bust. For others, they can learn in 900-person lecture halls just fine. Some folks need a lot of one-on-one time while others are completely fine being left alone. This goes back to the first point in this list, which is that if you feel you need to spend a lot of time with an active and engaged professor to succeed, you want to make sure those people exist where you are. If you go to a smaller school with classes that meet your needs, you’re fine. Don’t worry so much about how everyone else does things or how the God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification does things. Worry about how YOU need to get stuff done to be the best you can be. Take inspiration from the Jamaican Bobsled Team on this one:

  • Experiences:You get a job in this field based on the number of opportunities you have to improve your craft and publicly showcase your wares. In other words, you will live your own version of “publish or perish,” so you need to know if you can publish so you don’t perish. Does the institution have student media outlets where you can get cracking on building a skill set? How hard is it to get involved? What forms of student media are there? Newspaper? TV? Radio? Magazine? More?
    Also, does the place have an internship coordinator for journalism students, a strong alumni network of people who want to hire you and other ways to get you into the field? If you want to know the real “wizard behind the curtain” thing that makes Mizzou amazing, it’s all of this. The place owns the city a.m. daily newspaper, an NBC affiliate and a magazine. And that’s just the start. Add in the national and international program options for journalism students and massive network of “Mizzou Mafia,” you now know why it is that place pumps out J-grads like Alabama produced first-round NFL draft picks. Some places with a killer rep don’t have this while other places you wouldn’t think twice about have quietly built an amazing network of these opportunities.

I don’t know if this makes you feel better or worse about your journalism school choices, but I hope it helps somewhat. Either way, you’re always welcome to swing by and have a cold beverage of your choice here in Omro, courtesy of the ugliest mini-fridge ever.

Motivational Poster for Graduates (plus a “Gone Fishin’ note”)

Graduation here at UWO takes place Saturday, so I figured it was a good time to break out a motivational poster for all the students who will be getting congratulations, parties and 121 copies of “Oh the Places You Will Go!”


This caricature of me came from Jason Brooks, one of the most amazingly talented artists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Back when we were both in school at UW-Madison, he drew a version of this idea as a recruitment ad for our student newspaper. I clipped it out and hung onto it until this day, as it now is taped to my office bookshelf, yellowed and taped up after years of moves.

When I wanted to include the jobs chapter/appendix in the reporting book, I reached out to him and asked if he had that art still and if I could buy some usage rights so I could add this to the front of the chapter. Instead, he graciously redrew the whole thing for me so you could see it in the book. I loved it and I hope you did too.

As the end of the term is here, I’m going to take a time out next week. If something truly bizarre happens that needs a “right-away write-up” I’ll take a shot at it, but I think we could all use a break. In the mean time, if you have anything you’d like me to add, cover or create, email me, tweet at me or use the contact form and I’ll take care of it when I return.

New posts start on Monday, May 21.

Thanks for reading, and congrats to all the graduates!

Vince (aka The Doctor of Paper)

A few more things PR students wanted to know but were afraid to ask…

Last semester, our PR guru Kristine Nicolini asked if I’d sit with her PR techniques class (a small group of about 20 student or so) and answer questions for them based on my experiences in news and working with PR folk. What came out of our discussion can be found here.

This semester, she was nice enough to ask me back, so here are a few more questions from her PR students and some moderately decent answers I managed to cobble together for them:


What are your pet peeve when it comes to PR professionals?

Liars and weasels are my pet peeves about ALL people with whom I interact, not just PR folks. If I feel like I should check my wallet or wash my hands after talking to you, I’m not all that inclined to spend time with you.

When everything about you feels like a performance or a veneer, I really get annoyed. It’s why I feel like I’m better as a press agent for myself in some cases and so does my book publisher when they tell me to call on a potential adopter of the book. I’m like, “Hey, here’s who I am, here’s what I honestly believe and at the end of the day, I understand if you don’t agree.” Honesty is refreshing, but so is honest enthusiasm. I can tell when you like what you’re doing and I can tell when you’re faking it.


How do you communicate/deal with pushy PR people?
How much is “too much” when it comes to contacting a journalist about a story? (Assuming the reporter hasn’t answered)
What’s something that you should absolutely not do?
What should you avoid when contacting a journalist with a press release?

I grouped the four of these things together because they all fit the same basic paradigm. The premise I espouse here is the “Guy at the Bar” thing. All of us have seen the “Guy at the Bar” who is really too damned desperate for his own good. He offers to buy a woman a drink, an appetizer, a game of darts, a steak dinner and a 1998 Honda Civic, shortly before she calls the cops on him.

You don’t want to be the “Guy at the Bar” when it comes to approaching journalists about the story you want to pitch. They’re either going to be interested or they aren’t and that’s part of the process, so you have to understand that some times, they’re just going to say no. That doesn’t mean “no” forever, but it means “no” now. However, the more you start pressuring them, the more they’re going to try to wriggle away out of panic and just “eeew.” It’s like a fist full of Jell-O. The harder you squeeze, the less you have.

To that end, don’t grip it so tight. Just let things go. People in general, journalists in particular, can just SMELL desperation.

Do you have any NO moments when reading a pitch or email from a PR professional?


  1. It’s clear I’m part of a laundry list of emails/faxes/phone numbers/addresses that somebody left you and said, “Go spread this generic crap to these random people.”
  2. They make a fact error that lets me know they don’t know anything. A person pitching me on a charity event kept telling me about how great the Advance-Titan was as our student newspaper, but she kept saying we were at UW-Superior.
  3. You’re trying too hard. Don’t tell me. Show me. If you come across like a crappy used car salesman, I’m dodging you.


How do you handle negative feedback/move forward from it

Negative feedback sucks. Here are some things that help me kind of “partition” it a little bit.

  1. Is the negative feedback part of a pattern or is it a one-off. I got feedback on my book when they put it in the field. Of the 24 responses, 23 were positive. The one-off told me that I didn’t know how to write and that I clearly didn’t understand journalism. (I, of course, obsessed about this with the hope that I would somehow meet this yutz in a back alley and scream, “Who can’t write now? HUH?”) If it’s a pattern, let’s go to point two.
  2. Is the feedback negative because of me, my client, my approach or the person on the other end of the feedback? If it’s me or my approach, it goes in one pile. If it’s my client or the other person, it goes in another pile.

The “me” pile: I look at the feedback and see what’s there that’s actually workable in terms of me and my approach. What did I do that the person didn’t like and how much of this is alterable behavior? If the feedback is, “God, he’s so ugly I couldn’t focus on his pitch.” Well, I guess I’m bald, old and ugly. Screw you anyway, Bucky. If it’s “The whole presentation felt like nothing but hype” then I look at what I did and see how likely it is that this is true, what I can do to dial it back and what else I can do to improve this?

The client/that guy pile: Some things can’t be fixed. If this person constantly hates you because “PR people suck,” forget them. The more you suck up, the more they’ll beat you like a dog.


What was your favorite article you wrote based off a PR pitch?

A jewelry store sent us one that gave away a diamond ring as part of a Christmas Promotion. The winner was a lady who wasn’t rich and had lost her diamond out of her engagement ring a few years back. The reason it worked was that a) the store was local, not a chain, b) the winner was the exact person you’d want to win the thing, c) the timing was right for a “Christmas Miracle” story and d) the owners were friendly and helpful in the whole process. In other words, it was perfect in a PR moment: Planning that led to luck and the confluence of events that just screamed “WRITE ME!”


“If you go home hungry or sober, that’s your fault.” (What more do you need from me this semester?)

I grew up with an odd confluence of grandparents who grew up in the Depression, great-grandparents who were first-generation immigrants and family members who believed in the healing power of food. This led to a general fear at most family gatherings that whoever we were hosting hadn’t gotten enough food or drink to satisfy them and that we would somehow look horrible in the eyes of God and mankind.

It’s the reason why whenever we’d plan a party, my parents would have the same argument:

Mom: So what are we going to have to eat?
Dad: I’ve got two dozen brats, two dozen hamburgers, some hot dogs… We’ve got shrimp salad, potato salad, chips, two cakes… You think I should go get a ham or something?
Mom: For God’s sake! Who do you think we’re feeding?
Dad: Well, there’s you, me and the kid! Your mom, my mom… (The list always ended up being the same 12 people, none of whom were competitive eaters…)
Mom: That’s way too much!
Dad: We’ll send it up to Madison if we have leftovers (Meaning, back to college with me; Thus I’d always go home to my apartment with a laundry basket full of food.)

It’s also why my poor mother, 110 pounds soaking wet, would have to slurp down three fingers worth of Rock and Rye out of a mason jar at 10 a.m. while watching holiday parades at my great-grandparents house. It was an insult not to take “something sweet” from those folks in those days, so you did as you were asked and you slept it off later.

Long story short: Not feeling like we have met your needs is anathema to my people. We believe that we should provide you with everything possible to make you feel like your needs were met. The family motto was essentially: If you go home hungry or sober, that’s your fault. We weren’t going to cheat you.

Thus, as the end of the semester comes nigh, I think I’ve hit on most of the big things and small things people wanted to know, but I’m not sure, so TELL ME what I’m missing or what you need. I don’t want you feeling like you went home missing out on something you should have gotten here on the blog.

What should I cover in the last couple weeks of the term? Post below, message me or let me know in some other way.


Vince (aka the Doctor of Paper)

Diet Coke, Fear of Failure and Living Urgently: The “special sauce” of getting stuff done.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode. -VFF)

Kelli Bloomquist, who was nice enough to do a guest blog for us, tagged me in a post a little while ago that had me feeling a bit awkward:


The people who liked this (and especially Kelli) aren’t slackers by any stretch of the imagination. Also, I don’t tend to like to reflect on the stuff I’ve done because I feel like I’m always one bad move away from becoming like every band VH-1 ever covered in a the “Behind the Music” episode. (Another way of looking at it is the way Satchel Paige did: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”) That said, there are times (usually when we have to fill out annual reports) that I look back and think, “Good God… That’s a lot of stuff.”

I once posted this photo of what my office looks like when I’m working on my books. It looks like an art museum for people with an organizational-chart fetish:


I don’t really think I have the “secret sauce” and I’m sure at least half of these things won’t be things everyone can do. Still, I promised that whenever someone asked me for something in relationship to education, media or the blog I’d do my best to deliver, here is the best answer I have in (more than) a few bullet points:

Amy Is Awesome

This is my wife, Amy. She rules.
If it weren’t for her, I’d never be able to do anything close to the amount of stuff I do. She’s the person who has to put up with me 24/7, make excuses for me when I’m on a deadline instead of at a gathering of friends, listen to me ponder whatever the heck it is I’m pondering and more. Above all of that, she’s the person who tells me, “Go do your work. It’s totally fine” and means it. Knowing I can do what I need to do without any more guilt than normally accompanies someone who spent 12 years in Catholic school is a real life-saver. She makes all this possible.
And to answer your question, yes, that is alcohol in her hand and yes, she needs an ungodly supply of it to deal with me, I’m sure.


Diet Coke

If you ever see me without one of these, call the authorities. Something is clearly wrong. I would not recommend my Diet Coke lifestyle to anyone, given that I have no idea how many I drink in a day or a week, but I am constantly surrounded by empty 12-and-24-pack cardboard boxes.

I am often accused of surviving on Diet Coke and snark. I plead the Fifth.


Fear of failure

I once read a paragraph about Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks and it made total sense to me:

“He grew up on the east side of St. Paul, the son of an insurance underwriter, and the only thing he ever feared was failure.”

I understand that failure happens and believe me, I’ve failed a lot. When I do, I try to learn from that failure to make sure I don’t end up repeating it. However, above all else, I make absolutely sure that I always put myself in the best possible position to not disappoint other people. That often means putting off stuff I’d rather do so I can meet a deadline or changing plans at the last minute to help someone in desperate need.

The downside of this is that I always feel like instead of succeeding, I’m avoiding failure. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of this approach to life, but like I said, it does help me get a lot of stuff done.


I’m not chasing someone else’s dream

What is good for other people isn’t necessarily good for you and vice versa. This was a big problem around a couple schools where I taught: If your classmate got an internship at a 50,000 circulation paper, you HAD to get one at a 100,000 circulation paper. If your roommate got a job doing TV in a top 50 market, you HAD to find one in a top 25 market. And on and on it went.

This happened in grad school for me as well: If someone got a conference paper accepted, you had to get two. If that person got published in a top-tier journal, you needed to get an article somewhere even more exclusive, even if the “publish or perish” lifestyle wasn’t what you wanted.

For a long time, I got caught up in that and I couldn’t see what it was doing to me as I tried to out-do other people. On the other hand, as I watched my former students chase each other up a never-ending staircase of glory, I saw several of them become more and more miserable.

It finally crystallized for me when a great kid who had been a business reporter and and had been happy at it, ended up in Kentucky, covering the night-cops beat because, “Well, everyone ELSE was going some place bigger, so…”

Eventually, I settled in here at UWO. It’s a great school and I love my students, but it’s not a “name” institution and I don’t care. I also have no interest in being in administration, even as my former doctoral cohorts and good friends become chairs and deans. I’m glad that’s what they like and if they’re happy, God love them for it. However, for me, that would be like getting a root canal with a meat cleaver.

Which is the point: I get stuff done because I like the stuff I’m getting done and I’m not worried that I’m not doing it at the Lord Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. I’ve turned down jobs elsewhere because I wouldn’t get to teach as much or I’d have to trade the newsroom for a suit coat and a gig shaking hands with rich donors.
If you like that stuff, that’s great. I’m just not going to be chasing you up that ladder.


“The Human Twitch”

I come from a long line of people who have difficulty sitting still. My father can’t watch a whole movie or ballgame without getting up and doing about nine other things during the process. If I ever see him laying still on the couch for more than 20 minutes and not snoring, I need to see if he can still fog a mirror.

My mother spent 45 years teaching grade school and middle school. She also directed plays, ran special programs and coached track well into her 60s. She retired a couple years ago, but does substitute teaching several times per week. Put those two individuals together and you have me, the person once dubbed, “The Human Twitch.” I have a hard time sitting still and an even harder time doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’m also trying to write a blog post while waiting for the stain to dry on the furniture I’m refinishing in the next room.

I also like to tinker, in the sense that I want things to work. I will often pull over to grab a broken lawnmower or vacuum cleaner someone left on the side of the road. I don’t need it, but I need to see if I can fix it. One year during a blizzard, a friend dropped off his dead snowblower to see if I could eventually get it to start. I stopped blowing my own snow, rebuilt his carburetor in sub-zero weather and got the thing running. I then used his snowblower to clean my driveway, just to make sure it would stay running.

Another time, shortly after I bought the Mustang, I discovered its heating system wouldn’t work. Was I ever going to drive this car in the cold? No. Did the car run just fine without heat? Yes. Thus, it made no sense for me to pursue this problem with the fervor of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. However, that’s exactly what I did and when I got it working after three days of effort, I drove around with the heat on full blast, giggling like a demented clown.

It was about 90 degrees outside at the time.


Living Urgently

Amy and I had this conversation recently:

Me: I wish I knew exactly how much life I had left to live. I mean, like a cyclops does. It’d be great to know how much time I have so I could plan life better.
Her: You wouldn’t plan better. You’d obsess about the date to the point that you’d get nothing done. It would drive you crazy.
Me: No, I mean if I knew I’d be gone next year at this time, I’d panic less about getting another book done or meeting a deadline or something.
Her: Bull#%@%. You’d work twice as hard to make the deadline.
Me: Yeah, I bet I could squeeze in one more book…

I believe that there is an uncertain brevity to life. I have no idea if I’ll be around tomorrow or next week or next month or whatever. Then again, maybe I’ll be like my great-grandfather and live an active, independent life until I turn 100 and then die peacefully in my bed after a glass of nice top-shelf booze. (True story.)

The goal of some people is to leave behind a legacy or a monument to what they have done. My goal is to make sure I didn’t waste what I was lucky enough to get and to make sure I share it with whoever wants it.

The point is, because of that, I have this overwhelming desire to live urgently, to complete as much as I can while I’m here, to make other people glad they knew me, to help out in every way I can.

So that’s what I got. I don’t know if it’s the formula to success or a “secret sauce” to getting this stuff done, but it works for me.

CLICK THIS! A discussion of click-bait headlines and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

I got a message the other day from a former student who now works at Facebook with this question:

Do you know of any companies that are taking headline data to see if it accurately portrays what happens in the story/to see if it is misleading in any way when compared to the truth? I feel like headlines with companies who don’t have a subscription model or physical paper are extremely click baity and usually on the edge of the truth these days. What is your opinion Sensei?

His concern was that he had noticed at his current job and his previous job that a lot of the headlines he was seeing were “painfully inaccurate.” After clicking on the link, people got a half-baked story that just ticked them off and they left the site without any real value.

We got into a long discussion on the ideas of how the model for journalism on the web has bent the truth in a lot of ways. In addition, we dug into the reasons behind this. At that point, I introduced him to one of my favorite Filak-isms: The Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism. I talked about this once before here, but given that the post got seven total reads, I don’t think I’m overselling this:

Let’s say I’m running a rummage sale (garage sale, estate sale, or whatever else you call it when people sell their old stuff on the lawn during the summer) and I have a lawn mower I want to get rid of. The thing runs “sort of” but I can pump enough starting fluid into it and keep it warmed up enough that it looks great to potential buyers.

When someone comes up to me and asks, “Does it start?” I can say, “Sure!” and start it up. So that guy buys it from me and takes it home, only to have it start running lousily and having the problems I used to have with it. Now he’s upset, but what do I care? He’s not coming back and I’ve sold the mower. It’s like Charlie Sheen doing lousy stand up comedy and then telling the audience, “Sorry, dude, I got your money already.”

Conversely, if I ran a store where I sold lawn mowers, I couldn’t get away with this approach to business. For one thing, I’m going to count on that guy to come back and buy other supplies or another mower once he wants to upgrade. I’m also going to need good word of mouth, as I need other people to come over and buy their lawn mowers from me. I’m not in it for the short run. I’m in this for the long haul.

If you want to make journalism your career, you need to think about the long haul and how you want people to hang around and read your stuff. You want to build a base of loyal readers who see value in what you are doing. You want to earn and bank a ton of credibility, so people know they can trust you and they will forgive you if you occasionally screw up.

But that takes time, energy, money and interest. Throwing up a headline that says, “President to resign after being found with dead hooker in his bedroom!” and waiting for the clicks to pour in is so much easier. It’s like the Old-West traveling salesmen who would sell snake oil and magic elixir out of the back of a wagon. By the time you figured out the stuff was garbage, they were gone.

In our discussion, we kicked around a few ideas on how we could cut down on the click-bait headlines. (My personal favorite would be Facebook and others finding a way to “cheat” people out of that first click. Right now, you run that click-bait headline and promote it like crazy on Facebook to get that first click. When people click, you get paid. However, they feel cheated when they go to your site and they don’t click anywhere else. Thus, if there was a way to eliminate value in that first click, and people could only make money off of clicks 2 through infinity, the site itself would have to have value.)

Near the end of the discussion there was this exchange:

Him: Is quality media dying?
Me: Yes.
Him: How do we fix it?
Me: Stop incentivizing bad behavior, like those headlines. Invest in quality journalism like (the Washington Post ownership) is doing. Stop letting hedge funds buy newsrooms and treat them like a car chop-shop with fewer ethical qualms.

Any other ideas? I’d love to hear them and so would he.