3 reasons Twitter moving to 280 characters won’t help journalists communicate more effectively (Or, “Filak-ism: Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should)

(Once again proving that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it.)

Before I wrote my first book for SAGE, I sketched out a handful of “Rules of the Road” that had to apply to ALL journalism. That ratty piece of hotel stationary with fading black ink on it sits in front of me every day at work, a reminder of the core principles of what matters most in this field.

When Twitter announced the other day that it was taking a trial run at doubling its character limit, I hated it, specifically because it violated several of those “Rules,” specifically:

  • Right tool for the right job
  • Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should
  • Audience (and timeliness) matter most

In other words, Twitter could make it so tweets are 914,292 characters each, but that won’t make them any better or more helpful to readers, thus negating the value of the tool.

Here are three reasons why Twitter’s move to 280-character isn’t a great idea and/or why you should still shoot for that 140 limit:

  1. Noun-Verb-Object tells the best story: One of the biggest problems students have in transitioning from other forms of writing to media writing is learning to write tightly. One of the biggest reasons for that is their lack of strong sentence structure. In both books, we talk about the idea of starting with the noun-verb-object approach to a sentence and then building outward from that. Twitter, in its 140-character perfection, forces you to do that if you want to get your point across. When a sentence lacks a concrete noun or a vigorous verb, the writer must slather on adjectives and adverbs to get a point across. That makes for longer, weaker, lousier sentences.
  2. The Homeowner Theory on the Accumulation of Stuff: The more space you have, the more worthless crap you will accumulate.
    My first “grown-up job” had me moving 500 miles across the country and as such, they included a nice perk: A moving service. I packed everything in my studio apartment and had it ready for what I expected would be a full day of moving guys coming in and out of my place. The three movers walked in, looked around and started to laugh. “Is this it?” My total accumulation of goods didn’t even cover the back wall of the truck.
    The next move was from a two-bedroom apartment to our first house. The house had a giant rec room, where I dreamily envisioned adding a pool table and giant entertainment center. At the time, however, all we had to put in there was the beige velour floral couch I bought off a guy’s dead aunt for $50. We put the couch in that room and started laughing uncontrollably. It was this tiny speck of furniture in this giant room. We eventually bought a sectional and a pool table.
    Each move meant a bigger place and more crap. No matter what we thought we were doing, we kept adding more and more stuff. Thus the point: If you have extra space, you’re going to fill it with a lot of stuff you probably don’t need. If you are like our friends who live in tiny big-city apartments, you know you need to maximize space and get rid of stuff you don’t really need.
    Its true of space in a home, time in your day and characters in your tweet. If you are limited to 140, you’ll make the most of it. If you get 280, you’ll fill that space as well. Eventually, 280 also will seem too small because you keep cramming extra stuff in there and you get used to the larger size. It’s like knowing you’re gaining weight and that it’s not good but instead of trying to exercise more, you just buy bigger pants.
  3. It fails to demonstrate audience centricity: Look at the explanations that people have offered for this switch to 280:

    The idea of extending the length of Twitter posts has been contentious internally, batted around among product groups that are trying to find ways to persuade people to use the service more frequently. At 328 million users, Twitter has been criticized for its inability to attract more people. Investors have grown nervous, as that slowing of user growth has affected the company’s revenue.

    “We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters,” the company said.

    As a result, Twitter said, if rules around characters are loosened, English-speaking users — who tend to use more characters in tweets — will also hit character limits less frequently. That may, in turn, lead English-speaking users to post more regularly.

    So, in short, Twitter is looking at this as a way to get more people sending more tweets as part of a profit motive and people who got used to the 140 characters are essentially just “emotional” in their concerns. Notice what’s missing here: The focus on people who RECEIVE information on twitter, a.k.a. the audience.
    The value of any tool you use in media writing is how well it does in reaching your audience members and providing them relevant, useful and interesting information. Nothing about the increase of the characters focuses on how much better the tweets will be or how the audience will be best served. The reason? It won’t, primarily for the reasons outlined in Points 1 and 2.

In the end, this might be tilting against windmills and everything will be fine. However, keep in mind this is just a “test” of the new limit so if you get to play with it, don’t get too attached. After all, once you get used to 280, it’s going to be hard to fit into that 140-character space.


3 things students ask that drive journalism professors nuts (and how to ask them in a much better way)

Journalism is a funny field when it comes to grades, classes and more. As a professor, I often find that when I talk to instructors in other fields, I’m speaking Greek in terms of the value of grades or how best to work with students to improve. However, among journalism profs, I’m like Briar Rabbit in the briar patch. In short, we’re all weird.

To help make sense of that weirdness when it comes to these issues, I talked to colleagues and drew from my own experiences with students to come up with today’s post: Three things students say that drive professors nuts, why those things drive us nuts and how better to ask the questions to get at what you really want to know without driving us nuts. Think of this post as a lesson in interviewing mixed with an intervention:


  1. “I didn’t make it to class. Did I miss anything important?”
    (A runner-up/close cousin: “I can’t keep up with your class because (fill in the name of some extracurricular activity) is taking up all my time and that’s important.”)

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: Think about what you essentially asked: “Was this class a colossal waste of time or did you manage to say something that I should give a crap about? If so, can you just boil down that two-hour lecture for me in a couple sentence in an email. Thanks!”

    Professors for the most part think that what they are trying to tell you is, in fact, important. This is particularly true in journalism because for most people who are in those classes, this is the field you are going into. It would be like a medical student asking, “Hey, I missed your lecture on the cardiovascular system today. Is that going to be important going forward?” Granted, some lectures are more or less important, but asking this question in this way assumes your professor might actually say, “Nah, I just stood at the front of the room and BS-ed for two hours. Whatever you did was probably a better use of your time.”

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: First, don’t look to the professor to bail you out of missing a class. Most courses have an online roster of classmates you can bug for notes. Bother them first before you fess up to blowing off class because you DVR-ed “The Bachelor” or something. Second, if nobody’s ponying up to help you, go through and read the assigned readings for the day. (Theoretically, you should have already done this. As a practical matter, I know that this almost never happens. A kid once showed up in week 10 of my class with his textbook still shrink wrapped.) Then, ask if you can meet with the professor to talk about the readings and better understand how they apply to the lecture. Yes, it’s more work, but it saves you from being remembered as “Oh, you’re the student who couldn’t be bothered to show up.” It’s a much safer way to go about this especially when worrying about how well you’re doing in this class. Which brings us to…

  2. “What’s my grade in this class?”
    (Runner-ups include “I need an A in this class. Why aren’t I getting one?” “Grades are important to me.”)

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: I always told students if they wanted to be the student I liked least, they should come to my office every day before class and ask me EXACTLY what their grade in the class was. I don’t speak for every professor or every situation, but I do know that of the people I asked in journalism told me that grades are among the least important things in education.
    Only once in 20 years of teaching college did any student ever come back to me and tell me that anyone at a job interview asked about that person’s grade-point average. According to the student, it was some a-hole they just hired about six months earlier who asked it like a challenge to the student’s manhood: “Yeah? What’s YOUR GPA, huh?”

    Also, it feels shallow. It’s like the whole reason you are there is to procure a single end (your grade) and you really don’t care about anything else. Think about it this way, how would you feel if you just met someone who told you  “I’m very interested in becoming your friend because I know you are quite wealthy.” Eeesh… |

    If all you care about is the grade, you miss out on the core elements of the class that will help you get better at this, get a job and improve your skills. Truth be told, the best students I’ve had were the C students, as they tended to screw something up and then spend a lot of time trying to figure out WHY they screwed it up and how not to do it again. (It also didn’t hurt that they were basically living in the newsroom or the on-campus PR firm instead of keeping up with classwork, but still…)

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: The core of your question has a glimmer of hope and goodness in there: What will make me a top-notch journalist? If you can redirect your question to that end, you will have a much more productive encounter with your professor. Focus on things like “learning” and “understanding” and “improving” during your discussion on this topic: “I wasn’t happy with how I did on my last assignment. Can you offer me suggestions on how to improve XYZ about my writing?” or “I’m having trouble understanding why I’m not doing as well as I would like to in this class. Can we talk about things I can do to improve?”
    The idea here is that if you work toward the improvement of the work you are doing and the development of the skills, the grades will follow. Or as they said in the Karate Kid: The points will come. Focus on applying your skills like we talked about:

  3. I’m going into (Advertising, PR, News, TV etc.)! Why do I need to know any of this?

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: This statement presupposes an awful lot that will make your professor really want to grab a shovel and start practicing an alibi.

    First, it presupposes that you, having been in the field for somewhere between zero and three months, know more about the field than the professor, who has likely been working in or around the field for all of his/her life. In other words, you just told your instructor, “I know what you should be teaching and you aren’t doing this. Can you up your game a bit?”

    Second, in most cases, it’s the way in which the question comes across. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” This approach lacks any semblance of tact.

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: The underlying assumption in your frustration with having to take this class (or more likely than not, not doing as well at this as you think you should be doing) has merit. I would wager all the money in my pocket against a pack of Juicy Fruit gum that any professor you say this to has probably said something similar back in his/her college career. It didn’t go over any better, I assure you.

    The “why” aspect is important, as the more you feel connected to the concepts of the class, the more likely you will buy into them and the harder you will work to get better at them. Asking this question isn’t bad, it’s just how you approach it that will make for a better or worse experience.
    In most cases, as we argue in both books, journalism teaches you transferable skills. In other words, even if you can’t see how something applies directly to your field of interest, it probably does and you’ll be better off for learning it. Even more, you’ll likely be able to use that skill in multiple fields going forward as you move from job to job or field to field.

    Start by asking for a meeting with the instructor or stop by during office hours. You will almost always find that face-to-face meetings work better than emails. Then, try something like this: “I know I’m having difficulty in the class and one of the things I’m struggling with is seeing how what I’m doing will make me better at (Ad, PR, news etc.). Can you help me better understand this?”

    This approach does three basic things: 1) Cuts out the whining of the original approach. 2) Demonstrates some introspection on your part and 3) Caters to the ego of your instructor, seeking help from this all-knowing bastion of cross-disciplinary information.

As with all advice, it won’t work all the time or with every person you encounter. However, it’s probably got a better chance of success than any of the original statements listed here, so what do you have to lose?

Filak-ism: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox.

Who wouldn’t want this face on their third-grade lunchbox?


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

The late shock-rock comedian Sam Kinison once had the misfortune of ticking off a major comedy figure on a slow news day. Kinison was slated to be the main guest on the “Joan Rivers Show,” but managed to blow it off, leaving Rivers with about 20 minutes of essentially dead air and shadow-puppet tricks. News stations picked this up and it became a pretty big, albeit overblown, deal.

In his posthumously released album, “Live From Hell,” Kinison reflected on the error, leaving me with one of my favorite Filak-isms. “I can (expletive) up. I’m not on a lunch box.” The point being that unlike the kiddie characters and perfect heroes who were marketed on lunchboxes through his youth, Kinison was never going to be perfect.

As a journalist, neither will you.

Trying to be perfect at journalism is your goal, but to quote the famous coach Vince Lombardi, you will never catch perfection. That said, in its pursuit, you will catch excellence and that’s usually good enough. Also during its pursuit, you are going to screw up in some pretty spectacular ways. We already detailed the “filthiest” screw up in all of sports journalism here (as well as one of mine that follows me to this day), but I asked the Hivemind folks for some of the biggest screw-ups they made and if they learned anything from them. Here are some of the things that went wrong:

Getting a name wrong can feel like the worst thing in the world, especially after you realize, it’s impossible to make up for it. The most recent error was from an award-winning sports journalist, who managed to confuse an NFL Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer:


The reason? The writer said he was in the middle of several stories when he caught the Kramer story and had to get it done immediately. When Jerry Kramer started listing off all the people who mattered to him, he mentioned both legendary Packers Jim Ringo and Bart Starr. In his notes, the writer wrote last names, leading to the Ringo Starr moment:

Now, after the initial shock and ensuing, hysterical laugh (trust me, I laughed about 10 minutes, full on tears and everything), a very reasonable question is how does someone write Ringo Starr instead of Jim Ringo? I’m not an idiot. I know who Jim freaking Ringo is. Seems like an impossible error to make, right?

Well, I don’t remember writing “Ringo Starr.” At the point I wrote it, I was typing to fast — between two word docs, remember — to grasp everything I was doing. (This is fairly normal for sports writers; usually we get away with it.) But I do remember Kramer going down the list of teammates he appreciated. “Fuzzy… Forrest… Ringo… Starr…” BAM!

Another longtime journalist had a similar switcharoo moment, confusing the man who played Ben Hur and Moses with one of the “Dirty Dozen:”

I once wrote Charles Bronson when I meant Charlton Heston while making a Soylent Green reference. Forgot to fix it on the page and it made it to print. The complaint letters were well deserved.

We both agreed “The Ten Commandments” would have been different if his mix-up had played out in real life:

It can be even worse if the person is local, in that I doubt Charles Bronson or Charlton Heston even read about the mix up. One writer talked about her experience highlighting the opening of a local business:

One that always sticks with me is when I used the wrong first name of a gentleman who had just opened up a restaurant with his wife. My editor told me that now he couldn’t frame and hang that article highlighting his accomplishment because of my error. He didn’t scream at me because he didn’t have to. I felt terrible when he put my screw-up into those terms.


Whenever a student in the newsroom can’t figure out a headline and writes, “SCREW IT, I’LL PICK A HEADLINE LATER” (or in one case, just the F-bomb over and over again) in that space, I get hives. The student always says, “I’m not going to run that,” but that’s not always your choice. In text-based journalism, we always say you should never write something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read, even if it’s just as a joke. In broadcast, the rule is to treat every microphone like it’s broadcasting or “hot,” something that is easier said than done. A radio journalist who also worked in PR shared this:

Didn’t realize my mic was hot and said “what the fuck?”

A photojournalist noted that the “I didn’t mean for that to go public” situation isn’t only for the word folks, as only a lucky save by the press operators kept this from getting ugly (or uglier):

This was my photo editor’s goof up. He was showing off to a cute intern one day when he Photoshopped an eye on the middle of a guy’s forehead. He apparently thought he had removed it, but the pressmen discovered it several hundred copies into the first run. They had to re-web the press–He was not fired but was skating on thin ice for a while…

Life and death issues are no joking matter. Making an error about someone being alive or dead can affect you as a writer for a really, really long time. (Trust me on that one.) One journalism instructor who worked in the field noted that his assumption about a source seemed to create a life-and-death situation:

I gave a guy cancer in a story (he never had cancer-just advocated for patients with it. Learned that just because you THINK you know someone’s story- double check it. And turn down interviews so close to deadline.

A longtime copy editor managed to “resurrect” a source after catching an error from one of the writers on her publication’s staff:

(I) once brought a man back from the dead: The writer was convinced that saying “the late mayor” was the same thing as “the former mayor.” I always tell my interns that fact-checking and careful editing can save lives.

Perhaps one of the most gifted and socially aware journalists and professors I have ever known got hit with perhaps one of the most unfortunate typos ever. Of all the people this could have happened to, it was so unfair this one happened to her, given her genuine understanding of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sensitive issues:

I wrote a story about kids in a summer camp learning about the Buffalo Soldiers (African-American soldiers). Somehow a production error changed the word “counselor” to “coounselor” only in some editions. It was not in the edition I got at home or in the office. Imagine my surprise when a woman called me the next morning and started screaming at me that I was a racist and did I think that was funny? I didn’t know what had happened and had to apologize profusely.

The takeaway here is that nobody in journalism is perfect and we all have our moments of “Oh… God… Why?” When it came to the “Ringo Starr” screw up, the writer told me he laughed hysterically until he cried because there was nothing else he could do. Others said they grimaced and moved on. Some said it informs how they teach or what they do to help students avoid their screw ups.

For me, I go all the way back to the guy who gave my high school graduation’s valedictory address. The guy’s name was Willie Nelson (Really. He went by Willie.) and he told the story about how he once got annoyed by his sister and smacked her in the face with a baseball bat. When he was sent to his room as a punishment, his grandfather came and told him some invaluable advice:

“Boy, I hope you learned something today,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s the stupid ones you gotta learn to avoid making twice.”




Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking

With the close of the Labor Day weekend, it’s a safe bet that most students reading this will be starting the fall semester or have just started it (apologies to those of you who are on trimesters or who just have a ridiculously early start date). When we start this week, I know I’ll be face to face with another fresh crop of students experiencing their first media writing class and I can already smell the anxiety.

For those of you students in a similar boat, in that you’ll be taking your first media writing or reporting class, here are four things to know from the start so that your experience will be less painful:

Your work will suck for a while: One of the most difficult things about going into media writing is how frustrating it can be for people who have always been good writers. People who struggled to write? They tend to have an easier time with it, even though that sounds counter-intuitive.

Let’s call the rationale behind this the “Michael Jordan Plays Baseball” Theory. In 1993, Michael Jordan had cemented his place as the best basketball player in the world. He had just led the Bulls to a “three-peat” as NBA champions and he won the MVP award in each of those finals. In October of that year, he retired from basketball and decided to try playing baseball. He’s a super star athlete, he’s in his prime and he never stunk at anything, so this shouldn’t be a problem, right?


Jordan played for Double-A Birmingham Barons and to quote Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, “He couldn’t hit a curve ball with an ironing board.” Eventually, he got his first hit, his first run batted in and so forth. Even though he only hit .202 for the season, his manager (Terry Francona) said that he improved and could have been a major leaguer if he had committed to it. Instead, Jordan went back to basketball, much to the chagrin of everyone who wasn’t a Bulls fan.

The point is, you have always written well, but this is a different kind of writing and you’re going to suck at it for a while. All the things you used to have at your disposal that worked well won’t always fit into this style of writing. The format, the verbiage and the overall approach are all different, so get used to the feeling of falling on your keys for a while.

Learn from your screw ups:  I have this conversation at least once a semester:

Student: “I was wondering why I got such a bad grade on this piece.”
Me: “OK. Did my comments on the paper not make sense to you?”
Student: “I didn’t really read those. I just saw my grade and kind of freaked out.”

Look, I love writing, but writing out tons of comments on a story that was so bad it sapped my will to live, only to have the student ignore them all isn’t my idea of a good time. The whole purpose behind instructors writing comments on papers isn’t so that we have some sort of ground to stand on when an annoying student sues us over a grade. The idea is that we want you to learn something, so we tell you what went wrong so you don’t do it again.

As painful as it is to read the bloody mess of red ink that adorns your paper, dig into it. Learn what didn’t work so you don’t do it again. If you still don’t understand what you did wrong after you look your paper over, be proactive and meet with the instructor. Trust me, we love reading well-written papers so the more help we can give you on the front end, the less Advil we’ll need when we have to grade stuff.

Care more about the skills than the grade: If you would like to cause your instructor to have a “Scanners” moment every single day, make sure to ask two questions at the end of every class:

  1. “Do you know what my grade is?”
  2. “Is this going to be on the test?”

I get that grades matter for some things beyond the classroom: Scholarships, sports eligibility, having mom and dad not disown you… But seriously, once you are done with school, nobody is going to care about your grades, least of all you.

I can remember exactly three grades from my entire academic career:

  1. C-double-minus in penmanship from Mrs. Schutten in third grade. (The rule at that time was that if you got a D, they held you back, and although I was smart enough to pass everything else that year, my penmanship was godawful and she wanted to make absolutely sure I knew that.)
  2. C in Media Law in my junior year of college. (I skipped six weeks of class [long story] and was really, really bad at this whole concept. I prayed out loud for a C to pass during the final. I received applause, much to the chagrin of the instructor.)
  3. A in my first news writing class. (The only reason I remember this is because I wanted so damned badly to impress the instructor that I poured everything I had into that class.)

Beyond that, it’s a long alphabetic blur that ceases to have any value to me. If you focus on just doing stuff to get the grades, you’ll miss out on the skills you need to learn to make yourself marketable once you graduate. Even if you don’t see the point in what you are doing at the time, learn the heck out of the skills and practice them. Case in point:

At the end of the day, the skills will follow you and they will translate from job to job. Nobody, however, is ever going to say to you in a job interview, “So, it looks like you’re a perfect candidate, but let’s talk about this C+ in feature writing…”

Now is the time to care: I’ve told this to students before and it’s the best bit of advice I can possibly give you for any class:

Instead of saying, “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to your professor after you screwed up your work and you have no hope of getting out alive, say “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to yourself every day from the beginning of the semester and act accordingly.

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

What journalists really mean when they say…

This week already feels 182 days long and I’m not in a flood zone, a hurricane path or a country that just had a missile fired over it. In an attempt to add a little relief for those feeling burnt to a crisp or who just need a laugh, here’s a post on the lighter side: A list of things journalists say and what they actually mean:


Recently: The reporter lost the press release

In recent memory: As far back as the reporter can remember or at least past last Tuesday.

Arguably: The reporter didn’t have time to look up the facts

Debatable: These people are clearly wrong but we need to look objective

“It has been said…” : Where the hell did I hear that from?

“Declined to comment,” : When contacted, person said, “I really want to talk but my lawyer said no. Please don’t hate me.”

“Refused to comment,” : When contacted, person acted like an ass before hanging up.

“Repeated attempts to reach the source were unsuccessful,”: That jerkweed is screening his calls.

Breaking news: We’re telling you about it at the same time everyone else is.

Gone viral: We just found out about something everyone else already knows about



Spry: Person over the age of 80 who doesn’t need portable oxygen

Feisty: Short, female.

Concerned citizens: Busybodies with nothing better to do than complain

Engaged citizens: People who lead the busybodies

An outsider: “Who the hell is this guy?”

Fake news: Anything that tells me something I don’t want to hear.

Repeatedly: (as in repeatedly declined or repeatedly defended) Person is sticking to his/her stupid position no matter how many times we ask.

Assured: Said more than once but only because the cameras were on; In reality, this won’t be happening.

 “An exciting new opportunity” or “A lifelong dream.” : The reason a public figure gives for leaving public life shortly before the lawsuits start rolling in.

“Trim the budget” : Cut stuff for other people but leave my stuff alone.

 “Devastating budget cuts” : They cut my stuff.



“All he does is win,” : His stats are bad.

“Can’t quantify his value,” : His stats are atrocious.

“A great clubhouse guy,” : He plays cards with the manager and hasn’t had an at bat since the Bush administration.

“He gave it a shot,” : A coach defied all logic and common sense and it backfired.

“He went with his gut” : A coach defied all logic and common sense and it actually worked out for him.



Fortunately, Luckily: Somebody just got royally screwed but we’re trying to put a good face on it.

“The altercation escalated” : Somebody said something about somebody’s mama.

 “Sources say,” : I attended a press conference.

“Sources tell me,” : I made a phone call.

“Sources have confirmed,” : Somebody told me that what other people already reported was right.

“Sources exclusively tell me,” : I was trapped in an elevator for an hour with a source who was bored.

“It remains unclear,” : Everyone knows something but nobody’s telling me.

Destruction: Something a fire yields

Devastation: Something a hurricane or tornado yields

“The following images are disturbing…” : Holy crap! You’ve gotta see this!

An uncertain future: The guy is going to jail

If you liked these, the book “Journalese” by Paul Dickson and Bob Skole takes on a wider array of similar terms from a variety of perspectives.

Remembering that first journalism class: “I was scared out of my mind.”

I was recently on a panel that discussed student media and self-censorship. Most, if not all, of the people on the panel were former journalists and several people in the audience had made the transition to the field to the classroom. One theme that came up repeatedly was the way in which students “these days” didn’t have SOMETHING about them. It might be drive, it might be curiosity or it might be a skill. In any case, many of the people who spoke recalled that when THEY were students at THAT age, THEY had whatever it was that the students today seemed to lack in their estimation.

Me? I remember my first journalism class where I thought I knew everything. After working on one assignment, I thought I should go back home and work on that mechanic’s apprenticeship at the gas station.

The instructor was a former journalist, who was working on his Ph.D. He always graded in green because he said green was an affirming color. Well, he affirmed the crap out of me in that first assignment. The paper looked like a shamrock patch had thrown up on it. Arrows and lines were zigging and zagging all over the place like John Madden getting overly excited while using a telestrator. I figured I’d never make it in this business.

A few years later, I had a job at a good local paper, I had been publishing stories frequently and I was given the opportunity to teach that same “first journalism class” that the green-pen instructor taught many years earlier. When he found out I was teaching it, he called me to his office and handed me a file folder with one piece of paper in it: It was my first assignment, still green as a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago.

As I read through all that tortured prose, I remember telling him, “Wow. I sucked.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You were just new at this. When you go to teach your class, remember that in most cases, these students are going to be even worse than you were back then. You need to be patient with them and help them be patient with themselves.”

I thought about that moment after the panel. Maybe those folks were really great journalists since birth. Or, maybe the “Johnny Sain Axiom” on Old Timer’s Day applied here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

To get a better perspective on this, I asked the hivemind what the folks there could recall about their first journalism class, as in the first time they had to sit down and write for a course. The answers made me feel a little better about my initial experience and I hope they will give you a sense of hope as you start your semester:

This is from an award-winning journalist and professor who spent more than a decade at the Dallas Morning News. She covered the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas:

The class was full of typewriters. A grizzled old reporter from The Boston Globe taught it. He made us write an obituary on the first day. I got a C. I was scared out of my mind.

Here’s an ode to people who marched to the beat of their own drum from a former Wall Street Journal editor who now works for an Ivy League university as a social sciences writer:

My first journalism instructor in college was a longtime news editor at big metro papers. Along with lots of practical stuff, he taught me that desk editors — and particularly the good ones — tend to march to the beat of their own drummer. He was never on time to class — ever. He told jokes no on else got. He waxed on about obscure figures from his past jobs. But when the lead started flying, he was the guy you wanted in your foxhole. He taught me to appreciate all the weird, talented people newspapers attract.

A longtime photo journalist and college journalism professor had this take away: If your experience with your first journalism course isn’t perfect, don’t give up right away. Take another course or two before you decide that maybe truck-driving school is right for you:

My undergraduate writing Journalism professor was very intimidating. An older guy who had lots of real life experience. I can’t say as I enjoyed the class, but I made it through and went on to be a photojournalist for many years.


As the movie “Bull Durham” teaches us, in the major leagues, everyone can hit a fastball, so you’ll need to work a little harder to be “the best” (It also helps to have a curve ball.)

A former PR professional in the medical field who now teaches all forms of writing noted that her first experience in a journalism class made that concept clear quite quickly:

The professor asked everyone who was “one of the best writers” at their high school to raise their hand. Lots of hands went up. He asked us to look around. “You have competition, now. And not all of you can still be the best. Get used to it.” It was true – I’ve used that line in my classes as well.

The first writing class can be scary as hell for some people and a piece of cake for others. (One member of the hivemind told me that his class was a piece of cake as he was “ the college paper’s editor before I took J101. Doing the work before taking the class made the class pretty easy.” Score one more for getting involved in student media.)

You aren’t going to be the same writer going out of that class as you are coming in. Give yourself a chance to develop and work with the instructor to improve each time you try something. The more you practice, the better you will get.

One last story: One of the toughest women I ever taught was about to graduate and head off to a prestigious job at a top-flight newspaper. She was dogged, determined and relentless in her reporting. She was a disciplined writer and a demanding editor at the student newspaper. For some reason, the students were reminiscing about their first class in journalism and this woman spoke up:

“You know, you scared the shit out of me that first day,” she told me.

“Me? What did I do?”

“I really don’t remember exactly, but I remember just being freaked out of my mind,” she said. “I went home and cried for like two hours. I thought I’d never make it and I thought about changing my major.”

Go figure.

Clickbait, murderous gnomes and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

In an attempt to point out how problematic question headlines, question leads and rhetorical questions were in journalism, I wrote a post using a hyperbolic question as a headline to prove my point: Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you?

I inadvertently proved a second point: Why people use them and why they’re worse than I thought.

I posted the headline on Facebook and Twitter, which usually leads to a few dozen hits. About 20 minutes later, I went back to make a minor correction and found that my web traffic had spiked. The tweet was being retweeted like crazy (a relative term for a no-name blog) and I was getting people from Egypt, England and any other E place I’d never been showing up on the site. I don’t get paid for this and there are no ads, so web traffic isn’t vital to putting food on the table or keeping shoes on my kid’s feet, but it is kind of a rush to see actual, live people showing up to read something I wrote.

Here’s the problem: They were one-click wonders. For them, it was essentially clickbait.

They showed up because the headline made them curious, but once they figured out this was basically a site for journalism students and contained no actual murderous gnomes, they left. Traffic in the subsequent days was back to its usual collection of my three closest friends and that one former student who keeps looking for spelling errors so he can torment me.

In quality journalism, regardless of if we are talking about news, ad, pr, marketing or anything else, we don’t want to have what I call a Rummage Sale Theory mentality. The idea behind this “Filak-ism” is based in a tradition in Wisconsin, whereby summer comes and everyone in this proud state starts selling stuff out of their garages on weekends. Cities build events around “citywide rummage days” and there are flea markets all over the place.

A rummage-sale mentality says, “I want to sell this thing and get it the heck out of my garage.” Thus, when you are selling a somewhat wonky lawnmower and someone asks, “Does it run?” you might respond with, “Yeah! Runs great!” The idea is that if this person buys the mower, you will never see him or her again. It’s not like someone is coming back in two weeks to knock on your door and tell you, “Hey, that mower sucks!” It’s a one-time transaction-based relationship with someone you will never see again and about whom you care very little.

You have to approach journalism like the owner of a local store: You live there, people will come to you multiple times and if you mess them over, you are in a lot of trouble. People will avoid your store and tell other people about the bad experiences they had with you. You will gain a reputation that harms your ability to do your job.

Conversely, if you treat people right, give them what they need in an honest and upfront fashion and avoid the one-hit-wonder, clickbait mentality, you will develop great relationships that further your reputation as a trusted resource. It’s why ads need to be more fact than hype. It’s why PR professionals profess transparency as the main virtue of the field. It’s why reporters stick to promises of anonymity, even when it would be better for them to throw a source to the wolves.

In this field, we own the store. We live here. We need to act like it.

We can’t sell people broken lawnmowers powered by homicidal gnomes and expect to survive.

John Heard and Obituary Math

At one of my first newspaper jobs, a veteran reporter told me that there were only two reasons we EVER would stop the presses: If we printed the wrong lottery numbers or if we got someone’s obituary wrong. You libeled the pope? We’ll figure that out later, but if you screwed up an obit, stuff would come to a screeching halt in the press room.

I never found out if that was meant to scare me, as I was a new reporter who would mostly be doing the lottery numbers and obituaries or if it was a true story. However, the idea that obituaries mattered stuck with me. It continued with me at my first editing gig in Columbia, Missouri. My boss had a rule that EVERYONE who died in our area would get a full staff-written obituary, free of charge.

George Kennedy saw the Missourian as the paper of record and recording the life stories of people in our circulation area was sacred to him. We always would tell the reporters, “Do the math” when it came to the age of the deceased. We firmly stated, “Check again” on any outlandish claims regarding war medals or honorary degrees we couldn’t verify. “Are you sure?” was our mantra when it came to these stories.

While I was at a wedding last night, I found out actor John Heard, who was best known for his role in the “Home Alone” movies, died in Palo Alto, California. I did a quick search through my news feed and found that most of my main sources had done obituaries and most listed him at age 71:

However, one source listed him at 72. It was an outlier among a sea of “venerable” publications, and it had me thinking about how easy it is to screw up an age in an obit. A check of years instead of birthdays, an unfortunate accident near or on a date of birth or just a general “whoops” will do it. However, I dug more and found additional notices that supported the “Heard is 72” age issue:

A quick check of his IMDB page gave me this:


The math was easy (March birthday) and his birthday is listed, so where were the BBC and NY Times getting the idea that this guy wasn’t 72? I couldn’t find a birth record, a formal form from the coroner’s office or anything else. CNN finally put something together that was helpful in one of its stories:

(CNN)Actor John Heard, best known for playing the father in the “Home Alone” movies, has died, the Santa Clara County, California, medical examiner’s office said.
The medical examiner’s office said the actor was 71, but other reports list his age as 72. He died Friday.

It’s unclear where the coroner got the information from. Let’s just hope it wasn’t the most popular source out there prior to Heard’s death that listed his date of birth in a way that would have put him at 71:



I can’t say for sure that the medical examiner (or even the NY Times) went to Wikipedia like somebody’s stoner roommate trying to pull together a last-minute Sociology paper. The Times, BBC and other people didn’t cite their sources. At least CNN, while not giving us a definitive answer, gave us clarity with an attribution. What I can say is that it’s impossible for him to be both 71 and 72 at the same time.

With all of that in mind, here are three key take aways from this:

  1. If your mother says she loves you, go check it out. Make sure you have a solid source to demonstrate from whence your information came. Also attribute that information so people can go back and check for themselves. It shows faith in your readers and bolsters your credibility. If a reader looked at you and said, “Where did you get THAT from?” would you feel confident telling that person the answer?
  2. Trust, but verify. Just because the New York Times ran a story that said one thing and the Portage Daily Shopper contradicted it, don’t just assume the Times is right and the Shopper is wrong. Sources do count for something, but even a blind squirrel can find an acorn and even Goliath can get knocked on his ass.
  3. Treat obituaries with reverence. I used to tell my students that an obituary might be the first and last time someone was mentioned in the media. With that in mind, you need to bring your “A” game when you do the reporting and writing.


Filak-ism: It should hurt so much that you never do it again, but not so badly it kills you. (Or how my grading policy works thanks to the Crawfish River)


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

It’s hard to get over a mistake you made when you literally have to drive over it several times a year.

As a cub reporter, I caught a great story about a 10-year-old kid who jumped into a river to save his little brother’s life. I managed to get the police report, the hospital info on the little brother and interviews with the family, all while on deadline. When TV didn’t have the story that night (in the era before people broke news online), I had an honest-to-God exclusive. I couldn’t wait for that story to run.

When it did, I wished it never had.

Turns out, I called the Crawfish River the “Crawford River,” which makes no sense as we don’t have one of those around here. I also managed to mix up Fall River, Wisconsin with River Falls, Wisconsin. Two errors in the lead. Good grief.

It turns out that to drive from Madison, where I was living at the time, to my folks’ house in Milwaukee, I actually had to cross the Crawfish River. Even now, years later, I’ll be driving in some part of the state and end up on a bridge over that damned thing. It never goes away.

What also doesn’t go away, however, was that constant reminder to ALWAYS double check proper nouns, including people, places and events. Spelling, geography, whatever. Just make sure you’re sure, I would tell myself after my fifth overly paranoid examination of whatever I was writing.

When I became a professor, I wove that philosophy of pain and remembrance into my grading as well. Fact errors cost people half their reporting grade. Some students thought it was too harsh. Colleagues occasionally told me it was too lenient, in that they gave out zeros when someone made an error like the “Crawford River.” I explained it to both groups with a simple philosophy:

I want mistakes like these to hurt so badly that you never make them again, but not so bad that they kill you so you can’t ever recover and thus miss the point. In short, if the penalty is too harsh, it fails to do its job. If the penalty is too soft, it fails to do its job.

I won’t disagree with other systems, but it appeared to me over time that mine worked out pretty well. Last year, I was in contact with a former student who had just gotten her master’s degree in library science. She just got engaged so congratulations on both fronts were in order. After a brief exchange, she said this:

“Poy Sippi is spelled P-O-Y S-I-P-P-I, not P-O-Y S-I-P-P-Y.”

I paused, wondering if she was OK.

“That’s the reason I got an A- in your features class. I misspelled that damned thing. Now I always look stuff like that up.”

Score one more for the Crawfish River…

You earn the fungus on your shower shoes

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.