Unblock this: Modern advertising and why we hate it

According to the media-writing book:

Advertising is about more than telling people what to buy and where to buy it. It is a communication format that mixes information and persuasion elements in an attempt to convince audience members to act. The desired action can take many forms, including purchasing a product, supporting a candidate or forming an opinion. In addition, some advertising is geared toward preventing action, such as buying some other company’s product, supporting a different candidate or changing an opinion.

Much of what makes this happen is about knowing your audience, which we discussed at length elsewhere in this blog and in these books. Demographics, geographics, psychographics and more all play a role in making sure the message gets from a valued organization to an interested and engaged receiver. Given what most of us experience on a daily basis, particularly on the web, that might seem as idealistic as taking Cinderella as your spirit animal.

If you want to know why advertising and media operations are in such ugly spots today, consider a recent experience I had in trying to read an online column. See if it matches with what you tend to experience and then ask yourself if that initial paragraph meets with reality:

One of my favorite authors, Terry Pluto, writes about Cleveland sports for the Plain-Dealer’s website and a link to one of his columns popped up in my Facebook feed. I clicked on the link and hopped over to the PD’s site, only to get a lock screen in which it noted I was using an ad blocker and asked me to disable it.

Some sites give you an option to continue without shutting off the blocker. Some try to guilt you into shutting it off. Some are like a Joe Pesci character on a meth bender, demanding you turn off the frickin’ blocker, you frickin’ mook… In this case, the PD gave me the “shut it off” option and nothing else. (Previous times, I got an option.)

As I noted earlier, I’m OK with paying for content. I’m also fine with the model that has driven media for decades through its salad days: Ads pay the bills for the content. However, consider these crucial messages that I got as a result of shutting off the blocker:

AdBlock1

Um… OK, apparently “history” is now about ’70s fashion and boobs… And thanks for trying to entice me with the “not suitable for all eyes.” It’s like the Simpsons monorail trick, but with sexual intrigue.

AdBlock3

AdBlock4

What the internet apparently thinks it knows, is that I’m broke, looking to cheat on my wife/get murdered and I have attention deficit disorder since it gave me TWO of these ads. It also presupposes that “older women” means anyone who can buy booze without the clerk breaking out a black light on her ID and that I wasn’t thinking, “Isn’t that Elizabeth Shue?” Moving on…

AdBlock6

If you touch your lip, you’re dying of cancer. Got it. Thanks.

AdBlock2

I’m not really deaf. I’m just ignoring you…

And finally:

AdBlock5

(I spent three minutes trying to type a word that effectively captures that sound I make when I’m feeling like I’m throwing up in my mouth. Whatever that noise is, fill it in here…)

I’m guessing your experiences are somewhat similar to mine, with tweaks for age brackets and theoretical senses of what “kids your age” want to see: Hot chicks/dudes are waiting in your area… 10 simple ways to stop (Acne/HPV/Failing Calculus for a third time)… SHOCKING! You won’t believe what (Fill in your childhood Disney Show love interest) looks like now!…  Drivers in (fill in your area) can BEAT SPEED TRAPS…

This is what advertising has devolved into for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s cheaper: You can place millions of impressions for the cost of what it would take to get a full page ad in a major metro paper.
  2. You have wider reach: A newspaper or a broadcast signal can only reach so far. An internet ad can come from anywhere on earth (except our old newsroom, where apparently you can’t get a signal to save your life).
  3. Fewer risks/restrictions: There used to be a lot of vetting and careful checking of ads and products. Now, ad groups and sites and collectives just send out anything as long as the CC number works or the check clears.
  4. Money: Media outlets have always been accused of being cash whores when it comes to advertising. Back in the earlier days when money was free-flowing, they could rebut this by avoiding sketchy ads. In the “we’re still OK” days, they were more like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Today? Um…  My only analogies will get me redflagged by my editor, so just think of the lowest level of willingness to do stuff for money you can and you’re about there…

The unfortunate byproduct of this approach is a race to the bottom for advertising in the same way there appears to be a race to the bottom in news and other media fields. It can be easy to go along with the crowd in this regard, but if you want to make your advertising worth something, think about what it is you’re trying to do to create a message that reaches your readers and effectively evokes something from them. A great example of this just came out today (h/t Al Tompkins) with Nike showcasing the Women’s World Cup Team victory:

 

And here’s my favorite one from a few years back that still gives me the chills:

Nike gets it: Tap into something. Know your audience. Showcase the emotions associated with those people.

In the soccer one, it was one of announcing their presence with authority. With the Cavs one, it was that complete sense of quiet disbelief. The audience EXPECTED the women’s team to win and so it talked about the greatness of that team. Cleveland had gotten crushed so many times before, the audience EXPECTED the Cavs to lose (especially after going down 3-1 in the series). It got the emotions just right and it didn’t layer on the schmaltz.

If advertisers want to get beyond an eyeball grab, they have to fit more into this mold and touch on what we talked about at the beginning of the post. If the media companies that take their money want people to shut off the ad blockers, they’re going to have to ask questions that go beyond, “And what’s the 3-digit verification code on the back of the card?”

And if I ever want to eat lunch again, I’m not ever seeing another episode of Dr. Pimple Popper.

Can you learn to be nosy? (and four tips to help your journalism students, regardless of the answer)

I offered to help a class of high school journalism students learn anything they wanted to know about the field. The requests they made were fairly standard, so much so, that I already had lectures built on them: How to be a good leader. How to edit and coach writers. How to write tighter sentences.

The one request I had trouble with, however, came from the teacher of the class:

“Can you teach my students how to be nosy?”

Her plea came from a place of journalistic angst. To find stories, students needed to be more aware of their surroundings. They needed to become curious about what was going on, how things worked and why things were the way the were. Instead, her students had fallen into the rut of many young journalists, covering standard events, profiling the people they knew and generally telling the same stories over and over again.

If I could teach them to be nosy, she seemed to be saying, I could help them find better stories, poke their noses into deeper issues and generally serve as more dutiful watchdogs at the school.

My problem is that I always told students that I could teach them almost anything, but I couldn’t teach them to “wanna” when it came to doing the work and I couldn’t teach them to be nosy. Those intrinsic elements were theirs alone to control, I explained.

During the drive home from that class, I started really wondering if I was right or wrong about the nosy factor.

I know that, for better or worse, I have the nosiness trait in spades. It’s why I often get distracted during meetings with my various bosses and attempt to read the stuff on their desk. (Reading things upside down was a skill I garnered many years ago and one that has served me well.) It’s why I pick up broken lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners and other appliances I see on the side of the road and take them home to fix them. I have no need for the item, but I really want to know what broke and if it can be fixed.

It’s also why my first response to a lot of things is, “OK, fine. If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll just FOIA it.” I also find myself sucked into clickbait stories that tell me I’ll “never believe” what happened to Former Child Star X. (Spoiler alert: I could believe it.) Even with all of these ups and downs, I realized that “nosy” made me a really engaged reporter who saw stories in almost anything and it left me flabbergasted when other people didn’t.

I vividly remember a young woman in one of my writing classes as Missouri bitterly complaining about not knowing ANYONE who was interesting enough to be a personality profile subject. She ended up profiling a friend who went down to Florida with her for spring break. The profile was horrible, so I asked who else they met down there to see if I could show her some better ways to look at the assignment.

It turned out, they stayed with the friend’s boyfriend and his roommate, who was a “pubic stylist,” a term I wish I could forget.

This guy would do all sorts of “coifing” for people in that area. One such person was a woman who had just received a frog tattoo south of her hip and had asked for her pubic hair to be dyed green and shaped into a lily pad.

And this wasn’t even the weirdest styling this guy had done during that week of spring break.

“How the hell did you not see a story in that guy?” I asked with a level of incredulity I had never before reached.

She shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t really think about it…”

I often tell students that we are all born with some level of wonder, which is why a 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” Somewhere along the line, that sense of wonder gets lost or beaten out of us to the point that we stop asking “Why?” every six seconds. However, the curiosity within that inner child is only part of what makes for a nosy person (and thus a pretty tough reporter). If I had to define it, I would say “nosy” is made up of a mix of insatiable curiosity, a lack of patience, a thirst for knowledge and a healthy dash of weaseldom.

I asked the hivemind what they thought about the ability to teach “nosy” to journalism students and the degree to which I was right about it. Consider some of the answers:

If I look at this through behavior analytic lenses (because c’mon I can’t turn it off) I see being nosy as either automatically reinforcing to someone or not. It could be a conditioned behavior but I feel like you are either motivated/reinforced by being nosy or you aren’t.

 

I am not a journalism teacher, so take this with a grain of salt. I worked as a high school counselor for 16 years, as a user support rep for a data processing center in the 80s, and as a banker. I think there are some people who are just naturally curious, and want to know and understand things, and some people who just want to know enough to get them through whatever it is.

 

I chose not to go into reporting one day after a couple deaths at a fraternity on campus. You wanted me to simply walk over there and knock on the door and be a reporter and I couldn’t do it. I cried in your office. Someone went in my place, but I knew at that moment that being “nosy” was not in my DNA. I’ll challenge power structures and I’ll interview musicians, but I refuse to intrude on people’s personal lives. I admire those who can. It’s an important skill to have, and it’s the reason journalists are important. It can probably be taught, I’m sure my refusal was partly lack of experience, but I also believe some people are just born reporters.

Funny thing is that now that I’m a crisis worker I talk to people all night about their personal problems and ask totally invasive questions to get them to open up and calm down. So, maybe I had the skill but was using it in the wrong setting.

 

Some of us are curious by nature, others are not. The curious ones make the best journalists.

That said, perhaps the best perspective came from our departmental program assistant, a self-confessed fellow nosy individual. Her point was that inherent in all of us is curiosity, but the degree to which we use that for specific interests is what distinguishes us. Some people want to know things because they just want to know. Others see knowledge as an opportunity to gossip or pass along information. Still others want to know something but don’t care enough to ask about it. Curiosity is there, but perhaps the other elements don’t exist, or maybe they don’t exist in the optimum blend to create nosiness, especially the kind necessary for journalism.

With all of that in mind, here are a few observations that might help folks wondering about the nosy factor:

  • It’s all about cultivation: The discussion with our PA had me realize that nosiness is a lot like horticulture. You can buy a fully grown apple tree and transplant it into your yard to get apples. You can buy a sapling and nurture it along until it becomes a fruit-bearing tree. You can also buy a seed and grow the tree from scratch. The amount of cultivation it takes to bring that tree along starts with how developed that plant is when you get it. At the very least, however, you need a seed. You can’t grow an apple tree with an empty bucket, a handful of dirt and some wishful thinking.
  • Rebuild curiosity: Nosy requires curiosity, which many of us lose along the way. If you spend any amount of time with a 4-year-old, you understand that “Why?” seems to be the only word they know. At some point, frustrated adults push them away or it ceases to be “cool” to ask why something is the way it is. People don’t want to look dumb, so they fake it. They don’t want to look ignorant, so they ignore it. That seed is likely there, so if we can bring it back to life a bit, we can help them reengage their sense of wonder. The other elements of the recipe for nosy can get added later, but this one should be present and easy enough to tap.
  • Show them the benefits of nosy: As educators, we can reinvigorate that curiosity if we can help the students see why “Why?” still matters. This isn’t so much about pushing them to see things the way we do (assuming we’re nosy), but rather helping them to see how nosy can benefit them. One of the biggest things I think students miss in terms of being nosy is seeing how the things they could be nosy about impact them or others who matter to them. In short, they don’t capture the “this matters because” element in a personal way.
    If you told me that cutting out Diet Coke had all sorts of positive social and environmental benefits, I’d politely listen before buying another case. However, if you told me, “Here’s science that says no one who ever drank as much of this crap as you do has died by the age of 50,” I’d pay serious attention. Just like everything else in journalism, audience centricity matters in the realm of nosiness.
  • Nosy isn’t everything: As much as nosy could very well be a “nature” element, we can at the very least provide them with enough of the tools to make something good out of whatever they can nurture along. I think of it like what happened to my wife, Amy, when she was a little girl and wanted to learn how to ice skate. The instructor took one look at her and said, “You don’t know how to glide. I can’t teach you that. You’ll never be great at this.” Well, aside from being a dink who crushed the soul of an 8-year-old, this idiot essentially made my wife turn away from ice skating entirely. Could she have been the next Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamill? No, but that’s not the point.
    The point is that if he had nurtured what was there, she could have developed some acumen in this area and found an enjoyable pastime. The same is true here. Find things that can help the students become more functional journalists, work to pique curiosity and see what you can do to help them find areas of engagement that could lead to a good career. Even if they’re not nosy, they’ll do pretty well for themselves.

A Poynter Plea for Shorter Sentences and the Rosendale Theory of Speeding

A student in my reporting class turned in a story with a 64-word lead, leading me grumble about you damned kids and your hippity hoppity music again.

Ever since I taught my first writing class, I emphasized leads of 25-35 words. If you go past 35, it better be for a good reason. If you go past 40, you’d better be curing cancer with that thing.

Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one muttering about sentence length. Take a look at this piece from Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, a master of journalism who is about a dozen times smarter than I am on this stuff:

Within a text, white space is created by paragraphs. Short paragraphs create more white space. Long ones, especially in narrow columns, cast a gray shadow on the page. Without reading a word, readers see tombstones with the epitaph: “Heavy lifting.”

This dense packing of words presents itself not only in the body of stories, but even in the leads. An old nickname for this problem is “the suitcase lead.” The writer takes all the key elements, stuffs it into a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence, and slams it shut. If it doesn’t fit, the writer sits on it till it closes.

In the age of the text message, this trend seems odd.

The trend Clark outlines does seem odd, if you imagine that students are purposely writing gigantic sentences from the get-go. However, if you realize that this is more about language creep and failure to set meaningful limits, this makes sense.

Think about this like you would driving: How often to do you actively attenuate to the EXACT speed you are traveling for any extended period of time? If you’re like most of us, you’re cruising along at whatever speed everyone else is until you all spot the state highway patrol vehicle, at which point everyone starts driving 20 miles under the speed limit.

Only when you know you’re going to get crushed by a horrific ticket do you slow down, which is why a place like Rosendale, Wisconsin is so terrifying to most people.

The Village of Rosendale has about 1,000 people in it and it sits along Highway 23 just outside of the Fox Valley. Most towns of this size aren’t known for much. Rosendale is a legend for its speed-limit enforcement. If you find yourself going “just a few miles over,” you might get nailed. If you think I’m kidding, here’s a look at the T-shirts they sell in the village’s gas station:

RosendaleTshirt

The point is, they’re cracking down like hell and you knowing that puts a little sweat on your brow and removes a little lead from your foot as you drive through that little hamlet.

Think about the last time you were REALLY held to a word limit on a per sentence basis. Most professors force you to stretch for extra pages or longer essays, thus giving you a reason to infuse your writing with superfluous stuff. Even when you have word limits like on scholarship essays or eBay feedback, you’re not limited in each sentence. You can write a sentence that would put one of Bret Easton Ellis’ coked up protagonists to shame, so long as the total word count works.

When it comes to your writing, think about having that Rosendale cop sitting on your bumper, checking out your sentence length. That officer is just waiting to pounce, and all you have to do is ignore the simple rule of keeping things short and tight.

In writing longer sentences, we’re writing for ourselves, either feeling too lazy to go back and edit stuff or too proud of our winding prose to chop it back. However, the readers want to know two simple things:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why do I care?

In each sentence, you can tell the readers those ideas in a simple and easy way if you stick to the noun-verb-object structure and focus on what THEY need to know as opposed to what YOU want to tell them.

In essence, writing that way is just the ticket.

The Underwear Thief Theory of Lead Writing: When you either know too much or not enough about a Catholic school principal who was arrested at a strip club

I often joke that having spent my professional life on a crime desk meant that most of my leads essentially wrote themselves. Fire leads were basic: Fire damages house. Crime leads were basic: Guy robs store, Gal steals car and so forth.

When we got weird crimes, however, there was a difficult moment in trying to determine how much information to put into the lead while also trying to avoid putting too much information in there. It was also a game of, “What, exactly, do we care most about?”

The exercise that typifies this for my students is the one lovingly dubbed “The Underwear Thief Lead.” A story I pulled out of the Oshkosh Northwestern years ago told the tale of a guy who was arrested on suspicion of breaking into women’s homes with a ladder and stealing their underwear. Here is the original lead:

An Oshkosh man ac­cused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and ad­mitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — – including rape and murder but that his    religious  beliefs pre­vented  him   from following through.

The lead is nearly 50 words. It has a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he was sending threatening letters to people’s underpants (Dear Victoria Secret Size 8, I will find you and stretch out your waistband…). He considered himself a sexual predator? Well, I consider myself the starting center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, so let’s see how that goes… Also, what kind of religious beliefs can make you think it’s OK to break into homes, steal underwear, threaten women and so forth? (It also doesn’t help that the headline, “Thief thought of Rape, Murder,” essentially convicts him of multiple crimes before the courts get a shot at him.)

The story goes on for about a mile and a half before we ever get a “when” element, at which point in time we find out we’re hearing about this now because the guy was in court that day. If convicted, he’s facing more than 60 years in prison. There were all sorts of other “tidbits” in there, and if you’re interested, you can read the story here. 

The point of the exercise is about more than writing a lead better than what is listed above. The students need to be able to justify what they put in and what they left out. They can’t include everything, so they have to make choices. Here are some of the best discussions we’ve had over the years:

  • Age: Some students don’t see it as being important to note “A 43-year-old Oshkosh man” as it’s not a big deal. Others said it helped clarify this wasn’t a stupid frat prank, as at 43, this guy was like the creepy dude at the college bar who reeks of Polo and wants you to come to the parking lot and check out his Iroc-Z.
  • Penalty: Some want to list the EXACT number of years (62.5) while others say cutting it to a general area (more than 60) is fine. Also, should we include the fine ($125,000) or not? For some, it’s a lot of money so it matters. Others said if they had to choose between 62 years in the joint and paying $125K, they’d hock a kidney to pay the fine.
  • Lead type: Some people want to lead with the name (Christopher J. Sullivan) while others want to do an interesting action lead (delay the name). The question is how many people were likely to know him versus how many people were likely to read on after hearing about the underwear thing?
  • Level of creepy: The story goes into excruciating detail about decapitated Barbie dolls, threats to boil off people’s skin and more. How much of that can make the lead and what shouldn’t comes into play here.

This theory of trying to balance and choose came to mind today after a story about a Louisiana principal of a Catholic school resigned for a truly spectacular reason:

StripPrincipal

When it comes to the lead on this, you have an Associated Press approach that cuts to the chase:

A Louisiana Catholic school principal was arrested at a Washington, D.C. strip club after refusing to pay his bill.

It’s 19 words and right to the point. However, it’s really missing some of the nuances.

First, the guy hit the strip club while on a SCHOOL FIELD TRIP. I remember my mother freaking out when her school and my school ended up having a trip to the circus when I was in second or third grade and she saw our teacher smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer behind the big top. I can only imagine what parents at this school were thinking.

Second, the guy was drunk at 2:20 a.m., outside the club, refusing to move out of the roadway. And, again, remember this is a FIELD TRIP for a CATHOLIC SCHOOL.

Third, he had a history of problems, including the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina donations to a previous school. Still, he was a reserve officer in a local police department.

Still, the AP might not have wanted to use all the information that was in The Advocate, the local paper for this educational leader. Here’s the lead from that paper, where the writer clearly decided to go a different way:

Michael Comeau, the principal at Holy Family Catholic school in Port Allen and an educator who previously received the prestigious $25,000 Milken award, has resigned after his arrest early Friday at a Washington D.C. strip club while on a school field trip to the nation’s capital.

This is a case of throwing the kitchen sink into the lead, as it’s 46 words. The author names the person up front, relying on his presumed local fame to drive the interest. (I asked a friend who reads this paper and he said this guy isn’t a known entity, so there’s that…)

The part about him being an award-winning educator makes the lead (and about a half-dozen paragraphs throughout the story for some reason). It also updates the story to explain he resigned after the arrest, pushing up the newer stuff that AP didn’t use.

Neither of these leads hits the nail on the head, as I’m guessing more people would care about the action than the person, making the second lead a bit weaker in the approach. I’m also sure more people want to know about the field trip and the resignation than the arrest. However, WHY he was arrested (whatever the strip club/booze equivalent of “dine and dash” is) would be worth knowing up front. (There’s something in another story about his use of a service dog at the strip club, which just screams for a follow up…)

If you’re looking for a fun and yet somewhat disturbing exercise, use all the information in these two stories to determine what would make for a good 25-35 word lead for a broad audience.

Posting Schedule for Summer 2019

Given that fewer people are taking classes during summer, and yet there are several summer instructors who rely on the blog, I’m dropping back to a “summer schedule” for the next few months. What that basically means is that you’ll get two posts a week (probably Monday/Wednesday) for sure, with additional posts as needed, based on breaking news items or moments of mirth.

If you have a topic on which you would like me to write, feel free to contact me and I’ll do my best to hit on it. In the mean time, have a great summer and we’ll return to a full posting schedule (Monday-Thursday) starting in early September.

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

Gone Fishin’: A break for some pinball at semester’s end

ZoePinball

With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet…

In the mean time, Zoe has challenged me to pinball supremacy and has set a record for our old machine (I think she cheated, but…). Thus, I’ll be dedicating a lot of time to trying to reclaim my dignity by smacking a little metal ball around.

Thanks for a great semester! If you need anything, just hit me up on the contact page.

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

“I bleed for my media.” Why student media advisers do this insane job, right up until they get pushed out

It’s been one year since I stopped advising student media at UW-Oshkosh, a fact that was brought home by a couple events this week. The first was a call from the current editor of the Advance-Titan, who wanted to ask me a question about graduation. Every year, students who graduated after spending whatever appreciable amount of time at the paper deemed worthy of such an honor were able to purchase a stole to wear with their grad gear.

ATStoles“The A-T graduation stoles,” he asked. “Where did you buy those?”

“I made them,” I said.

“You MADE them?”

“Yeah.”

I then outlined the process in which I bought a pack of generic gold stoles online, went down to JoAnn’s fabric store, got some black material and fusible interfacing, ironed them together, traced out each letter, cut them out, placed them on the stole and ironed them on. I also noted I never forgot the hyphen on the back of the neck. (The paper was particularly proud of the hyphen in the name.) Each one took about two hours or so to make and I never even thought to charge more than what the materials cost.

I could almost hear him shaking his head on the other end of the phone. The next day, the current adviser stopped by and the first words out of her mouth were, “Did you do EVERYTHING there?” I don’t know, but there were days I felt like it.

ATBATMost of the time, however, I never thought twice about the time it took to do the stoles or hand-burn the managing editor baseball bats or traipse in a chili supper or fill out award sheets or a dozen other things. Sure, I got paid for being the adviser, a $5,000 annual stipend that the provost provided, but if you broke that down by the hour, I’d have been better off taking a part-time job at Hardee’s. The job was hard, the budgets were tight and 17-hour days on production nights weren’t rare.

Still, I loved the kids. You never think about stuff like time or work when it’s for something you love. However, when the board of oversight put me in an untenable position, I had to walk away.

Kenna Griffin found herself in a similar position this week. All she ever wanted to do was advise student media at Oklahoma City University, something she did splendidly for 16 years. However, her administration painted her into a corner, so she packed up her office and left.

I didn’t really start to cry until I thought about Dru. I was pulling books off of the shelf, separating what was personally mine and what belonged to the position, when I said Dru’s name and started sobbing. It’s not only the girl herself. It’s all of the students she represents. Students who I love. Students whose rights I think it’s my calling to protect. Students who love student media as much as I do. Students I was leaving behind.

Griffin is one of many advisers I know that colleges and universities are actively or passively crushing with increasing workloads, diminishing funds and punitive measures. The latest of these situations came to a head at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where Tom Martin advises The Rambler. The university unilaterally decided to “support new initiatives” and essentially reorganize Martin out of a job. Administrators cut off pay to the students (and Martin), all while painting this as a chance to get an “experienced staff adviser” instead of someone from the outside. Nobody involved in media believed that BS:

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a blistering statement in reaction to the proposed changes.

“Transylvania University’s decision to stop compensating the student staff and part-time professional adviser of its online student newspaper, The Rambler, looks like a blatant attempt to silence and control student voices,” said Tom Eblen, chapter president. “President Seamus Carey and his leadership team should be standing up for the liberal arts values of a free press, good journalism and media literacy, not undermining them, especially at this critical time in our nation’s history. If this decision is not reversed, it will send a powerful message about Transylvania to students, potential students and the nation.”

I asked Martin if he’d like to talk about this for the blog, but he declined, saying The Rambler folks and the administration were trying to work something out and he didn’t want to get in the way. Even as his job hung in the balance, he put the kids first.

So did Scott Morris, the soon-to-be-former adviser of the Flor-Ala at the University of North Alabama, who was also being reorganized out of a job. After this award-winning journalist taught his students to do actual journalism that would (gasp) criticize the institution, the administration decided enough was enough.

ALABAMA — The University of North Alabama is ousting the student media adviser after the student paper published a story critiquing the school’s administration. The move has sparked sharp condemnation from journalism and First Amendment groups and the campus publications board.

In September 2018, The Flor-Ala reported the administration improperly withheld public documents about the resignation of the vice president of student affairs. A week later, the journalists, members of the communications department and The Flor-Ala media adviser Scott Morris met with University Provost Ross Alexander.

It’s not always easy to fire someone without looking like that’s what you’re doing, so it’s much easier to rewrite the position in a way the current person isn’t qualified to fill, call it an “upgrade” and pretend that this is all in the best interest of the students at the publication. Of course, when you get called on your bullshit, it’s easier to pretend like you are the aggrieved party:

[E]fforts to link Dean Burkhalter’s notice of this personnel transition to one article in the paper, represent an ex post facto creation of a narrative designed to lead to a predetermined and misleading conclusion. More generally,there’s been an effort to conflate an academic decision and to relate it in routine personnel notification with an attack on the First Amendment at UNA. I find it objectionable that any group purports that own the First Amendment and interpret it for the rest of us.

Morris told me back in December he has no hope of keeping his job, but he was going to keep working with the students until the administration essentially pried him out of his chair and sent him packing.

Universities have tried to get rid of advisers like Morris, but none has failed as spectacularly as Florida Atlantic University, where Michael Koretzky continues to advise the students nearly a decade after the university fired him. In 2010, the administration there “reorganized” student media to get rid of Koretzky, who had been a thorn in the side of the school forever. The reason? His students loved him and they did real Fourth-Estate journalism, such as holding the student government to account for shady behavior.

Koretzky, as unrelenting as a toothache and as difficult to remove as gum from the bottom of a Nike, worked with the students on his own time, became a “permanent guest speaker” for the University Press staff and eventually settled into a volunteer adviser role. Seven years after the university fired him, the administrators there tried to fire him AGAIN, this time from his volunteer role.

As far as I know, he’s still there, teaching kids what they need to know and innovating like hell. He has developed things like the “First Amendment Free Food Festival,” where students learn about their rights by trading them in to eat for free, and the “Interview with a Zombie” promotion where students risk getting doused with fake blood for asking stupid questions. The participants get a T-shirt emblazoned with the motto I think every adviser would take as his or her own:

“I bleed for my media.”

Dozens of other advisers have met fates like the ones I described above. Ron Johnson at Indiana University was removed after “financial issues.” I know Johnson had even offered to rework his own pay to try to help. Instead, the university cut ties with him earlier than promised to save money. Morgan State fired Denise Brown in 2009, in a move that was seen as an attack on the students’ First Amendment rights. In fact, you can check out the College Media Association’s “censure” page to see what happened there and at other schools where advisers seem to be as safe as the guy in the red shirt on a Star Trek episode.

Anyone looking at the life of a college media adviser from the outside would have to think, “These people are insane!” And, well, yeah… We kind of are. If you want to see the weirdest collective of coexisting people outside of the Cantina scene in “Star Wars,” just go to an adviser reception at a CMA or Associated Collegiate Press convention. To call us an eclectic bunch would be to refer to Godzilla as a lizard; in other words, that’s a dramatic understatement.

However, we all share one crucial trait and that is our love for student media and “our kids” who produce it. Student media isn’t a job for most of us. It IS us. The people in charge of universities don’t understand that spending as much time in a foxhole as we do with these students forges a bond that wounds when it is torn. It’s woven so intrinsically into every fiber of our being that when chuckleheads in student government mess with it, administrators overreach to silence it or others demonize it, we experience personal and unrelenting pain.

That’s why we stand in front of “our kids” when the train is coming down the tracks, knowing that we probably can’t stop the train, but that we might be able to absorb the blow for them. It’s why we take the beatings we do, in hopes that it will allow the students the opportunity to wriggle away unscathed, to continue doing the important work they have come to the newsroom to do. It’s why we have no shame in any of it.

It’s why we cry when it’s gone, even if it is “our choice” to leave.

This is also why we are the ones who get the invitations to weddings, some for relationships forged right under our noses at the newsroom. (Apparently, hours spent in a windowless bunker poring over AP style books and shit-talking the administration can be romantic to some people.) It’s why we attend funerals for staffers’ parents and siblings, driving whatever distance just to be there as our staffers stand before us in a broken state. We tell them, “It’s going to be OK.”

We know about the internship offers and the pregnancy scares before family members do. We serve as the sounding board for everything from students who are worried about “coming out” to those who think they need an extra year of college. Sometimes, we end up worrying about a staffer who lands in the hospital after a school shooting.

We aren’t the only ones who do this, to be sure, as other faculty and advisers serve similar roles, but I have yet to have students call me up and say, “Hey, I was in your Fall 2015 reporting class! We’re getting a reunion together at The Bar tonight and we hoped you could come!”

I also don’t remember hearing about the student government passing a resolution for the firing of the Model UN adviser. I don’t recall seeing the adviser of the forensics team getting “reorganized” out of his or her job because the kids in “solo serious” were picking material deemed “too serious.” I have yet to see the chess team adviser getting publicly castigated for his team’s financial situation or for preaching the value of the Evans Gambit, because administrators felt a Benko Opening was really more responsible.

When Kenna posted about her situation, other advisers and former advisers came out of the woodwork to offer support. Many of them offered similar tales of heartbreak:

Walking away from advising after 22 years was one of the most difficult and at the same time, most sane decisions I ever made. You are in my thoughts.

I left before it got that bad, but it was headed that way. Advising student media had put a target on my back. There was even a standing committee that met with the university president weekly to ask him to fire me. Shouldn’t be that way. Sad to see it’s no better 12 years after I walked away.

I’ve been in similar shoes. And the terror of it will be something that, down the road, you will be glad you went through. We live by an ethical code and have a breaking point when the rubber meets the road. Those clowns will realize their mistake, but might not care. For that I’m sorry. It stings. It’s a gut punch. It’s a betrayal and can make you question being such a loyal person to an institution. It certainly was a real lesson in higher ed for me. I wish you all the best and admire your guts.

In the year since I left, there are times I don’t regret my choice, like when I could go to my kid’s volleyball game or actually get more than four-hours sleep before teaching my 8 a.m. class. Last night, I did laundry and watched a basketball game on TV, with only a passing thought that it was Wednesday and Wednesday used to always mean I was at the A-T.

I do have to admit that it stings when I have to refer to myself as a “former” adviser or when I have to direct students to the current adviser, a wonderful woman who is doing a fantastic job. I miss the moments in the newsroom that can’t be reproduced anywhere else, including the inside jokes and the “remember when” stories from “back in the day,” which for most students was about a semester and a half ago. I miss eating random pseudo-meals at my desk while students would yell out stuff like, “Is ‘felony conviction’ hyphenated?”

The one comfort I have in all this, and perhaps the only one I can offer to Kenna, is that I know I’m not alone and neither is she. We advisers are a weird bunch, but we all eat the same dirt, so we know what it tastes like and how to spit it out.

Hang in there, pal. It’ll get better.

 

Translating “The Dance” between professors and students over final grades

As the term winds to a close, students and professors engage in what I refer to as “The Dance” over grades. It’s a tactical, nuanced discussion that involves trying to beg without it looking like begging, trying to answer an email without promising anything and basically engaging in nuclear-treaty-level diplomacy. If we were all trapped in a “Liar, Liar” world, it would essentially look like this:

Student: Pass me and stop being a jerk, you asshat.

Professor: Oh, now you care about this class, you little twerp? Go to hell and take a left.

However, since we have to “Eddie Haskell” it on both ends, here are the legendary begging statements I’ve gotten from students over the years or variations on those themes provided by the hivemind. I’ve added a few “internal thoughts” your professors have had over the years when it comes to responding to these pleas. Enjoy:

“Could you just add XX small points to my final grade?”

First, all points are created equal. Second, that figure has ranged from 1 to about 100, depending on the level of desperation. Third, when you kept doing the same stupid thing over and over again because instead of reading my comments, you just looked at the grade and thought, “Screw you, dude” you might not need those “small points.”

 

“I’m graduating this term…”

Not if you need to pass this class, you’re not.

 

“Is there anything I can do?”

Can you invent a time machine, go back in history and tell the earlier version of yourself to turn stuff in on time, not skip every third class and generally give a better overall performance than a disinterested Jay Cutler on a trick play? If not, no.

OR

Prayer can help, although I’m not certain how strong God’s will is to help you out here.

OR

Sign up for the next semester I teach this class and give a crap a little sooner in the term.

 

“Is there extra credit?”

Sure, because when the syllabus said, “There will be NO EXTRA CREDIT in this class, so plan accordingly,” I clearly included a loophole for people who didn’t care about anything until the very moment they realized they were screwed.

 

“Could I rewrite (half of the assignments) for additional credit?”

Sure, because nothing says, “I’m ready to do a good job,” like not doing a good job on anything all term and then expecting to make all of that up in 72 hours before grades are due with no real interest in learning anything other than how many points you need to slide by.

 

“Could you bump me up just this little bit?”

Sure, because I’m sure that won’t tick off the six other people in your class who sweated bullets to get a passing grade through hard work on that assignment you blew off to go to Cabo and party on the beach.

 

“Could you possibly round me up?”

I could. Now ask me if I will. Welcome to the grammar lesson you skipped.

 

“I had some issues this semester…”

Yeah. No kidding.

 

“Your class is very important to me…”

Um… I believe a lot of things people tell me to make me feel better about myself. This isn’t one of them.

 

“I don’t understand why you downgraded me…”

You mean the page and a half of comments I included in the body of your paper didn’t clue you in that this random series of unattributed content, fragmented sentence, shifted verb tenses, incorrect word choices and cripplingly bad structure didn’t help? This wasn’t a news story. It was a disaster movie filmed out of sequence.

 

“This isn’t fair that I should have to take your course over again.”

It isn’t fair I had to grade this pile of sheep dung you referred to as “completed assignments,” but we all have our crosses to bear, I suppose…

 

“I need (A/B/C grade) to (pass/maintain my scholarship/keep my ego afloat)…”

This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way.

The New York Times 144-word correction on a prominent politician’s obituary and what you can learn from the situation

When Indiana’s legendary Richard Lugar died last week, the New York Times managed to crank out this 48-word monstrosity of a lead:

Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died on Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.

And yet, that paled in comparison to the 144-word mea culpa the paper had to write once the folks there realized they massively botched the piece:

LugarFail

I imagined this to be the conversation at the New York Times last week around the obituary desk:

Obit Writer 1: Man, we’ll never screw up another obituary any worse than we did when John McCain died…

Obit Writer 2: Hold my beer.

If you look at the mistakes in there, you can see that a lot of this came down to fact checking. People can argue about nuance, such as if someone “resigned” or merely “left a job,” but the date something happened is one of those things we can all figure out if we try really, really hard.

With that in mind, let’s look back at a few of the points we made when the times ran its mega-fail obit of John McCain and see how they still apply here:

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: This one still works wonders here, especially up at the top of this thing. The date he entered the service, his rank and the date of his marriage are all fact-based items that could easily have been checked against a dozen sources or digital documents. As noted in the McCain piece, when a person takes on a particularly important level of distinction in the world, newspapers like the NYT will usually start an obituary file for that person, so this thing has been on hand for a while.

That said, who knows who actually wrote that first draft of it or to when it was last reviewed? You shouldn’t grab something out of an old file and figure, “Well someone wrote it so it must be right” any more than you would grab an unmarked pill bottle out of a stranger’s medicine cabinet and figure, “Well, I’m sure a couple of these will probably help my headache.” As much as we venerate the “golden era” of the press, which consisted of a lot of typewriters clicking, lead-type machines and the concept of smoking indoors, those folks were people, just like us. They could have screwed up, just as easily as we can.

How you state something matters: When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:

  • “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
  • “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles. The second one is wrong because the Green Bay Packers won 13 NFL titles (most of them in the pre-Super Bowl era), so even thought Steelers have more Super Bowls, the Packers have more titles.

The line in the obituary for Lugar that got some criticism falls along these lines. Lugar pushing for something didn’t mean it encountered heavy resistance. That’s probably at least part of the problem associated with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program correction, although I’m not entirely sure how they missed by more than a decade.

Beware of “-est” statements: The obit’s correction didn’t have any of these errors, which was the case with McCain’s, but that might have just been a fortunate bounce, given the use of “-est” statements:

His greatest legacy, though, remains his work toward reducing the threat of nuclear arms.

Security was upgraded at nuclear weapons sites, at a time when the greatest fear was that a terror group would take advantage of the chaos in Russia or in one of the former Soviet states and buy or steal a weapon.

Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.

In these statements, the writer’s good luck had him attempting to quantify things that could not be accurately quantified, such as a “greatest” fear” or “greatest source.” People can quibble with those. In the case of the McCain obit, calling the fire on the Forrestal the “deadliest” incident could be measured (and proven wrong, as it was).

As a word of warning, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.

Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.

Four things other high school administrators should learn from the Oshkosh North Star situation

I’ll be the first to admit, I was stunned at the way in which the Oshkosh Area School District decided to end the crisis involving the school’s publication, the North Star. If you missed the previous posts you can find them here and here and here.

The short version is that the district issued a two-page press release on Monday, saying it will no longer pursue any action in regard to the Hans Nelson story. It also stated the district has put the publication back into the hands of the students and the adviser and it will work to put in place a policy that codifies this for the future.

I have never seen a district turn that fast or that hard in that direction on an issue like this. And as my mother always told me, “If you’re going to criticize, you have to be willing to praise.” I emailed the district folks and thanked them for their work on this and I offered to help with the new policy in any way I can. The district made the smart play here and the folks there deserve the credit for that.

Other districts could learn a few things from how this all came to pass, so feel free to give this a read and consider using it if your administration decides to take a shot across the bow at your student media:

 

CENSORING THE STUDENT MEDIA IN THIS ERA IS POINTLESS

Administrators at Oshkosh North weren’t the first people to try this kind of information repression, nor will they be the last. However, I think it’s important for any administration to fully understand the point of censorship and why it has absolutely no chance of succeeding.

The idea behind censorship, in its purest form, is to eliminate the ability of people in an audience to get information on a given topic. If you have the ability to completely black out coverage of a topic, you will succeed in suppressing that information from reaching the readers and thus keep secret whatever it is you want to hide. This is why censoring a student newspaper in the digital era makes about as much sense as trying to catch water in a pasta strainer.

In this case, the district managed to pull the article off the website and stop people from seeing this information there. What happened next? WBAY, FOX11, at least two other journalists and one blog hack showed up at a public listening session where Brock Doemel outlined, on the record, every aspect of what was in his article. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the USA Today-Wisconsin network did a deep dive into this as well, only further focusing attention on this situation.

In addition, students have been sharing information via social media ever since this guy disappeared, other media outlets have offered to publicize the story and now everyone with internet access now knows what happened. The district’s press release seemed to indicate they realized this had gotten way more attention than if they had left the story alone.

Simply put, censoring the student media to keep this issue quiet works about as well as trying to extinguish your campfire with a bucket of gasoline. It. Doesn’t. Work.

EVEN IF YOU WIN, YOU LOSE

I was having a hard time making this clear to the attorney for the district when we spoke last week, so maybe I’ll do better here. I kept trying to explain that using the Hazelwood decision like a cudgel, treating student press rights as “less than” and coming down like a ton of bricks on students and media advisers doesn’t work.

Legally speaking, administrators usually have the Hazelwood precedent on their side, but a) it’s not the silver bullet people think it is and b) it was meant as a shield, not a sword at the time it was decided. Go back and read the decision. It’s terrible, but the core rationale behind this isn’t “Give administrators the right to censor at will just for funzies.”

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say censoring administrators run into a judge who has a strict interpretation of Hazelwood, hates student press and will side with an administrator, regardless of the situation, they will STILL lose. For starters, the administrators haven’t prevented the information they wanted to silence to remain private. Even worse, they have to go to court and beat up on one of their own students as a part of the process.  The court of law may side with them but the court of public opinion will never forgive them.

As one alumnus of Oshkosh North pointed out to me, the media coverage of this issue wasn’t even about the bathrooms or the Hans Nelson at this point. It was about how the administration tried to kneecap one of its own students and one of its own institutions. The whole narrative changed and they realized they were on the wrong side of it. That’s why the decisions they made were the smart move. Other schools can learn something from them on this one, for sure.

 

THIS DRAWS MORE ATTENTION, THE KIND YOU DON’T LIKE

I got to sit through the core of the school board meeting last week, as the open forum session where I could speak came at the middle of the event. In doing so, I learned a ton of great things that the schools in the district are doing. The robotics team won state and is now headed to nationals. The students are putting on an incredible play that I want to see now. The student newspaper at the other high school in the district won a ton of awards at the state media competition. In all, there were at least a dozen really cool accomplishments highlighted that the district has every right to shout from the rooftops.

And yet the one thing everyone was talking about the next day in regard to this district was the administrative overreach of a principal and the suppression of free press in Oshkosh. That’s what people found the next day when they Googled “Oshkosh North” and looked under news. It was what showed up on the nightly news and in multiple newspapers. It’s also got people on social media tweeting at them, sending emails and letters.

The district essentially came to the conclusion outlined in Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging. They backed off of Doemel and adviser Jason Cummings, went back to the spirit of the law for the North Star and they agreed to move forward to change the policy for good. Once they get this nailed down through the board, I’m hoping they make the announcement to show they completed this whole process so everyone can feel good as they move on.

That will get you the kind of attention that befits a quality educational institution.

 

THE MORE YOU TOUCH IT, THE RISKIER IT IS FOR YOU

Opening up the door to allow students to do whatever they want under the guidance of an honest-to-goodness journalistic adviser can scare the hell out of administrators.

In some cases, it’s because the admin folks are control freaks who enjoy dominion over all they survey, like an Alexander the Great with a master key. In other cases, it’s because they have been told a squillion times about the liability that that comes when a kid does a dumb thing. In other cases, it’s because nobody likes hearing bad things about a place they care about, especially if they are responsible for the upkeep of that place’s image.

I’m sure I’m missing a few other reasons, but the point is, this idea of giving a group of kids free reign over a publication with the school’s blessing can seem terrifying.

So why not slam the lid on this thing, eliminate the risk and take control over the whole thing? Because that puts you at even greater risk than you are if you opened up the whole thing and let kids do whatever they want.

The minute you touch the student media, you put yourself in the unenviable position of being responsible for it. That means the one day you blow off reading an article and some kid libels a janitor, that’s on you and the district. The attorney for the Oshkosh district told me after the listening session that the district is “where the deep pockets are in the case of a lawsuit.” Right. Which is why you don’t want your pockets associated with those people who might go digging.

Court rulings, even those after Hazelwood, have found that the best case a district can make against being successfully sued for the content of a student media outlet is to leave the content decisions in the hands of the students.

In other words, you break it, you bought it.

Which actually reinforces an even larger point when it comes to the students’ behavior. If you provide them with the ability to control the dice and yet the responsibility for dealing with the blow back from anything they publish, you train them to treat that responsibility seriously.

If you tell them that you’re going to be backstopping everything they want to run, you will have one of two unpleasant scenarios:

  1. They will be less diligent when it comes to accuracy, ethics and other similar things, thus leading to riskier journalism due to their lack of care.
  2. They’ll spend half of their time trying to sneak something past you because it’s fun to mess with authority, thus forcing you to spend most of your day on Urban Dictionary trying to find out if ‘mercan is a patriotic typo or something that should result in a phone call to the author’s parents.